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End Game: TV’s Best and Worst Series Finales

From ‘Lost’ to ‘The Sopranos,’ these are last episodes that got it right — and very, very wrong

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler,

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, in the last episode of 'The Sopranos.'

HBO/Everett Collection

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.)

Rita Moreno, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, B.D. Wong

Rita Moreno, Ernie Hudson, Terry Kinney, B.D. Wong in 'Oz' on HBO.

HBO/Everett Collection

Worst: ‘Oz’

Before The Sopranos sold HBO as more than TV, Tom Fontana’s cellblock soap opera was a precursor of the antihero boom and the first to suggest that the premium cable network was capable of being a major player. By the time the series was ready to say goodbye to the guards, employees and inmates of Em City, however, it had already starting skirting the absurd — and its finale was a deep dive into straight-up camp. Seriously, when your big dramatic set piece involves a convict staging of Macbeth and switching out a prop knife for a real one (et tu, J.K. Simmons?), you’re in trouble. Some fan favorites get their revenge, other gets their comeuppance and one gets the chair — but everything is handled so sloppily that you can feel episode’s worth of build-up deflating and wheezing to standstill. Our last moment with Oz‘s residents finds them stuck on a bus going nowhere — an unfortunately apt metaphor.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886039g)William Christopher, Jamie Farr, David Ogden Stiers, Alan AldaMash - 1972-198320th Century FoxTelevision

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886039g) William Christopher, Jamie Farr, David Ogden Stiers, Alan Alda Mash - 1972-1983 20th Century Fox Television

20th Century Fox/Kobal/Shutterst

Best: ‘MASH’

After spinning 11 years of comedy out of a three-year war, the most popular sitcom of the 1970s bowed out with a quintuple-length episode containing nearly everything great about the show: quippy banter, a powerful “war is hell” sentiment, and a daring hybrid of humor and drama. Co-written and directed by star Alan Alda, the finale — titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” — starts dark, telling an unsettling story about Hawkeye Pierce recovering from a nervous breakdown. But by the end, fans get the conclusion they’d been waiting for, as the men and women of the 4077th were finally heading home. An audience of 125 million (still the biggest-ever for a non-sports broadcast) saw a decade of devotion rewarded with a long, emotional last embrace, which acknowledges both how badly these characters wanted to leave Korea behind, and how much they’d be missed. It remains the gold standard for series send-offs.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Touchstone/Abc/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886300d)Matthew FoxLost - 2004-2010Touchstone / ABCUSAScene Still

Matthew Fox Lost - 2004-2010 Touchstone / ABC USA Scene Still

Touchstone/Abc/Kobal/Shutterstoc

Worst: ‘Lost’

When the time came for this sprawling sci-fi mystery about airplane-crash survivors stranded on a mystical island to cough up the answers to its countless questions, Lost largely balked. But as frustrating as that was (we still don’t know who shot at the outrigger — maybe it was the missing Russian from The Sopranos?), the series finale committed a far worse crime: It revealed that the “flash-sideways” storyline, in which the main characters lived in an alternate world where they’d never crashed on the Island, was some kind of corny new-age afterlife. In other words, half of what the audience had spent the final episodes watching literally never happened. “We have to go back!” may have been the series’ most famous catchphrase, but this short-sighted decision makes the series hard to happily revisit.

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler

James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Robert Iler, in the last episode of 'The Sopranos.'

HBO/Everett Collection

Best: ‘The Sopranos’

This is the big one. When the final scene of the final episode of the show that launched the New Golden Age of TV abruptly cut to black — without revealing if mob boss Tony Soprano lived or died, and without letting Steve Perry finish the chorus of “Don’t Stop Believing” — the result was, in the words of Paulie Walnuts, “fuckin’ mayham.” Was Tony executed by the mysterious man in the Members Only jacket? Did he finish his meal and continue his life of depression and paranoia, always wondering when his rivals would dump him in the Pine Barrens? Is it a bleak statement on life as purgatory of uncertainty, led by people who can never change? Is it a hopeful plea that despite it all, we should never stop believing? Every possible answer has its passionate partisans even now, and the eight-year-old episode is still obsessed over like it was the Zapruder film. The Sopranos‘ finale took a midnight train goin’ anywhere, and we’re all still along for the ride.

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