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Pressing Play on Goodbye

The best closing songs on television condense a symphony of material into a lasting chord. We celebrate the classics and chat with music supervisors about the selection process.

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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.

Just about every episode of Six Feet Under begins with an ending. A woman is bonked in the head by a golf ball. A comic book collector is crushed by one of his crowded bookshelves. A lightning strike, a frying pan, an elevator: All of them finish somebody off, right from the start. And all of that means new business for the main characters at the show’s core, the funeral parlor-owning/dwelling Fisher family.

Over the course of five seasons, the Fishers console and embalm, upsell and scrimp, host and lash out. They fend off a funerary conglomerate; they reel from losses of their own. They have built their names, and their livelihood, in an industry that graciously manages goodbyes. Which is why it should be no surprise that when it came time for the darkly funny, buoyantly morbid Six Feet Under to meet its end in 2005, its creators knew how to handle the final proceedings.

The 63rd and last episode of the series, “Everyone’s Waiting,” offers a gauzy swirl of reconciliation, violence, peace, death, love, boredom, and persistence. It forges ahead into the future but honors the past, providing closure while encouraging imagination. And, perhaps most memorably, it is elevated by a now-classic choice of outro music.

Claire Fisher, played by Lauren Ambrose, gets into her blue Prius, pops in a CD titled “Ted’s Deeply Unhip Mix” from her on-again-off-again boyfriend, and begins driving away from Los Angeles toward a new life in New York. As she speeds through space, the viewer hurtles through time, flashing forward through the lives and deaths of Claire and her loved ones—some too soon, some out of boredom, some violently, some of old age. For nearly seven minutes, “Breathe Me” by the Australian singer-songwriter Sia plays, all resilient piano riffs and wailing whimpers.

Claire may have had her ex to thank for such a fitting musical selection, but viewers can more directly credit some of the show’s creative stakeholders, like cocreator Alan Ball and a pair of music supervisors, Gary Calamar and Thomas Golubic, for crafting such a lasting impression. “We both knew this would be a big moment,” Golubic says. In his line of work, “the fun part for us is that we are all, like, nervous and a little bit heartbroken and terrified in the process,” he says. “And we just hope that it will be great at the end. And sometimes it is.”

Six Feet Under was indeed great at the end, its final sequence and song delivering the show’s last rites exactly right. “I always say,” jokes Calamar, “that I’m going to have that Sia song playing at my tombstone.” The Fisher family would certainly appreciate that kind of hereafter.

“Everyone. Everything. Everywhere. Ends.” promised the promotional posters for Six Feet Under I used to see plastered all over the New York City subway in the summer of 2005. And that “everything” encompasses television shows: No matter how popular and long-running a series is, it has to end sometime. And when it does, how will it sound?

Some shows opt to loop back to where it all started, like The Wire, which finished with a nod to the Season 1 version of its opening theme, the Blind Boys of Alabama’s “Way Down in the Hole.” Similarly, Malcolm in the Middle featured Citizen King’s “Better Days” in both its pilot and its final scenes. Other series honor the stiletto-wearing elders who stomped before them: When Gossip Girl signed off for the last time (the first last time, in 2012) it was to a Florence + the Machine cover of “You’ve Got the Love,” an earlier version of which, by the Source and Candi Staton, had closed out the 2004 Sex and the City finale.

In The Good Wife, a main character was dramatically slapped as Regina Spektor’s “Better” played to end the series. When Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” crescendoed in The Sopranos, the screen infamously cut to black. Shows like Lost and Better Call Saul (and, one would have to imagine, the upcoming Succession) concluded their runs not by highlighting a piece of licensed music, but by incorporating an original score. The Americans (“With or Without You”) and One Tree Hill (“One Tree Hill”) each went with U2. Other programs went for a twofer, like House, which paired the Warren Zevon tearjerker “Keep Me in Your Heart for Awhile” with the insistent ditty “Enjoy Yourself,” or Beverly Hills, 90210, which segued boldly from Kool and the Gang to the gang’s cool theme song. Freaks and Geeks featured two Grateful Dead songs in its gone-too-soon finale. (The hippie chick in the cafeteria who gushed that “I wish I never heard [the Dead] just so I could hear it again for the first time” was right on.)

“For the picture and the story and the music to come together in harmony—that, to me, is like the nirvana that I’m always looking for as a filmmaker,” says Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig. “You just kind of spend your career on each project looking for, you know, what’s that song going to be?” Selecting the right music to close out a TV series—especially a particularly layered one like Six Feet Under—is no easy assignment. It’s like being tasked with distilling a whole symphony down to one representative chord. When it’s off—Seinfeld randomly incorporating Green Day, as if it’s a moving-out episode of a Real World season?—it clanks. When it’s done well, though, the notes ring clear and true.

Look no further than You’re the Worst and “No Children” by the Mountain Goats, each of them by turns chipper and bitter, together a match made in—and I mean this as a compliment—hell. In 2019, showrunner Stephen Falk told Vox that he had asked Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle if anyone ever found “No Children” romantic. (The song includes the lyrics “I hope you die.”) “And [Darnielle] told me, ‘You would be shocked by how many people have asked me to come play it at their weddings,’” Falk said. Or look at Mad Men, whose use of a famous Coca-Cola jingle written by a Madison Avenue ad exec dovetailed perfectly with Don Draper’s career aspirations, his lost loves, and his new (gong) vibrations.

Or The Americans and its choice of “With or Without You,” which situates viewers not only in the show’s era—the finale is set in 1987, the same year The Joshua Tree was released—but also in the show’s psyche, with lyrics like “My hands are tied” and a general aura of righteous suffering. Cocreator Joel Fields told reporters in 2018 that he’d experimented with “hundreds” of tunes over top of the episode’s grueling, climactic montage, but also that he would not be naming any of them out of fear that people would start releasing remixes on YouTube.

“There’s certain songs that I describe as life songs,” says Liza Richardson, a music supervisor whose portfolio includes Friday Night Lights, Parenthood, and The Leftovers, among many, many others. “For Friday Night Lights, I just remember looking for songs that lyrically were just about life, and bringing it all together.”

At the conclusion of the program’s fifth and last season, as players move on and Coach Taylor heads home, the song that plays, Delta Spirit’s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” includes these very life song lyrics: “May good luck find you at your worst / And bad love lose you at your best.” In a 2011 interview, FNL showrunner Jason Katims said that he had originally planned to set the end of the series to a Coach Taylor speech but that it didn’t quite land. He followed the music instead.

All three supervisors I spoke with had followed the music too: to KCRW, the legendary Santa Monica–based public radio station. Richardson arrived there in 1991 from Dallas; she also worked on a few movies and commercials (the iPod!) before joining Friday Night Lights, her first TV gig. Like many actors at the time, she was somewhat unsure about the medium of television but was soon convinced. “I kind of thought I was on this track to just be a film music supervisor,” she says. “But, like, little did I know how that would change everything. And now, I mean, I still do films for sure, but I really focus on scripted drama, episodic.”

Calamar and Golubic were also at KCRW, having both started out as volunteers. When they got the Six Feet Under job, they were “pretty green,” says Calamar. “And I think, you know, Alan Ball and Alan Poul, the coproducer, were fans of KCRW, and I guess they liked us. They gave us a chance.” What the two lacked in seniority they made up for with an encyclopedic knowledge of deep cuts and emerging artists. What’s more, KCRW represented the very music that might be playing over the radios at the Fisher house during a mother-daughter fight or a routine embalming. “Six Feet Under was kind of a perfect first big project for me and Gary,” Golubic says. The series featured songs ranging from Death Cab for Cutie to Joni Mitchell.

In advance of the fifth and final season, a promo trailer for Six Feet Under ran that featured cars driving down desert roads while that classic Sia song played. Hearing about music decisions sounds a lot like hearing about casting, from budget constraints to intriguing “we almost went with …” stories. Like this one, or this one: At one point, the band Arcade Fire wrote a haunting, searing original song called “Cold Wind” that was possibly going to be used in that Season 5 trailer. But the song wasn’t ready on time. (It was eventually used in a mid-season scene and included on the show’s official soundtrack.) Calamar had been playing “Breathe Me” on his radio show, having been introduced to Sia through her work with the band Zero 7. “It was one of the songs that we pitched along with several others,” Calamar says. “And no, I don’t remember what the others were.”

“I remember hearing the Sia song, and I went, ‘That’s it. That’s it right there,’” Ball says. “‘You don’t need to play me the other ones.’ There were alternates, but I don’t remember any of them.” When it came time for the finale, Golubic says, “We were assembling ideas ahead of time, just different interpretations, and Alan was the one that said, ‘I think I know what it’s going to be.’ And he said, ‘That song that you guys introduced me to, that we used in the trailer.’” Calamar would go on to work with Ball again, on True Blood—which wrapped up its seventh and last season with Led Zeppelin’s “Thank You”—as well as House, alongside another music supervisor, Lynn Grossman.

“My wife reminded me,” says Calamar, that he was told “that they wanted a Sia ‘Breathe Me’ for the end of House. They wanted a song that [was] going to have the weight that that did. I said, ‘Oh boy.’”

In 2017, Vulture ran a story ahead of the Girls finale that speculated: “What Will the Girls Finale’s Closing Credits Song Be?” The piece had some excellent guesses, ranging from a “Dancing on My Own” callback to some Taylor Swift or Britney Spears, but none were quite right. Instead, Lena Dunham ended the series with herself singing Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to a baby: “a voice of a generation” cooing at the next one. What sticks out most from the Vulture piece, though, might be the absence of the ascendant phrase “needle drop,” which would never happen in 2023.

Golubic compares the phrase to using “Beantown” to refer to Boston, while Richardson says: “People, just, yeah, they think that’s the lingo, and maybe it is, but I don’t use it.”

All that said, in the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks, there really is a needle drop. The famously short-lived but perfect single-season show has its own follow-the-music finale in which a guidance counselor encourages Lindsay to turn on, tune in, and drop out, handing her the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. She goes home and places it on her record player for the first time, queuing up “Box of Rain” again and again.

When Feig was working on that scene, he basically did the same thing as Lindsay. Far from a Deadhead himself, he bought a book on the subject and also polled friends on what album to start with; they suggested American Beauty. (In other words: Lindsay and Sam’s last name being Weir was a coincidence, not a nod to Bob.) “Basically, I became Lindsay Weir in that episode while researching how to write that episode,” says Feig. “The first thing that comes on is ‘Box of Rain,’ and I was just like, ‘Oh my god.’ I think I’d never heard that song before. I played it over and over again because I just couldn’t believe how great it was.”

In the show’s last minutes, another Dead song, “Ripple,” plays as Lindsay lies to her parents and takes off on a new adventure. Watching it, I felt a pang of nostalgic excitement for the trajectory of someone else’s fictional life that seemed so real I could cry. It is a satisfying last moment—despite the fact that, Feig says, it wasn’t supposed to be the end. “I wrote it to feed into the next season,” he says, even though he also sensed that Freaks and Geeks might get canceled. His goal was to leave his characters in some position to change.

“So many times, like, I’d have a friend who was a nerd,” says Feig, “and they come back [from summer break] and they were completely like, druggie, you know? And you’re like, ‘What the fuck happened to you?’”

For Calamar, it was The Wonder Years that first really piqued his attention to how music could enhance television. “They were using all these, you know, nostalgic ’60s songs,” he says of the show. “And for me, that kind of opened my eyes.” Shows like The Wonder Years and, later, Freaks and Geeks featured amazing music, which was a blessing and a curse: Because a lot of the licensing had been done without things like DVD sales or streaming in mind, getting the shows into those mediums took some lengthy work.

Some of the most interesting choices for ends of an era exist on far sides of the “to license or not to license” spectrum. On one pole is a show like ER, which eschews outside assistance and ends neatly with its recognizably synthy theme song, simple as. (Watching it now, there’s such a cool, snappy minimalism to the moment, the sonic equivalent of when you used to turn off a TV back in the day and the screen imploded inward into a tiny, powerful central dot.) On the other end of the spectrum is a program like the underrated four-season Halt and Catch Fire, which takes a popular, frequently used song, Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” and still manages to make it feel fresh. To Golubic—who, in addition to supervising the show’s music, made in-depth playlists for a number of the characters that AMC released on Spotify—Joe is a character who would have been in early on, say, Gabriel’s first solo album in 1977. Which meant that he could mine that for emotion in a final scene set nearly two decades later.

“What was so nice about it,” says Golubic, “was it allowed us to land on Joe in a way that gave us a sense of like—of course he’s a teacher. Like, of course he’s trying to find the next generation that will move those things forward. And there’s a nostalgia with ‘Solsbury Hill.’” As with Six Feet Under, we see into the future at the same time we’re moved by the past.

One of the biggest misconceptions about his industry, Calamar says, is that the music supervisor always gets to pick. Sure, sometimes the music they’re supplying is what makes the cut, but, “A lot of times, I’ll think, ‘Oh my god, I have this most amazing song to close the series with,’” he laughs. “And they’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, why don’t you go?’” Golubic recalls not quite understanding what Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan was going for when he went with Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” to close the curtain on Walter White. (The song was one of many “blue”-themed songs that Golubic had gathered on a playlist in honor of White’s “blue sky” product.)

“I didn’t know what he was doing,” Golubic says. “You know, it’s like, a love song, and it’s just a weird ending. It made no sense to me at all.” He wondered if Gilligan was testing him to see if he pushed back. “And then I looked at the sequence,” Golubic says, “and a light bulb went off, and I was like, it’s a love story. It’s always been a love story.”

Looking ahead, one of Richardson’s most recent projects has been Barry, which will air its series finale over Memorial Day weekend after four seasons. “I love the way Bill [Hader] uses music in the show, because it’s epic. Sound design, score, songs. Almost everything he does, to me, is so carefully thought out and never more than it needs to be, which makes the silence more effective.” Richardson can’t share hints about music in the finale, but she gets a little kick out of all of the secrecy. “Even when we’re requesting songs, we have to be very, very careful about the language, because there are a lot of Barry fans out there,” she says. “Like, yesterday I had lunch with a licensor, and he was like, ‘I didn’t even want to look at the song description because I didn’t want to ruin anything!’”

Recently, Golubic and some of his buddies recorded an episode of their podcast, Deep Cuts Lost and Found, in which they bantered about what makes a good album closer. One of his friend’s suggestions—“Tomorrow Never Knows” by the Beatles, off of Revolver—got him thinking.

“That’s a perfect album closer, because it shows you an exciting, dynamic, and completely surreal way of where the world may go thereafter,” Golubic says. “And for me, great closers are great beginnings. And to me, that’s a great beginning, and it makes you excited about where life will lead you. And I guess that’s what you hope with a great ending for a TV show. It shows you a glimpse of the road ahead.”

Maybe that road ahead is about to be traversed by Claire Fisher’s blue Prius or Dr. House’s getaway motorcycle or Joe MacMillan’s Porsche or Meadow Soprano’s Lexus. Maybe it is the path forward for a pair of Russian spies back in the motherland or the road map for two women in Texas tech or the tour route for Lindsay Weir and Kim Keller’s Deadhead shaggin’ wagon. The best thing a viewer can do is pop in a deeply unhip mix, say goodbye to a series, and remember to enjoy the ride.

Alan Siegel contributed reporting to this piece.

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