Happy endings? TV’s Greatest Finales

We Are Cult looks back at some of the greatest closing chapters in TV history, from ‘Blackadder’ to ‘Battlestar Galactica’.

 A great finale can make or break a TV show. Is a great series with a bad finale then a bad series? Can a bad series redeem itself with a great ending? And what makes a fantastic series ending? One that ties everything up nicely, or one that leaves things hanging mysteriously in the air? Here are just some of the series finales that we consider truly special…

‘The Prisoner’ (1968)

Patrick McGoohan’s struttingly stylish cheese-dream of a series dipped its toe in surrealist waters before the big finale, but broadly stayed digestible to the average Joe. But when it came to the last episode writer, director and star Patrick McGoohan not only ignored Average Joe he stuck two fingers to him and his missus. “Who is Number One?” was the question viewers had been asking for the previous 16 episodes. McGoohan’s Number Six unmasked Number One, but it turned out to be himself. And then he machine guns his way out of the Village to the strains of All You Need Is Love to find himself in London, but is he still a prisoner? Well, quite.

Happy endings: The unveiling of Number One brought so many complaints to ITV that McGoohan claimed that he’d had to leave Britain because of it.

‘Blake’s 7’ (1981)

Though called ‘Blake’s 7’ for all of its four seasons, Blake himself had gone AWOL at the end of the second. The show’s final episode saw him return, this time living the grubby, hand-to-mouth life of a bounty hunter on the planet of Gauda Prime. His former crewmates, led by Avon, have crash-landed their ship the Scorpio there, but Blake sells them out to the Federation. Avon confronts Blake and shoots him dead, after which Federation troops rush in and shoot the crew of the Scorpio. The final shot is of a grinning Avon, surrounded by guns pointed at his head. And in a brilliantly open-ended final shot, the screen goes black, and gunshots play over the end credits.

Happy endings: There’s no way Avon could have got out of that, so presumably he went out in a blizzard of gunshots a la Butch & Sundance.

‘M*A*S*H’ (1983)

For three decades, the ‘M*A*S*H’ send-off was the most watched television event in US television history with a whopping 105.97 million viewers. The episode ‘Goodbye, Farewell & Amen’ was a two and half-hour TV special and marked the end for a series that had run to 251 episodes in 11 years – that’s eight years more than the Korean War itself. The last episode takes place as the War finishes, with the gang all going their separate ways. The show ends with BJ and Hawkeye lamenting how they will probably never see each other again, and as Hawkeye’s helicopter takes off he looks down on the ground and sees the word “goodbye” spelt out in stones. Pass the Kleenex, luv.

Happy endings: We never got to find out if BJ and Hawkeye did see each other again; Colonel Potter, Klinger and Father Mulcahy all did, however, as the stars of a short-lived and unloved sequel, ‘AfterMASH’.

‘Blackadder Goes Forth’ (1989)

Over six years, he’d bounced from the 15th Century to the 16th and 18th and then, one last time on the telly box, to the 20th, plonked into the mud-strewn trenches of the First World War. When the last episode aired, it was only a week before 1989’s Poppy Day and the smattering of still living veterans got a stirring and poignant tribute from an unlikely sitcom source. In the episode’s final moments, Captain Blackadder and his band of brothers reflected on their time in the trenches before the whistle was blown and all launched themselves over over the top to their certain deaths. Producer Lloyd has said that recording the scene was initially quite embarrassing, as the actors only had 15 feet in which to run before they reached the barbed wire in front of the camera, but the moment came together in post-production which slowed the action down and adding a mournful echoey piano version of the ‘Blackadder’ theme over it.

Happy Endings: That Edmund Blackadder may have perished, but the family line continued, with the Edmund of ‘Blackadder Back & Forth’.

‘Dallas’ (1991)

All went tits up for JR Ewing in ‘Dallas’s (original) final episodes. Miss Ellie had bequeathed Southfork to brother Bobby, and arch rival Cliff Barnes had wrestled control of Ewing Oil. With a bottle of bourbon in one hand and a pistol in the other, a dead-eyed JR contemplates suicide when an apparently benevolent spirit named Adam pops up (played by Joel Grey) and shows him what life would have been like for other people had he not been born. He then eggs JR on to kill himself but JR won’t do it, as he doesn’t want Adam to be sent back to Heaven with his job incomplete. “What makes you think I’m from Heaven?” Adam asks. His eyes then turn red and he bellows, “Do it!” as JR lifts the gun to his head. Cue gunshot sound as Bobby opens the door and exclaims, “Oh, my God!” A brave, but uncharacteristically fantasy-tinged, send-off for one of the ‘80s biggest soaps.

Happy Endings: Though intended as the last episode, the clan returned in a short series of TV movies between 1996 and 1998 and then a full series in 2012. And JR’s very much alive, it being explained that Bobby’s “Oh, my God!” was a reaction to JR shooting a mirror. Hmm…

‘Twin Peaks’ (1991)

Though creators David Lynch and Mark Frost were holding out for a third series (not knowing they’d be waiting 26 years for one), CBS yanked the plug and so a show that was sold on the headline-grabbing question of who killed Laura Palmer bid a final farewell with viewers asking “What the fuck was that all about?” With a nod to its soap opera roots, Lynch lays on cliffhanger after cliffhanger in the series finale as Audrey Horne is apparently blown to bits and Donna’s Dad seemingly kills local bigwig Ben Horne, while Agent Dale Cooper is busy bumping into dead friends and lovers in the Black Lodge, the extradimensional place where the forces of good and evil battle it out. Or something. The episode climaxes with Cooper having escaped the Lodge, only to go into the bathroom for a tooth brushing and see his reflection as Killer Bob, the series’s Big Bad and previous inhabiter of Leland Palmer

Happy endings: Lynch planned to follow the series with a run of ‘Twin Peaks’ movies. But the first and only one was a prequel, so the fates of Agent Cooper and the town’s finest and sexiest remain freeze-framed in 1991… For now…

‘Only Fools & Horses’ (2003)

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We thought we’d already said sayonara to them five years before when the Trotters finally became the millionaires they’d always wanted to be. But in 2001 they were back, bankrupt and back in the old flat for a coda run of three extra Christmas specials. In the final – and we’re promised it really is this time – episode, Rodney finally found out that his real dad was actually Freddie “The Frog” Robdal, fathered a daughter (named Joan, after his mum) and inherited £140,000 (Del got the same) from money invested by their Uncle Albert in his final days.

Happy endings: A millionaire lifestyle was never right for the Trotters. So this three-episode encore was actually good for the series.

‘Six Feet Under’ (2005)

The finale of Alan Ball’s bruise-black family drama was named Number 22 in ‘Time’ magazine’s 100 Best TV Episodes Of All Time. Nate is two episodes dead but is hanging around as a kind of spirit kind to the others. David takes over the funeral business and as Claire sets off for a fresh life in New York we flash-forward to each of the characters deaths: Ruth dies in a hospital bed, Keith is shot, David suffers a heart attack, Brenda collapses on her sofa, and finally Claire, who dies bedridden at the age of 102. It’s about as emotionally wrenching as finales go and even the old age make-up works, the show earning a Best Make-Up Emmy for its prosthetics.

Happy endings: Though the episode ends with the deaths of all the main characters, it’s made clear they’ve lived long and happy lives. So, it’s kind of good and bad, really.

‘The Sopranos’ (2007)

Few series finales have divided people like ‘The Sopranos’ ingeniously low-key send-off. James Gandolfini’s Tony meets up with his family in a local diner for meal of coke and onion rings, and we see a man intermittently staring at Tony before he goes to the loo. The screen smashcuts to black and the credits roll, leaving the audience to ask, does Tony die? “A big dud,” moaned one fan.

Any gangster fan knows what a trip to the loo means (see Michael Corleone in the restaurant scene of ‘The Godfather’), so the inference is Tony didn’t make it out of that diner.  “I have no interest in explaining, defending, reinterpreting, or adding to what is there,” creator David Chase said, defending himself. “No one was trying to be audacious, honest to God. We did what we thought we had to do. Anybody who wants to watch it, it’s all there.”

Happy endings: Chase has been deliberately opaque on whether Tony Soprano really did ending swimming with the fishes. But most people presume it wasn’t a happy ending for him.

‘Battlestar Galactica’ (2009)

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Galactica and its fleet had spent four years looking for Earth and in its final episodes, they, along with the humanoid Cylons, got there. They find the Earth of early humanity and decide to live alongside them but on their primitive terms, with the colonists destroying all their own technology by flying it into the sun. The episode ends with an epilogue 150,000 years later with projections of Number Six and Baltar wandering around a present day Times Square and wondering if what happened on Kobol will happen again. And it’s revealed that all present-day humans on Earth are in some small part descended from the half-human, half-Cylon girl named Hera Agathon.

Reaction to ‘Battlestar’s ending was decidedly mixed, with one newspaper noting that, “The desire to wrap everything up in a neat package – which is so contrary to the spirit of this show – hobbled the series creators.”

‘Battlestar Galactica’ executive producer Ronald D. Moore told Tor.com that although the series finale of ‘Battlestar’ turned out exactly as he’d intended, there were several alternate endings that were considered before the final version was produced.

Happy endings: With the final shots being of current day robots, the suggestion is this could happen again. But where would WE go?

‘Ashes To Ashes’ (2010)

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Whereas the ending of ‘Life on Mars’ looked pretty conclusive, its makers kept insisting during its sequel series’ run that they’d always intended to tell a much larger story. And that they did. The denouement of ‘Ashes To Ashes’ shed new light on Sam Tyler’s final moments in ‘Life on Mars’ and was a stunningly emotional finale to a sometimes erratic series.

In the final episode, it’s revealed that Gene Hunt actually died more than 50 years ago and that the world of ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Ashes To Ashes’ is a kind of purgatory – “a place where we sort ourselves out,” as Hunt says. And not only is Gene dead, but so are Alex, Ray, Shaz and Chris. All return to the Railway Arms, ‘LoM’s well-used boozer, which acts as a gateway to the afterlife. All but Gene pass on, as he returns to his office, about to welcome another lost soul from the present day.

Happy endings: While everyone else went onto the new life, Gene decided to stay in limbo, so there’s obviously still unfinished business with him.


Which series had the best series finale of all-time? If we missed your favourite, please add it in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Some fantastic choices here, particularly Ashes to Ashes and MASH. I’d like to tentatively add the finale to Quantum Leap to this list of great finales. That heart-stopping line, when the audience is told that Sam Beckett never returned home? And the slightly off-kilter conceit of the bartender, showing Sam that he’s in control of his own destiny. I can remember being genuinely shocked and saddened by the episode, as an impressionable 13 year old.

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