Don Draper will fall out of a skyscraper window, turning those ominous opening credits into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Don Draper will be revealed to be airborne-heist legend D.B. Cooper. Don Draper will wake up next to Suzanne Pleshette, who’ll tell him it’s all been a dream. Regardless of how Mad Men goes out next week — with a bang, a whimper or a sudden cut to black in the middle of a Journey song — Matthew Weiner’s canon-worthy TV show will be judged by whether its finale sticks the landing or not. For better or worse, how a series handles its last hurrah can often determine its legacy: A great send-off can gain it entry into the television equivalent of Valhalla. Slap a cop-out ending to a beloved show, however, and you’d better be prepared to kiss seven or eight seasons of good will goodbye.
So as we brace ourselves for what is sure to be a hotly contested and endlessly analyzed last hour of Mad Men, we look back at a handful of the best and worst series finales of the past few decades. Some are textbook examples of how to bow out as gracefully as possible; others are perfect cautionary tales of last-episode pooch-screwing; and a couple remain so divisive that it’s likely we’ll be debating them until the end of time. (Did Tony Soprano actually die in that last moment? And does it ultimately matter one way or the other?) Regardless, these are the notable showstopping installments worth studying as a way to do it right — or very, very wrong.
(And yes: Here There Be Spoilers. Tons of them. You’ve been duly warned.)