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This Is the End

Creating an iconic television series is easy. Figuring out how to end it in a way that satisfies both the creators and the audience is the hard part.

HBO/FX/Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

Hey, you may have heard, but Succession is ending this week. (And so are Barry and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, by the way.) To mark the occasion, we’re looking at the very idea of TV finales themselves this week: how to get them right, how to pick the perfect song for them, and why they may matter less in the streaming era. And naturally, we’re ranking them. Check back all week to help us celebrate—we like to think of it more like an Irish wake than a funeral.

The setting was as breathtaking as the ending. Filming the final scene of Mad Men on an oceanside cliff in Big Sur, California, Jon Hamm couldn’t help but be taken by his surroundings. “It was hard to find a bad angle on it,” he says.

But the serene landscape didn’t help Hamm shake his performance anxiety. “It was kind of like, ‘Better not fuck this up,’” he says. “I better get something that we like.”

The shot, a slowly tightening close-up of the meditating Don Draper’s face, was tricky. “There was a question,” Hamm says. “Should he smile? Should he not? Should it be ambiguous, a Mona Lisa smile kind of a thing?”

With series creator Matthew Weiner watching from the director’s chair, Hamm overcame his nerves. “I just remember coming back to thinking, ‘OK, Matt’s looking at it. I have to just give it up and do what I think is right,’” he says.

In the show’s closing seconds, a smile slowly forms on Don’s face. Then, after a loud chime, the episode cuts to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” maybe the most iconic television commercial of all time. After Don spends the final season on a cross-country trip in search of inner peace, the audience looks on as it seems that he’s finally found it. And then the twist: It’s just another classic eureka moment. Don Draper’s an ad man, and that’s the only thing he’ll ever be. “I know Matt really had that image of Don on a cliff at the end of the earth in a moment of zen. This iconic pitch,” Hamm says. “He had shared that with me a long time ago. So I had to sit on that for a while. But like anything else, the journey getting there is even more exciting sometimes.”

“Person to Person,” which aired in May 2015, is widely considered one of the best finales of the Peak TV era. By providing closure and giving the audience one last sharp glimpse into its characters, it elevated an already all-time-great drama.

That’s the power of an ending: It’s what we remember. And fairly or not, the final episode of a show can make or break its legacy. A good one proves to viewers that the yearslong emotional investment was worth it. A bad one can make them feel like they’ve wasted their time.

Naturally, sticking the landing can be a pressure-packed process. After all, creators want a fitting conclusion as badly as the audience does. They’ve also put hours upon hours into their series. They too want to feel like Hamm did after the Mad Men finale. “I keep coming back to the word ‘satisfying,’” he says. “As a person playing that character for so long, it was really worth it.”

In the last scene of The Sopranos, Tony walks into a restaurant. After sitting down at a booth, he puts two coins in the jukebox and picks a song: Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” As his family arrives, he looks around and uncomfortably clocks all of the diner’s characters, some of whom seem vaguely suspicious. Eventually, he looks up from a plate of onion rings—and the screen abruptly cuts to black.

As the credits rolled on the episode in June 2007, a portion of the audience wondered whether the suburban gangster they’d grown to love had been murdered. Others, like future Better Call Saul cocreator Peter Gould, wondered whether the cable had gone out. “We did think our TV had broken briefly,” he says. “But then once we knew what we watched, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’”

While the episode was divisive at first, fans and critics have come to the realization that “Made in America” is the quintessential modern TV ending: profoundly shocking, ambitious, ambiguous, and ultimately satisfying. Whether Tony Soprano died or lived on and on and on was immaterial; the audience was finally seeing the world through the mob boss’s paranoid eyes. At any moment, he knew that his time might soon be up.

When David Chase thought up the final scene, he pitched it to two Sopranos writers, Weiner and Terence Winter, who loved the idea. “David has said himself many times: He’s trying to do something different,” says Winter, who went on to pull off his own memorable finale with HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. “He’s trying to entertain people, he’s trying to do something unexpected. That was the motivation. It wasn’t to mess with the audience. It was like, ‘I’m going to do something you haven’t seen before.’”

Yet as bold as the moment was, it didn’t come out of nowhere. In the show’s world, nothing ever wrapped up tidily, so a murky conclusion just fit. The Sopranos ending may be sui generis, but it shares one thing with all great finales: It is, Six Feet Under creator Alan Ball says, “surprising but familiar at the same time.” There’s no one way to get there, but a great finish builds on what came before—and never undermines it.

“Ultimately, a good ending is going to be the inevitable result of everything that came before,” says Joel Fields, one of the showrunners of The Americans. “So it’s not as if one can apply some rules to the end and make a last episode work. You have to have all of the luck of everything accruing up until that point.”

Deep into the making of Better Call Saul, which aired its final episode in August 2022, Gould and the Breaking Bad spinoff’s writers finally landed on an idea that was thorny but logical: Saul Goodman going to jail. “He really deserves to be in prison,” Gould says. “He’s been the master of screwing around with the justice system. He’s been one of the gears that grinds people through the justice system. Maybe he needs to get ground through. Maybe that would make sense.”

Sometimes what makes sense is just obvious, even if it takes years to realize it. Ball couldn’t see the ending of Six Feet Under until he and his staff started to write the fifth and final season. “I wish I could remember who pitched it because it wasn’t me, but somebody said, ‘We should just kill all the characters.’ And we laughed. And then somebody said, ‘No, seriously, we should just be with each character when they die,’” says Ball, whose show ended in 2005. “And I was like, ‘Well, duh. Of course.’”

The deeply moving final montage of the series, set to Sia’s “Breathe Me,” toggles between Lauren Ambrose’s Claire driving across the desert and a set of flash-forwards revealing each of the main characters’ future lives—and deaths. The sequence is bittersweetly startling, yet there’s an obvious rationale to it. Six Feet Under is, after all, a show about mortality.

To Fields and creator Joe Weisberg, the only logical way to end The Americans was to focus on the titular characters. Undercover Russian spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings piled up more bodies in the ’80s than Rambo; it only makes sense that they blow their covers and flee to their homeland. But the show’s Cold War plots meant less to the narrative than the family drama did. The most mind-blowing moment in the series comes in the finale, when the Jenningses’ daughter, Paige, gets off their Canada-bound train—ensuring that she won’t be joining her parents in the U.S.S.R.

“If you look at any of the individual stories for the show, the kind of running thing you start to notice is that the spy stories don’t have the import the characters think they do,” says Weisberg, whose series aired its final episode in May 2018. “The characters think these are very vital things for the history of their countries, and really, most of the time they’re not. So I think it was pretty natural. It was just our storytelling that we’ve been doing for years to have a finale that kind of functioned the same way.”

Small stories can still have high stakes. Just look at Pen15. The coming-of-age Y2K dramatic comedy ended in December 2021 with a finale that saw Maya and Anna, its teenage main characters, endure terrifyingly difficult experiences—realistically heightened versions of the kinds of situations that the show explored during its two-season run. “It was so exciting for us to talk about the underbelly and the darkness and the things that kids aren’t supposed to be going through that we all know that they’re going through,” says Anna Konkle, who created and starred in the show with her longtime friend Maya Erskine. “And the emotions that we’re still grappling with as adults.”

The finale was crushing. But just like all the previous episodes, it also had silly and uplifting moments. “That was sort of the DNA of the show,” Konkle adds. “We do love the finale, I can say. I can’t say that about every single episode.”

Sometimes it takes awhile to come to the end. And sometimes, the end comes before the beginning. Rachel Bloom remembers knowing how she and cocreator Aline Brosh McKenna would wrap up Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before the CW even agreed to pick up the show. In the last moment of a cathartic final episode, Bloom’s character, Rebecca Bunch—who spends the entire series staging imaginary, elaborate musical numbers in her head—sits down at a keyboard to perform publicly for the first time. “This is a song I wrote,” she says. Then, before she hits a single note, the screen cuts to black.

Crazy Ex was specific in that we pitched the series finale,” says Bloom, whose series finished in April 2019 with both the scripted finale and a concert special. “Every network we pitched to knew the series finale, so that part of that arc was inherent in our pitch. We always pitched a propulsive four-season show that ended with her saying, ‘This is a song I wrote.’ The journey to get there, obviously, was the more complicated part. When you have your ending, you know where you need to get. But how do you get there?”

In TV, production shifts, cuts, and cancellations can make getting there difficult. When HBO sliced the final season of Boardwalk Empire from 12 to eight episodes, Winter had to trim the show’s potentially climactic story lines, including the murder of crime boss Arnold Rothstein, who’s played by the scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg. In the final season, the killing is alluded to but unseen. “We had to jump over Rothstein’s death, which happened in reality a couple years earlier,” Winter says. “And I said, ‘Well, maybe we could do it in flashback.’ But then it just never really made sense organically. So that was my big regret, is to never give Michael Stuhlbarg his final send-off.”

In October 2014, Winter’s series did get a final send-off, a fittingly bleak episode that ends with Steve Buscemi’s Atlantic City kingpin Nucky Thompson paying for his sins.

But some shows don’t even have that opportunity. “For every single TV show and many movies, you have to fight for every inch,” says Bashir Salahuddin, one of the cocreators of South Side, which started on Comedy Central before moving to HBO Max. “You’ve got to fight every season for your ideas.” Because the Chicago-set comedy wasn’t a ratings monster, Salahuddin says that he and the writers had to approach all three of the show’s season finales as if they were series finales: “Let’s assume we’re not coming back. What do we want to leave folks with?”

While making Season 3, they didn’t know whether HBO Max would renew the show. “Frankly, we sort of said, ‘Hey, you know what? Everything we’ve gotten, we’ve had to fight for,’” Salahuddin says. “‘Let’s assume we are not getting a Season 4. We want it. And let’s go really big.’ For us, those were the ingredients.”

“Littlepalooza,” which premiered in December 2022 and turned out to be the final episode of South Side, features characters living in a cave, a killer robot, rapper Cordae playing himself and his twin, and scenes shot at the real Lollapalooza. It’s an absurdist spectacle. Which was the point. “Still play by the rules you’ve created. But do something big,” says Salahuddin, who plays Tom Cruise’s character’s buddy Hondo Coleman in Top Gun: Maverick. “We’re telling stories about Black folk from the South Side of Chicago in a comedic light. Haven’t really seen that, right? And so now that just gives us just a little more room to make these things more different.”

Like Salahuddin, Gould knows that when you make TV shows for a living, going out on your own terms is a luxury. “It’s super rare,” he says. “One of the greatest compliments of my professional life is going to be when Charlie Collier, who was then the head of AMC, called and said, basically, ‘How many seasons do you want [Better Call Saul] to go? Think about it. Whatever you choose, that’ll be good with us.’ It’s wonderful.”

Looking back, Bloom feels lucky CW gave her a chance to end her show exactly the way she wanted. “Everything with Crazy Ex-Girlfriend continues to not make sense to me,” she says. “I don’t understand how it happened, and I understand how it happened even less now than I did then because the industry is so imploding right now. I don’t understand how a musical show not starring a famous person, not based on IP, not with jukebox songs, with original music, lasted for four fucking years.”

“This is a song I wrote,” the six-word last line of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is special to Bloom. “I have it tattooed on my thigh,” she says.

While writing the Six Feet Under finale, Ball cried. “Several times,” he says. “The dogs were looking at me. Like, ‘What? What’s wrong?’”

The idea of leaving a show, characters, and—most important—colleagues was hard for Ball to think about. “Everybody loved the work that they were doing,” he says. “Everybody felt like they wanted to contribute as much as they could to this thing that we all believed in. And those experiences can be rare in television.”

Think about how you felt when the screen cut to black and you realized you’d never see Tony Soprano again; or when Don Draper smiled on that grassy cliff; or when Jimmy gave Kim the finger guns for the last time. Parting with a character you’ve spent hours upon hours with can be painful—genuine loss is inherent to the viewing experience of series finales. Now think about how it must feel for the people who invented those characters. Gould worked with much of the same crew on both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. He didn’t want the run to end, even if he knew it should. “It was about as good a situation as you can hope for in life,” he says. “It’s only human to want to hang on to that. It’s almost a little bit perverse for us to say, ‘No, this has to end. This has to end.’ But we had to follow where the story took us.”

For Konkle and Erskine, who played middle schoolers alongside actual middle schoolers in Pen15, ending the show meant leaving adolescence for a second time. “We got to go back to childhood in a controlled way where we get to choose what we do,” Konkle says. “There’s something really incredible about that, really healing and hard.”

The end, it should be noted, isn’t always romantic or intimate. During the last day of filming on Six Feet Under, Ball was in a helicopter shooting footage of Claire driving her blue Prius across the desert. And on the day Bloom shot Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s very last musical number, she was sick. “I had a bad cold, so they gave me, like, a ginger-beet smoothie juice to help,” Bloom says. “But it gave me the runs.” Still, she managed to perform the song in a tight time frame—in between bathroom trips.

Hamm had a slightly easier time finishing filming for Mad Men. But it was still overwhelming. The last scene he shot as Don wasn’t his Big Sur epiphany. It was a phone call between the ad man and his ex-wife Betty, who tells him she has cancer.

“You’re doing the scene with an audience at this point, because there’s nothing else to do,” Hamm says. “There’s no prep meetings, there’s nothing that anyone has to be there for. So all of the departments are basically standing around on the stage, and it’s even more of an emotional experience because you’re actually going through it with all these other people. So it was tremendous. It was the way it should have ended.”

Afterward, Hamm needed weeks to decompress. “It was just a lot,” he says. “The emotions that come with working on something at such a high level—it’s such an intense relationship to the work and it takes up so much of your day, and your year, and your week. That part of it—I think a lot of people don’t understand until you go through it.”

When the end comes, there are usually questions.

Everyone still wonders whether Tony Soprano is dead. People still interrogate Fields and Weisberg about whether FBI agent Stan Beeman’s wife Renee is, as Philip implies in The Americans finale, also a Russian spy. “And they get the same exact answer,” Weisberg says. “Which isn’t even ‘We’re not telling.’ It’s ‘We don’t know.’”

Crazy Ex fans still approach Bloom and ask why Rebecca didn’t end up with one of the men she dated over the course of the show. “I definitely run into people a lot who are like, ‘If you had to choose, would it be Josh, Greg, or Nathaniel?’” Bloom says. “It felt like this, and it still kind of feels like this: We came into someone’s life who was already existing, we fucked it up for the sake of a narrative, and then we left. From the moment she says, ‘This is a song I wrote,’ she has free will. So it could go in a million different directions.”

In TV, there are no alternate endings. But it’s hard not to at least imagine how things could be different. Gould, for example, acknowledges that Better Call Saul could’ve ended more bleakly. “By Episode 9 of this final season, we knew how [Jimmy] had become Saul Goodman,” he says. “We actually jumped past a lot of the mechanics because I think that when Kim [Wexler] left, it told you everything you really needed to know about how he became Saul. There’s one version of the show where that was the end. That could have been the end, but we didn’t really feel like we were finished with the character.”

In the final moments of Pen15, Maya and Anna contemplate how their friendship will evolve as they grow up. While you’re watching the scene, it’s easy to start to envision them as their older selves. “There was a version where there was a future scene, seeing us as adults,” Konkle says. “That was a very serious consideration. And I think a lot of people would’ve loved that. I feel like every once in a while, Maya and I still will talk about it but kind of don’t get deep into it. ’Cause it’s like, ‘Well, that’s [the ending] we did, and we love it.’”

In the end, second-guessing is futile. “Once it’s out,” Barry cocreator and star Bill Hader says, “it’s not yours anymore.” The ending belongs to the audience. And all you can hope for is that it sticks with them.

“To me, the perfect ending for [a] show is one where the characters live on in your mind,” Gould says, “and we’ve given you enough information that your imagination kind of takes over.”

But every so often, a series chooses not to leave everything up to the imagination. The final montage of Six Feet Under is in itself a complete story, one that Alan Ball adored telling. “There are so many moments that I just love, and I just love the way the actors portrayed them,” he says. “It really felt, by the end of it, like a family to me.”

It wasn’t just Ball’s goodbye to his show. It was his goodbye to one of the greatest experiences of his life. “There’s that saying, ‘When one door closes, another door opens.’ The reverse is also true. When one door opens, another one closes,” he says. “And I think one of the things subconsciously I was trying to accomplish in that episode was just the acknowledgment that we have to leave things. We have to leave things that we love, and that’s just a part of life.”


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