The world is still debating the relative merits and detractions of the final episode of Vince Gilligan's meth-world saga "Breaking Bad," with some quarters feeling that the finale was a little too cleanly told while others were filled with the sense of contentment from knowing that the final hour was a satisfying conclusion to a five-season arc that turned a meek chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) into a ruthless criminal kingpin. There are few, probably, who would take the stance that the last hour of "Breaking Bad" was one of the best series finales ever (or one of the worst). It simply was what it was. An efficiently told, occasionally silly hour of television that tied up a number of loose ends (maybe too many), while still leaving room for small areas of speculation and mystery. But as divisive as the episode might have been, it is nothing compared to the series finales of yore.
In many ways, series finales are like breakups, or maybe deaths, since you have usually been with a show for many years. In that time, you grow to have a relationship with that show, overlook some of its flaws, make excuses for its shortcomings (it was going through a rough patch in season 3!) and look forward to it week after week, even if you know it's bad for you. For most of us, the time we spent, say, puzzling over "Lost" far eclipses the amount of work we've ever put into an actual relationship. Which speaks volumes. But still.
All good things must come to an end and even if we are living through the "second golden age of television," these series will too have to come to a close at some point, with a number of high-profile shows (among them: "True Blood" and "Mad Men") coming to a hopefully fruitful conclusion in the next couple of years. Parting is such sweet sorrow, especially if it's a show on cable. Below, you can find the finales that left us satisfied and the ones that let us down.
The Best Finales
"The Wire" ("-30-," original airdate: March 9, 2008)
Despite the widespread acknowledgement that it came at the end of weakest of the show's five seasons, "The Wire" finale still earns its stripes for how it gracefully rounded off the epic Baltimore procedural that even now remains an unassailable touchpoint for many of us here. After all, even Peter Griffin's hypnotically induced mantra ” ‘Breaking Bad’ is the best TV show I’ve ever seen,” has to be qualified with “except maybe ‘The Wire.' ” Of course a great series doesn’t necessarily mean a great finale—in fact, where a film derives a lot of its shape and its purpose from the fact that it ends, a TV show is kind of defined by having to carry on; one of the obvious reasons why so many finales disappoint the loyal fan base is that they feel artificial to the format. But "The Wire," which had time called on it by its creator David Simon (who’s become somewhat crotchety at all the adulation after the fact), performed its dismount well because quite aside from the practical business of tying up the season’s plot points, it revisited everything that had made the show what it was and never fell into the trap of trying to dazzle us with last-minute pyrotechnics. Instead in the feature-length final episode we got an intelligent, understated ending, one that played to the great strength of episodic TV and to the great, great strength of this particular show: the sense that the situations and characters were real and alive outside those 60-minute glimpses that we all devoured so avidly. In fact, we’d go so far as to say that after a less-than-convincing fifth season (boo to McNulty’s fake serial killer, among other issues), the finale in many ways gave us our show back. A great deal of that happened during the elegiac grace note montage, as McNulty (Dominic West) looks out over Baltimore, that touches briefly on so many of those unforgettably real characters, some of whom we hadn’t seen for seasons (even the dockland mafiosi from the almost self-contained Season 2 get their moment). In some cases they’re seen in a moment of change or achievement, but mostly it’s just a sliver of their lives, lives that we can somehow believe go on, through more ups and downs and bits in between, even though we’re not watching them anymore. Anyway, we see enough to know what probably happens next: the new generation will play out a lot like the last one, because the more the game done changed, the more the game done stayed the same.
"Six Feet Under" ("Everyone's Waiting," original airdate: August 21, 2005)
Sure, there are all sorts of things that happen in the last episode of "Six Feet Under," written and directed by series creator Alan Ball, including tons of great ghost Nate moments (which are always good), but what the final episode of the series will forever be remembered for are its last few moments. As Claire finally leaves the funeral home (and the family), she starts to cry, and we do too: moments begin to flash by as she's driving away, first of the events and milestones that are coming up, some of which she will miss (Brenda and Nate's baby's first birthday, her gay brother David's wedding) and then, the stab-you-in-the-heart kicker that's only befitting a shot called "Six Feet Under"—every… character's… death. The deaths are varied (one character drops dead on a cruise ship, another is shot in an armed robbery), but always end with the show's signature fade to white (and the character's name and birth and death date). It's absolutely devastating (the Sia song doesn't exactly help matters), punctuated, at the very end, by Claire's own death, a fitting juxtaposition as she embarks on really starting her life. As the final moments for a show obsessed with death, it's utterly perfect, and as a comment on the nature of series finales, it's even better: there is no door left unopened, no possibility for spin-offs or movie adaptations. You saw how everyone, and not just the series itself, ended, in a spectacularly sad way. This was the ultimate bit of Alan Ball audacity, one that turned out to be a stunning ode to mortality and all of the experiences we collect in our long journey towards the grave; if you weren't openly weeping, then you probably weren't watching.
"Angel" ("Not Fade Away," original airdate: May 19, 2004)
The entire final season of Joss Whedon’s brilliant, deeply underrated “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spin-off “Angel” felt like it was running on borrowed time, even with a fresh transfusion of creative genius. With its sister show cancelled the previous year, “Angel” got some of that show’s cast members and best writers and used the opportunity to drastically reinvent itself; instead of a kind of supernatural detective series, it became a whacked-out lawyer show, like “L.A. Law” meets “Tales from the Crypt.” And the results were nothing short of brilliant. For its finale, the series, which never had the kind of budget or scope of 'Buffy,' instead focused inward on character, and the result, while lacking the bombast of the 'Buffy' finale, felt infinitely more satisfying. Soulful vampire Angel (David Boreanaz), finally fed up with the deal with the devil he made (with a law firm ominously named Wolfram & Hart), decides to break his contract and take down the company, once and for all. This involve lots and lots of hellish monsters breaking loose, and all sorts of painful double crosses (one, involving lovable demon Lorne, played by the dearly departed Andy Hallett, is one of the most simple, emotionally devastating reversals in the long, sad history of Whedon-orchestrated emotionally devastating reversals). Some of our heroes (including Wesley, played by Alexis Denisof) didn't make it to the end, and those that did were compromised but ultimately fighting the good fight. That was the message of "Angel" overall: never stop fighting. Or, in the words of Angel, during what can only be described as a cliffhanger both frustrating and triumphant, "Personally, I kinda want to slay the dragon."