The final episode of a TV series doesn’t just wrap things up in a neat little bow, but it exposes the heart of the series. It could make the series absolutely perfect or completely horrifying. Something can be so good until it’s final moments where literally it could undo everything. We all know that one series, you know the one from last year. We all know it could have gone down in history as one of the best series to exist, but instead viewers were scarred and disappointed. But that’s not what this post is about, we’re here to talk about some of the most satisfying series finales we’ve ever seen and the fact that these have set the bar for what an ending should look like. (P.S. Pursue with caution if you’ve yet to see a series and plan to–this article isn’t spoilers free.)
“Start” | The Americans
The final episode of The Americans needs to be seen by every single TV enthusiast in the world. I can understand that the genre may not be everyone’s cup of tea, in all honesty, at times, it was even too heavy for me, but I’m grateful to know that I’ve seen the best thing on TV. (This sentence was not meant to rhyme, but we’re sticking to it.) “Start” was the perfect conclusion. It wrapped the series up in the most finely crafted bow I’ve ever seen, tying loose ends so wondrously not many before it have mastered. It gave its audience some of the most haunting moments to hold onto and I’m sure, without even trying, rendering many of us utterly speechless. Maybe eight years from now when I’m less distraught over “They’ll remember us. They’re not kids anymore.” I’ll be able to talk about just how encompassing “Start” was, but today’s not that day. Or maybe when I’ve finally gotten Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell’s meticulously somber expressions and the stoic, yet crumbling physicality out of my mind, I’ll be able to talk about it more. But for now, let this just serve as my plea to get you all to watch The Americans because it’s truly unmatched.
“Start” is the perfect conclusion to a series that’s grounded in quiet moments of reflection, and it’s the perfect conclusion to a series that highlights the importance of human connections. I went into the series preparing for the worst and found myself utterly entranced by the fact that the creators chose to honor their characters instead.
“Brave New World” | Boy Meets World
For years Boy Meets World was the paradigm of how a series needed to end and it still is. Mr. Feeny‘s “I love you all. Class dismissed” still manages to make me bawl, and it’s been twenty years. Twenty years. Let that sink in for a moment. Some of us have been crying about this for twenty years, and yet, processing the beauty of that final scene is so close to so many of our hearts. “Believe in yourselves, dream, try, do good” is a motto I’ve personally carried with me since I was 10-years-old. When Mr. Feeny spoke those words to Cory, Topanga, Shawn, and Eric, he was talking to us too. We grew up with these characters and we grew up with these lessons, and this is the only series finale from my childhood that still holds up. I’m serious, all I have to do is think about and I’ll start crying. (Like now for instance.)
It paved the road for how a series should end and I blame my absolute need of happy endings on this series. Taking chances and leaving home is never easy, starting something new is always scary, but the people we’ve met along the way often shape our readiness to do so, and that’s the beautifully moving theme within Boy Meets World–preparing kids and young adults for the real world that isn’t always a happy place. There will be things we can’t control, but we could always control the person we choose to be, and choosing to do good is always the right choice. And that’s why this finale stays with viewers for so long.
“The Beginning Part I and II” | 12 Monkeys
When we’d ask questions about satisfying series finales, a plethora of messages would always come about a little show called 12 Monkeys. What like the movie? Most ask. Yes, but more–so much more. It’s so easy for a series centered around time travel to lose itself in plot and tangled webs after a season or two, but that’s never the case with 12 Monkeys, and the two-part series finale is its final jump in honoring its characters.
“We didn’t get a lot of time, but we lived a lifetime together” is the very essence of the entire series, and the family that was formed between a group of damaged, complex human beings who’d consistently find each other. In its perfectly short four season run, writers crafted a meticulously cohesive plot that led viewers to the type of finale that serves as a merit of what exemplary writing looks like. It doesn’t always have to be a happy ending, but it needs to feel earned, and much like The Americans, 12 Monkeys earns every beat of the emotional response this finale evokes. It’s explosive, it’s fast-paced, it’s jam-packed, but it’s also quiet and still. It pays homage to its remarkably talented cast by giving each of them a wide range of emotions to play on one last time, and it does so with arcs that give them strong send offs. 12 Monkeys finds a balance that’s often lacking in dramas with specific plots, and it’s that very balance that makes the world they have built so easily compelling. From beginning to end, or in this case, the end being the beginning, the series honored each of the details it placed in front of its audience. It never once glossed over anything, there were no filler episodes, and from start to finish, it completed a puzzle worthy of being framed.
“Whenever You’re Ready” | The Good Place
Still not ready to talk about this finale that’s for certain. “Whenever You’re Ready” is a perfect finale, simply put, it’s Mike Schur’s strongest work to date and we continue to be in awe of it. Schur found the exquisite balance between heartbreaking and utterly hopeful in a way that TV hasn’t achieved for a long time. When comedies end, they’re generally hopeful, but The Good Place isn’t just a comedy, it’s otherworldly. It’s a series that tackled something no human can fully comprehend on this earth and it did so by effortlessly showcasing the beauty of the unknown. The Good Place never shoved emotions down our throats but somehow, it made us feel every ounce of the pain, uncertainty, and unbridled joy. It didn’t tell us how to feel but instead it broke down emotions so beautifully, famous Philosophers wish they’d accomplish it this well. (Yes, I said that.) The Good Place is a plot driven series, but it never once sidelined its characters or put them through careless situations solely for shock value. Every journey, every breakup, every makeup, every bizarre decision made sense. It’s an undeniable glimmer of hope when TV writers care about their characters, their stories, and inadvertently, the audience. It then makes for the kind of community that media generates, which can easily spark joy whenever, wherever. It’s then no longer merely a TV show, it’s a celebration of humanity.
“See How They Fly” | Watchmen
Meredith Loftus of Fangirl Forum
Let’s just state the obvious (and I don’t say this lightly): Watchmen is perfect. From the casting, the writing, directing, even its score, this limited series earned every Emmy it won back in September. In true Damon Lindelof fashion, this series unfolds like a puzzle box, and yet lays out the answers in front of us from the first episode. The best series do this expertly, and Watchmen HBO is no exception. So how do you conclude this series? You end it big, you end it small, and you end it open-ended.
The finale tied up every loose end that the series had left: from Bian My conceiving Lady Trieu to Laurie Blake arresting Adrian Veidt. Cyclops and the Seventh Kalvary meet their end. The hubris of Lady Trieu claims her. It’s the big action climax you expect in any comic book property. In the midst of this action, it’s Angela & John’s goodbye that gives the finale its heart. Their love story played out throughout the series, and was given its depth in the previous episode. In the finale, facing the death he knew was imminent, he kept Angela behind with him so he wouldn’t be alone. He spends his last moments reliving every moment he shared with Angela. It’s beautiful and tragic in the best possible way. In the end, their love carries on, and so it seems does Dr. Manhattan’s powers. The final scene leaves us questioning if John really left his powers behind for Angela in the egg, one of many great callbacks made during the finale. As of now, we’ll never know, and I love that. It’s the ambiguous ending that keeps us guessing and discussing this limited series. The combination of these elements created a satisfying finale that stands tall among the best of television.
“The Last Day” | Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a perfect show and its series finale, “The Last Day” is pretty perfect too. It’s the culmination of eight years in the making leading to decisions and promotions that felt incredibly right to honor the character journeys we’ve seen up until this moment. The series finale framed itself around the one thing we’ve all collectively appreciated about the show, and it gave us it one last heist. One more ride full of chaos, betrayals, heart-to-hearts, and a winner. A winner, which in this case is all of them (and all of us as viewers) because what the final episode ultimately paid homage to is the detail that this found family is forever.
They brought in the best moments from all eight seasons in the most meta form, and it would not have worked if this were any other show because the nuanced self-awareness has always been key. “The Last Day” is a love letter to the friendships made, the memories created, the tears that were shed, and most importantly, the people each member of the 99th Precinct would rather be–the examples of light in a dark, unkind world. It’s a love letter to growth and it’s a love letter to the quiet moments of vulnerability that have marked the show’s most beautiful scenes to date.
“One Last Ride” | Parks and Recreation
“One Last Ride” is exactly the kind of finale a series as wonderful as Parks and Recreation deserves. “Find your team and get to work” is still one of the best lessons a comedy series left its audience with. Parks and Recreation exhibited the power of teamwork unlike any other, and its finale paid homage to the aspirations the characters set from the beginning. They achieved all they were meant to and more and they did so by helping each other along the way. Parks and Recreation is and will always be my favorite workplace comedy because it sets the example of what it should be like. And in “One Last Ride” the characters are given the chance to showcase what a healthy workspace can do to an individual person’s growth. Helping people has often been Parks and Recreation’s triumphant anthem, much like its theme, and “One Last Ride” honors it while honoring Leslie Knope’s success beautifully. One last reunion, one final swing to fix, and it serves as the exquisite reminder of the fact that the little things matter. It starts with a pit and ends with a park showcasing the growth of its people beautifully.
“Everyone’s Waiting” | Six Feet Under
Sarah Tompkins of Potter Pod
From the farthest view, Six Feet Under is a show about a family’s life moving forward in the midst of death – living in, owning, and operating a funeral home. Every episode of the series begins with a headstone, a name and two years – birth, death – and that person’s life in some way informs that episode, the arcs therein, and the growth or regression of each member of the Fisher family. Throughout the series we see the family’s struggles with grief, sexuality, relationships, careers, and the general expectations and realities of dreaming, falling short, and in the rare case, succeeding.
It seems impossible that a series that so expansively encapsulates life in its myriad forms could reach any satisfying conclusion. But what “Everyone’s Waiting” achieves is a look at the precipice of what life is and what we hope life could be–we grieve for the characters and people who have been lost, we fear for their future, but hope that if this family can grow amidst tragedy and real, but stunted love and communication, we all can, too.
In a series that is haunted–literally–by the ghost of a stern and neglectful father, Claire, the youngest of the family, wakes in the finale to the apparition of her deceased brother urging her, “Get up! Come on, everybody’s waiting.” As an audience, we are waiting, too, but more so, Claire’s family is waiting for her to embark on a journey from California to New York to pursue her passion for photography.
Crying as she says goodbye, Claire doesn’t know how to let go–does anyone?–but her (corporeal) brother assures her, in a deep hug, that all she needs to do is, “Just say I love you and I’ll miss you.” Even in the last moments of the series, we are learning what it means to live and let go, how to grieve for what we had, what we have, and embrace what we could have.
But the most challenging and most important line of the finale comes from Nate, who whispers in Claire’s ear as she snaps a photo of her family, standing on the porch of the only place she’s called home: “You can’t take a picture of this–it’s already gone.” Time is fleeting, life is impermanent, and it’s all this series has ever sought to teach us.
Photo taken and goodbyes said, Claire pulls her car out of the drive, pops in the mix CD her boyfriend told her not to listen to until she has started her journey, and Sia’s “Breathe Me” plays while we see, well, life (the ghost of her brother running after her car, disappearing from the side mirror the further she drives away). We see birthdays, weddings, deaths, welcoming homes. We see people who die at an old age, others who die too young. We see people at picnics, on vacations, we see so many, many photographs of life well-lived–all framed by Claire’s journey on the road, traveling from home to some place far and foreign and unknown.
“Happy Ending” | Schitt’s Creek
Schitt’s Creek was special from the very season, as the first comedy I personally got into immediately, it was clear from day one that this series was going somewhere worthwhile. I hate goodbyes and I hate it when people have to leave, but what makes “Happy Ending” so special is that each of these characters not only found themselves through this ridiculous series, but they learned that loving each other as they are is enough. The episode opens up in a very Rose family fashion with a storm ruining David and Patrick‘s wedding plans, and it ends with hearty callbacks to the Pilot. It’s Alexis openly showing her emotions to her family, realizing she’s glad they lost their money, and telling Moira she loves her very much while Moira tries to desperately keep it together.
It’s the entire town coming together to make the wedding happen. It’s Alexis wearing a wedding dress! It’s Moira in the glorious outfit even people who’ve never seen the series know of. It’s Stevie crying as they get to the end of the aisle. It’s David tearfully telling Alexis he’s continuously impressed by her before she boops his nose. It’s the jazzagals singing “Simply the Best.” It’s Moira finally breaking and giving in to the happiness that’s captivated her and sobbing through her speech. Finally, it’s David and Patrick’s vows—vows so beautiful, so perfectly moving, and appropriately featuring Maria Carey’s “Always Be My Baby.” It’s the union of two people who’ve grown together through immeasurable sincerity, gratifying adoration, and a gorgeous vulnerability that’s the very heart of their relationship and the series. “Happy Ending” is the kind of ending that hurts because it’s so easy to want to hold on, but it feels so right at the end of the day. Schitt’s Creek is the place where everyone fits in and everyone’s always welcomed back. Schitt’s Creek is home, it’s beautiful and it’s inclusive and it’s utterly chaotic in the best way.
“Episode Six” | Fleabag
Fleabag was such a special series and we all wanted more of it, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s decision to end the series where she did was brilliant. Heartbreaking, but brilliant. It made sense. While the series starts off with Fleabag telling the audience “this is a love story,” its darker ending doesn’t take away from the fact that love is the very theme within season two. As the (Hot) Priest states during the ceremony: “It takes strength to know what’s right and love isn’t something that weak people do. Being a romantic takes a hell of a lot of hope. I think what they mean is, when you find somebody that you love, it feels like hope.” I’ll be old and grey while still discussing how phenomenal and electric the chemistry between Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was on the night they parted at the bus stop. It’s hard to think that God would look down on two people like Fleabag and the Priest and not root for them too. Their chemistry was magnetic, thrilling, and resulted in some of the most emotional moments written in a comedy. It was dark and enticing, but never stopped being tender and genuine. In all its enigmatic, profoundly captivating run, Fleabag and the Priest changed one another exponentially. But at its core, Fleabag is also a love story about sisters, it’s a love story about people choosing to what they want in spite of what others will think or say. It’s about knowing that even when the day ends in heartbreak, there’s at least one person in the world you’ll always run to the airport for.
“All Sales Final” | Superstore
Superstore concluded its six-season run with a series finale that worked beautifully for this show and left us all ugly crying for hours. And just as we had hoped, it ended with a stunning callback to the Pilot that made the episode impeccable. They made it–each of them found their way back home, towards the toy stars in the room that serve as a reminder of just how much power humans have to evoke joy into another’s life. The beautiful montage, the hopeful journey they’ve all been on marked by a stunning announcement we’ll likely never forget was the perfect choice for this show.
Garrett said, I’m going to make you all sob and he did. He really, truly did. 20 years of announcements. A riveting way of using its resources to end the episode with an announcement like this while bringing in a montage in the process. If you need a reminder of his message and the finale as a whole, it was (unsurprisingly) our Most Exquisite TV Moment the week it aired.
“Finale” | The Office
The final few seasons of The Office are far from perfect, and the last season has a plethora of flaws if we’re being honest. But the series finale, though underwhelming in its title pays great homage to its characters, which is all we could hope for really. The final moments dealing with the documentary crew are some of the series’ best moments. The Office always told us how people felt while showing us their emotions through iconic camera glares, but there’s something about the end that felt different. It was reflective, it was poignant, and knowing how much this cast loved each other, it felt like we were watching something real. It’s Michael Scott’s utterly perfect return followed by the “I feel like all my kids grew up and then they married each other” comment during Angela and Dwight’s wedding. It’s every TV shippers anthem if we’re being real, excluding obvious cases of actual incest of course. Steve Carrell’s return was perfect, the finale would not have been nearly as good without the heart of the series, and it felt right that he’d show up for Dwight’s wedding to be his best man. It’s realizing at the very end that you wish you appreciated the beginning more. It’s the good old days, which is still my favorite quote from the series.
What are the most satisfying series finales you’ve seen?
I love this post and can’t wait until I find a burst of writing energy to write my own version of this. But since I need to get my Best Books of 2020 posts out first, I can’t pass up this opportunity to gush about the finales I love.
I agree with a lot of the ones in this list, The Americans and Boy Meets World in particular are both everything finales should be.
My all-time favorite is the Leverage finale, which I love so much it could have its own post. It was made with so much love and you can feel it. They loved their fanbase so much and trusted it enough to want to go out strong, even if they weren’t 100% sure at the time of filming that it would be their last. It’s full of twists and feelings but every character beat lands perfectly and honors the journey they’ve been on for 5 seasons.
I also adore the Halt and Catch Fire finale, which has a scene I still think about ALL THE TIME because it is perfect. It’s bittersweet and hopeful and a gorgeous way to finish a show that was technically about technology but more about connection.
And with a slight spoiler for one of my Best TV of 2020 opinions, I can’t have asked for a better wrap up than She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. It makes me sob with joy and fulfillment and hit exactly the right emotional note for this year.
I like your list, especially the good Place, though admittedly I haven’t watched all of them. As an older adult viewer, I can’t let this post go without pointing out Newhart and Mash. What made mash’s finale so great was that all of the US was watching. Until that time, there had never been a larger audience for a TV program. I was in college and everybody in my dorm was huddled in the TV lounge to watch the final episode of mash and oh how we loved it. The emotions and the laughs that made the show so great presented so perfectly in that last episode. As for Newhart, you can’t get better than when the finale of one series refers back to a previous series that the star was in. For a situation comedy, it doesn’t get better than that finale.
That sounds like such an exciting moment of TV history to be part of, especially where streaming wasn’t available and everyone really was watching on an actual TV. Thanks for sharing that with us!