Crafting satisfying TV show endings has always been a challenging feat. “Seinfeld,” for example, remains one of the most popular and acclaimed comedies in TV history, yet the show’s controversial finale continues to be universally loathed; USA Today summed up the feelings of many viewers when trashing the swan-song episode as a “slow, smug exercise in self-congratulation.”
On the flip side, there have been many series that have managed to get it right. Yet trying to craft a perfect ending places a show’s writers in the precarious position of trying to sum up several seasons into one grand finale that wraps up the whole thing — with the understanding that the final episode will be judged far more harshly than any other.
Not surprisingly, the television landscape is riddled with series finales that have played on viewers’ emotions, sometimes manipulatively so, with the hope of delivering a cathartic conclusion that will make fans grateful — and not resentful — that they’d consumed so many hours of their lives watching a favorite series. With this in mind, read on to reminisce about the most devastating TV show endings of all time. Warning: Major spoilers ahead!
Fans of sitcom How I Met Your Mother weren't prepared for such a bummer of a finale
When “How I Met Your Mother” came to a conclusion after nine hilarious seasons, fans received a series finale that proved to be far more controversial than one would expect for a sitcom about a group of fun-loving friends. As USA Today writer Kelly Lawler put it, “HIMYM” “aired a series finale that went down in television history, but surely not in the way that its creators intended.”
Fans were pumped to see Ted (Josh Radnor) get his happy ending once the show introduced the titular mother, played by actress Cristin Milioti. However, fan elation proved short-lived when a time jump revealed Milioti’s character in a hospital bed, dying of a terminal disease. Viewers also learned the marriage of Robin (Cobie Smulders) and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) disintegrated — apparently as a plot device to allow widower Ted to reconnect with Robin and reignite their romance.
The unwelcome plot twist left Lawler “bitter because the show’s unwavering positivity was such a welcome lift in my life when I needed it, and it upended its years-long faith in happy ever after in one hour.”
Crying was mandatory while watching the Parenthood finale
Loosely based on the 1989 Steve Martin comedy, NBC’s “Parenthood” earned a reputation for emotional storylines designed to induce weeping in viewers. This was even more true of the TV show’s ending, which centered around family patriarch Zeek Braverman (Craig T. Nelson) passing away peacefully while relaxing in his favorite chair.
In addition to the finale featuring the tear-jerking wedding of Sarah (Lauren Graham) and Hank (Ray Romano), Vulture pointed out that it’s within the final few minutes that the finale “throws every bit of available ‘Parenthood’ cry-fire power at the audience” during a family baseball game in tribute to Zeek. While the Bravermans play ball, viewers are treated to heartwarming flash-forwards showcasing how the future happily unfolds for each member of the clan.
“To me, the flash-forwards helped for us to have that ending, which was a very tough thing, but still give the sense that, hopefully, the ending was ultimately uplifting because it’s all about how life goes on,” “Parenthood” showrunner Jason Katims told BuzzFeed News. “When you saw all these families continuing to grow and new families forming and you saw everybody sort of thriving, I thought it struck a very nice balance between the sadness of losing Zeek.”
Vic Mackey confronted a fate worse than jail in the finale of The Shield
When “The Shield” concluded, the walls were closing in on corrupt cop Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis). As Entertainment Weekly’s review of the finale made clear, the ending was shocking, violent, and conclusive. This was particularly true for Mackey’s longtime partner Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins), who takes the only exit he can see by poisoning his pregnant wife and son and then taking his own life.
VIc’s fate wasn’t as final, but it was no less devastating. After cutting a deal, Vic’s family enters the witness protection program while he’s assigned to a desk job, imprisoned not in a cell but an office cubicle. The series’ final shot features Vic pulling a gun from his desk drawer, tucking it in the waistband of his pants and leaving with a scowl on his face.
“We’ve always viewed Vic as a shark. He’s someone who, in order to survive, has to move forward,” “Shield” creator Shawn Ryan told Entertainment Weekly. “Is he going to search for his kids? Is he going to pursue his own sort of police work on his own time? Is he going to do something postal? I don’t know. But I do think the shark swims forward.”
There were no winners by the end of Breaking Bad
One of the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time, “Breaking Bad” tracked the transformation of terminally ill Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as he evolved from nebbish science teacher to meth-making criminal mastermind.
By the series’ finale (via Refinery29), Walt’s partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) has been enslaved, chained in a pit, and ordered to make meth. Meanwhile, Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) discovers the truth, which ultimately leads to Hank’s murder by Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Jack (Michael Bowen), the men holding Jesse prisoner. Walt cons their partner, Lydia (Laura Fraser), into giving him their location, poisoning her in the process. When Walt shows up, he’s rigged a machine gun in the trunk of his car that kills everyone in the gang except Jack and Todd. Jesse then strangles Todd to death while Walt shoots and kills Jack.
In the final moments, an emotional Jesse gets in a car and drives off, while Walt, badly wounded in the gunfight, takes his final breath just as the DEA approach the scene of the carnage. “Ours is nothing if not a definitive ending to the series,” “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan told Entertainment Weekly.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series finale was surprisingly sad
During the first half of the 1990s, viewers tuned in each week to catch up on Will Smith’s latest antics on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” the story of a teenager who moves from urban Philly to Los Angeles’ posh Bel-Air district to live with his Uncle Phil (James Avery) and Aunt Viv (Janet Hubert and later Daphne Maxwell — it’s a long story). After six seasons of sitcom hilarity, the series ended its run not by tickling fans’ funny bones but by tugging on their heartstrings.
As Bustle recalled in a retrospective, the “Fresh Prince” finale was “pretty traumatic.” When Uncle Phil announces the family is moving to the East Coast while Will remains in California to complete college, Will’s response to the prospect of losing his family is to try to sabotage the sale of the house. He ultimately realizes his immature attempts won’t prevent the inevitable, and he says his goodbyes. Despite Will’s efforts to prevent the house from selling, Uncle Phil nevertheless entrusts him with the keys.
This results in the finale’s most devastating scene: Will standing in the now-empty mansion as viewers share the sense of loss he’s experiencing.
Everyone died by the end of Lost
For six mind-bending seasons of “Lost,” fans debated what was really happening on that crazy island where a group of seemingly unrelated strangers wound up trapped after a plane crash. What with the displaced polar bears, swirling smoke monsters, malevolent “Others,” and much more assorted weirdness, one popular theory guessed that the survivors actually hadn’t survived, and the island was some sort of afterlife purgatory. While many viewers were hoping that “Lost” would answer the many, many questions the show had raised and solve some of the island’s mysteries, the series finale actually offered few answers while posing even more questions.
Several of the show’s characters met their ends during the final season, with the finale itself showcasing the death of Jack (Matthew Fox), who bleeds to death after being stabbed by the Man in Black. This is followed by a final scene in which all the series’ characters gather together at a church until becoming engulfed in a blinding light.
“They were not dead the whole time,” “Lost” showrunner Damon Lindelof said at PaleyFest in 2014, insisting the purgatory theory was off the mark, according to Digital Spy. However, he did confirm “they were all dead when they met up in heaven for the final ‘church’ scene.”
Fans of Fleabag were crushed by a bittersweet ending
Few TV series have basked in the kind of acclaim afforded to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s serio-comedic creation “Fleabag.” During the show’s second (and final) season, viewers watched Waller-Bridges’ titular Fleabag and the “hot priest” (Andrew Scott) become increasingly drawn to each other. The two seemed to bring each other joy and torment in equal measure, and they finally succumbed to their mutual desire. Yet anyone paying attention could have guessed that their forbidden attraction was not going to end well.
When she finally let down her guard and exposed her vulnerability enough to tell the priest she loves him, neither she nor viewers were surprised when he chooses the Almighty over her. Yet that doesn’t dull the agony she experiences, sobbing at a bus stop as viewers watch her heart break in real time.
Interestingly enough, in an interview with The Guardian, Waller-Bridge revealed that the series’ heartbreaking ending could have gone another way. “There was an idea for an alternative ending,” she teased, “but I’ll never say what it was…”
The series finale of M*A*S*H was melancholic perfection
The final episode of “M*A*S*H,” about a U.S. military medical unit during the Korean War, delivered one of television’s most emotionally devastating series wrap-ups. The finale, in fact, was bursting with poignant moments, such as the wedding of Klinger (Jamie Farr) and Soon-Lee (Rosalind Chao), Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) losing his hearing while trying to save trapped POWs from a bomb, and Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) teaching a group of Korean musicians how to play Mozart — only to be shattered when the musicians become casualties of war.
The most crushing storyline, though, deals with wisecracking surgeon Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda), who tells psychiatrist Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus) about a traumatic incident that took place on a bus. As Hawkeye recalls, the driver stopped the engine and turned off the lights to avoid detection by nearby Chinese troops. Fearful of being discovered, a woman wound up smothering the chicken she’s carrying when it won’t stop clucking.
Hawkeye eventually reveals the truth, which his traumatized mind has been suppressing: the woman wasn’t holding a chicken, but a baby. When the horror of that realization hits him, Hawkeye breaks down, sobbing uncontrollably.
Don Draper sought enlightenment at the end of Mad Men
Set at a fictional Madison Avenue advertising agency during the 1960s, “Mad Men” focused on creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm) — who, as viewers eventually discovered, wasn’t actually Don Draper, but Dick Whitman, reinventing himself by stealing the dog tags of a fellow soldier who’d died while they served in the Korean War.
In the finale, Don attends a spiritual retreat at in order to, as Screen Rant recalled, “find some kind of enlightenment after all the pain and suffering his lies have caused not only himself, but just about everyone he’s ever come into contact with.” While making his way there, Don has an emotional phone call with ex-wife Betty (January Jones), who’s in the final stages of terminal cancer. He also speaks with rebellious teenage daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka), as she endures the trauma of watching her mother’s life ebb away.
The series ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, with Don sitting cross-legged at an outdoor meditation session before fading into the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial; as “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner told The Hollywood Reporter, he meant to imply that Don created the commercial as the result of his newfound mental wellbeing.
Everyone experienced tragedy in the finale of The Americans
FX’s “The Americans” followed the espionage exploits of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), a suburban Washington, D.C. couple in the 1980s who are secretly Soviet spies working covertly for the KGB.
When their cover is blown in the series finale, the Jennings are forced to make a hasty retreat — abandoning teenage son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who doesn’t know his parents are Russian agents, while being abandoned by daughter Paige (Holly Taylor), who does. As a Vulture recap pointed out, they return to their native Russia, a land they no longer know, leaving their children behind.
As series writer Joel Fields told Rolling Stone, having Philip and Elizabeth die in the finale was a plot twist that wasn’t under consideration at all. “Ultimately, the carnage we were looking for was emotional, so death was never on the table,” he explained. “In a lot of ways, we think this is a fate worse than death. What we were looking for was … something that felt as emotional as possible and as true as possible.”
The weird final season of Roseanne was a major-league bummer
There’s no denying that “Roseanne” was one of TV’s biggest hits when it aired in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Starring standup comic Roseanne Barr, the groundbreaking sitcom followed the ups and downs of the lower-middle-class Conner family as they struggled to get by in small-town America.
The ninth season was its last (until being resurrected two decades later and then morphing into the Barr-free “The Conners”), and it was a weird one. As Vulture recalled, that season found the Conners suddenly wealthy after winning the lottery, leading to an array of wacky “Beverly Hillbillies”-style shenanigans as they adapted to becoming filthy rich.
The truth is revealed in the final moments of the series finale, with Barr’s character in her basement writing her memoir. In a voiceover, she reveals that husband Dan (John Goodman) had died from a fatal heart attack. The entire season, it turned out, had never actually happened. Unable to cope with the reality of Dan’s death, she instead created a glitzy fantasy about winning the lottery, resulting in a particularly miserable ending for what had once been one of TV’s all-time great sitcoms.
Dexter's finale left nothing but death and destruction in its wake
When it came to TV series featuring antihero protagonists, “Dexter” pushed the envelope about as far as possible in telling the story of Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), a serial killer whose adoptive father, a cop, taught him to channel his homicidal desires to murder only those who are truly deserving of death.
Understandably, such a dark series received a particularly bleak ending, noted Vulture’s review of the “Dexter” finale. For fans, the finale’s saddest detail was the fate of Dexter’s sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter), who suffered a stroke during surgery for a gunshot wound and was destined to spend the rest of her existence in a vegetative state. Dexter retaliates by murdering the man who shot Deb in plain view of a security camera, and he then steals her away from the hospital to his boat, “Slice of Life,” in order to dump her body into the ocean. Viewers later see the wreckage of the boat after an explosion, with Dexter presumed dead.
In the final scene, viewers see a scruffy, bearded lumberjack in the Pacific Northwest — revealed to be Dexter, who apparently faked his own death and lived to kill another day.
The heartbreaking conclusion of Sons of Anarchy was a rough ride
As the still-traumatized viewers of “Sons of Anarchy” can attest, the final season was a rough ride. In the series finale, recalled Vulture, Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam) is seen “tying up loose ends” before visiting the graves of best friend Opie and wife Tara — the latter murdered savagely by his own mom, Gemma (Katey Sagal), whom he shot in the back of the head in the penultimate episode after discovered Gemma was Tara’s killer.
Jax then sends his sons off with his ex-wife Wendy (Drea de Matteo). “I need you to promise to make sure my boys leave this place,” he tells her. “So they don’t become what I’ve become.”
With a warrant out for his arrest, Jax hops on his motorcycle and takes a leisurely ride as an increasing number of police cars follow in pursuit. Meanwhile, a trucker (played by Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” fame) is barreling down the highway in the other direction. When Jax sees the truck, he smiles and removes his hands from the handlebars, extending his arms in a Christ-like pose while his bike drifts into the path of the oncoming truck.
The finale of The Sopranos left fans forever guessing about Tony's fate
Arguably the most controversial TV show ending is that of “The Sopranos.” At the end of the HBO hit’s final episode, mob boss Tony Soprano (the late James Gandolfini) sits at a restaurant table with his family. Deft camerawork escalates the tension in an otherwise benign scene, as a dude in a Members Only jacket walks by and glances at Tony, possibly suggesting he’s an assassin about to whack him.
Then the screen abruptly cuts to black and stays that way for long enough that, as Mental Floss recalled, “many viewers believed they were experiencing a cable outage.”
While viewers were left wondering whether Tony did meet his end — some have theorized that the show went dark at the same moment Tony’s life did — “Sopranos” creator David Chase let the cat out of the bag by accidentally revealing that Tony did indeed die at that moment. In an interview for the book “The Sopranos Sessions” that was leaked to the Independent, Chase tellingly refers to that final scene as the “death scene.” When confronted with what he’d just revealed, Chase told the authors, “F**k you guys.”
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