After recently taking a look at some of our favorite TV pilot opening scenes, we decided it would only be fitting to look at some of our favorite closers across history. Some are wholly satisfying for their sense of closure after a long ride with characters we came to know and love, while others are equally poignant for their ambiguity, often thanks to early cancellation. Although these are just the final moments, revisiting these scenes has been enough to make us laugh, cry, and get thoroughly freaked out all over again, and we hope that perhaps they can provide you some healthy catharsis, too. Have a favorite we missed? Let us know in the comments — and beware that this post is, for obvious reasons, full of spoilers.
Six Feet Under
It was only fitting that a show so unabashedly about death kill off its starring cast in the final moments. As Claire Fisher drives off to New York City (to Sia’s tear-jerking “Breathe Me”) we see the deaths of her family members, all of whom pass away relatively peaceful in old age, with the exception of poor Keith, who we learn is gunned down on a job. This final sequence was the perfect way (despite some questionable aging makeup) to give this series closure: heading down an open road, facing death straight on.
At the end of the series Vic Mackey finally has to pay for his crimes in a sentence perhaps worse than prison: a desk job. The final minutes show Mackey stewing at his new desk, the emotion of the scene heightened by close-up shots of his red tear ducts and family photographs, scored to nothing but the hum of office lights, creaky mail cart wheels, and police sirens. This goes on for minutes, until the lights automatically go out. Then, in the last 15 seconds he grabs his gun and leaves, the expression on his face replaced with determination, leaving us only to guess what sort of plan he has already started hatching up (unless of course we finally get our movie).
While many compared the aforementioned Shield finale to Tony Sopraono’s “end” (however you would like to interpret it), the latter was far more unsettling as far as fan reactions go. Many felt cheated by the finale, but as David Chase and many critics have pointed out, any conventional conclusion would have gone against everything the show stood for. There’s no arguing The Sopranos was revolutionary, and it was only fitting that it had an ending to match the precedent it had set. Would the finale (which aired in June 2007) have incited the same public outcry amongst today’s swelling contingent of less-than-orthodox television programs? We wager, no. Although ripping the cord on US anthem “Don’t Stop Believin'” mid-song will probably stand forever as one of the most un-American acts of all time.
Mary Tyler Moore
Sitcom finales are often too overwrought or predictable, and can often end up feeling jarring in contrast to the normal tone of the show. But MTM hit the perfect balance of comedy and sentimentality in its final moments, putting the recently fired WJM-TV staff together in a group hug, which according to Moore, came about spontaneously during rehearsal. Amidst the tears, she gives a short speech about being a “career woman” that still resonates today, and Lou leads them in a rendition of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” as they file out, providing the score for Moore as she takes one last look around the office before turning out the lights.
This now-infamous finale certainly had shock value, but it didn’t feel exploitative since it was actually a pretty darn good joke — having straight-laced psychologist Bob Hartley wake up from a dream in which he was an innkeeper/local talk-show host in a strange Vermont town for eight years. While the “gotcha” device can feel contrived, not to mention disconcerting to viewers who bought into an entire show (see Dallas’ infamous “dream season” or the Roseanne finale), the conclusion of Newhart fit well with the wacky nature of the sitcom, and TV would be challenged to pull off a similar stunt again that doesn’t feel hackneyed or derivative.
Bored to Death
Not long after the Season 3 finale, HBO announced the cancellation of Bored to Death, although as recently as June there have been reports of a TV film — a possibility that fills us with both delight and sadness. Delight because we loved this series. Sadness because we thought the last episode — which concludes with Jonathan and Ray slow dancing with their half-sister and octogenarian girlfriends, respectively, to a ukulele rendition of “You Belong to Me” — was perfect. There’s bound to be a not-so-pretty aftermath from here, but for the moment (and, in our minds, until a movie happens) they live in a happy ending that suits them. As Ray says from the arms of a glowing Olympia Dukakis, “Well, we all have our thing.”
While the aforementioned Bored to Death finale certainly wouldn’t have been the same without one last existential (and rather endearing) contemplation by Ted Danson’s George (this time in the form of his daughter’s wedding toast), his most historic finale was of course on Cheers, when he infamously chose his bar over a life in California with Diane. The final moments see Sam turn away a late-night customer, straighten a portrait of Geronimo — a tribute to the late Coach — and then make his final exist, leaving us with the sense that yeah, maybe all a guy really needs is his bar.
Freaks and Geeks
To this day the mention of the Freaks and Geeks‘ cancellation is enough to strike ire in the heart of any TV junkie. At the same time, its short run also epitomizes one perfect, unadulterated season, punctuated by Lindsay’s farewell to her family and a bus ride to betrayal. There are no PSAs or requited loves in this ending (that all ended at the disco). Instead the series closes with a seemingly innocuous farewell sequence, underscored by Lindsay’s sweet affirmations to Sam and the gentle strumming of “Ripple,” which belies her true intentions until the moment she gets off the bus to meet Kim and the Deadheads. It’s an ending that beautifully illustrates the sadness and liberation of lying to your parents, before everything comes crashing down.
(For another series finale we love by Apatow, see his also wonderful and short-lived Undeclared .)
Here’s another teen series finale that is great (notwithstanding the lackluster film that followed). When Will corrals the boys for a camping trip before Simon’s family moves, the to-be-expected hijinks ensue, including some unbelievably forceful projectile vomiting in their tent (due to undercooked sausage). But the last minutes before the vomiting are actually rather sweet, particularly when a concerned Neil asks Simon what he wants them “to do with Will” when he’s gone. And then the last shot of them trudging trudging into the night, soaked in vomit, teasing Will about his mum, is a callback to the banter that gives the show its true-to-life feel of young camaraderie.
Everyone, at some point in their life, dreams of their perfect “walk-away,” and Betty Suarez nails it. In the final scene of the series, the reformed Daniel finally says goodbye to his former assistant and asks her out on the steps in Trafalgar Square. She accepts, departs two paces, turns around and playfully suggests he apply for a job as her assistant, and then struts away to “Beauty in the World.” Although this series was guilty of all the ridiculous stories and plot lines we come to expect from our soaps (it was, after all, an adaptation of the telenovela Yo soy Betty, la fea ), it was groundbreaking for its positive message of acceptance (of the self and others) and Betty’s final moment of empowerment was perfect in the uplifting (yet never too cloying) context of the show.
If Ugly Betty‘s finale makes you want to get up and strut, Angel‘s makes you want to get up and fight. With thousands of demons encroaching his battered team in the pouring rain, Angel only sees one alternative, evinced in his final words: “Let’s go to work.” Swing sword, roll credits. Like other shows on this list, fans felt betrayed by the ambiguity of this scene, but Joss Whedon insisted in an interview at A.V. Club that this moment was a “final statement,” because “redemption is something you fight for every day.” (And if you really want to know the rest of the story, you can always read the book.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
In contrast to Angel, Whedon ensured Buffy got closure, as is perfectly encapsulated in the final shot of the gang overlooking the pit formerly known as Sunnydale/the gates of hell. As Whedon told A.V. Club, “With Buffy, I needed closure, because she, poor girl, had earned it. Buffy is about growing up.” (Which of course didn’t disqualify Xander from some wisecracks at the expense of the Sunnydale mall in the wake of their victory: “All those shops gone. The Gap, Starbucks, Toys ‘R’ Us. Who will remember all those landmarks unless we tell the world about them?”)
Yes, the special effects and acting are schlocky by today’s standards, but this ’70s space romp is still considered one of sci-fi’s finest for its complex characters, spanning story arcs, and completely devastating ending. In the final scene all the heroes — technically a band of space outlaws — die, with the exception of Avon, who the evil Galactic Federation’s guards close in on in the last moments of the series finale. The viewer can only hear the gunshots as the credits roll, and since a fifth season never came to fruition, his fate is eternally in the hands of the viewer. At least, perhaps, until Syfy reboots the character.
Star Trek: The Next Generation
If Blake’s 7 is the anti-Star Trek, the last minutes of TNG‘s finale are a fine example why. After two hours of time travel and dealing with a possibly world-ending spacial anomaly, Picard joins his crew in the last minutes of the episode for their weekly game of poker, noting it was something “he should have done a long time ago.” And as he deals the hand, Q’s time-space challenge seems but a distant memory. The whole episode is literally one big brain warp (for Picard and us), but in those final moments, it’s just about friendship and possibility, as perfectly encapsulated by Picard’s final words: “So, five-card stud, nothing wild, and the sky’s the limit.”
Mystery Science Theater 3000
Speakin’ of space… the finale of MST3k is perhaps the perfect marriage of Blake’s 7 special effects and TNG‘s low key sentimentality. And the cyclical themes of BSG (which sadly, doesn’t make this list). The series ends with the gang finally escaping their imprisonment (reviewing bad movies on a space station) only to find themselves in the exact same place they started (reviewing bad movies, only this time on Earth, in a tiny apartment). As Mike settles in with his bots on the couch for WTMJ’s Saturday afternoon movie The Crawling Eye (which Joel reviewed ten years ago), we can’t help feeling a sense of loss for a pre-DVR/Internet time when we really were “held prisoner” to whatever our TV was showing whenever we happened to turn it on. That said, yahoo for Internet so we can actually revisit this show!
It’s hard to believe that a family-oriented, Animatronic dinosaur program could go so dark. But then again, was there any question a mass extinction was in the cards? Delivering one of the most poignant environmental messages in TV history, Dinosaurs ended with a nuclear winter, precipitated by the environmental abuses of its patriarchal Megalosaurus, Earl. The last few moments of the snow building up outside the Sinclair home and the newscaster’s sign-off are truly chilling. Chances are if you saw this episode back in 1994 (or in re-runs on Disney), you didn’t forget it.
The Larry Sanders Show
In perhaps the most equally hilarious and heartfelt goodbye in TV history, Hank completely loses it on Larry and Artie after their final show (see around 5:45 above), leaves, then returns a minute later sobbing (like, really sobbing) to apologize. The three men embrace and then leave the set together to help Hank dislodge a dumpster from his bumper. The final episode was jam-packed with guest stars, but these three are owed all the credit for closing out the show right. (And re-watching only has us more amped for Jeffrey Tambor’s reprise in you-know-what.)
At first glance the last scenes of Deadwood are rather unceremonious, which clearly has to do with the cancellation of the show after the last episode of Season 3 was filmed. And while we still consider it a great shame the series didn’t get to go on, we find the final shot of Al Swearengen scrubbing the blood of an innocent woman off the floor in line with show’s overarching themes, not to mention haunting for the bubbly red suds. The scene serves a fitting proxy for the moral ambiguity of the town and the US’s dirty political origins — all the more heightened by the fact that no matter how hard Swearengen scrubs (or curses), the blood stains will never be completely be gone from the wooden floorboards.
In the final moments of Season 2 (the de facto series finale due to cancellation) we see a recovering Agent Cooper excuse himself to the bathroom to brush his teeth. There he empties a tube of toothpaste, smashes his head into the mirror, and erupts into a maniacal “How’s Annie?” — which he repeats as the credits begin to roll. We’ve seen scary possessions before, and although this isn’t actual Cooper (who as far as we know, is still at the Black Lodge), it’s still jarring to suddenly see an evil doppelgänger in place of the man who had been the show’s pie-lovin’ do-gooder up until that point. As far as ambiguous endings go, this is one of the weirdest and most haunting.
Life on Mars (UK version)
This much-loved BBC series ended with a decision that many time-traveling characters have to make: do they return to their lives in the future or remain in the past they have fallen in love with? Sam Tyler chooses past, which we later learn through the spin-off Ashes to Ashes is actually a purgatory for cops. In the final moments of the series Sam drives off, back at home in the ’70s, and the Test Card girl (an allusion to Test Card F) who has been haunting him skips down the alley and turns off our TV. It’s as quirky and whimsical as death scenes can get.