Don Draper will fall out of a skyscraper window, turning those ominous opening credits into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don Draper will be revealed to be airborne-heist legend D.B. Cooper. Don Draper will wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who’ll tell him it’s all been a dream. Regardless of how Mad Men goes out next week — with a bang, a whimper or a sudden cut to black in the middle of a Journey song — Matthew Weiner’s canon-worthy TV show will be judged by whether its finale sticks the landing or not. For better or worse, how a series handles its last hurrah can often determine its legacy: A great send-off can gain it entry into the television equivalent of Valhalla. Slap a cop-out ending to a beloved show, however, and you’d better be prepared to kiss seven or eight seasons of good will goodbye.
So as we brace ourselves for what is sure to be a hotly contested and endlessly analysed last hour of Mad Men, we look back at a handful of the best and worst series finales of the past few decades. Some are textbook examples of how to bow out as gracefully as possible; others are perfect cautionary tales of last-episode pooch-screwing; and a couple remain so divisive that it’s likely we’ll be debating them until the end of time. (Did Tony Soprano actually die in that last moment? And does it ultimately matter one way or the other?) Regardless, these are the notable showstopping installments worth studying as a way to do it right — or very, very wrong.
(And yes: Here There Be Spoilers. Tons of them. You’ve been duly warned.)
Each year, FX’s wry, badass Elmore Leonard adaptation ended its season with a cover of Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” — an ominous suggestion regarding the fate of the town’s favorite son, Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. Sure enough, in the finale, the song plays at a moment when it looks like Raylan’s number may in fact be up. Instead, the show confidently closes its series-long case, complete with the backwoods action and deadpan one-liners that defined it. The episode also features one last scene between stars Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins, playing two mountain boys on different sides of the law and the same coal dust in their blood. Justified ends as it started, with a keen understanding of how where you’re from can permanently affect who you are. These men may leave Harlan, alive or otherwise — but it never leaves them.
To be fair, Showtime’s pothead social satire — and the perfect star vehicle for Mary Louise Parker, a previously underutilized screen presence — had severely lost its mojo, the plot and our interest over its last few years, so singling out the series finale is somewhat unfair. (See also: True Blood.) But the time-jumped ending and the tying up of loose strands involving dead husbands, nixed romances, parental misgivings, the booming business of Parker’s suburban-mom-turned-stoner-entrepreneur and other shenanigans was the definition of forced; even by the eight’s season’s stem-and-seed standards, the whole thing felt like giving up. One last scene involving most of the core cast sharing a joint on a snowy porch may have touched a nostalgic chord, but it couldn’t stave off that old buzzkill feeling.
Best: ‘The Colbert Report’
“That was fun.” Those words, spoken during the last Colbert Report, synthesized what was fantastic about the faux-news show starring the fictional conservative blowhard. Sure, ex-Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert’s program was a trenchant political satire, but at its core, the Report was just so much fun: a wacky, witty mixture of high and low. The real Colbert embraced that truthiness till the end, bringing back his favorite recurring guests (everyone from Cory Booker to Cookie Monster, George Saunders to George Lucas) to sing “We’ll Meet Again” while his fictional doppelganger rides off with Alex Trebek in Santa’s sleigh. Like so many great episodes of this late-night gem, you had to be there to really get it — which, because his show was a must-see, wasn’t an issue.
When Showtime’s series about a serial killer who preys upon other serial killers reached the end of the line, viewers expected either karmic retribution or a clean getaway. Would Dexter’s Miami Metro colleagues catch him at last? Would he fall victim to the violence he brought to others? Or would he live to slay another day? Ultimately, the answer was less Hannibal Lecter and more Monty Python. After mercy-killing his long-suffering sister Debra, he takes her body out to sea in the middle of a hurricane; the boat is destroyed, but the man himself — apparently a very strong swimmer — survives, showing up in the final shot as…a lumberjack! The result of a narrative logjam set in place by network executives who ordered the producers not to kill their main character in his own series finale, it left many viewers wishing they’d logged off.
Best: ‘Friday Night Lights’
Critically beloved and perpetually overlooked, FNL‘s finale — much like the show itself — didn’t draw the sort of attention it deserved. Which was too bad, because it did exactly what last episodes should do: wrap up seasons’ worth of storylines and give us a good idea of what the future might hold for the teens and teachers of Dillon, TX. It also focuses on what’s in store for Coach Taylor and Tami “Mrs. Coach” Taylor (big up Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton!), as the single most believable married couple in TV history argues over whose career should take precedence. In the end, hard choices get made but life goes on, and viewers feel like they’re better for having spent time in the company of a small-town football team taking it one game at a time.
Worst: ‘How I Met Your Mother’
Here’s a warning to TV writers: Never plan too far ahead. HIMYM co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas reportedly decided early in the run of their sitcom that they wanted the hero Ted Mosby to end up with his ex-girlfriend Robin (Cobie Smulders) — even though they’d explained in the show’s premiere that she wasn’t his kids’ mother. After dedicating the entire final season to Mosby finally meeting his lovable future wife, Tracy (well-played by Cristin Milioti), the showrunners turned her into a footnote; the episode revealed Ted’s series-long story to have been about how he never stopped loving “Aunt Robin.” That’s a twist that might’ve made sense if How I Met Your Mother had only lasted a couple of seasons. But after nine years of asking the audience to care about the identity of the woman in the damn title, the sudden about-face wasn’t just jarring. It was enraging.
Best: ‘Breaking Bad’
Two questions hovered over Breaking Bad‘s ending: Would Walt die? (He did.) And would he find redemption? (Thankfully, he did.) Although the show often chronicled its everyman’s boundless cunning and ruthless ambition, the finale — “Felina” — presented the long-awaited consequences, doled out with grim, compelling inevitability. As played with quiet ferocity by Bryan Cranston, Walt had long ago become a bastard whose soul wasn’t worth saving. But that fact didn’t make this last act any less moving: As the curtain fell, he figured out how to rescue those closest to himself while, at last, coming to terms with the realization that he’d been the one who’d endangered them in the first place.
Worst: ‘The Office’ (U.S.)
Considered on its own, the U.S. version of The Office‘s finale qualifies as adequate, bringing all the main characters back — even the long-departed Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell — for one last bow. But as with the rest of the show’s ninth season, the last episode is excessively mawkish, and not in the spirit of the “comedy of awkwardness” that had been its stock-in-trade. The original British version delivered a similarly sweet farewell, using more or less the same premise: catching up with the employees one year after the “documentary” about them aired. But the UK’s Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant smartly held back the happier moments until the very end, and the result was a classic. By contrast, this finale spreads a thick layer of sugar on top of a season of schmaltz — and it was nowhere near as palatable.
It kicked off NBC’s decades-long run as the Must-See TV king and featured some of the funniest characters in the art form’s history, but don’t let that fool you. Cheers‘ oak-cask color palette, days-gone-by opening credits, and wistful clarinet score were leading indicators that beneath the boozy, bawdy laughs flowed an undercurrent of melancholy. In the show’s final episode, the dam finally burst. After one last failed shot at love with brainy Diane Chambers, Sam Malone — the alcoholic, womanzing former ballplayer at the series’ center — is abandoned by the core cast one by one, leaving him alone in the dark with the true love of his life: his bar. After years of beautiful balance between smart and silly, the show played its greatest trick — taking itself seriously.
Starring a blue-collar family with painfully realistic problems, Roseanne feels more radical now than ever. The show’s fever-dream final season, however, jumped a pool full of Great Whites. After an absurd storyline in which the down-and-out Conner family wins the lotto, the finale revealed that much of what had come before had simply been made up. It turns out that Roseanne was a writer who’d scripted a happier outcome for her family, swapping her girls’ significant others while keeping her own husband, John Goodman’s pitch-perfect Dan, alive past the heart attack that had killed him. A number of shows, fromNewhart‘s callback to an earlier Seventies sitcom to St. Elsewhere‘s conceit that its entire run was an autistic boy’s interior life, have done wonders with the “it was all a dream” concept. But both tossing what made your show work out the window and then telling us after the fact that none of it mattered is damn near unforgivable.
Best: ‘Battlestar Galactica’
Divine intervention, voluntary space-fleet destruction, the incredible disappearing Starbuck — the decisions made in the final episode of this politically charged sci-fi reboot baffled viewers at the time. Hindsight, however, has been extremely kind to Commander Adama and his crew. The show’s long-simmering supernatural elements paid off with the daring idea of a deity whose actions are just as unpredictable and unfathomable as humanity’s. And the joint human-Cylon decision to jettison their ships and live out their days planet-side — in what turns out to be our own Earth’s pre-history — bucked a core tenet of post-apocalyptic SF, arguing that individual lives are more important than the preservation of a culture at all costs. Risky? You bet. Rewarding? So say we all.
Also known as: The One Where the Show Just Freakin’ Gets It Over With Already. Fans may have been happy to have the show to go on until the six friends were yukking it up at a nursing home, but the sense you get from witnessing this last episode is that everyone involved is ready to be done with it. Fatigue shares space with nostalgia and sappy sentimentality, and while you’ll get closure, you also be gifted with a bucketload of clichés: goofy misunderstandings, frantic rushes to the airport, impromptu love declarations, a last-minute reprieve and the appearance of twin babies. Even as the cast trudges out of the empty apartment for one last shared cup of coffee, there’s the feeling that Friends had ended ages ago. This was just going through the motions.
Best: ‘Six Feet Under’
Alan Ball’s drama about a family of morticians had death embedded into its very fabric: every episode started with the demise of someone who’d end up on the Fishers’ slabs, and it wasn’t afraid to kill off a very major character late in its run. So you knew that shuffling off this mortal coil would play a part in the HBO series’ finale; what was unexpected was how they used it. As Claire, the youngest member of this dysfunctional clan, leaves L.A. for New York, we get future glimpses of everyone’s passing (her mother, her older brother and his ex-cop husband, one of the funeral home’s key employees) as Sia’s “Breathe” plays over the montage. It ends with Claire herself, now an elderly woman and surrounded by mementos of a creatively satisfying existence, as she goes into the light — a surprisingly moving, tender farewell that celebrates the joy of a well-lived life. Bravo.
Contrary to popular opinion, the Seinfeld closer isn’t a complete travesty. Written by Larry David, the finale was its co-creator’s wry way of finally giving his lovably horrible protagonists their comeuppance for all the thoughtless slights they’d inflicted on others for nine seasons. That remains a ballsy, subversive idea for a send-off; the problem is that it’s also hampered by an endless parade of supporting players and limp callbacks that are rarely very funny. At worst, the show about nothing went out on a ho-hum note, an inauspicious end to a groundbreaking, gamechanging sitcom. Still, it’s worth pointing out that, even in jail, our heroes didn’t hug and definitely hadn’t learned a thing.
Best: ‘The Shield’
For seven seasons, we watched LAPD renegade Vick Mackey — one of the baddest “difficult men” of the Golden Age of TV Antiheroes — act as if he were above reproach and above the law. This is a guy who shot a fellow strike-force member for being a department mole…in the very first episode! Finally, after a stellar last season in which he lost his family, his partner-in-crimefighting (and crime) Shane, his team, his authority and his dignity, Michael Chiklis’ adrenaline-junkie cop is in the exact opposite place we found him in — chained to a white-collar desk job. So many series feel the need to service fans in their finales, but Shawn Ryan and co. took the road less traveled by actually making Vic pay for his myriad of sins in the least going-out-with-a-bang way imaginable. The look on his face as the camera slowly pulls in and he sits there, stuck in his version of prison (though not without access to a firearm), is both priceless and perfect.
Before The Sopranos sold HBO as more than TV, Tom Fontana’s cellblock soap opera was a precursor of the antihero boom and the first to suggest that the premium cable network was capable of being a major player. By the time the series was ready to say goodbye to the guards, employees and inmates of Em City, however, it had already starting skirting the absurd — and its finale was a deep dive into straight-up camp. Seriously, when your big dramatic set piece involves a convict staging of Macbeth and switching out a prop knife for a real one (et tu, J.K. Simmons?), you’re in trouble. Some fan favorites get their revenge, other gets their comeuppance and one gets the chair — but everything is handled so sloppily that you can feel episode’s worth of build-up deflating and wheezing to standstill. Our last moment with Oz‘s residents finds them stuck on a bus going nowhere — an unfortunately apt metaphor.
After spinning 11 years of comedy out of a three-year war, the most popular sitcom of the 1970s bowed out with a quintuple-length episode containing nearly everything great about the show: quippy banter, a powerful “war is hell” sentiment, and a daring hybrid of humor and drama. Co-written and directed by star Alan Alda, the finale — titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” — starts dark, telling an unsettling story about Hawkeye Pierce recovering from a nervous breakdown. But by the end, fans get the conclusion they’d been waiting for, as the men and women of the 4077th were finally heading home. An audience of 125 million (still the biggest-ever for a non-sports broadcast) saw a decade of devotion rewarded with a long, emotional last embrace, which acknowledges both how badly these characters wanted to leave Korea behind, and how much they’d be missed. It remains the gold standard for series send-offs.
When the time came for this sprawling sci-fi mystery about airplane-crash survivors stranded on a mystical island to cough up the answers to its countless questions, Lost largely balked. But as frustrating as that was (we still don’t know who shot at the outrigger — maybe it was the missing Russian from The Sopranos?), the series finale committed a far worse crime: It revealed that the “flash-sideways” storyline, in which the main characters lived in an alternate world where they’d never crashed on the Island, was some kind of corny new-age afterlife. In other words, half of what the audience had spent the final episodes watching literally never happened. “We have to go back!” may have been the series’ most famous catchphrase, but this short-sighted decision makes the series hard to happily revisit.
Best: ‘The Sopranos’
This is the big one. When the final scene of the final episode of the show that launched the New Golden Age of TV abruptly cut to black — without revealing if mob boss Tony Soprano lived or died, and without letting Steve Perry finish the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believing” — the result was, in the words of Paulie Walnuts, “fuckin’ mayham.” Was Tony executed by the mysterious man in the Members Only jacket? Did he finish his meal and continue his life of depression and paranoia, always wondering when his rivals would dump him in the Pine Barrens? Is it a bleak statement on life as purgatory of uncertainty, led by people who can never change? Is it a hopeful plea that despite it all, we should never stop believing? Every possible answer has its passionate partisans even now, and the eight-year-old episode is still obsessed over like it was the Zapruder film. The Sopranos‘ finale took a midnight train goin’ anywhere, and we’re all still along for the ride.