If you’ve seen even a fraction of the monumental amount of press coverage for HBO juggernaut Game of Thrones’ final season, you may be convinced that good TV endings no longer exist, that in the era of instant gratification, no series finale can please everyone. Critics and fans of the show publicly went through the five stages of grief in response to David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’ controversial ending to George R.R. Martin’s epic saga, and with a month of hindsight, 2019 seems all but doomed to be remembered for the ending we didn’t get.
But that would be a shame. Thrones aside, this year has already brought us more satisfying conclusions to small-screen stories we love than any other in recent memory. We’ve been gifted with some truly stunning endings, from Fleabag to You’re the Worst, Catastrophe to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City to Veep, plus A Series of Unfortunate Events — hell, we even got a Deadwood movie!
In real life, closure rarely comes as neatly or wonderfully as it does in storytelling, and this year has reflected that, too, with great but suddenly axed shows like Santa Clarita Diet, A.P. Bio, Speechless, and One Day At A Time failing to end on their own terms. Overall, though, the number of excellent series endcaps already available in 2019 should be enough to rinse away the bad taste of Game of Thrones’ poorly received final episode.
A perfect finale is subjective. For shows that evolve in tone and include a wide cast of characters, it’s often tough to strike a balance between each element. Luckily, each of the fantastic finales above exemplifies one or more traits of a classic final chapter. Game of Thrones may be the new cultural equivalent to Lost (an ending I actually loved, by the way), but which of these will be remembered as this generation’s M*A*S*H or Six Feet Under or E.R.? Only time will tell, but for now, we can take a look at what they did right. Spoilers ahead.
Great finales bring the right amount of closure
Daniel Handler’s darkly imaginative children’s book series A Series of Unfortunate Events finally aired its conclusion on screen for the first time this year, after a franchise-starting film failed to take off in 2004. Fans finally got it at the opportune time, though, as Netflix’s reimagining of the eccentric tale, which follows three unlucky orphans as they attempt to evade evil adults and uncover the secrets of their parents’ deaths, is rife with timely political satire and blueprints for the ways in which collaboration, imagination, and knowledge can fight tyranny.
The final episode, “The End,” is set on a cult-like island and looks like a biblical parable, but its lessons aren’t so simple. There’s food for thought here about the inherent tragedy of believing in heroes and villains, as well as the lengths to which one must go to survive in an unjust society. But above all else, “The End” give us the closure that the book series didn’t. Book-lovers who have dealt with over a decade of ambiguity will finally learn what’s in the sugar bowl and see Lemony Snicket’s (Patrick Warburton) connection to the children made clear, while newcomers to the series will still appreciate the series’ consistent commitment to bold narrative choices.
Great finales know how to put a spin on the familiar
Throughout its five-season run, Broad City became known as a beacon — or maybe, given the dearth of similar content when the series started, a life raft — of representation for messy, broke twentysomething urban women who make their own kind of cool. So the series’ final moments, during which a pan out from a city street accompanied by Lizzo’s “Juice” reveals multiple duos deep in the midst of discussion, feel like a gift and an acknowledgment from series creators Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer.
Each of these people is the protagonist of their own epic story, one that’s capable of being as fun and bizarre and hilarious as Abbi and Ilana’s, which means that all of us are, too. This shot follows a scene during which the two friends video chat from different states, a comforting, familiar moment that is offset by the real, substantive change — Abbi moving out of state — that also drives the finale forward. The episode, “Broad City,” juggles this mix of new and old and beloved and nerve-wracking unfamiliar well and does so in a way that satisfies both fans and the natural story progression.
Great finales are still able to surprise us
Forget the fate of King’s Landing; no storyline this year has taken a more surprising turn than that of Veep. HBO’s political satire seemingly had nowhere to go after the Trump administration made its bumbling White House staff look competent by comparison. The show’s approach in its final season was to get meaner than ever before, making Jonah (Timothy Simons) a fear-mongering Islamaphobe who’s embraced the idea that ignorance is the path to power, and setting up Amy (Anna Chlumsky) as his very own Kellyanne Conway.
The finale, “Veep,” does everything in its power to make Selina (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) less redeemable than ever as she makes deals to ban gay marriage, make Gary (Tony Hale) take the fall for her campaign’s criminal activities, and choose Jonah as her VP. We shouldn’t have expected anything hopeful out of Veep, one of the most biting American satires that exist, and yet the depths to which most characters sank were still surprising and impactful.
On the other end of the storytelling spectrum, there’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, a series that evolved with its characters, tackled important topics, and ended in a place of positivity and connection, yet still managed to surprise to the end. Although some aspects of the series finale, “I’m In Love,” were to be expected — characters coupling up, a time jump — the Rachel Bloom-led series took a leap by finally externalizing the songs that Rebecca has imagined for four seasons. She tells Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin) about them and, a year later, performs one of her songs in public for the first time. The switch from musical reality to actual reality is a familiar concept for fans of musicals, yet Crazy Ex-Girlfriendpresented Rebecca’s songs as an interior part of her for so long that the decision to bring them out of he, to reveal that songwriting is Rebecca’s true love, managed to surprise in a lovely way.
Great finales are consistent in their excellence
Deadwood: The Movie, a finale that came 13 years after David Milch’s masterpiece Western series left us hanging, is so consistently excellent that if any scene in it were its last, it would still be great. Case closed.
Great finales put the story above the fans
For lots of people, a perfect ending makes them feel good. A perfect ending rewards decent characters and not bad people. A perfect ending is devoid of ambiguity and explains what needs explaining. For storytellers and artists, there is rarely anything more boring than this type of perfect ending.
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s series Catastrophe knows this, as does Stephen Falk’s You’re the Worst and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag. All three brutally honest comedy-dramas follow thorny, deeply imperfect protagonists, and all three provided endings that thoroughly wrecked their fans this year. Each series deals with the idea of love — who deserves it, how you practice it, and if it even matters. The three stories each come to slightly different conclusions on the particulars, but each is convincing in its take.
Although Fleabag is already being rightfully heralded as a modern classic — click through for more on that finale— You’re the Worst is the 2019 finale that I’d love to see studied someday. The episode, titled “Pancakes,” sees Gretchen (Aya Cash) and Jimmy (Chris Geere), a couple that has been pulled apart by depression and selfishness and cynicism many times before, ditch their own wedding to go out for pancakes. They make a vow to wake up every day and choose one another until, maybe, the day comes that they don’t want to.
An interlude, accompanied by The Mountain Goats’ “No Children,” shows the next few years of their life together, which, hint, does feature children. Then it cuts back to the diner, where Gretchen turns to Jimmy. “Hey,” she says, “You know there’s always a possibility that someday I might leave my phone and keys at home and step in front of a train. You know that, right?” Jimmy looks at her for a moment, loving and somber, then says, “Yeah, but I’ll move on really quickly. Like, record-setting.” Gretchen says okay, they both breathe a laugh, then they dig into their pancakes. The moment is jarring and dark and real and, within context, it’s perfect.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes an ending great, but let’s try one more qualifier: the best series finales I’ve ever seen each have a moment of truth so profound that the characters may as well be reaching through the screen to shake us awake and remind us that we’re alive. These moments, more than any measurable quality, linger with us long after the screen fades to black.