I don’t like it when a show I love comes to an end. These days with streaming, there are so many TV shows to watch but so many finales. More importantly, with streaming we can enjoy so many great TV shows from years past. Below is our list the best TV finales of all time.
Our list is in no particular order… our picks for shows that ended just right.
Friday Night Lights
Friday Night Lights, Season 5, Episode 13, “Always”
Written by Jason Katims
Directed by Michael Waxman
Aired February 9th, 2011 on DirecTV
Friday Night Lights had a unique journey, to say the least. Based on the novel of the same name, which was adapted into a film first, the series premiered in 2007 on NBC to critical praise but didn’t manage to find a significant audience. NBC supported the series, bringing it back for a truncated season two (courtesy of the Writers Strike), but season three seemed unlikely to happen until NBC worked out a deal with DirecTV to cost-share the series, renewing it for season three, and then in one fell swoop, four and five. Because of this rocky road, the creators actually ended up crafting three separate episodes intended to function as series finales, season one’s “State”, season three’s “Tomorrow Blues”, and season five’s “Always”. Many series struggle to create a meaningful series finale. Jason Katims and the Friday Night Lights team made three.
Each of these episodes are emotional, eventful, and forward looking, and each feature fantastic writing, acting, directing, production, and just about everything else, but what sets “Always” apart as the greatest of these is its far more personal central conflict. Throughout the run of Friday Night Lights, the one staple of the series has been the Eric and Tami Taylor relationship. They’re unshakeable, occasionally getting into fights or dealing with other marital conflicts, but underneath that, ever-confident in their bond and the knowledge that they will come out the other side. The final arc of season five for the first and only time puts this relationship in question and more than Jason’s injury in the pilot, more than characters leaving or returning, more than the loss of the Dillon Panthers, this leaves the viewers at sea, unable to see the path ahead.
What makes this arc work so amazingly well is its honesty- there’s never a question of Eric and Tami’s love for each other, there’s never a sense of destruction, anger, or spite. The conflict (which, in a rare and appreciated move, has a right and a wrong solution) is one of ego and sacrifice, built out of everything we’ve come to know about these characters. Will Eric sacrifice his career for Tami, or will Tami sacrifice hers for Eric, yet again? Eric has many positive traits (mostly positive traits, actually), but he’s also stubborn. He’s single-focused and tenacious and very used to getting his way. On the field, this is essential. In this moment of his life, it’s destructive. The question isn’t will they separate, it’s will Tami be diminished- will she lose respect for Eric and have to try to swallow bitterness for the rest of their lives. Both Connie Britton and Kyle Chandler play this beautifully, and the underlying threads of hard choices, fresh starts, and the importance of fighting for the meaningful relationships in one’s life are felt throughout the finale.
The most powerful scene in this episode is not the football, it’s not the goodbyes or declarations of love, it’s the dinner between Eric, Tami, Julie, and Matt, punctuated by Tami and Eric’s moment outside the restaurant. That dinner is a scene depicted time and again in television and film- the young kids want to get married, the adults think they’re not ready (see this fall’s Welcome to the Family for the typical, pedestrian version). Underneath the familiar lecture, we get an examination of each of these relationships. We see in Julie (thanks in part to the fantastic choice to give her full-on Tami hair during Matt’s proposal) a young Tami, choosing a different partner, but just as certain. We see the contrasts between Eric and Matt, who never had the kind of close bond Eric and Jason, and then Eric and Vince shared. We see Julie and Matt, but more importantly, we see Eric, unaware of the hypocrisy of his words, and Tami, in agreeance with Eric, but stung by his thoughtlessness while doing her very best to not let that through. It’s a complex, emotional moment showing the very best and worst of these characters, exploring the nature of relationships, commitment, and communication, and everything that comes with the decision to build a life and a family together.
If there’s a single theme of this finale, and by extension the series, it’s the one exemplified in that scene- family and everything that comes with. The one you’re born with, the one you choose, the one you stumble across by accident, it doesn’t matter. Eric and Tami. Julie and Matt. Julie and Grandma Saracen, Vince and his dad, Vince and Eric, Jess and Eric, Becky and Mindy, Tyra and Tim, Tim and Billy, the scenes continue, one after the other. Not every couple ends up happy and together, but in the closing scenes, they’re with their family, constructed or otherwise, aware of how important they are to each other and just how precious this awareness truly is. A lesser show would be weighed down by this kind of sincere sentimentality, but each moment in “Always” feels hugely, at times painfully, earned and the truthful emotion in each scene unmistakably shines through.
As ever in Friday Night Lights, respect and admiration for small town life and middle class realities fills every frame. The ring Matt proposes with, his Grandma’s, is beautiful, but small by TV standards. Luke enlists in the army after graduation, one of the few choices available to him that will take him away from the farmer’s life he dreads. Tim’s goals are simple, but will likely be a struggle none the less, one that he’s happy to take on and seems at peace with. Few other series would make these choices, and the underrepresentation in TV and film of the section of America featured here (the majority) is a frustrating problem that seems to be going nowhere.
There’s plenty of comedy throughout, with Matt’s request for Eric’s blessing a particular highlight, and many shoutouts to the pilot in particular and the series run in general. The gorgeous cinematography and opening shots, his and hers closets, the music from Explosions In The Sky and so many others, each of these touches give the finale an extra sense of closure. There’s been talk of a Friday Night Lights follow-up movie, but honestly, this is not a story that needs another chapter. Yes, almost every character is left just beginning a new phase of their life, but this is a near-perfect finale, and that sense of continuance, that these people’s lives haven’t ended when the camera turned away, is a wonderfully hopeful way to end our time with them. Friday Night Lights is one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, emotional series ever made, and “Always” exemplifies the very best of what the series was, and what television in general can be.
The Thick of It
The Thick of It Series 4, Episode 7
Written by Simon Blackwell, Sean Gray, Ian Martin, Tony Roche, Will Smith
Directed by Tony Roche
Original airdate October 27, 2012
For four seasons and two specials, The Thick of it, acted as a strange hybrid between The West Wing and The Office. Some might argue that The Thick of it is technically better than either of those shows (this writer included), and the final episode proves why.
With bullet fast dialogue and intensely good acting (you’ll always be Malcolm Tucker to us Peter Capaldi), The Thick of it thrust viewers into a behind the scenes look at British government, often focusing on the barely functioning fictional Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship and the two ministers that run the department, first Hugh Abbot (Chris Langham) and later Nicola Murray (the painfully funny Rebecca Front). They are “helped” by aides Ollie Reeder (Chris Addison), Terri Coverley (Joanna Scanlan), and Glenn Cullen (Jamie Smith). Barely holding them all together is fierce, aggressive, and inventively foul mouthed Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) who works as the director of communications for the government.
The Thick of it was on for four seasons in which time we got two specials and a film, 2009’s In the loop. Each season saw Malcolm, the show’s de facto protagonist, struggling to hold his party together. He was dedicated almost to a fault and in the end he makes a huge sacrifice to save that party. Usually when a show decides to send it’s protagonist to prison it would feel like a cop out or a weak ending but for such an effective and strong character like Malcolm the ending seems rather fitting.
His final raw and emotional tirade delivered to Ollie centered on his political collapse and realization that he’s really just a shell. He’s given up everything and changed who he was to be the crass, unrelenting man he is now. It’s a brilliant moment, as is the scene when Malcolm and his lawyer race to escape the press. Only The Thick of it could make such a dire situation so absurdly funny.
Capaldi will soon be best known for his upcoming run as the Doctor on the new season of Doctor Who and as exciting as that will be watching him play Malcolm Tucker is an absolute thrill. He lays everything on the table, every outburst, every rage fueled rant you know is covering something else up. There is a clearly defined sadness with Malcolm but Capaldi plays him so well that even his harsh, vicious streak is somehow enduring.
Some might fault episode seven for being too pessimistic for a series finale but in reality it’s perfect. For a show that always felt consistently real there are no happy endings, no final grand stands or elegant speeches. Its just people doing whatever they have to do to fix whatever terrible situation they’ve gotten themselves into. It’s honest, raw, brutally funny, and exceptionally well crafted from beginning to end. Just like the show’s too short run.
That 70’s Show
In this decade it’s extremely difficult to find a sitcom that is as perfect as That ‘70s Show was. This show was, and still is, one of the best coming of age/high school set sitcoms (after Freaks and Geeks of course). It’s probably not the first finale that comes to mind when thinking about greatest television finales; but for me it’s way up there.
With good vibes, brilliant writing, and excellent characters that actually evolve That ‘70s Show is, to me, the ideal sitcom. What starts off as a comedy centered on the ‘70s, with a boy with mistaken ideals and a lack of confidence, soon turns into a series of memories, with six characters who weren’t adults but conflicted and hilarious teenagers who have an entire decade to figure out who they are and what exactly it is they should do with their lives.
The show had an excellent cast, brilliant cameos, and a number of hilarious running gags, as well as great references to a number of television shows and films. The dynamic characters shared were absolutely fantastic and the show never failed to entertain its viewers. That ‘70s Show also maintained the correct balance of emotion and comedy, something a lot of contemporary sitcoms struggle with today.
Arguably there was a decline in quality when both Ashton Kutcher and Topher Grace departed before the final season, but it was never terrible, in the way that The Simpsons is now unbearable for me to watch. Their replacements – Bret Harrison as Charlie and Josh Meyers as Randy – weren’t great, and some of the storylines (Hyde’s stripper wife, and Jackie and Fez becoming a couple) suggested they were running out of ideas, but the finale really makes up for these weaker seasons.
The finale for That ‘70s Show is actually two episodes. The first is “Love of My Life”, the funnier of the two, and “That ‘70s Finale”, which feels more like an ode to the show that provides hilarity through memories of the greater seasons. The first episode features guest star Justin Long as a good friend of Fez’s. Staying faithful to a running gag, his appearance fails to provide any clues of which mysterious country Fez calls home. Meanwhile, in a fun subplot, Hyde decides to quit smoking weed, leading the rest of the gang to do what they usually do when a friend is in need. That ’70s Show‘s best days are behind it, but “Love of My Life” is a worthy entry with several moments of hilarity and excellent dialogue.
The second half of the two-episode finale, appropriately titled “That ‘70s Finale”, focuses on something beautifully simple to bring the show to a close, the gang celebrating New Years Eve and the end of an era. Its clear things really are coming to an end as the characters rush to resolve their troubles just in time for the midnight countdown. By the end of the night Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red (Kurtwood Smith) decide against moving to Florida, Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) and Jackie (Mila Kunis) successfully evolve their relationship from being friends to an item, Kelso comes back to visit for New Year’s, and Donna waits for Eric’s arrival before leaving for college. The time of Eric’s arrival and that tearful goodbye become the driving plot, and crucial moment of the finale.
In the past, a number of finales have chosen to incorporate flashbacks, but none of them have done it as well as That ‘70s Show. A very huge part of the show’s comedy is hysterical running jokes and we get to revisit their greatness through a number tightly edited montages. Particular favorites include returning to many times Hyde (Danny Masterson) hit Kelso and the several times Red threatened to put his foot in everybody’s ass. (The show should also be applauded for its continuity, as Fez tries to draw over Michael’s graffiti on the Water Tower.)
Ending this perfect finale, we see the last “circle” moment, where Hyde remembers a car that run on water (an obvious homage to “That ‘70s Pilot”), and the countdown begins. Instead of showing us them all hugging and celebrating, when the countdown reaches one, the scene abruptly changes the license plate logo with the new year, 1980. Finally, the credits are exactly the same as they were in the pilot episode – the gang riding along in the Vista Cruiser singing Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”.
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season
Star Trek: The Next Generation Season 7, Episodes 25 & 26 ‘All Good Things…”
Written by Ronald D. Moore & Brannon Braga
Directed by Winrich Kolbe
There comes a time when all things must come to a close, and when it happens all one can truly hope for is that this closure in some way lends the satisfaction to assuage the loss. It seems like a strange notion now, when every fictional story has to have an “epic conclusion” whether it be Batman, Lost or Harry Potter, but there used to be a time when one could wrap up a fable by essentially allowing it to continue off-camera. Rather than simply tear up the universe established by years’ worth of scribbling and shooting, that world could simply be allowed to carry on. The characters wouldn’t die, we’d just be saying goodbye. One of these shows, an iconic slice of visionary television ambition (read philosophically adjusted re-hash), took this seemingly indecisive tact and delivered one of the most satisfying small screen finales ever.
The fact that Star Trek: The Next Generation even got that far is something of a small miracle. After Gene Roddenbury’s original series was canned in the 1960’s without a chance to wrap things up (the show’s latter popularity and immortality was due to syndication and the success of the movies), there must have been a feeling that TNG would follow a similar path after a wobbly first couple of seasons. All of the things that made Star Trek so vulnerable to mockery were still clearly evident; the bizarre costumes, hokey concepts, often stilted dialogue, and the sense that a show with pretensions of moral and philosophical wisdom spent too much time milking ideas straight out of 50’s B-movie fodder. What got the show through its ‘darker’ era, those very grand notions finally emerging through male miniskirts and tar monsters, were the elements that let it grow, develop its potential and reach a point where the final episode was not just pre-planned, but also a huge event.
And so it all came to the perfectly named ‘All Good Things…’, the last episode of the seventh season and the last time the crew of the Enterprise-D would share the screen (at least on TV). Instead of going for Borg invasions or intergalactic wars in the same manner as fellow successors Deep Space 9 and Voyager, instead a self contained story was picked out that stayed true to the ethos of the show – episodic and standalone segments spinning yarns built on mind-bending flights of imaginative fancy with future-science as the cipher – as well as paying tribute to past glories. Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard is faced with saving humanity from destruction, but in order to do so must manage his consciousness as it travels between three different time periods and figure out exactly what will cause oblivion, how to stop it, and just why his mind is being made to travel. It’s just another day at the office on board the Enterprise.
Except, in many ways, it’s not; while All Good Things doesn’t try to take on scale or threat to dwarf any other episode in the show’s run, crucially it does so with the knowledge that this is the final chapter, maybe not for the crew but certainly for the audience. The plot concept is clearly a time tested one, a spec script left in the vault and only tended to by occasional re-writes, and is one of the tightest and most ingenious that the writers ever managed to produce, a great piece of science-fiction theorizing rife with motifs and recurrent mathematical and symbolic themes (the episode’s title has a double meaning) that could easily have been the making of a celebrated novel. Indeed, it was clearly the inspiration behind the much celebrated ‘Lost’ episode ‘The Constant’. This, however, is not what makes for the feelings of finale. Instead, there is an intelligent and affectionate attention paid towards the cast, making them the real subject of the episode. For a show that often neglected characterization in favor of narrative, it seems appropriate that TNG would pick the last minute to actually treat the crew like real people.
It’s what makes the lack of ‘epic-sauce’ so acceptable and quite admirable. In the three time lines presented (Picard’s first mission on the ship; the show’s ‘present’; a future where Picard is retired and stricken by an ‘Alzheimer’s like medical condition), the real subject for drama is the relationships between the crew, particularly in a future where they have grown apart and, in the case of Riker and Worf, become slaves to bitter feuding. The past sets up the start of a bond that would last seven years, introducing these characters as if new, while the present represents the best period of their friendships and is the perfect time to take steps to avoid these ties falling apart.
At the centre of all this is John de Lancie’s Q, the mischievous nonlinear being with Godlike powers and Troll-like sensibilities. In a perfect bookend to the show’s opener, he returns to conclude the trial of mankind with a fervent guilty verdict. To somewhat harshly curtail this summary, the anomaly which truly is the episode’s MacGuffin takes over as the villain as it snakes its way backwards through time to snuff out our race at its conception. Like in the first episode ‘Encounter at Farpoint’, however, it is clear that Q simply has an infuriating way of educating and helping, giving the representative of the human race (Picard, as far as Q is concerned) a gentle push with one hand while slapping him with the other. This masked faith is redeemed as Picard, against all odds, successfully saves the day and is returned to his reality with an important lesson learned. Several, in fact. The finale finally qualifies Q’s true and undoubted stance; he is distrustful of humanity, sees them as a self-indulgent blight, but knows they have potential. Until it is fulfilled, he will simply toy with them to make sure they take the right path.
This all makes for an oddly cathartic experience, one that mystifies and intrigues with its science and then warms the heart with its heart and subtext. The final scene is not a CGI fest, it is simply the main cast playing poker and facing further adventures and likely a brighter future. It might be controversial to conclude the show by…not concluding it, but somehow there’s something more enjoyable about knowing they are still out there, exploring strange new worlds during their trek through the stars. Considering that the show rarely ever leaned heavily on serialized storytelling, this is perfectly appropriate. All we saw were their adventures, not their full lives. And through them we learned something more about our own lives, our own morality, and about what the world can bring.
With a tight and intricate final chapter and touching epilogue, The Next Generation put the cherry atop the icing and justified its own occasional hokiness. Flawed, divisive, but pure science-fiction and the perfect ending to the story.
The Wire, Season 5, Episode 10, ‘-30-‘
Story by David Simon and Ed Burns (Teleplay by David Simon)
Directed by Clark Johnson
Aired 3/9/2008 on HBO
How do you end a series like The Wire? On the face of it, there doesn’t seem a right way. Although confined to one city, one police department, one set of crumbling streets, HBO’s shambolic, sprawling masterpiece followed so many stories, so many roads to ruin, twisted these together in so many unexpected and glorious ways that sixty short minutes couldn’t ever do justice to the whole.
Better not to even try. The big moments happened long before we reached Episode 10 of Series 5: Stringer dead, Omar dead, Bodie dead, Michael corrupted. Those arcs were completed one by one as the seasons progressed: only the shooting of Omar, itself an anticlimax, took place in the closing episodes of the series. In The Wire most people ended with a bang, but even the shot which killed Omar wasn’t much of a surprise.
The whole season was something of an oddity. After Season 4’s tense delivery of the rise of Marlo Stanfield, the murder victims hidden in the row houses, the turning of Bodie and the return of McNulty to the Serious Crimes Unit, you might have expected the story line to continue to focus on the corners. Instead it takes a swerve into the world of the media, specifically the Baltimore Sun, an ailing city paper which becomes the method by which McNulty attempts to divert resources back into the Stanfield investigation. This element of the story – McNulty faking a serial killer and duping a journalist into printing it – never really rings true and you sense that the series creators (themselves originally journalists) had scores which could only be settled with this newspaper strand. It doesn’t really work and distracts attention from the meat of the story, which has to do with the gradual exposure of the corruption at the heart of the Baltimore PD, the eventual entrapment of Stanfield, and the inexorable political rise of Tommy Carcetti, a man so teflon coated you could use him to fry eggs without fear of raising a blister.
By the time the series winds to a close, what needs to be done has been done. Stanfield is out of the trade and on his way to achieving Stringer’s dream of respectability. McNulty is finally finished with BPD. He lies drunk on a pool table, smiling at the ceiling, listening to his eulogy. Brother when you were good, you were the best we had.
Fitting words also to celebrate the passing of The Wire, which could reasonably lay claim to the title of best television drama of all time. And as for the true finale, that’s squeezed into the last five minutes of the episode. McNulty gets out of his car and gazes over the city. In a montage, we see how everything and nothing has changed. Gangs work the corners, poh-lice usher ten year old runners into patrol cars, corrupt officials get promoted, so do the honest. The Greeks continue to import drugs into the city. The hapless continue to use them. The message is that there is little we can do to change our destiny. Accidents of birth and dumb luck are the overriding factors which determine which of us sink and which of us swim. People are people, runs the refrain. It doesn’t matter what you do to combat the drug trade: wipe out crack and meth will take its place. Wipe out meth and the vicodin pillmills will rumble into action. For whatever reason, a substantial fraction of us need chemicals to soften the edges of reality. If we can’t get that legally, we’ll go somewhere else.
But there is one ray of hope in all that inevitability, in the cycles that threaten to crush us all (notice how the last murder scene we see is at the same location as the first). The final montage includes a shot of Bubbles – hopeless addict, multiple relapser, dude who seemed condemned to spend the miserable few years left to him on the planet huddled in a blanket, one hand extended, repeating the mantra spare change. In this shot, Bubbles, in chinos and a sparklingly clean shirt, runs up a set of stairs. He sits down to dinner with his sister and niece. Heads bowed, they say grace. Bubbles has made it out of the hole. If he can, anyone can whispers the subtext. In the midst of darkness, there is light: McNulty completes his scan of the city skyline, and gets back in the car – and as the shot fades, he drives away.
Homicide: Life on the Street
Homicide: Life on the Street
Episode 7.22 “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”
Written by Tom Fontana
Directed by Alan Taylor
Aired 5/21/1999 on NBC
Homicide: Life on the Street was created as a show about “thinking cops” with actors who didn’t fit the typical mold for network TV. They were overweight, balding, and dressed like real cops. The landmark television series was highly influential and set the stage for captivating shows like The Wire and The Shield. By the time it reached its seventh season, Homicide had changed dramatically from its original format. The basic model of investigating murders remained, but the cast was younger and prettier. Even so, original cast members Clark Johnson (Lewis), Kyle Secor (Bayliss), Yaphet Kotto (Giardello), and Richard Belzer (Munch) kept it from feeling too much like a departure. The final season was its most inconsistent and had low points that you wouldn’t expect. The killings were more sensational, and action scenes became more commonplace.
Even with those misfires, there are still plenty of interesting story lines during the last episodes. Bayliss returns after a gunshot wound and has a more Zen outlook to life. This calmer approach is frequently tested, and it comes to a head by the finale. Giardello’s son Michael (Giancarlo Esposito) joins the squad and has issues to work out with his dad. Lewis loses faith in his partner Sheppard (Michael Michele) after she loses her gun and gets beaten down. The last arc is typical of this season and doesn’t totally work, but the actors sell the material. Even when the writing lets them down, the cast remains strong right up until the end. It’s that personal connection with the actors that has made Homicide so beloved 20 years after its premiere.
Entitled “Forgive Us Our Trespasses”, the season finale has effective callbacks to both the pilot and key moments throughout the series. Bayliss deals with the limits of the job when the serial killer Luke Ryland (Benjamin Busch) is set free due to a technicality. He’s always gotten more personally involved in cases than his colleagues, and that approach creates a dangerous obsession if it isn’t controlled. Ryland taunts Bayliss about his future activities, and he starts to reconsider if right and wrong is such a clear delineation. A counterpoint is Giardello, who loves running the Homicide Unit. This joy clashes with his career aspirations, so he finally decides to take a promotion into Property Crimes. Unlike Bayliss, he has no doubts about what they do. The detectives speak for those who can’t and face the demons that come with the job. His challenge is recognizing that moving up the ladder might destroy his identity as a cop.
Creator Tom Fontana wrote this episode, which moves briskly to the poignant finale scene. That ending closely mirrors the show’s very first shots and uses the same line from Lewis while examining a body. “That’s what’s wrong with this job; it a’int got nothing to do with life.” Fontana gives the best moments to his original actors – Kyle Secor, Clark Johnson, and Richard Belzer. Munch is getting married to Billie Lou (Ellen McElduff), and the comic scenes are perfect for Belzer. He also thrives in the dramatic moments. Even without knowing for sure what happens to Ryland, it isn’t hard to discern who’s responsible. The key moment is Bayliss’ conversation with Munch about the police shooting from back in the third season. That violent moment was the first time the creators used a gun fight on the show. It helped to change the tone, but it also delivered powerful reactions from the characters. Bayliss was the investigator on that shooting, and his understanding of what likely happened plays a key role in his decision. Belzer plays the discussion perfectly and shows the difference between Munch and Bayliss. Avenging his fellow detectives was a no brainer for Munch, while Bayliss agonizes about his choice.
Despite the issues with the seventh season, Homicide concludes on a very strong note. Its original mission statement to delve into the emotional turmoil faced by Homicide detectives remains in place. Watching an angry Bayliss decide what’s right perfectly fits with this perspective. As the camera lifts up to the sky during the final shot, it’s clear that these characters will continue to speak for the dead. Lewis and Munch are perfect examples of guys who have just the right mentality to face the evil inside everyone. Bayliss is a different type of guy and risks succumbing to his demons. The rapid montage of shots from throughout the series as Bayliss exits the stage is brilliant and exemplifies Homicide’s ultimate success. It’s a thankless job with incredible barriers, yet these guys keep plugging away to discover the truth.
Homicide never had big ratings and was always on the verge of cancellation, but NBC recognized the benefit of airing such a critically acclaimed series. Even so, it was still surprising when they decided to present a two-hour movie continuing the story. The gimmick is bringing back all the main cast members from the entire seven-year run. It doesn’t completely work due to the huge number of actors to squeeze into the movie. Even so, seeing Bayliss and Frank Pembleton (Andre Braugher) together is a treat. Their chemistry as partners drove the show during its glory days. Bayliss’ actions in the finale are a weight on his soul, and Pembleton is the right choice for a confession. The movie is also worth seeing for the final scene, which brings back several dead characters. That moment strikes just the right note and justifies the existence of this film. It reunites old friends and is a remarkable gift to the show’s longtime fans.
6 Feet Under
Six Feet Under, Season 5, Episode 12, “Everyone’s Waiting”
Written and directed by Alan Ball
Aired August 21st, 2005 on HBO
During its five seasons of television, Six Feet Under managed to craft a narrative that was evocative, emotional, heart-rending, and humorous. Alan Ball’s funeral home drama was a show that had a very unique voice, one that spoke to the splintered facets of the heart and mind with equal weight and power. So when the time came for Six Feet Under to take its rightful place in the dirt and dust for good, it was with a finality that echoed into eternity.
Much like the hefty themes that Six Feet Under spent much of its 63 hours wrestling with, the final episode was not content in just going for a simple, streamlined conclusion. Instead, Ball and co. created an entire final season that led up to this particular endgame. It began with a series of storylines that reiterated and redefined the Fisher clan and their circle in preparation for the end, before culminating in a series of shocking twists that set the stage for the final curtain, the most shocking of which was the death of the series’ central character, Nate Fisher.
Occurring three episodes before the finale, Nate’s demise was the ultimate bookend for a show that centered almost entirely around the idea of death. Though the looming possibility of Nate’s death had been telegraphed from as early as season 2, the writers allowed it to simmer for a long time before reaping the fruit of what they’d planted, which allowed for a brutal revelation that was as polarizing in its execution as it was in its suddenness. The fact that it was allowed to breathe, even in the suffocating wake that it left, was a masterstroke, as it was treated with the same sense of reflection that Six Feet Under had always attached to the concept of death and grief, only compounded further by the added time and importance of such a heady death rattle.
With the stage set, Everyone’s Waiting was left to follow through on this promise and guide the show down its final fateful path. There was plenty going on in the Fisher family even before Nate flatlined, with David still reeling from PTSD, Claire faced with the choice of leaving her home behind, and Ruth struggling with her new husband’s dementia. These events gained further gravity in the reflection of Nate’s ghost, even as they became momentarily irrelevant. The reverberating point of Six Feet Under remained undeterred even by such a catastrophic occurrence as this: that life must continue on.
So the finale is not about the death of Nate Fisher, but about his family and friends saying their goodbyes to him. It is his funeral that stands as the centerpiece of the finale, a poetic revelation that is only further cemented by its rhyming synchronicity with the first episode and the start of the series. Six Feet Under opens with the death of the Fisher patriarch, Nathaniel, and its consequences on the family, then closes five years later with the death of his son, a character who even shares the same name as his progenitor.
There are a bevy of powerful and illuminating scenes in “Everyone’s Waiting”, but the crux of the narrative is carried by the youngest of the Fishers, Claire. Haunted by the ever-present ghost of Nate, she finds herself in the very same predicament that a young Nate once faced: the idea of chasing her destiny and leaving her family behind, or remaining in a place where she may be needed, but cannot feel fulfilled. Even as she makes her decision to leave, she is trying to hold on to her past, hoping to snap a picture of her family in the moments before she takes her leave. Just before she pushes the camera’s shutter, though, Nate appears over her shoulder: “You can’t take a picture of this—it’s already gone.” This is the message of Six Feet Under put as clearly and succinctly as possible. As Claire drives away, she sees the ghost of Nate in her side-mirror, but drives on, even as she breaks down in tears.
This leads to Six Feet Under‘s crowning achievement, a powerful montage of life and death in equal measure. As Sia’s gorgeously melancholic song “Breathe Me” envelopes the soundscape, we watch every character that we’ve followed for the last five years live out the remainder of their lives before succumbing to the eventuality of the grave. David and Keith marry, Claire becomes a successful artist, Brenda nurtures her daughter, and Federico opens a funeral home of his own. Then it all fades away, as it must. It’s a bittersweet conclusion, one that is as heartening and inspiring as it is utterly crushing. It is the human condition in all its glory and folly, signed, sealed, and delivered over a mere five minutes of wordless screen time.
It’s Six Feet Under to a tee, and much like its cast, it reminds us, even as it fades away, just how much it meant to us.
My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life (1994), Season 1, Episode 19, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”
Written by Winnie Holzman
Directed by Elodie Keene
Aired January 26th, 1995 on ABC
My So-Called Life celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, marking two decades of its influence as a cultural touchstone. It’s a small show, one that was canceled after one season by ABC, but the power of My So-Called Life continued on way past its initial airing to become a part of the way television tells stories about teenage life. Creator Winnie Holzman, armed with a cast of young newcomers led by the expressive, lip-quivering Claire Danes, made something timeless (apart from the ’90s fashion choices). My So-Called Life endures thanks to Holzman’s vision for the show, one that dared to treat its teenagers like people.
My So-Called Life is high school at its most brutal, and most arresting. The show follows Angela Chase, a 15 year-old girl slowly starting to discover independence and maturity, moving through childhood right into the beautiful brokenness of teenage life. Her mother and father, Patty and Graham, are supportive, nurturing and infuriating, as all parents are. Angela’s little sister Danielle annoys her to no end but also deeply wants to be like her big sister. Angela’s friendships fall into two categories: the friends she’s had all her life, that are safe and comfortable, and more recent friends who dare her to be brave and aid her in her exploration of a new identity as a teenager. Sharon and Brian, the safe, comfortable friends, fade in and out of her life as the series progresses, and Rickie and Rayanne, the newer friends, introduce her to danger and expand her world beyond her parents’ house. And in the background of everything there’s Jordan Catalano, object of Angela’s high school crush and the template upon which all other mysterious high school bad boys are based. Jordan Catalano, he of flannel, piercing eyes, and an expert locker lean, is the biggest part of Angela’s transition into teenage life as the pair navigate their relationship with one another.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” was never meant to serve as a series finale for My So-Called Life, but is a fitting final entry for a show that dealt with high school so candidly. Storylines aren’t tied neatly with bows and ribbons; relationships are still messy (or get messier). The whole cast doesn’t skip off into the sunset, singing an inspirational anthem. There’s a palpable sense of confusion and doubt: what will happen after this moment? What will happen tomorrow now that things are different? “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” avoids easy answers, and allows viewers and the characters to sit in the uncomfortable, vulnerable space of uncertainty that all teenagers know well.
The connecting thread of the series finale deals with truth and identity. The teenage characters of My So-Called Life are right in the midst of discovering who they are, and yet they are oblivious to the importance of this time. Rather than feeling excited about who they are becoming, they feel like every shift in identity threatens to break them. The insecurity is palpable on screen, as every character is struggling with the push-pull between conformity and honesty. Rickie, who is coming to terms with his identity as a gay man, learns about a crush Delia has on him and sees the crush as his chance to be straight, to blend in and be “normal.” Sharon and Rayanne discover the depth of their friendship after avoiding each other because of their well-established reputations. Brian is overcome by his feelings for Angela, too afraid to act on them and yet paralyzed by them all the same. He tutors Jordan, who himself is trying to win Angela back, and reluctantly agrees to help Jordan by feeding him the perfect words.
My So-Called Life is Angela’s show, but “In Dreams Begins Responsibilities” belongs fully to Brian Krakow. His crush on Angela is well-documented and well-worn territory for My So-Called Life, and yet the series finale brings it to a poignant head. Brian writes Angela a letter, the kind of letter that practically bleeds it’s so personal, and gives it to Jordan to pass it off as his own.
Dear Angela, I know in the past I’ve caused you pain and I’m sorry. And I’ll always be sorry ‘til the day I die.
And I hate this pen I’m holding because I should be holding you. I hate this paper under my hand because it isn’t you. I even hate this letter because it’s not the whole truth. Because the whole truth is so much more than a letter can even say.
If you want to hate me, go ahead. If you want to burn this letter, do it. You could burn the whole world down; you could tell me to go to hell. I’d go, if you wanted me to. And I’d send you a letter from there.
Angela is blown away by the letter, and runs swiftly into Jordan’s arms, this being the exact gesture she needed from him to rekindle their relationship. She mentions to all her friends how different Jordan is than she thought, how he’s deeper and truer than she expected. All the while, Brian stands off to the side, his heart breaking. He confesses to Rickie that he’s the author of the letter, and Rickie lets it slip to Angela, who feels betrayed.
In the last scene of the episode, Angela confronts Brian about the letter. Brian evades like a champ, fluttering from lie to lie, so on edge about Angela discovering the truth. Angela moves from anger to the disappointed sense that Brian and Jordan have been playing a cruel trick on her, messing with her emotions just to see how she’ll react. “I can’t believe I fell for it! It’s obviously a total lie,” she says. “No, I meant every word,” Brian almost whispers, then immediately realizes what he’s done and begins to backtrack, but Angela has heard him.
“In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” doesn’t end with Brian Krakow and Angela Chase riding off into the sunset together. Angela still gets in the car with Jordan, and Brian is left in the dark street by himself, but a profound shift has happened. This huge secret between them has become common knowledge, and that’s not something either of them can brush off easily the following Monday morning. Their relationship will never be the same, and the gravitas of that change hangs in the air between them as they go their separate ways. It’s a deeply powerful ending, an ending that feels like a conclusion of sorts but also leaves the show wide-open for infinite stories that stretch far into the future, as the characters of My So-Called Life continue to learn and mature.
Pieces of My So-Called Life exist in every single person’s high school experience, from the triumphs to the tragedies, heightened by hormones and how immediate everything seems, how each heartbreak magnifies, how each mistake is a betrayal. It’s a show that acts as a time machine, catapulting viewers back to the 15 year-old version of themselves, because it so honestly captures the essence of being in high school.
We are Jordan, detached yet so desperate to be liked. We are Brian, insecure and brilliant, pining over our best friends. We are Rayanne, in pain and every day working on forgiving others and ourselves. We are Rickie, afraid of rejection, finding support in unlikely places. We are Sharon, polished and put-together and terrified of admitting we’re not perfect. And we are Angela, thinking and over-thinking, trying to understand the world around us and find our own voices.
My So-Called Life may have only lasted for 19 episodes, but it is a profound meditation on youth and adulthood and the messy, beautiful in-between stages. Every unanswered question, every moment of vulnerability, every atom of teenage existence is documented in My So-Called Life, and “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” is a worthy series finale for a little show that still has so much to say about growing up.
Battlestar Galactica (2003), Season 4, Episodes 21-22, “Daybreak”
Written by Ronald D. Moore
Directed by Michael Rymer
Aired March 13th and 20th, 2009 on SyFy
Battlestar Galactica’s stirring, epic finale is one of the worst and most hated in recent years, if the internet is to be believed. As with Lost, whose finale aired the year after and received similar blowback (read Randy’s thoughts on it here), fans had spent years trying to puzzle out the mysteries behind BSG’s central mythology and in the finale, they expected closure, which for many meant answers. The show had different plans. There is no right or wrong way to appreciate art, and it’s understandable that fans who watched BSG, or Lost for that matter, purely for its intriguing mythology were left cold by a finale that offered simple answers when it gave any and instead prioritized the characters’ personal journeys. What these disappointed fans are overlooking, however, is just how fitting this sprawling, operatic finale is to the emotional, philosophical series that preceded it.
A word about the ending. There’s a frustratingly prevalent notion among TV fans that the final episodes, or as in this case, final moments, of a television show somehow determine the quality or value of the series as a whole. In this case, Ronald D. Moore chose to end Battlestar Galactica not with any of the characters or even with the titular ship, but instead with a rather didactic flashforward to present-day Earth and finally, a painfully hokey montage of then-current robots set to Jimmy Hendricks’ cover of “All Along the Watchtower”. It’s a misstep, one driven by the urge to give fans an answer they want (why Hera was so important after all) instead of something the show needs. Others dislike the colonists’ decision to abandon what remains of their technology and live simply, off the land, a legitimate complaint. Neither of these controversial decisions, however, negate the two entertaining and emotional hours of finale that lead up to them.
Battlestar Galactica is an intense and thrilling, but highly philosophical show, and the finale stays true to this. The series’ first line of dialogue is, “Are you alive?”, and that curiosity about life and consciousness, the value or definition of a soul, the capability of the human spirit, and the morality of a people in desperate straits continues throughout the series. “Daybreak”, and the climax of the action in the CIC in particular, wonderfully explores several of these themes. The opera house visions guide Laura, Athena, Caprica, Baltar, and perhaps even Hera safely through the battle to the CIC, but Baltar’s speech to Cavil, negotiating a cease fire, comes entirely from him, fate as ever blending with free will. There’s the melding of the personal and political, when the fate of both humanity and the Cylons comes down not to negotiations or treaties, but Galen’s revenge on Tory, and a questioning of the definition of life itself, as Anders spits out lines of meaningless (to us) code, with specific, conversational messages embedded within.
Then there’s the religious component and the ever-present discussion of faith versus science. HeadSix and HeadBaltar are labeled angels by Baltar, as Starbuck was by Leoben in season four’s “The Road Less Traveled”. This is a sticking point for many, but fans who take issue with this are taking too literal an interpretation. Just as HeadBaltar tells us at the end of the episode that the force behind the mystical elements of the show isn’t God and that, “It doesn’t like that name”, “angel” feels like an approximation, and an appropriate one that this critic doesn’t understand the backlash against. In a series with visions that come true, ancient religious texts with roadmaps to lost cities, and regeneration, angels (or superintelligent aliens with technology so advanced it seems like magic) seem right at home.
Even more than its themes, “Daybreak” focuses intently on its characters. The three-part finale spends almost a full hour of its runtime in flashback, giving viewers their first significant look at any of the characters before the instigating events of the introductory miniseries. We see what put each of our leads on their paths to Galactica and how much, or little, each of them has changed over the course of the series. Moore’s willingness to linger with every member of such a large main cast is astonishing. The action comes, and in a big way, but rather than try to end such an epic journey by topping previous battle sequences and packing the finale with big moments, “Daybreak” opts for a string of quieter ones, those small in scope but enormously meaningful.
As we build to the main action setpiece, each flashback consists of no more than three people- Laura and her sisters. Baltar, Six, and his father. Kara, Zak, and Lee. Bill, Saul, and Ellen. Back on Galactica, it’s the same: Adama, Starbuck, and Anders, Laura and Doc Cottle, Athena and Karl. Each of these scenes are highly personal and filled with history. There’s too much going on and too many characters to follow to put any more than that together, and Moore understands this, keeping the focus tight. Each interaction leads directly to a scene later in the finale or in a few cases, functions as a goodbye, letting the characters and the audience begin the process of letting go.
That isn’t to say there aren’t big or expected moments. We get several rallying speeches from Adama, a series of badass action scenes, downright beautiful space battles, and each of our heroes gets a moment to shine, their scenes usually underscored by absolutely gorgeous music. We get payoffs not just for the Opera House visions and Starbuck’s Special Destiny, but several threads many didn’t expect to see resolved, or may have even forgotten about: Athena’s revenge on Boomer, Caprica and Baltar both seeing HeadSix and HeadBaltar, and perhaps most surprisingly and satisfyingly of all, Tyrol’s discovery of Tory’s airlocking of Cally. What makes each of these beats meaningful, however, are the personal stakes driving them. Without the slower, more introspective moments earlier, the bombastic climax would be little more than noise.
After the emotional and physical intensity of the climax, the lengthy denouement we get here is appropriate. This is the end not just to an episode, but a four season epic journey through the stars. It’s fitting that Moore splits his finale fairly evenly into flashback, climax, and coda; this gives us plenty of time to check in once more on our enormous cast and, as the best finales do, allow the audience to say goodbye. As mentioned above, this denouement is what most seems to aggravate viewers. There are a lot of nature shots, but after 74 episodes staring into the blackness of space, or the oppressive greyness of New Caprica, the explosion of color on Earth is beautiful. The colonists’ decision to abandon their ships takes a bit of rationalizing, but with the cycle of violence such an important theme of the series, and the ships so significantly damaged already and fuel nowhere to be found, this decision, and focus on drastically changing their fate, becomes easier to accept. More than anything, though, this final section gives us one lovely, emotional scene after another, providing moments of catharsis. This is a terrific cast, and they make the most of their material.
For some, Battlestar Galactica’s “Daybreak” will always be a disappointment. It’s not the finale they wanted and nothing will change that. For this viewer, it’s a beautiful, moving, exciting, and utterly fitting, if imperfect, ending to a fantastic series. One can only hope that over time, as more viewers discover, evaluate, and reevaluate the series and its conclusion, this tremendous finale will finally get its due.
LOST, Season 6, Episode 18: “The End”
Written by Damon Lindelof & Carlton Cuse
Directed by Jack Bender
Aired 5/23/2010 on ABC
It’s been three years since the LOST finale aired – but people are still bitter, given the Twitter reaction over the Breaking Bad series finale, which saw “The End” detractors flinging turds at Lindelof for no apparent reason except to do so. Like the 120 hours that came before it, “The End” was confusing, mysterious, and often frustrating – but when it came time to put its cards on the table, LOST pushed away from the quasi-mythological/spiritual narrative it had built for the last four seasons, and returned to spend some quality time with our protagonist, Jack Shepard. I’m talking, of course, about the final scene – which for some, is the most hated television scene in history. For myself (and others, I hope) it’s a reminder of how emotional television can actually be, remembering what LOST was really about: reconciliation – and of course, letting go.
Yes, there are many parts of “The End” that don’t quite work as well as intended: as our band of merry islanders split up to get a plane off the ground and defeat Locke once and for all, Lindelof and Cuse’s script stumbles trying to give dramatic and philosophical weight to the proceedings. There’s still the show’s trademark visual intensity, with Jack Bender’s direction constantly lifting scenes above their source material (the closeups of Desmond’s face as he uncorks the island’s source, the final Jack/Not Locke showdown), which itself is an action-packed mishmash of head-shaking moments (Whitmore’s whispers) and forced resolutions (a post-stabbing Jack making out with Kate on the rainy, rocky edges of the island).
Where “The End” finds its footing, oddly, is in the much-maligned “flash sideways” sequences – an ambitious endeavor that ultimately confused a lot of viewers once it’s meaning is revealed (I can’t count the amount of people who said “So everyone died on the plane crash?”, something the shot of the empty island over the credits didn’t help any). The problem with the flash-sideways were never the stories themselves – it was the lack of context, a lack of communicating to the audience that the show was narrowing its narrative focus, not widening it. People (including myself) searched for clues and answers that would never be in the flash-sideways: which some viewed as a drawn-out, cheap aversion exercise to string viewers along.
Was it? I like to think those sequences served a different purpose: by repeating old bits of story and showing a group of characters “in the dark” about their own lives, Lindelof and Cuse were showing the audience that these people, much as they had changed, were still healing. Letting go is a not an easy thing: whether it be a relationship, a new job, a town – or the end of one’s life. As humans, we’re oddly drawn to bitterness (hello, internet) and negativity, dwelling on the opportunities to isolate ourselves from the world and ignoring the things in life that really, truly unsettle us the most. This purgatory these characters are in during the flash-sideways is not just a spiritual one, focused on being mystical in that special LOST way: it’s about bringing attention back to the characters, reminding us all why they were damaged, and ended up on the island in the first place.
None of these stories was more important than Jack and Christian: their relationship defined the heart of LOST, the one bit of narrative it couldn’t leave hanging with a cliffhanger or unsatisfying resolution. And rather than have Christian appear as a vision, or some vicious manifestation of The Man in Black, the writers of LOST give Jack and his father the reconciliation they deserved, in the only place they could: somewhere in between this life and the next, in a place where Jack and the ones he loved (and in turn, the ones they loved) could all let go together.
Those final flash-sideways scenes reminded viewers why they grew so connected to these characters in the first place: these were damaged people who had found redemption in others, men and women who couldn’t come to terms with the biggest mistakes of their lives, most of which stemmed from parental relationships (Kate and her stepfather, Jack and his Dad, Locke/Sawyer and their fathers, etc etc). And how did they heal themselves? Together – as Jack one famously said, “we can either live together or we can die alone”; LOST was a story of self-redemption, showing us that life is nothing without the people we love, the ones who support us, anger us, and make us laugh (and in the case of Shannon and Sayid, the closest piece of attractive tail… even that still pisses me off). We’re nothing without our family: and for these merry band of plane crash survivors, they found that deep companionship in each other’s flaws and carefully-guarded shortcomings.
Next time you watch “The End”, put aside all the magical water drinking (no bathroom breaks in this episode? Really?) the brotherly feuds, and whatever the fuck happened to Walt and why he mattered. As much as it liked to parade these plots around, LOST was a show about the human soul, and how a damaged soul doesn’t have to be lost forever. With some love, some raw fish, and a lot of running through the woods in the rain, LOST is about how powerful love and forgiveness can be in a world filled with betrayal, corruption and regret – once we’ve learned how to forgive others (and more importantly, ourselves), we can finally let go and “move on”, together.
The Office (UK)
The Office (UK) Christmas Special
Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant
Aired December 26th and 27th, 2003 on BBC One
Before Americans swooned over Jim and Pam, viewers in the UK fell in love with The Office’s Tim and Dawn, laughed at the decidedly odd Gareth, and cringed at the odious David Brent. Unlike the remake that ran a whopping 201 episodes, this product of the British television model aired only two six-episode seasons and a two-hour Christmas Special finale. While the American series gave fans far more hours of entertainment, and explored its colorful cast of characters to a much greater extent, there’s an economy of story in the British original that makes it a much more truthful series, for better and worse, as perhaps best exemplified by its touching and hilarious series finale.
The finale opens a couple years after the events of the series two finale and not long after the show-within-the-show has aired. David Brent has a new job selling office cleaning supplies, and perhaps tampons, Dawn is still in Florida with her fiancé Lee, having overstayed their travel visa rather significantly, Gareth has slid easily into his role as the new boss and Tim is still at the same desk, now without a friend in the office. By outward appearances, David’s the most changed, with a failed single, an agent, and regular meet-and-greets due to his “celebrity” status, but what the finale gets so wonderfully right is Tim, whose life may be the same but who’s perhaps changed the most of everyone. There’s an underlying anger and bitterness to his scenes with Gareth that weren’t present in the first two series. We may like Tim as we know him from the past episodes, but one gets the sense he’s rather miserable to work with now, regardless of the frequent ridiculousness of Gareth. With Dawn gone, he hasn’t smiled in a long time, and that weariness has ground him down.
Co-creators Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant shade each of the characters carefully so that no one is simply good or bad, right or wrong. (Well, Finchy…) Much of the finale is spent systematically tearing down David to the point where it’s almost impossible not to feel sympathy for him. Yes, he’s a git, but importantly his insensitivity and rudeness never comes from a place of malice, unlike some of the people who surround him. Neil may be right that David shouldn’t be in the office and is an unwanted distraction, but he takes joy in mocking David about his date for the Christmas party. Dawn and Tim are for the most part good-natured, fun people, but they consistently make a joke of Gareth and neither of them stands up for Tim’s pregnant coworker when she’s harassed and humiliated by Lee and his buddies. It may be ugly, but this fallibility is common in life and by embracing that, rather than avoiding it, Gervais, Merchant, and the cast keep these characters immediately recognizable and relatable.
While the end of series two could have functioned as a finale for the show, this episode allows the characters and the audience the one thing everyone wants from a finale- closure. Yes, Tim and Dawn get together, but the one thing that could only happen in the final installment is the shot of maturity we get from David. When he stands up to Finchy to defend his date, he wins over the audience in one fell swoop (it doesn’t hurt that we’ve seen him take his lumps for the past 90 minutes). It’s great to see him succeed for once and it’s not a coincidence that the final shot of the series is David surrounded by his former employees, now peers, at a party, all laughing at one of his jokes. It’s the moment the character’s wanted throughout the run and the show finally gives it to him, and us, at the very end.
The other, aforementioned piece of closure is Tim and Dawn’s coming together, after two years and then two hours of buildup. The finale does a great job showing how great these characters are together by first showing how miserable they are apart. It’s fitting and beautiful that what brings them together is not some grand gesture or profession of love, but a quiet message of friendship and support. We want to see their connection, we want to hear their post-kiss conversation, but once again, Gervais and Merchant go for authenticity, keeping that private moment offscreen, where it belongs. Martin Freeman and Lucy Davis are fantastic throughout, but the counterpoint of Freeman’s lovely monologue about happy endings against Davis’ tear-stained face is particularly moving, and one of the highlights of the entire series.
Though Gareth is relegated to the fringes, emotionally if not comedically, Mackenzie Crook makes sure there’s plenty going on with him as well. His Brentisms at the office are notable and every time the camera finds him at the party, he’s doing something interesting. This isn’t Gareth’s story, but if it were, one gets the sense there’d be plenty to fill a very different finale. There are also the indicators of a full romantic drama playing out behind the scenes in the finance department, told only through glances shown in between our leads’ stories. It’s great to see Gervais and Merchant make time for this and it’s another reminder of their focus on realism. The rest of the world doesn’t stop because David, Tim, and Dawn are having moments.
There are plenty of laughs in The Office Christmas Special, but what makes this finale a great one is its balance of that humor with the culminating character growth of its leads. That Gervais and Merchant are able to do this without sacrificing tone, realism, or their particular brand of comedy is particularly impressive, bringing all of these elements together into a hugely satisfying, utterly memorable finale.
Angel, Season 5, Episode 22: “Not Fade Away”
Written by Joss Whedon and Jeffrey Bell
Directed by Jeffrey Bell
Aired May 19th, 2004 on the WB
There is a preconception in parts of Hollywood and America in general that shows one might call “genre”, shows set in a different time period (other than ‘60s, apparently) or featuring actors in billowy coats or, heaven forbid, prostheses are somehow inherently less than their more traditional peers. They can be fun, sure, but they’re not really art and admissions of watching them should be made only in hushed, somewhat embarrassed tones. Every now and again a show will break through, but for the most part, loud as a subset of critics may scream their support from the rooftops, shows branded with the G word enjoy second tier status. Perhaps that, along with its origins as a spinoff of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is why Angel is so frequently overlooked as one of the best dramas to air on the WB. And perhaps that’s why Angel’s fantastic finale, “Not Fade Away”, so rarely gets the respect it deserves as one of the best television finales ever made.
The episode, watched alone, has some significant barriers to entry. It’s the culmination of a substantial arc that ran through the show’s final season, so anyone dropping in without having seen what preceded it would likely be confused and disengage. It has callbacks to the earliest moments of the series, and even before that, which create depth and nuance for those who’ve watched from the beginning, but are meaningless to new viewers. It also opens on a cliffhanger from the previous week that needs to be resolved before the main action of the finale can begin. Once it does though, “Not Fade Away” soars thanks to its clever structure, memorable character moments, and dedication to the message and themes of the series.
“Not Fade Away” works incredibly well as a finale partially because, unlike most final episodes, it marks the end for the characters as well as the show. Our protagonists essentially decide to go on individual suicide missions, seizing their slim window of opportunity to take out the baddest of the bad. Because of this, rather than prep for battle or anxiously strategize, they choose to spend the day as if it’s their last. They each look into their souls and decide what’s most important to them, what they want their last non-violent memories to be, and embrace that. It’s a brilliant and (to this critic’s knowledge at least) singular structure that shows the audience what they’re most fighting for, who they are or want to be, and how far they’ve come.
There are character moments galore, outside of the aforementioned, beautiful last days. Angel has a quiet conversation with Harmony, taking in what he knows will be his last rays of sunlight (even if he survives). Lorne reaches his limit and heads out of town, Spike ponders his and Angel’s tangled futures, and Illyria comes the closest she ever has to experiencing love. The emotional wallop, though, is the death of Wesley. Portrayed by Alexis Denisof, Wesley Wyndham-Price and his multiple series-spanning character arc is one of the most developed and nuanced in television history. It’s a testament to the actor, as well as the writers of the series, that Denisof was able to give him so much range, taking Wesley from a bumbling, immature Watcher in Buffy season 3, through extreme highs and lows, to where he is in the finale. Every moment of Wesley’s development over the years felt true and earned, and his death and final scene with the false image of his lost love, played superbly by Amy Acker, is heartbreaking.
For a finale about a fight to the death, there’s surprisingly little action in “Not Fade Away”, but that’s just one of many examples of the episode exemplifying the message of the series. What we do see looks great, but most of the action happens simultaneously and a lot happens off screen, with our main fight a slugfest between two, and then three, super strong not-quite-humans. Angel has always been about the struggle between good and evil, and more specifically the struggle within each person to decide which version of themselves they’re going to be. The message of the series has long been, as Angel memorably says in the season 2 episode “Epiphany”, “If nothing we do matters, all that matters is what we do”, and this ethos is present in every scene of this finale. The fight doesn’t matter- the decision to fight does, and that is what makes cutting to black immediately after starting the battle such a perfect ending for the series.
The episode stays true to the show’s other themes as well. Angel had strong noir influences from the very start (including the final shot from the opening credits, paralleled towards the end of the finale) and these are paid off in a huge way with Lorne’s murder of Lindsay. It’s a scene straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel, if his heroes had green skin, horns, and style to spare, and this dark, morally compromised decision is not one most heroic leads, and most series, would make. It’s true to Angel, though, and in a finale more than any other time, that’s what matters. The show’s theme of constructed family is touched on when Connor chooses to help Angel and ends up saving his life. The final moments are set in an alley outside the Hyperion, which was the home of the series for most of its run, and there’s a delightful, comedic self-awareness throughout this finale, an important element of all Joss Whedon shows.
Maybe it’s the inaccessibility to new viewers, maybe it’s genre bias, but “Not Fade Away” truly is one of the great television finales, perhaps the best finale so frequently overlooked. It’s moving, it’s funny, it’s entertaining (a wholly underappreciated descriptor), and it does what every finale should do, and does it well- it truthfully reveals the characters, solidifies the show’s message, and says a satisfying and heart-felt goodbye.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season 7, Episode 22, “Chosen”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Aired May 20th, 2003 on UPN
After seven seasons of vampire slayage, rocket launchers, finicky hellmouths, heroes being hero-y, villains being evil, tragic deaths, hopeful redemptions, heartbreaking relationships, touching friendships, and an endless supply of emotional character development that was sometimes fantastical but always relatable, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ends with the bittersweet (but mostly sweet) finale “Chosen.”
Despite the epic, series-ending battle looming over the episode, “Chosen” takes its time heading to the finish so each major member of the Scooby Gang can receive their due. Even Scooby alumni Angel stops by Sunnydale for a final visit and shares a sweet reunion with Buffy, giving Buffy/Angel fans a nice dose of satisfying payoff. Of course, the Scooby Gang has featured a constant rotation of members since the show’s beginning, with only the core four of Buffy, Giles, Xander, and Willow remaining permanent. Thus, one of the best character scenes in the episode features the four talking together in a circle, pre-battle. Whedon keeps the conversation light–using his trademark witty and fluid dialogue–as the group discusses their post-battle plans. Before they head to their separate battle stations, Giles emits a line (“The earth is definitely doomed”) that nicely references a similar moment from season one.
And the final battle–though not the episode’s focal point–does not disappoint: the First’s season-long rampage is brought to a head, with both sides taking plenty of hard hits (Whedon even takes a beat to show the Scoobies suffering and falling during the fight, making the end result so much sweeter), followed by some extremely satisfying closure that gives Buffy and co. a chance for a fresh start, away from the demon-ridden Sunnydale.
Now, as far as heroes go, Buffy will always be one of the best. Some obvious reasons include her tough-but-vulnerable personality, her willingness to sacrifice everything for friends, family, and complete strangers, and her reluctant leadership (which she struggles for years to accept but ultimately embraces by series end), but all of the best heroes have those, or similar, traits. What truly sets Buffy apart, and heightens her to a higher level of heroism, are the smaller and less obviously-heroic things that make up her character. Things like her optimism in the face of monstrous things, both supernatural and natural, her reliance on her found, and biological, family despite her “chosen one” status, her rebellious nature, her willingness to voice her doubts and fears and misgivings, her unfailing ability to fall in love with the very creatures she hunts, and even her crippling, season-long depression that she manages to overcome. Because a hero’s only as great as their multitude of strengths and weaknesses that simultaneously balance and define one another; sometimes they even change definition, as strengths become weaknesses and vice versa. Buffy’s not a hero because she’s the super-powered chosen one, but because she’s 100% human, in all of its wonderful and not-so-wonderful forms.
Joss Whedon understands this perfectly, and (almost) always put Buffy‘s characters at the forefront, allowing the action to enhance and reveal even the most minuscule details about the show’s multitude of characters. Naturally, he makes no changes in the finale, and he even forces the audience to move on from Sunnydale and seven years of Buffy in unison with Buffy and her gang of loyal Scoobies. As Buffy looks toward the future (literally–there’s a lovely shot of her staring down the road that leads out of Sunnydale), you can’t help but smile along with her when Dawn asks “What are we gonna do now?,” and Buffy realizes the world has finally opened up for her.
Very few shows are given the chance to end on such a high note, and even fewer remain so well loved a decade after airing. “Chosen” wholeheartedly deserves its praise, not only for bringing Buffy fans such open-ended and hopeful closure, but also for rounding out this chapter of Buffy’s life in such a brilliant and satisfying way.
Blackadder Goes Forth
Blackadder Goes Forth, Episode 6, “Goodbyeee”
Written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton
Directed by Richard Boden
Aired November 2nd, 1989 on BBC One
Blackadder ran for four series in the ‘80s, following the exploits of various members of the Blackadder line throughout history, first a prince during the War of the Roses, then a courtier during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, then the butler for the Prince Regent during the Regency period, and finally a Captain during World War I. Each series features Rowan Atkinson as that season’s Blackadder and Tony Robinson as his servant Baldrick, surrounded by a differing guest cast each season. As the series progresses forward in time, Blackadder becomes increasingly intelligent as he loses power and agency, with an exploration of Britain’s class structure a key element to the series. Though an anniversary special and several one-off skits were produced after the final installment of the fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth, “Goodbyeee” serves as the series’ finale and creative peak, mixing high and low brow comedy with powerful social commentary to create an arresting satire that remains one of the best television finales of all time.
Throughout the season, Blackadder, stuck in the trenches, gets into and out of hijinks with his dogsbody Baldrick in his attempt to get sent safely away from the front lines, with the ever-present threat of the Big Push. There’s plenty of critique of the leadership during the rest of the season, as well as discussion of the meaninglessness of war, and their situation in particular, but this often takes a back seat to the comedy. Not so in the finale, which opens with the news that the Big Push will commence the following morning. With the stakes raised and reality of their situation oppressively present, Blackadder’s characteristic satire is front and center, as the episode becomes an exploration of these men’s desperate attempt to escape, understand, and process their fate.
At the heart of the episode are a stellar script Richard Curtis and Ben Elton and strong performances by the cast, who in this season included Tim McInnerny as Capt. Darling, Hugh Laurie as Lt. George, and Stephen Fry as Gen. Melchett, along with Atkinson and Robinson. As the incompetent Melchett, Fry is the picture of oblivious, aged pomposity. He rattles on about the honor of war, his desire to be up on the front with the young soldiers, and sends men off on suicide runs without a second thought. Laurie is wide-eyed and enthusiastic as the patriotic George, who can’t wait to give Jerry what-ho. McInnerny proves himself the master of the facial tick as Darling, an intelligent, weasely sycophant, who sticks close to Melchett to stay out of harm’s way, Robinson makes this iteration of Baldrick simple, yet practical, determined to make the best out of his situation, and Atkinson’s lines drip with sarcasm as the sardonic Capt. Blackadder.
There are layers upon layers of comedy throughout, from prop humor, to bodily fluid gags, to character-based silliness, to biting social commentary and each of the actors give fantastic performances. Atkinson is the standout, with moments of panic and desperation just as effective as his trademark desert-dry deadpan wit (who could forget his delivery of, “Wibble”?), but the rest of the cast get plenty to do as well. Robinson manages to sell a poem consisting entirely of the word, “Boom” 14 times, through only the power of his comedic timing, McInnerny caps a hilarious bit with the perfect line, apparently improvised on set (“Cappuccino!”), and Laurie keeps George likeably buffoonish, right until the final moments, when fear and uncertainty finally creep through his brash façade. Fry only has a few scenes, but they’re memorable ones, particularly his deliciously unaware decision to send his assistant to the front lines, so as not to deprive him of glory (a scene McInnerny is excellent in, all but melting to the ground in despair before accepting the futility of his fate).
The strength and variety of the episode’s comedy only heightens the effectiveness of its drama, and vice versa. By the end though, as the men prepare to go over the top, the laughs have fallen away, with the final jokes appropriately hollow. Ending with an appropriately cutting line from Blackadder, commenting on the utter absurdity of the situation, director Richard Boden pulls no punches, fading from the men charging over the trench into machine gun fire to a field covered in red poppies. It’s a heartbreaking finish to a series that, though it had always wryly lampooned British history, culture, and the class structure, had never made so bold a statement. There was talk at various points of continuing the show, but “Goodbyeee” ends so powerfully that another full series would pale in comparison, something the creators and cast seemed to understand, given the hilarious, but comparatively apolitical nature of the 10th anniversary Millennium Special. There are many great television finales, but few as effective and affecting, or with as much to say, as Blackadder’s “Goodbyeee”.
Quantum Leap, Season 5, Episode 21, “Mirror Image”
Written by Donald Bellisario
Directed by James Whitmore, Jr.
Aired May 5th, 1993 on NBC
For a few years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Quantum Leap was the rarest of genre series- a sci-fi procedural with good ratings that was well received by critics, and actually got nominated for (and won) Golden Globe and Emmy awards. Crazy. It’s overlooked by many younger genre fans today, but Quantum Leap was a fun, interesting, and influential show – and it also has one of the most controversial final moments of genre television. What often gets lost when discussing those memorable words, “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” is just how great of a finale “Mirror Image” really is.
“Mirror Image” opens where so many Quantum Leap episodes do, with Sam leaping into a new body. The opening scene sets the mood quickly and effectively, with Sam buying a beer for 15 cents, his first sense of when he’s leaped to. The scene takes its time, with Sam exuding the confidence that comes with five seasons-worth of leaping, until he sidles up to the bar, looks in the mirror, and sees himself. Bakula’s performance here is fantastic. It’s easy to forget just how long it’s been since Sam saw his own face, how disorienting and painful it must be to always see a stranger looking back at you. There’s joy, there’s confusion, there’s weariness- it’s a lovely moment that sets up everything that’s to follow.
Bruce McGill, who guest stars as the enigmatic barkeep Al, makes an impression quickly. He’s a beacon of calm reassurance. With his eyes firmly locked on Sam’s face for most of their first conversation, at the bulletin board, it’d be easy for Al to read as menacing, but McGill and Whitmore keep him a curious, yet benign presence throughout. As the familiar names and faces mount, Al has an answer for everything, always watching Sam while he gives reasonable, but unsatisfying explanations. The set for the bar is initially very atmospheric, but after a while, particularly when Sam and Al are alone, it has a staginess that fits with the Godot-like metaphysical conversations they start to have. This bar, and its inhabitants, become more and more obviously a reality constructed by Al to help Sam eventually make the choice he does at the end of the episode.
One of the strengths of the episode is how quickly Sam pieces this together. He has no evidence for his theory that the bartender is God (or Fate or Time) besides his gut, but he sticks to his guns and is eventually proven correct. He also immediately calls Al on his assertion that Sam controls where he leaps. As we’ll learn at the end of the episode, Sam will get to choose his next leap, but only as a sort of balm to help him mentally prepare for the hard road ahead; he hasn’t controlled his leaps before and he won’t control them after. Giving Sam certainty about Al and his experiences leaping empowers him. He knows himself, he knows this bartender is trustworthy if mysterious, and when given his choice to go home, he knows what he has to do.
Special mention should be made, by the way, of just how out there of a finale this episode really is, particularly for its time. Quantum Leap broke their format many times throughout their run, but Bellisario easily could have gone with a more conventional ending. Instead, he makes the final installment one that explores not only our main character, but the relationship between Sam and Dean Stockwell’s Al, the meaning of life, the nature of leaping, and the toll it takes on our usually quippy lead.
There are several aspects to this finale that one could critique. Dean Stockwell is almost entirely marginalized. Yes, this is Bakula’s show and Al is a supporting player, but Quantum Leap has been a buddy comedy for most of its run- sidelining one half of the main characters for almost the entirety of the finale is a bold and potentially foolish move. There are also some rather striking stylistic choices that date the episode. The voice over used partway through is painfully on the nose and jarring and the flashbacks are lengthy and give a clip show feel to their preceding and following scenes (the episode would have benefitted tremendously from a, “Previously on Quantum Leap…” montage containing these moments, but this was before these became commonplace). These products of their time can be forgiven, though, thanks to the power of the episode as a whole, much of which comes from the final minutes.
Once Al (our Al, that is) finds Sam, he becomes concerned, as Sam appears troubled and confused. Both Bakula and Stockwell play this well, reminding the audience of their bond. The other Al has steered Sam into remembering his decision not to intervene to save his friend’s marriage (in the season 2 finale, “M.I.A.”), and these two scenes lead to the final memorable one in Al’s bar. As we’ve seen Sam assert, and as Al eventually seems to concede, Sam has had no control over his leaps. He’s the victim of a temporal experiment that went wrong. The whole finale has been leading to this moment, and in his conversation with God, or Fate, or Time, Sam chooses to continue his journey. He chooses to help people and not rest, to keep leaping, though he is weary and desperate to go home. He could return to his wife, but instead sacrifices his life with her to give his best friend a life with his love, Beth.
Bakula is tremendous in this scene. He nails the conviction, the exhaustion- he makes Sam a Christ figure by channeling doubt and despair rather than the nobility of the moment. McGill remains a steady, anchoring force in his final scene as well, giving Bakula the space he needs to bring Sam around to his choice. We don’t end there, though. Bellisario could have; the story still works. However the episode would have had a completely different feel if Sam’s tearful decision were the last scene, followed by the closing text. Instead we end on a happy note, one of celebration as Sam puts right what he once let go wrong. This doesn’t change with the information that, “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” Sam chose this life. He chose to continue to help others. All this tells us is that he never stopped. Many fans felt gut punched by this, perhaps because of how moving Bakula’s performance is when Sam talks about wanting to return home, but for this sci-fi fan, the series could have ended no other way. It’s a beautiful ending to a fun and at times hugely moving series, and it’s one more genre fans of today should revisit.
The Larry Sanders Show
The Larry Sanders Show, Season 6, Episode 11, “Flip”
Written by Peter Tolan and Garry Shandling
Directed by Todd Holland
Aired May 31st, 1998 on HBO
For TV series following a show-within-a-show, one of the most popular ways to structure the finale is during the production of the final episode of the fictional series, and a great example of that is The Larry Sanders Show’s “Flip”. From the opening behind-the-scenes prep for main character Larry’s (Garry Shandling) goodbye show to the show itself to the final moments in the calm of the deserted studio, “Flip” works wonderfully, both as a satisfying finale itself and as an entertaining and incisive commentary on farewell episodes in general.
The main characters each get a beat to react to the end of the show, as we as viewers expect. Artie, ever the picture of stoic calm, chokes up first in the wardrobe department and then later, towards the end of the broadcast. Hank tries for a heart-felt goodbye, but winds up expressing himself far more fully after the show, first spewing bile at Larry and Artie for their treatment of him before almost immediately returning in tears. Larry’s moments, at his in-show goodbye and his series-ending farewell glance, are more understated, but just as effective. Then there’s the production crew, who seem more upset to be leaving because they’ll have trouble getting another job like this than for any sentimental reason. John Stewart, who’ll be taking over for Larry, comes by to ask his advice and fires his walking cliché of a manager, played with delightful odiousness by Bob Odenkirk. Worth mentioning is the manager’s line promising Stewart he’ll have his nightly talk show twice as long as Sanders- it’s particularly entertaining now, 14 years into Stewart’s run at The Daily Show.
All of this, plus the hilarious return of David Duchovny, would make “Flip” a strong finale, but it’s the critique of finale culture that makes it stand out. We follow the process a bit as Artie and Larry try to come up with guests for their farewell show, with Larry as ever chasing big names, rather than bringing on the few friends he may actually have. The Larry Sanders Show takes on another finale trope when it trots out several past characters for intentionally awkward cameos with the explanation that people always show up at the final episode taping looking for closure and hopefully a gift bag.
Blasts from the past aren’t the only cameos, as the show-within-the-show becomes a cavalcade of famous faces popping up for a few meaningless moments, filled either with insincere platitudes or disinterested stories that ignore the significance of the night entirely. Jim Carrey makes his spot all about himself, and mocks Larry the moment they’re off the air. Carol Burnett and Ellen talk amongst themselves, noting each of their shows’ final episodes (Carrey also brings up the famous Newhart finale). In a meta moment, Sean Penn promotes his new movie (which also starred Garry Shandling) before criticizing Shandling to Larry when they’re off the air. Greg Kinnear is itching for a fight with both Bruno Kirby and Tom Petty, none of whom actually make it out to the couch, and Jerry Seinfeld has more to say about Seinfeld (which aired its finale only a few weeks before “Flip”) and his syndication deal than anything involving Larry or his show. The actual emotion is saved for Clint Black, who performs a beautiful goodbye song, during which Kirby gets bumped from the broadcast, prompting Artie’s previously mentioned emotional moment.
By both embracing the popular tendencies of finales (Larry’s thrilled that his many celebrity guests are saying such nice things) and then immediately undercutting them, The Larry Sanders Show stays true to its comedic voice and gives the final episode weight without overindulging in self-importance. The final scene is not Larry’s on-air farewell, but a (mostly) quiet one with Larry, Artie, and Hank, alone in the studio. It’s a smart choice, giving viewers the chance for a more personal goodbye than the show-within-the-show would have allowed, and it prioritizes the show’s heart over its comedy in a wholly satisfying way. In its last moments, The Larry Sanders Show opts for sincerity, and in doing so, thanks its audience for their six years of support and cements the episode’s place as one of the great television finales.
Scrubs Season 8, Episode 18: “My Finale Part 1” & Season 8, Episode 19 “My Finale Part 2”
Written by Bill Lawrence
Directed by Bill Lawrence
Airs 05/06/2009 on ABC
Opening to Red Hot Chili Pepper’s “Snow”, the audience is treated to a comforting flashback of JD’s (Zach Braff) first day of work at Sacred Heart where he’s verbally accosted by Dr. Cox (John C. McGinley), verbally accosted some more by Dr. Kelso (Ken Jenkins), accused of putting a penny into a sliding door by The Janitor (Neil Flynn), and sexually teased by Elliot (Sarah Chalke). It’s a nice look at how things have progressed on the show in its eight seasons.
“My Finale” plays exactly as you’d expect a Scrubs to play out: JD is attempting to achieve this one singular goal he has (in this case: getting the emotion-filled goodbye from Dr. Cox that he feels he deserves) while dealing with all of the patient drama that comes with being a doctor. The one significant way that this is truly unlike any previous Scrubs is its absolute attention on JD and his departure from Sacred Heart. Most episodes would have JD at the forefront, but would also include interactions between Dr. Cox/Elliot or Dr. Kelso/The Janitor, but the attention of “My Finale” is completely on JD, except for two minor scenes that involve Dr. Kelso leaving the Coffeebucks at Sacred Heart where he’s been spending his retirement and getting back into seeing patients privately.
What we do see of the supporting characters are great, though: Elliot is attempting to sneak move into JD’s apartment without him realizing it; Turk gives JD a goodbye fitting their long-running bromance and attempts for the rest of the finale to match that goodbye’s intensity every time they see each other; Dr. Cox as mentioned refuses to give JD a goodbye; and in typical fashion, The Janitor demands that JD admit to the penny he got stuck in the door eight years prior. These are all great interactions and everything we’ve come to expect. These characters are behaving the exact same way they would normally, which is always amazing to watch. They don’t care that this is (conceivably) the last episode. JD acts the same way as always, as does The Janitor, Elliot, and, for better or worse, Dr. Cox.
Despite everything else, “My Finale” revolves around JD getting that big ol’ goodbye from Dr. Cox that he desires and why shouldn’t he get that? It’s been eight years. Surely with all of the character growth that Dr. Cox has gone through in that time he has gotten to the point where he can give JD a simple hug. If you think that, like I do, Dr. Cox has a little word for you: “I know you want this to be a very special for the both of us. I get that, I truly do. You want feeling to be shared and hugs to flow, but that is not now nor has it ever been who I am and you know that” and we do know that. We don’t want to know that, but we do. The question is why does it matter so much. People stop working at places all of the time. There have likely been characters that have left Sacred Heart that never got any fanfare. Why should Dr. Cox care? It’s because we need the emotional payoff from that interaction and gosh darn it if we don’t get it in spades when JD tricks Dr. Cox into saying what he truly thinks about JD, which is nothing less than moving.
As JD leaves the hospital, he pontificates in the lovable, familiar way of the last eight seasons and thinks on all the people he’s met while he’s been at Sacred Heart: Snoop Dogg attending, Colonel Doctor, The Todd, Ted, Hooch (who really is crazy) and wants to stay, because staying would safe. Staying would be familiar and comfortable. Why leave a place that you love so much? Because the best memories are ones that you leave in the past and move on from. JD might not have the past, but he can sure have the future. Before stepping outside of Sacred Heart, JD has one final fantasy, (which has been uncharacteristically absent) about what the future might hold for him and his friends: JD and Elliot get married and have a baby; JD, Turk, Elliot, Carla, Dr. Cox, and Jordan meet up every year for Christmas, where JD gets an approval in the way of a hug from Dr. Cox; and JD’s son and Turk’s daughter get engaged to each other. After all of the fantasies that JD has had over the past eight years, maybe this could be one that could come true for JD and that, in essence, is all he’s ever wanted.
The Shield, “Family Meeting”
Written by Shawn Ryan
Directed by Clark Johnson
Original airdate November 25, 2008
For seven seasons The Shield displayed some of the most vile people doing increasingly desperate things. As fascinating as it all was there was an understanding, even from the pilot, things just weren’t going to end well for the majority of the characters involved.
From the very beginning Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) was far from a good man: we’d watched him kill a fellow officer, set up a massive robbery, lie and manipulate Strike Team members who trusted him, and countless other crimes that were horrifying and unimaginable.
The final season of The Shield saw Vic scrambling to hang onto the very fragile world he’d created as old lies come to light. His ex-wife Corrine (Cathy Cahlin Ryan) has learned of his crimes and agrees to work with Dutch (Jay Karnes) and Claudette (CCH Pounder), Vic and Ronnie (David Rees Snell) attempt to have Shane (Walton Goggins) killed but when that plan falls through Shane goes on the run with his family.
With the series finale there’s a sense that Vic might finally get what he deserves. He and ICE engineer an immunity deal that will save him from retirement and leads him to confess to every dirty deed the Strike Team has ever committed. Ronnie ends up taking the fall, a sad twist considering he was one of the only relatively innocent characters on the show and Shane kills himself and his family. By the end of the episode Vic’s family is in witness protection, his new colleges hate him and he’s stuck behind a desk at the ICE offices.
Many have argued that, that is really the ultimate death sentence for Vic. His badge is taken away, as his family, and his carefully calculated image has shattered but there is nothing more terrifying then the moment he grabs his gun and charges out of the empty office towards unseen police sirens at the end of the show.
Vic might be stuck behind a desk and lost his badge but does that really matter? When did his badge ever prevent him from doing something? For seven seasons we watched Vic manage to survive while the people around him pay for his sins. Even though Vic suddenly finds himself on a leash for the first time in a long time, maybe ever, you get the feeling that it doesn’t really matter. What little control that badge had is suddenly gone. Vic might be in his own version of prison but the moment that badge is taken away he becomes an entirely different beast. This is a man with no family who has betrayed his brothers and had his job taken away. Without that badge we can almost imagine his now completely unrestrained rage crashing through LA.
For The Shield’s duration it offered television some of the best performances, chief among them Goggins and Michael Chiklis. Shane’s agonizing decision to end his life and the lives of his family is one of the series’ most haunting moments. Shane’s suicide, and murder of his family, is effecting because ultimately it highlights his greatest flaws, his stupidity and his cowardice. We spent seven seasons watching him scramble for dominance, to be like Vic and to always do what he thought was right. Just like the almost Shakespearian tragedy that Lem’s (Kenny Johnson) murder was, Shane’s death was frustrating and avoidable. It could be argued that Shane was Vic’s most tragic victim. His entire character arc highlights just how devastating blind faith and moral relativism can be.
The one moment that will forever stick out in this writer’s mind is Ronnie’s finale scene, as he learns that he will be going to prison for the majority of crimes committed by Vic. Watching him scream about his choice and protecting the team seemed to encompass everything that The Shield was about- trust and the devastation that, that can cause. Ronnie was relatively innocent in most of the Strike Team’s crimes. There were a lot of moments when the audience was as naïve as Ronnie in thinking that Vic would finally do the right thing. When he doesn’t, when he chooses to confess out of fear that Shane will rat them out, Ronnie as well as the audience realizes the bitter irony of who Vic really is. He was technically a man driven by fear and desperation. In the end that fear and desperation was the thing that destroyed him.
‘Family Meeting’ offer us answers for The Shield’s other characters as well. Acevada is poised to become the next mayor while Dutch and Claudette (specifically Claudette) proved more than once that she wasn’t above using some of Vic’s tactics, chief among them lying to Corrine. Claudette epitomizes the idea that you have to become the monster you’re chasing. In a nutshell, it does everything that a great series finale should do: it ties up loose ends and it leaves the audience with a sense of devastating completion.
30 Rock, Season 7, Episode 13: “Last Lunch”
Written by Tina Fey and Tracey Wigfield
Directed by Beth McCarthy-Miller
Aired January 31st, 2013 on NBC
In its prime, 30 Rock was the best sitcom on television. It was whip-smart, expertly paced, and packed with wall-to-wall jokes. It was a satire of show-business and politics, an absurdist workplace comedy, and the story of how one of the all-time great mentor-mentee relationships managed to better both people involved. The show managed to comment on its genre, on its medium, on politics, gender dynamics, and the nature of celebrity with a facile ease and a tongue planted firmly in its cheek. The show’s brilliant second season should be taught as an example of TV at the top of its game, but throughout its run, 30 Rock was dynamic, hilarious, and virtually unique in the landscape of television. In a lot of ways, it was a throwback to ’70s sitcoms (the one most-often cited is Mary Tyler Moore, but I see a lot of Taxi and even some of the blatantly sillier ’70s sitcoms in its DNA as well), but its sensibilities were distinctly modern and even boundary pushing. It was never a hit show, but it was always an interesting one, and even when it seemed the show had lost its way, I was always happy to have it on television, and to see the ways it broke and rebuilt the sitcom formula.
Though the show had its weaker years, it went out at the top of its game with a final season that will always be in the conversation about the best final seasons in sitcom history. It managed to make us care about characters who had largely been cartoons throughout the run of the show, giving Jenna, Tracy, and Kenneth real emotional arcs that came to satisfying conclusions (and giving Pete the only ending he could possibly have hoped for: a punchline). “Last Lunch” closed the door with one final episode of show-within-the-show TGS with Tracy Jordan and a lingering, celebratory look at the happy endings awaiting the characters we had come to love.
“Last Lunch” is structured as a call-back to many of the show’s greatest stock plots: Liz has to wrangle Tracy into producing one last episode to avoid a clause in his contract that would force NBC to make a major payout, while she is also feuding with Jack. While these conflicts play out in the foreground, a surprising amount of the episode is given over to one of 30 Rock’s great minor characters: Lutz. He has the privilege of choosing where the writers will eat their titular final meal, and he outwits their attempts to foil them at every turn. The Lutz storyline is just plain fun, and it provides a business-as-usual runner to some of the more nakedly emotional material the episode had to deal with. “Last Lunch” is very cognizant of how hard it is to say goodbye when it might really be for the last time, and it beautifully mixes giving us the emotional send-off we need while reminding us that these characters are still going to exist, quite probably in each other’s lives, and still going to be doing stupid, absurd things to each other, even if we won’t get to see them.
At every turn, “Last Lunch” figures out a way to give us the emotions we want fro ma series finale without undercutting its absurdly constructed characters to get there. Jenna shows emotion not because she actually feels it, but because her mirror has been removed from her dressing room, and after years spent gazing at herself in it, she actually feels a ping of nostalgia and opens up emotionally. Tracy gives the episode an opportunity to call back to the pilot, when Liz is forced to track him to a strip club to convince him to do the show. There is something immensely satisfying about creating a perfect circle in television writing, in referencing the beginning as the show finds its end, and Tracy’s conversation with Liz is sweet without feeling even slightly inauthentic.
Of course, it all comes down, at the end, to Jack and Liz. These two were always the heart of 30 Rock its most three-dimensional pairing and the emotional core on which all of the show’s inspired lunacy always hung. Resolving their feud and allowing both to declare their (entirely, perfectly platonic) love for each other was a smart move, but Jack’s monologue is one of the best pieces of writing on a show that was always incredibly well written.
Even if all the saccharine character work proved too much for viewers, its hard not to marvel at the way the show sets its emotional goodbyes to a hilarious song from the musical version of The Rural Juror (a great callback) so viewers are laughing at the absurdity of the moment while being swept away by the well-drawn character dynamics at play. “Last Lunch” walks the narrow tightrope that all finales face perfectly: it checks off all the boxes of things we want to see from a finale, but it manages to do so while staying impressively true to its completely ridiculous characters, and while continuing to make viewers laugh very, very hard.
30 Rock ended in its own way, after seven seasons of making TV like no one else was. It brought the jokes fast and hard, but it also showed genuine feelings for its characters, and perhaps more importantly, an intuitive understanding of how they would actually behave. This was a show that never needed you to care about its characters, but in its final season it revealed that it did want us to, and more that, over the years, the show managed to turn its cartoon characters into living, breathing people with predictable modes of behavior and realistic responses to the challenges that confronted them. That may be the greatest accomplishment of the show’s final season: it took the characters that populated one of TV’s greatest live-action cartoons, and brought them to life.
In doing so, it crafted a more fitting end than I could possibly have imagined, and a better one. This is the rare show that arguably improved itself in its final season, retroactively making much of what came before make sense in ways would have seemed impossible earlier in its run. 30 Rock was a stellar sitcom. It was brilliant, hilarious, insightful, and fun. It was a high watermark in the last decade of television comedy. Yet it was also a show that went out on top in an era where that is increasingly rare. I was sad to see it go, but I did not mourn the loss. 30 Rock ended because it had to end, because everything does eventually. But it died as it lived: as a great television show, a weird love letter to the medium, and a wacky workplace cartoon that hid a strong, vulnerable heart.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show Season 7, Episode 24: “The Last Show”
Written by James L. Brooks, Allan Burns, Ed Weinberger, Stan Daniels, David Lloyd & Bob Ellison
Directed by Jay Sandrich
Original Airdate: March 19, 1977 on CBS
The Mary Tyler Moore Show began in 1970 on the CBS network. The show, itself, was ground breaking. It centered on a single woman who had just went through a bad breakup and was trying to make a name for herself. And she accomplished that throughout the seven years that the show was on the air.
In the first episode we were introduced to Mary Richards who had just moved to Minneapolis and was going to start work at the local news station. Since the show began right at the beginning of the seventies the nation was still dealing with women in the workforce. We see elements of this throughout that episode; Mr. Grant seems reluctant to give Mary anything to do. She ends up sharpening pencils just to keep herself busy. Mary grew throughout the years on the show not only did we see her home life, but we saw her become one of the most respected people in the news room.
The series finale is quick and sweet. It starts with everyone at WJM getting fired and gradually throughout the half hour we see how our beloved Mary Richards deals with the firing. The formula that the writers created for the series finale and even the show in general, is a formula that we’ve seen in mayn, many series finale’s since.
The writers make a statement that just because the show is a half hour comedy, doesn’t mean the characters don’t deserve a proper send off, just like we see in hour-long dramas. The characters of Lou Grant, Murray Slaughter, Ted Baxter, Sue Ann Nivens, Mary Richards and yes even Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom, were all household names. The writers feel and express that we the fans deserve a proper send off to the characters.
It does so by capturing the bittersweet feeling of the end of a chapter, from the time we find out what is happening to the newscrew. We know, after the beginning, that this is it: Mary and the gang are leaving for good. So the rest of the episode we are left in anticipation of what is to come next. Perhaps the biggest treat is the gift that Lou Grant gives Mary, which technically the writers are giving us, with the return of Rhoda Morgenstern and Phyllis Lindstrom; the two best friends of Mary that we grew to love in the first several seasons. Valerie Harper and Cloris Leachman, of course, went on to their own series, but it was nice to see them back for a few minutes.
In the series finale we see Mary coming to a complete circle. The show ends with the group hugging together, crying. There is a comedic element of them all walking, still hugging, to Mary’s desk to get tissues and then it is time to go. The last few camera shots and pacing is something that many series finales, like Friends, have used since, capturing the final interactions of these characters with an emotional final scene. We see one final shot of the WJM news room and then Mary turns out the lights, and the experiences that we watched Mary Richards deal with finally come to a close.
The elements that the writers created and the actors portrayed have also stood the test of time: Mary Tyler Moore is still one of the comedies still aired today and people/fans can still strike up conversations about it. In 1977 WJM might have turned out its lights, but the news crew will never stop working. These beloved characters will still be in peoples’ hearts for years to come.
Spaced Season 2, Episode 7 “Leaves”
Written by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson
Directed by Edgar Wright
Aired 04/13/2001 on Channel 4
Before Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Edgar Wright wowed international audiences with their horror comedy Shaun of the Dead, they were part of the Channel 4 sitcom Spaced. This show was one of the first sitcoms to use a single camera setup without a laugh track. Spaced also featured quick hitting pop culture homages almost a decade before Community and blend of dry and surreal humor. However, the show’s greatest strength was its interesting characters who could be simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. These endearing characters are what made Spaced an enduring cult phenomenon in both the UK and United States.
Before rounding off the character arcs, Pegg and Stevenson overload the script with a huge number of in-jokes and running gags that reward viewers who have watched the show from start to finish. They range from the couple touring Tim (Simon Pegg) and Daisy’s (Jessica Stevenson) flat using the same the dialogue as they did in the pilot to throwbacks to Mike’s (Nick Frost) Territorial Army fiasco where he used a tank to invade EuroDisney. After the painful events of the penultimate episode, it is great to see Frost’s hilarious reactions and solutions to his friends’ problems. He really shows off his knack for physical humor in the finale which involves him wearing a male stripper apron and driving a tank. Edgar Wright also uses quick camera cuts to make sure the punchlines land.
But beneath all the gags and homages, “Leaving” tugs at viewers’ heart strings. The family dynamic of the main characters has been shattered, probably irreparably, and characters are going their separate ways. The first half of this episode shows the transient nature of some early 21st century who bounce from job to job and place to place without finding a firm footing. Spaced has already shown Tim and Daisy’s struggles with finding housing and employment, and the finale amps up this tension and forces the series to earn its atypical happy ending. The emotional moments are buried in laughs, such as Daisy’s crying fit when her dog Colin leaves or Tim’s homage to Say Anything when he holds up a boom box for Marsha (Julia Deakin) to get her to not sell the house.
In addition to its comedy and pathos, “Leaving” is a fairy tale ending to a show that is more magical realism than a quirkier British Friends. However, Pegg and Stevenson use dangling plot elements, like Mike’s robot from “Mettle”, to resolve the conflicts and ensure the best ending for each of the characters. This shows that the writers don’t loathe their characters, but explore their negatives and positives while finding something to say about life in general through the lens of a sitcom. Tim and Daisy haven’t completely matured, but their actions in this finale set them on a road to something like maturity. With visual flair and emotional honesty, Pegg and Wright (unfortunately not Stevenson) bid adieu to their first great comedic creations and use elements of them in their later works. “Leaving” isn’t just a finale, but some of its themes (friends as family, growing up) and even visual motifs (Resident Evil scene in “Art”) act as a strong foundation for Pegg and Wright’s film oeuvre, especially the Cornetto trilogy.
Firefly Season 1, Episode 14: “Objects in Space”
Written by Joss Whedon
Directed by Joss Whedon
Airs 12/13/2002 on Fox
Rescue Me, “Ashes”
Written by Denis Leary and Peter Tolan
Directed by Peter Tolan
Original airdate September 7, 2011
Arguably one of the best series finales of all time, “Ashes” captures all of the madness, hilarity, sadness and guilt that defined Rescue Me for seven years. “This aint a job, this aint an occupation, it’s a calling”, Tommy Gavin (Denis Leary, who was consistently amazing) told a group of wide eyed recruits in both the series premiere and finale.
Rescue Me was often a difficult show for viewers to grasp. It premiered not long after 9/11 and while the world was eager to see a show about firefighters and their heroics Rescue Me fought hard not to be stereotyped. Over and over again they showed us that while they might do heroic things, the men of 62 Truck were far from heroes. They don’t want the fanfare, they just want to do the only job they’ve ever known how to do.
The truth of Tommy’s basic character is that he’s about as far from a hero as one can get. He was a drunk, emotionally stunted, perhaps mentally unstable, and not the best father or husband. But he was a good firefighter, perhaps the best his company had ever seen. All of these men had seen the worst that the world had to offer they just kept moving forward, even if they were barely holding it together.
That was the beauty of Rescue Me. The world that these guys were living in was dirty, awful, brutally funny, dark, and painful. It never shied away from showing us how terrible the job could be. The series finale begins with a dream sequence featuring Lou eulogizing Tommy, Black Shawn, Franco, Sean and Mike. Brutal flashbacks show Lou’s death in a building fire from the previous episode and each of the surviving men contemplate their future in 62 Truck. Tommy finds a letter from Lou telling the men to stay together. By the end of the episode Tommy’s wife has given birth to their son and he’s decided not to retire after all. His final speech to the new recruits and his conversation with Lou’s ghost perfectly reflect the first episode.
The power of “Ashes” rests on the very simple idea that the past always repeats itself. It’s a concept that Rescue Me played with countless times in its seven season run but for the first time it doesn’t seem tragic. Tommy’s found a place where he can begin to forgive himself.
The series finale is everything that was brilliant about Rescue Me as a whole. While there are moments of true sadness and honesty there were also flashes of that perfectly insane humor. Only this show would allow one its main characters ashes being spilled, and replaced with cake mix. “Ashes” is an exceptionally good ending for a show that challenged its viewers, and gave us a thrilling and original look at characters that weren’t anything other than men just trying to do the job they were called too.
Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks Episode 18 ‘Discos and Dragons’
Written by Paul Feig
Directed by Paul Feig
Aired 7/8/2000 on NBC
Freaks and Geeks was always a show about identity, so it makes perfect sense that ‘Discos and Dragons’ would challenge almost every major character to face their own changing identities. From major characters like Nick and Lindsey struggling with who they were and who they’ve become, to minor characters like the Deadheads living their idealized version of happy life, the series finale of Freaks and Geeks presents us with a number of characters at a crossroads in life as the school year comes to an end.
The most entertaining of these, of course, is Daniel’s excursion into nerd culture, playing a game of Dungeons & Dragons with the geeks after spending time with them in the “paradise” of the AV room – a beautiful metaphor for the enlightened world Sam, Daniel and company enter in that small, drab-looking room. It’s the place where the freak and geek come together, where Sam finally realizes its ok to be a nerd (something that he’s still struggling with, even after dumping Cindy) and Daniel can finally find a place where he feels cool and/or wanted (even Kim doesn’t want to hear his complaining anymore, walking out on him in their only scene together). It’s also a place where the social lines of the lunchroom and the classroom are blurred: under the same roof, it’s much easier for them to reach across the proverbial table and become friends, if only for a brief moment.
So while Sam’s learning to be himself and Daniel’s learning to be Carlos the dwarf, the episode focuses most of its real attention on Nick and Lindsey, two people realizing a lot of what they’re doing in ‘Discos and Dragons’ is a mistake. For all her bomber jacket wearing, Lindsey still can’t escape her former identity, and her good grades “curse” her into being accepted into a University of Michigan summer program for high school students with “bright futures” (like being the next biology teacher at McKinley High, hardly a job anyone is fighting over). Lindsey views it as a curse, moping around while her father pushes her to attend, and Kim laments the fact that she gets an all-expenses-paid ticket out of town, while she’s stuck at home with her shitty family and Daniel Desario to spend her summer with.
The pressure builds and builds on Lindsey, until she hears the two Deadheads she met in the previous episode talking about a Grateful Dead concert and how it changed their lives, enticing Lindsey to join them and give up the straight-edge life once and for all. It’s an escape, and even though it may not be the one Lindsey’s looking for, it’s the one she gets: and after spending an afternoon listening to an album in her bedroom, it’s pretty clear that her mind is all but made up.
That is, until she sits down and talks to Nick – but before we talk about that scene (one of the show’s best), let’s rewind to the opening scene, which sees the freaks walk into the bowling alley to heckle the disco club operating in the back. Turns out Nick was in the back with his new girlfriend Sara (Lizzy Caplan returns!), who taught him the hustle in under an hour, you guys! Of all the characters trying on new lives in this episode, Nick’s might be the most ridiculous, decked out in shiny silk shirts and hip-hugging bell-bottoms, strutting around the club (that’s about to close, as Ken finds out later while he’s getting thrown out).
Ironically, he’s really good at it: but like Lindsey and her ability to do well in school (“I don’t even study that much”, she pleads to Mr. Rosso at one point), Nick doesn’t want to be a good disco dancer. He knows he can’t be the best – and by the end of the episode, both him and Lindsey know he’s dating Sara for the wrong reasons, even if she’s doing more good for him than Lindsey did (he quits smoking for Sara, something he could never do for Lindsey, even when she encouraged the idea). In the end, she turns out to be a mini version of Nick (super obsessed with him since 6th grade, cognizant of his intense, obvious crush on Lindsey), and he probably doesn’t win the disco contest either, reminding us that while new identities can take us in exciting, positive new directions (a clean, studious Nick is better than drummer, stoner Nick, by all means) they still come with the same shitty realities that all other endeavors in life take.
I can’t think of a better way for Freaks and Geeks to end: it allows us endless opportunities to dream of the beauties and horrors awaiting the freaks and geeks of McKinley High in their near futures. After Nick and Daniel’s stories are complete, we follow Lindsey from her farewall at the bus station with her family, to her abandoning the trip to U of M and going off on a Dead-themed adventure with Kim and the Deadheads from school. She takes off her super-uptight school jacket and puts on the faded bomber one more time on camera, and we watch as the Microbus containing the four of them travel off in the direction the bus once headed in.
The last few scenes of Freaks and Geeks are poetic in their simplicity: from shot composition to dialogue choices, the rhythm of the end of ‘Discos and Dragons’ quietly moves the audience through the emotional final beats of our journey with these beloved characters. We know that Lindsey and Nick may never work together, but we see Lindsey’s regret push her into the most dangerous, exciting journey of her young life (with her new best friend Kim; Millie isn’t even seen in this final episode), Daniel get a much-needed moment of peace and victory, and Sam have some confidence in loving who he is (and pushing Neal to do the same thing, after weeks of them backing away from it). I can’t imagine a more poignant way for Freaks and Geeks to reach its too-quick-to-arrive conclusion – but when that hippie bus pulls away from the stop sign and drives away forever, it’s hard not to feel satisfied from what came before it. A fantastic end to one of television’s best shows.
– for once, I don’t have a lengthy list of ancillary thoughts from the episode. Freaks and Geeks is a show about change, a very fitting theme for my life over the past few months. It’s been a journey I’ve enjoyed (and probably needed) even more than I expected to. And thank you to anyone who stopped by and checked out a review over the past five months; I’ve had an absolute blast.
Eastbound and Down
Eastbound and Down, Season 4, Episode 8, “Chapter 29
Written by John Carcieri, Jody Hill, and Danny R. McBride
Directed by Jody Hill
Aired November 17, 2013 on HBO
First off, the interesting thing about the series finale of Eastbound & Down is that it was technically the second series finale this show had seen. The show, created by Jody Hill and star Danny McBride, followed the journey of Kenny Powers (McBride), a burned out Major League Pitcher as he fought his way back to the Majors and reclaimed the love of his high school sweetheart April (Katy Mixon). The show originally came to an end with season 3, and it was a fantastic finale. Then, several months later, it was announced that they would be doing one more season. What changed? Hill and McBride now had the opportunity to get Mixon for a full season, rather than just the 2 episodes she had in season 3, thus giving them the opportunity to tell the story they had originally intended to. This was cause for cautious optimism: they had already ended the show wonderfully, could they do it again? Of course they did, this is Kenny Powers we’re talking about.
Season 4 followed Kenny, who hasn’t taken well to domesticity and not being famous. This changes when he’s offered the chance to be on a sports talk show hosted by Guy Young (a wonderfully douchey Ken Marino), a former teammate and friend. Kenny becomes famous, eventually taking over the show from Guy after tricking him into saying awful things on television, and on his way to the top, he loses his relationships with his family and with his friend Stevie (Steve Little). Both of the show’s finales play out in a similar fashion as well. Both start with an unexpected cameo by a famous funny person (Seth Rogen in Season 3, Sacha Baron Cohen in Season 4), and both finales follow Kenny as he reaches his height of fame and success before sacrificing it all to reclaim his family life and self respect.
One of the great things about Eastbound & Down was the ease with which new characters would enter the show, as if they had walked off the set of their own show. When Sacha Baron Cohen’s TV producer Ronnie Thelman and his unit introduce themselves in the first scene, it ends with the audience knowing everything they need to about this character. Kenny storms into the lawyer’s office with an ultimatum to April: give it one more week, and if she still wants to get divorced, he’ll sign the papers. When Kenny tries to earn his crew’s respect back, he’s interrupted by Thelman, who wants to offer Kenny his own daytime talk show, and that his first interview will be Guy Young, who will get the chance to apologize on live television.
Kenny then goes to Guy’s house to find him holed up in his home theater, playing audience cheers on loop on his big screen while he thanks them and proclaims his love for them. Jars of piss surround him, and his pants are soiled. He’s completely lost touch with reality. Only Eastbound & Down would think of having a scene that’s a gigantic reference to Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.
Kenny experiences parental pride while watching his son’s school play, boasting to a nearby parent, “My son is the main star of the play, his part is more important than all the other children.” This is cut short when April tells him afterwards that she’s going to move to Santa Fe to be a branch manager, and that she wants him to sign the divorce papers. Just before the show, Thelman tells Kenny he wants Kenny to decimate Guy once he comes on the show, instead of offering Guy the chance to apologize. Just before he pounces on Guy to humiliate him, he turns to the camera and gives perhaps the most honest half-apology that Kenny has ever given. This moment highlighted one of the biggest lessons of the show: people don’t wholly change, but they can become better versions of themselves, and that’s what growth is.
Even though Stevie spends much of the episode incapacitated after shooting his chin prosthetic off (weird stuff happened in those final episodes), he still gets in some of the best lines, like “I tell you, trying to kill myself was the best thing I ever did.” and drinking cough syrup, saying “I feel like Lil Wayne with this Sizzurp.”
Kenny goes to see April off, and apologizes to her, telling her that his time with the family was what made him truly happy, not the fame and fortune that he had initially perceived would. It’s an incredibly heartfelt moment for a show with so many dick jokes and profanity. The love between Kenny and April feels real, despite Kenny’s antics. One thing that made Eastbound & Down one of the greatest shows ever made was that, while it was billed as a comedy, it could, on the flip of a dime, reach into some genuine deep, dark and dramatic moments—sometimes while still retaining a comedic edge to the emotion. This all comes from the character work put in by Hill and McBride, as even though Kenny is a completely self-centered asshole, he’s also a human being. He had drive, and he had a desire to be better and achieve his dreams and self-respect. There’s a bit of Kenny in each of us.
The highlight of the finale comes in the final minutes, when we get a glimpse into Kenny’s future while he waxes philosophically on the ups and downs of life. It’s a bizarre future that only gets more bizarre with each shot, but the magic of this show is that the audience totally buy into this future as a reality. Of course Kenny would work things out with April, make a porno of his life, watch his kids (played by Alexander Skarsgard and Lindsay Lohan) grow up and start their own lives, and then tragically watch April get gunned down in an alleyway, whip out a gun and kill them back, and then become a heroin addict, get into rehab, move to (presumably) Africa and ride on a hoverbike, remarry and have several more kids late in his life before he finally dies of old age. While viewers totally buy into all of this as Kenny’s reality, Hill and McBride pull a nifty screenwriting trick, revealing that this future was all part of Kenny’s movie script about his life. The real Kenny is at home with April, and they’ve worked things out, with him content with his legacy and ready to move forward.
“In the end, you judge a man by how he influenced the world. You judge him by the seeds he left behind. And you judge his seeds by the harvest. Well, Kenny Powers’ harvest remains unknown, but I’m pretty god-damn proud of my seeds.” – Kenneth Powers: Legend, myth, but most of all, a man.