“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. It’s a quote you’ve likely heard before, usually meant to describe life and its many twists and turns. It is also appropriate in the life of a television show. The buildup of a show’s narrative will always be what people remember, but it can be difficult for a show’s destination to reach the heights of its journey. Season finales have the benefit of leaving viewers with a tantalizing cliffhanger, but they also must leave viewers satisfied forever. A tall task to be sure.
We can all remember shows that didn’t quite stick the landing and the anger, annoyance, and disappointment that ensued. That is why it is so impressive when a show truly nails its final episode. When everything comes together to enhance the journey, it makes the destination feel like where you meant to arrive all along. Thus, we ranked the ten best series finales of all time.
10. 30 Rock
It’s tough to decipher where exactly 30 Rock fits in the legacy of NBC sitcoms. While it might not have reached the heights of something like Seinfeld or The Office, 30 Rock seems to have been a bit unfairly lost to history, which is a shame. Created and starring Tina Fey, 30 Rock first premiered in 2006, eventually running seven seasons and racking up 139 episodes.
Situating itself as very much a workplace comedy, 30 Rock follows Fey’s Liz Lemon as she tries desperately to manage a sketch comedy starring Tracy Jordan (Tracey Morgan). Its cast of characters only grew from there, including Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy, Jane Krakowski’s Jenna Maroney, and Jack McBrayer’s Kenneth Ellen Parcell. The show was known best for its joke-a-second timing, firing references, puns, and extended gags at warp speed. This holds true in the series finale, which sees all the chaos of the preceding seasons continue with Liz in the eye of the storm.
9. The Good Place
The Good Place might be the most high-concept comedy show of all time. To describe the plot of even the first of the show’s four seasons would take the remainder of this article. That said, the short version remains tantalizing. Our main character Eleanor (Kristen Bell) arrives in what is deemed “The Good Place” for those who earned enough morality points. As expected, everything is perfect, except for the fact that Eleanor is pretty sure she does not belong in the good place at all. Thus we are shot headlong into a show that wrestles with everything from Socrates to the meaning of existence as a whole.
If that sounds heavy for a comedy, it can be, but, like 30 Rock, this show is also a joke a minute. The balance of levity and thoughtfulness become a unique strength for The Good Place. That said, the finale definitely leaned toward the emotional, giving us heartbreaking sendoffs for each character, leaving us without a lot to consider in our own lives.
8. Halt and Catch Fire
You are excused if Halt and Catch Fire seems a bit out of place. While this might not be considered up there with the likes of Mad Men, The Good Place, or The Wire, Halt and Catch Fire deserves to be mentioned among the best television shows of the 21st Century.
Timing, it seems, was Halt and Catch Fire’s biggest hurdle. Premiering right as Mad Men reached its finale, and on the same channel no less, Halt and Catch Fire was often compared, unfairly, to its predecessor. For those that stuck around beyond its uneven first season, the show became something truly fantastic in its own right, tracking the early years of the internet and home computing through the invention of online communities and video games. Just as good as the story it told was Halt and Catch Fire’s truly dynamite cast, which included Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, and Kerry Bishé, with the latter two becoming, as the season progressed, its main focus. Halt and Catch Fire covers a lot of ground during its four-season run and so bringing that all together during its two hour finale. It was directed by the fantastic Karyn Kusama (who would go on to direct the first episode of Yellowjackets) and was an impressive feat to say the least.
7. The Americans
In a way, The Americans is quite similar to Halt and Catch Fire, two shows whose critical appreciation severely outpaces their cultural footprint. That is a shame because The Americans might be one of the best television shows of all time, full stop.
The hook is simple enough. A couple posing as the typical American family unit are actually Soviet operatives performing various missions of espionage right in the heart of Washington, DC. It’s the slow burn of the series that makes it such an effective and devastating story, and also perhaps why it lost some viewers along the way. There were plenty of costumes and missions and hand-to-hand combat to be sure, but it’s in showing how a life of deception can infect a person’s psyche that made this such a good watch.
The finale served as the culmination of all this tension. It was the moment everything came to a head for our anti heroes, Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell). If you’ve seen this one you can still picture the moment that needle drops on U2’s “With or Without You” to heart-wrenching effect.
6. Bojack Horseman
When Bojack Horseman first premiered on Netflix in 2014, I don’t think anyone could have envisioned this becoming one of the most nuanced and thoughtful representations of addiction, morality, and culpability ever to appear on television. If that sounds like hyperbole, I request you attempt to make it through Bojack Horseman’s six seasons without shedding a tear, I dare you. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg was able to take a seemingly goofy tale of a washed up actor who is also a horse (played by Will Arnett), and create something both hilarious and heartfelt, combining irreverent humor with genuine pathos. The finale brought everything together, focusing on the relationships Bojack continuously strained throughout the series and giving him a chance to, if not make things right, gain some legitimate closure.
5. The Wire
You cannot construct a list of the most important and essential television shows without including The Wire, HBO’s mid-2000s series created by former journalist and writer David Simon. Over its five seasons The Wire constructed an incredibly realistic tapestry of city life within Baltimore, Maryland, a city devastated by both drugs and the war enacted upon them by the police and government officials.
The Wire was never a show that played by typical rules of narrative fiction. In an attempt to hue as close to reality as possible, every character on The Wire had flaws. While some were ultimately destroyed by those flaws, each had to wrestle with their demons. This kind of authenticity in storytelling does not lend itself toward tidy or happy endings, and the series’ finale was no exception. The Wire was a sprawling show, so wrapping up each storyline during its finale was definitely some work. However, Simon and company did a fantastic job of giving us endings that felt earned. Did this leave us with a bit of a bitter, acidic taste in our collective mouths? Yes, but as was the case during the entirety of the show’s run, things were not black and white.
4. Mad Men
Mad Men is one of the shows that marked the era sometimes referred to as prestige TV, a time when nuanced stories usually reserved for film started popping up on television. Mad Men tells the story of advertising men at the dawn of the 1960s, a time when consumerism was booming and advertising was becoming the ubiquitous force it is today. All this served to make a man like the series’ main character, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a superstar.
A gifted and creative storyteller and salesman (and excellent to look at as well) Draper quickly moves up in the world of advertising. He also must wrestle with his many, many demons, something we see unravel him as the series progresses. As the show reaches its finale, it’s clear the cool, suave ad man from the first few seasons is becoming a thing of the past. His drinking and womanizing have now become more pathetic than charming and fun. Wrapping up this immensely popular series was never going to be easy, but creator Matthew Wiener did a fantastic job of giving us a proper send-off for Draper and company.
3. Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul had, from the very beginning, a herculean task. Taking a relatively minor character from a hugely successful show like Breaking Bad and attempting to spin that off into a series of its own was never going to be easy. For a bit, Better Call Saul struggled to remove itself from the Walter White-sized shadow in which it found itself. That changed, though, as the series progressed. Saul Goodman, born Jimmy McGill, became every bit as fascinating a character as any on Breaking Bad. A grifter with a heart of gold, cold-hearted con-man, or something in the middle, Saul won us over and disgusted us in equal measure, all leading to the show’s recent finale, which was a brilliant grace note on an epic character arc.
2. The Leftovers
HBO’s The Leftovers was one of the most intense shows on television from the moment it premiered. Its pilot opened with one of the most haunting and harrowing scenes I can remember, as we witness a global event in which two percent of the world’s population vanishes without a trace. It doesn’t get much sunnier from there, and we track the fallout from such an event. Each of its primary characters are affected differently, but “The Departure,” as it comes to be called, is not something the world can move on from in any real way. In many ways, this is the thematic glue of The Leftovers, a show which makes grief its primary focus. As its three seasons wore on, the show only got more accomplished, displaying some of the best writing and acting on television including the finale. Considering The Leftovers was created by Damon Lindelof of Lost fame, that is particularly impressive.
1. Breaking Bad
Nearly a decade after it last aired, Breaking Bad remains one of the most impressive feats in television history. The story of Walter White’s descent into the Albuquerque drug underworld and his own move toward criminal insanity was absolutely gripping. No actor in the history of television, save maybe James Gandolfini, has inhabited a role the way Bryan Cranston inhabited “Heisenberg.”
Breaking Bad was always a show whose plot served as the magnifying glass with which to take a microscopic look at its incredibly flawed characters. To avoid spoiling anything about a finale and show you should go watch immediately, I will skip out on specific plot points of the series’ finale. Suffice to say, this was a conclusion that few could be disappointed with, even if things didn’t exactly end on a cheerful note.