The series finale is a do-or-die moment when a show gets one last chance to say whatever it has to say and do whatever must be done. Expectations are high, failures are frequent and viewers are seldom 100 percent satisfied.
Our complaints generally split two ways: Some believe deeply in the definitive walk-off, a final scene that all but rides off into the sunset and clearly answers the essential questions raised by long-arc, complex story lines that last for years. Other viewers are more in tune with (and trusting of) the visionary whims of showrunners who often have something subtler, more baffling in mind. That's how we get the mystery finale, the lingering unsolved puzzle that's up for endless debate: Were Lost's castaways in purgatory the whole time? Did Tony Soprano take a bullet to the brain? Did Don Draper meditate his way back to advertising prominence? Where and who and what and when and why and how are Agent Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer?
At this particular moment in an oversupply of ambitious shows, all eyes are on the dire conclusion of FX's The Americans, the always-superb, 1980s-set espionage thriller from creators Joel Fields and Joe Weisberg, which ends May 30. The show is about a married-with-kids couple, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) who live in Northern Virginia and happen to be exceptionally dangerous Soviet spies.
In its sixth season, The Americans has surpassed its usual high-anxiety levels, as the friendly next-door neighbor/FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), gets closer to discovering the Jennings' secret.
The show certainly has the potential to stick a landing that could place it in the pantheon of TV's great endings - but what shows are already in that club?
My highly subjective list includes 12 series finales limited to TV's current era, starting in 2005 or so (which means no more grousing about the Seinfeld ending or weeping as the 4077th M*A*S*H unit is decommissioned). I've ranked these finales from the very best to the pretty-freakin'-great. Officially, I prefer finales that are tightly wrapped, but while making this list I realised that I, too, am often helplessly swayed by the cryptically poetic ending.
What these finales all share is one crucial trait: They made sure viewers never forgot how things ended.
1. Breaking Bad
Perhaps no finale in recent memory has more fully honored the spirit and tone of its own making as the conclusion to the saga of Walter White, an Albuquerque science teacher who becomes a master meth maker and discovers his own capacity for evil.
In the last episode, Walt (Bryan Cranston) returns to New Mexico to exact a wildly complex comeuppance for his enemies, whether by simple intimidation or poisoned Stevia packet. Before he dies in a shootout with a neo-Nazi drug cartel, Walt gives everyone what they deserve or require: Skyler gets the truth (in a parting scene that remains one of the finest-written and best-acted in modern TV), Jesse gets freedom and viewers get a moment to consider what it means when a person's moral compass points so surely in the other direction.
2. Six Feet Under
The final minutes of Alan Ball's intense family drama about a funeral home remain, for many viewers, the gold standard of satisfying finales, as Claire (Lauren Ambrose), the young rebel of the Fisher clan, sets off to start a new life in New York and her cross-country drive shifts into an expertly conceived and edited montage of flash-forwards, building on the show's signature motif of the moment of death.
What could be more conclusive than killing everyone off? We see the deaths of most of Six Feet Under's characters (poor Brenda Chenoweth keels over in old age while enduring another of her brother Billy's long monologues) until we arrive at Claire's own peaceful demise, at 102.
3. The Sopranos
Still a sore point for many fans and the subject of frame-by-frame analysis by those still seeking a definitive answer, I've always appreciated the abrupt way David Chase ended his six-season story of suburban New Jersey mafia man Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).
In the episode's final minutes - and with viewers brought to a brink of anticipation - we instead see the Soprano family (wife Carmella, son A.J. and daughter Meadow, parking her car across the street) gather at Holsten's for dinner, nothing special. Every time the bell on the restaurant door rings, Tony's eyes dart upward and the viewer's heart rate spikes. The bell jangles one last time and the screen goes dark. Was Tony shot by the man who had just walked toward the restroom? Yes or no, the message is forever clear: If not now, Tony will spend the rest of his life watching doors, waiting for a bullet.
4. Mad Men
As the 1970s began and Matthew Weiner's moody drama about advertising exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) grew more nebulous, fans were ready to entertain just about any theory about its finale - including a nutso but still tantalising notion that Don, who was really named Dick Whitman, became the fabled D.B. Cooper of airline-hijacking lore.
Nope. Don is a searcher, an itinerant soul; unreliable father, selfish lover, icily aloof to the very end, until he seems to have a personal breakthrough while meditating at a Northern California retreat center. A satisfied grin crosses his face and Mad Men plays out to Coca-Cola's iconic commercial of that era (I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing). Interpretations abound: Don found his next million-dollar idea. Or Don found inner peace. Maybe it's both? Points, anyhow, for the smooth exit.
5. Twin Peaks: The Return
Ingeniously, David Lynch managed to have it both ways with the finale to the long-awaited, 18-part return of his groundbreaking drama. For those who needed a somewhat tidy, here's-what-happens ending, the first hour saw FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) break free of his Dougie Jones catatonia and arrive at the last minute to Twin Peaks, Washington, where he put things as right as they could ever hope to be in a Lynchian universe.
And then what happened? The real finale - a beautifully rendered mindblower to end all mindblowers, as Cooper's journey, presumably as a man named Richard, leads him at last to the present-day Laura Palmer. Together they journey back to Laura's doorstep in Twin Peaks, where, in the final moments, the last semblance of narrative certainty falls away with a bloodcurdling scream. One simple explanation is that everything has been a dream. Others posit time travel or interdimensional existence. Whatever it's supposed to mean, this is the finale for people who are comfortable living in a permanent state of WTF.
6. The Office
"There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things - isn't that kind of the point?" said Dunder Mifflin employee of the century Pam Beesly Halpert (Jenna Fischer) in the beloved, nine-season NBC comedy's sentimental wrap-up.
In the show's central mockumentary conceit, receptionist Pam and her co-workers agreed to let cameras film them for a very long public-television project about the American workplace. On The Office's final episode, the completed series has aired and the characters got to see themselves as they truly are - often in unflattering terms.
Pam said she couldn't watch it, disappointed in seeing herself waste time before pursuing her romance with Jim (John Krasinski) or starting an art career. The finale's sappiness, while spread thickly, also memorably acknowledged an inescapable truth about work: Even in the worst jobs, you can still be fortunate enough to work with people who become like family.
7. Parks and Recreation
Not since Six Feet Under's finale a decade earlier had a show taken such wild advantage of the flash-forward button as this NBC comedy about Pawnee, Indiana, public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her oddball staffers, showing viewers the eventual fate of its characters in the future.
It was a cleverly contorted display of mostly happy endings and a funny cameo or two. (Remember when a U.S. vice president would have been a welcome presence on a critically beloved network comedy?) A resolute Leslie goes on to serve two terms as Indiana's governor, but what's next - a presidential run? I know several Parks and Rec fans (many of them young women who can still talk for hours about the show) who stand ready to join that 2036 campaign in heartbeat, if only Leslie Knope were a real person. Perhaps the character's nutty but authentic idealism (and the show's absurdist comic tone) are legacy enough.
8. The Good Wife
Forced to participate in another face-saving news conference at the side of her estranged, scandal-plagued politico husband, Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies) at last turned away from the weight of public expectation. She took off down a side hallway, pursuing a shadow ahead that she believed to be her departing lover (Jeffrey Morgan Dean), but, instead of finding him, she received the slap of all face slaps from Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski), the mentor and colleague she chose to betray.
It wasn't a perfect finale to this smartly topical legal drama, but it did set Alicia free, even if she started seeing dead people (the appearance of the ghost of Josh Charles' Will Gardner still divides fans). The episode skillfully walked that difficult line between blunt conclusiveness and lingering questions - and scattered the characters in several directions, a couple of them toward an equally addictive spinoff series, The Good Fight, starring Baranski.
9. Nurse Jackie
Another series where fans are left asking: Did the main character die at the end? In the last episode, New York's All Saints Hospital is permanently closing, but Jackie (Edie Falco) has talked her way into a nursing job at Bellevue, despite the spectacular (and criminal) way she has conducted herself over the past several years.
This was the show's message all along: Some addicts never get better. During a staff farewell party, Jackie snorts a lot of heroin in the bathroom and sets out for a dreamy walk through Times Square (accompanied by K.D. Lang's version of "(Theme From) Valley of the Dolls"), coming upon an outdoor yoga class and striking a corpse pose. It's all a hallucination - back in the ER, Nurse Zoey (Merritt Weaver) and others desperately work to revive Jackie.
My vote is she's dead. Nurse Jackie always took the courageous path in its storytelling; what could be braver than the unhappiest ending of all?
10. The Shield
There's a real worry out there that The Shield, FX's harrowing, seven-season drama about a corrupt strike team within the Los Angeles Police Department, has disappeared from conversations about how great TV has become. Much of it owes a debt to The Shield.
The final two-hour episode, like the rest of the series, remains a master class in the modern ways of prestige TV, with a mix of absolute conclusiveness and just a note of "wait, what?" It was an anxiety-filled wrap-up of betrayed alliances, immunity deals and the desperation to avoid moral reckoning. Ten years on, fans of the show can still recall how Shane Vendrell (Walton Goggins) poisoned his pregnant wife and son and then shot himself. Or a final scene of Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) trapped in a desk job at ICE, abandoned by his family. Now forbidden from carrying a firearm, he reaches into his desk drawer, pulls out a gun and heads out . . . to where, we'll never know.
11. Halt and Catch Fire
This show about the manic early days of the personal-computer revolution improved by adopting a tech ethic: When the first season came off too much like a brooding, hypermasculine replacement for the soon-retiring Mad Men, its creators got busy and rewrote their code. From version 2.0 onward, the story lines increasingly focused on the show's female characters - Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) and Donna Clark (Kerry Bishé) - and what the rise of the internet looked like from their perspective.
Although viewers never turned out in great numbers, Halt and Catch Fire managed to find a deeply human side to the failure rate of start-ups, and how those wins and losses eventually molded the players' emotional maturity. After four seasons, the show ended in a way that was both melancholy and hopeful, as Cam and Donna briefly reconsider what would happen if they were to try again as business partners. They game it out to an inevitable collapse, but after breakfast at a diner, Donna is struck with one last idea. The final note is one of quiet optimism.
12. The Leftovers
Having spent three seasons struggling with its own dolor, The Leftovers was always interesting, in the worst, most nebulous sense of the word. But its finale was worth all the woe.
After taking the risk of transporting herself to the promised other side, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) now appears, decades later, to be living in a kind of bucolic afterworld, only that's not it. She's here, very much in this world, and many years have passed. Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) tracks her down, and she finally tells him what happened.
It's one of the most effective and haunting long monologues in recent TV history, the ultimate transgression of the "show, don't tell" rule of storytelling. Nora's story is all tell - and in it, she reveals that the 2 percent of the world's population who vanished in the Sudden Departure are living on the other side, where their world is missing 98 percent of its people. Depressed, she returned to this side and started her life over. Whether you believe her is up to you - and a fitting way to let go of a show that relied so much on mystery and faith.
And really, that's the best way to judge the success or failure of any series-ender: How good is it at helping you let go?