How to End a TV Show (The Best Television Series Finales)
The best television show finales leave the audience emotionally satisfied with the journey they went on with the characters. But how can you end your series in a way to please everyone?
The best television show finales leave us wanting to watch the pilot all over again. They're celebrations of the series and usually of the creators and cast.
In light of the recent ending of Game of Thrones, we decided to dig into television finales to talk about how you can stick the landing for your shows. Whether you're the most popular TV show of all time or creating a web series that needs to please the thirty dedicated fans who found you, good endings are necessary.
We've gone over how to write a TV pilot, so you know all about beginnings. Now it's time to help you land the plane.
[Warning: Lots of spoilers to follow.]
What should every TV finale have?
As I mentioned in the opening, you want to leave the audience feeling satisfied with the journey and the lessons you wanted to impart. It doesn't mean you have to tie up every loose end or storyline, but it does mean you owe the audience closure on the general problems you put forth in the pilot episode.
Endings are a lot like beginnings. We need to know where the characters are in their final stages and their arc. Lots of times, endings are mirrors of the first episode. They take characters back to how it first began and what was learned over time. Think about the Lost finale. When the show ends, we're back in the jungle with Jack.
Lost had a controversial ending, but it was one that drove home the moral of the show.
Another show that mirrored the pilot in its finale was How I Met Your Mother.
The titular question asked in the pilot was about Mom. But once we have Mom enter the show, the story shifts perception. Instead, it becomes about Robin, which was sort of what the pilot wanted you to think all along. This show lasted for a long time, so changes and twists had to occur in each season to keep the title question away. Still, when it came time to end it, they went back to the blue French Horn.
It doesn't always have to be super dramatic and circular, though. Other times, finales take you on a journey to a different point than where everyone began. Take the great television finale from Parks and Recreation.
The clip is of Leslie, but in the actual finale, we follow each of the characters and go through where they all ended up. It's a compelling arc and refreshing to see where the character development took each of the figures we met in the pilot.
But what if nothing changed and the characters are just getting on with their lives?
This kind of ending is typical with procedural shows or sitcoms. When Seinfeld ended, our characters hadn't arced or developed as people. And they paid the consequences by being locked up. It was an enjoyable way to show where they had come from, and how much we loved the fact that they haven't changed at all.
Let's take a look at the recent Game of Thrones finale and see how it incorporates a lot of what we've talked about in these other episodes.
The Game of Thrones Finale
I can feel the vitriol from here, but I liked the Game of Thrones finale. I thought it did a great job of summing up the themes of the show and of telling us what parts of the story the creators cared the most about. It also delivered great epitaphs for the Stark family and went out of its way to mirror the pilot and the character motivations and psychology set out at the beginning of the series.
There were lulls, and I can't tell you why Jon Snow wasn't executed by the Unsullied, or why Tyrion was allowed to talk, or why Bron became master of coin, but I can tell you that afterward, I felt like I understood the way the story ended.
It's been clear that Benioff and Weiss have always been concerned with the politics within the show and not the battles or magic. While Dany's promise to break the wheel caused fans to salivate, the general moral is that change comes a few steps at a time; it's gradual and needs to come from the people, not from a dictator.
If the core of Jon Snow has always been duty, then it is easy to believe he would kill the second woman he loved in his life because of the duty he had to his name and his country. In the end, Jon Snow, the guy who was never a Stark, was more Stark than Ned had ever been. He was willing to stand up to everyone and to risk his life to make things right.
A lot of times your finale can only be as strong as your final season. GoT was hampered by the need to cram everything into six episodes. So, while it felt like the finale was the correct ending for each person, it did feel like we rushed to get there. And we didn't get all the scenes we wanted.
What happened when Sansa and Arya heard about Jon killing Dany?
How did Greyworm not kill Jon Snow immediately when he confessed to killing Dany?
Why did the other leaders not try to be their sovereign states as well?
Again, we reached a high note for the show. One that I am sure George R.R. Martin would stand by. Change is hard to come by, and we should celebrate even the smallest ones.
What are the ten best television finales?
I've already talked about a few endings earlier that I think work for the most part. The hard thing is that people are always going to disagree with what marks a good or a bad ending. I wanted to come up with a list of the best TV finales, in my opinion. You can disagree, and put yours in the comments below.
This is a list, not a ranking.
1. The Sopranos
Most people remember the Sopranos for the final scene. And we'll include it here because I am certain Tony died. And I think the writing of the Sopranos is some of the best of all time. But what we got at the end of this story is a family gathered around a table talking to one another. Well, I guess Meadow was parking, but you get the picture. Tony's life had fallen apart, but the people who mattered were still there. There's a sense in the final episode that Tony has escaped the worst of it. Still, we never know what's coming around the bend. and the way he keeps his eyes on the door makes us wonder if he knows he's just biding his time. Whatever you do, don't stop believing.
2. 30 Rock
The episode, titled "Last Lunch," revolves around Liz taking care of a kid, Jack finding his replacement, and everyone coming back for a final TGS. It's bitingly funny with meta-commentary on the TV industry as a whole. Since we're seeing them prep for a final show within a final show, it also gives us one last glimpse at the zany antics that cemented 30 Rock as one of the best sitcoms of all time.
3. Breaking Bad
I talk about Breaking Bad and screenwriting so much on this website that you're probably tired of hearing about its genius. Walter White dies in the lab he built, surrounded by his creation. It's truly touching and Shakesperean. What I love about this ending is how much pride Walt takes in his final moments. He built something no one else could and killed all his enemies. He died the king of meth. Respected and feared. And he's okay with that.
4. Mad Men
What if I told you that our entire existence was ruled by consumerism? Mad Men took us on a journey through capitalism, but in its last episode, it asked Don Draper what it meant to be human, to have empathy, and to have regrets. Don faced his entire life. Every choice he made and every connection as well. And Don chose to create the greatest advertisement of all from that situation.
There were times during MASH where it was confusing whether or not the tears on your face got there from laughing or crying. Usually, it was both. The final episode of MASH aired in 1983. 105.9 million viewers watched "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" which was directed by Alan Alda. It was the most-watched television event ever until 2010 when the Super Bowl topped it with 106 million viewers. It crushed its finale, leaving us in tears and mourning the cast while also hopeful for what life without war would look like for its heroes.
6. Six Feet Under
Widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best finale episode of all time, Six Feet Under delivered the story of every main character. They answered every question we had about the characters while also addressing the meaning of life. That's pretty deep for a show about death.
7. The Wire
Can a show about a city ever really end? The Wire's genius is that it has always known the answer is "no." Baltimore will continue to exist, so will the crime, corruption, and drugs. This was never a show about fixing a city. It was about the people who lived within the dingy walls. So much like Six Feet and Parks and Rec, we end with a survey of what happened to these people we cared about most. It also takes you full circle - we don't get a glimpse at futures, just at the people and how their day to day will continue on. We can see them doing it forever. Or until a bullet catches up to them.
8. The Americans
The Americans was consistently one of my favorite shows on television. Each season took our family to the brink of being discovered, but in the final episode, their secret was out. The final frame gives us Phillip and Elizabeth looking out over Moscow. They're home, they have each other, but the family they raised is gone. Their kids are probably going to suffer in America. They began this journey alone. But now, together, they return to a home they haven't seen in decades. There's a bitterness...was any of it worth it? Only time will tell...
9. The Leftovers
I've waxed about the philosophical ending of The Leftovers before, so I won't go into how deep and personal this series has been for many viewers. But the main lessons to take from this series finale is that anything is possible on television right now. You can do a massive time jump. you can leave the biggest questions unanswered, but you have to answer what's inside a character's heart. The Leftovers wasn't really about who went away; it was about who was left.
10. The Middle
I feel like this is probably a surprise entry onto this list. I think The Middle was a criminally underrated sitcom of the 2010s. It had a great cast of characters just trying to get by in middle-class life. The ending did something extraordinary, it let the characters be themselves in one future moment, and it didn't take it too seriously. It focused on how these characters arced and showed us how proud we were of who they became. I love that idea. Truly, The Middle ended with each person in the Heck family becoming the person we always knew they could be. And that's a great way to leave us feeling satisfied.
What's next? Learn how to write a TV pilot!
Hundreds of pilots sell to networks and streaming services every year. What's stopping you from selling your idea? Want to learn how to write a TV pilot? You've come to the right place.
Breaking into Hollywood with a writing career is one of the hardest things you can do. Fewer and fewer movies are being made every year, and now, many young writers are turning to television to find jobs. But to get a job in television, you need a sample. Samples are speculative pilot scripts that your agent or manager can hand to showrunners to prove your worth.
Keep reading to find out!