Will “Succession” leave you happy this weekend? Or will you be angrier than Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) on a bad day?
There’s nothing like the anticipation, expectation and dread that surrounds the finale of a beloved TV series. The best finales are works of art, summing up years of storytelling in a satisfying ― if not always perfectly happy ― finish. But sometimes, no matter how much you love what came before, a series can miss on its last swing, leaving a bitter taste for years to come.
Two beloved and critically acclaimed TV series are coming to an end Sunday: HBO’s “Succession” and “Barry.” And while fans of both shows are hoping that their final installments will be as gut-wrenching and moving as the rest of their final seasons, there is always a chance things can slide off the rails.
In honor of both series saying goodbye, we ranked the 10 best and five worst finales of all time, from golden classics (“M*A*S*H”) to recent travesties (“Game of Thrones”).
The best TV series finales of all time
10. “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul“ (AMC)
It’s a bit of a cheat to pair these two finales. Although “Saul” was a spinoff of “Bad,” the two shows were singular in their tone and effect. But it is true that their finales were equally disarming and compelling. Like any figure so tragic and Shakespearean, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) couldn’t survive the end of his story in “Bad.” But in “Saul,” Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) chooses his ending, one of redemption and love for Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). If “Bad” is a “Macbeth”-style Shakespearean opus, “Saul” was more like “Romeo and Juliet,” ultimately a tragic romance with hidden depths.
9. “Cheers” (NBC)
Sam’s (Ted Danson) true love was always his bar. The “Cheers” finale isn’t nearly as happy or funny as many sitcoms’ exits, but its wistful tone worked for the bittersweet episode. The gang couldn’t stay at the bar forever.
8. “The Shield” (FX)
Not every series about an antihero is interested in comeuppance at the end, but even if it was, no punishment would be as perfect as the one served to Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) in the final episode of the police drama. Mackey ends up in his own version of prison, wasting away at an office job, far from the action and adrenaline he craves.
7. “The Americans” (FX)
The beautiful finale, which found Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) returning to the Soviet Union after the FBI finally figured out their secret, was perfectly suited to the series. They left behind their unwitting son, Henry (Keidrich Sellati), as their comrade daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor), leaves them. This is as close to a happy ending as the series could offer, at once surprising and deeply satisfying.
6. “The Sopranos” (HBO)
The only bad thing you can say about “The Sopranos” finale is that it pushed the saturation of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” to the breaking point in the years that followed. Some fans didn’t take to the open-ended, cut-to-black last moment of the mobster drama, which never revealed whether Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) lived or died. But his life was too contradictory to be resolved so cleanly.
5. “Battlestar Galactica” (Syfy)
The finale of the space epic used the spiritual and divine to answer its mysteries while making a profound statement about the nature of humanity. Sure, some are still angered by the deus ex machina convenience of the messy, benevolent god guiding the humans and Cylons alike, but the relationship between creators and their creations was always the central tenet of the series. And even though the humans and the Cylons gave up technology to start a simpler life on Earth, the flash forward to modern robotics also emphasized the show’s themes: All this has happened before, and will again. So say we all.
4. “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” (CBS)
“Moore” never shied away from the world, and the series ended in the sad, inescapable way many jobs in corporate life do. The new owner of WJM fired the entire TV newsroom (well, except Ted), and the former co-workers came together to say goodbye. It felt moving and real, just like most of the series’ run.
3. “M*A*S*H” (CBS)
In a poignant, emotional and still top-rated finale, the 11-year run of M*A*S*H (eight years longer than the Korean War it depicted) came to an end as Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and (most of) the rest finally went home. The sometimes dark final episode, which manages one last “war is hell” moment, perfectly captured the spirit of the series.
2. “Newhart” (CBS)
As self-referential as modern TV has become, no show could possibly pull off a twist as shocking and on point as the finale of “Newhart.” After Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is hit in the head with a golf ball, the show cuts to Dr. Robert Hartley, Newhart’s character from his previous CBS series, “The Bob Newhart Show,” waking up from a dream in bed with his wife from that series (Suzanne Pleshette). So all eight seasons of “Newhart,” set in a Vermont inn, were Hartley’s dream. It’s a finale so famous, it overshadows memory of the rest of the series.
1. “Six Feet Under” (HBO)
“Six Feet Under” was always about facing our own mortality (it was, after all, set at a family-run funeral-home business), and the near-perfect finale faced the great beyond head-on in its excruciatingly beautiful last sequence, which jumped ahead to the deaths of all the main characters, whether predictable, tragic or absurd. Every series finale that’s used the flash-forward technique owes a great debt to “Six Feet.”
The worst TV series finales of all time
5. “Dexter” (Showtime)
The serial-killer drama started to decline long before its much-derided finale, but that didn’t help soften the blow of Dexter’s (Michael C. Hall) bizarre decision to fake his own death and take up life as a somber lumberjack. The issues with this finale are only slightly abated by a lackluster revival on Showtime in 2021.
4. “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
The problem with the “Thrones” finale is that it was too twee in some ways and too bizarre in others. The episode, set over too long a timeline, betrayed the dark realism and unjust world the series spent eight years building. A happy ending rarely works on TV dramas, and it especially didn’t work here.
3. “Lost” (ABC)
A show that weaved as many mysteries into its fabric as this supernatural drama did was always bound to dissatisfy some with its conclusion, but the easy, schmaltzy way that the series gave everyone a perfect happy ending in the afterlife was the worst choice.
2. “Seinfeld” (NBC)
The show about nothing gave itself one of the biggest anticlimaxes of all time with its questionable finale. The decision to end the beloved sitcom about a group of New York misanthropes by putting them in jail for being bad Samaritans is now more than 20 years old, but age hasn’t helped it.
1. “How I Met Your Mother” (CBS)
The finale of the sitcom was legendary, but for all the wrong reasons. The episode finally introduced Ted (Josh Radnor) to the mother (Cristin Milioti) of his future children and then, in a series of flash-forwards, proceeded to kill her off and have Ted rekindle his relationship with Robin (Cobie Smulders) after she divorced Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). Had the show not already established that Ted and Robin were a bad couple, and had it not set the entire last season at Robin and Barney’s wedding, it might have been able to pull off this ending. Instead, it marked an example of a series that mapped out a plan from the beginning but shouldn’t have stuck to it.