As you may have heard, Battlestar Galactica, the most geek-friendly show on TV, came to an end last week. It was a stirring finale, and one that has garnered more than a little controversy in certain online circles. So it got me to thinking: How does it stack up to other great finales? Which has led to this list, all about the best television swan songs.
As a note, shows which didn't get a chance at a real finale, like Firefly or My So-Called Life, weren't considered. Also, there will be spoilers, so read at your own discretion. You have been warned.
Now to start the countdown:
10. "Exeunt Omnes," Oz
For such an innovative and influential show, Oz is rather underrated. It rarely pops up on lists of best TV series, and it's relatively difficult to find out any substantial information about the show online. I mean, this is the show that, with its stark depictions of brutal violence and graphic sexuality, not to mention its sharp and perceptive character studies and social commentaries, paved the way for such later HBO series as The Sopranos and Deadwood. It didn't break the mold, it created the mold. And it remained true to that mold until its final 100 minutes, in which all of the major storylines were resolved in fitting and, in some cases, desperately depressing ways. At the end, everyone is forced to evacuate the prison, leaving behind the ground on which so much blood was shed and so much cocaine was snorted. As dense and dark as ever.
9. "Discos and Dragons," Freaks and Geeks
Unlike so many shows that got canceled after just one season, Freaks and Geeks had a creative team that knew the axe was about to fall and who decided to actually go out with a real ending instead of praying for another year. Daniel finds happiness at a Dungeons & Dragons game, Nick finds disappointment on the disco floor, and Lindsay finds herself by listening to the Grateful Dead's American Beauty, surely the sweetest and least embarrassing spiritual transformation the Dead have ever been responsible for. It's a typically hilarious and poignant hour of perhaps the most down-to-earth and realistic teen saga television has yet to see, and if it doesn't seem to have the immenseness or finality of a last chapter, that's because it wasn't meant to. These kids have got their whole lives ahead of them.
8. "Made in America," The Sopranos
"Made in America" was forever embedded in the collective cultural conscience as soon as it ended; its infamous cut-to-black ending was so widely reported and commented on that even Hillary and Bill Clinton did a parody of it. But by focusing on that last ambiguous parting shot from creator David Chase, we run the risk of forgetting just how beautifully structured and executed an hour of television "Made in America" is. Except for Phil Leotardo's brilliantly succinct whacking, there's no outpouring of violence. So much of the series had been divided between Tony's dual lives with his family and The Family, and there's no doubting that its final hour was all about the lowercase "f" family. A.J. almost dies in a car fire with one of his many girlfriends, and decides to join the Army, only to be seduced by the more glamorous life of a movie producer, not to mention the shiny new car accompanying it. There couldn't be a more fitting denouement for the character: a rash, quasi-idealist who sells his integrity for the easiest way out. Meanwhile, Tony's final visit with Junior is heartbreaking, and that much-discussed ending shows Tony looking around at every slight movement or sound, waiting for the next attack, waiting for the next hit, waiting for death. This time, as he gives the camera one last glance, it's only his daughter. But the next time…
7. "Christmas Special," The Office
The original U.K. Office is darker, more cynical, more uncomfortable, and more awkward than the brilliant U.S. version could ever hope to be. It took its darkness and cynicism to the greatest lengths possible for the two-part, series-capping "Christmas Special," in which everyone has moved on, is trying to navigate life after having been featured on a semi-successful documentary series (curiously, the U.S. version has never commented on the fact that they're taping a show which will presumably be seen by the public), and absolutely no one is happy. Ricky Gervais' David Brent is the saddest, trying and failing to be a comedian; he wants to make others forget their problems yet hasn't even begun to work on his own. And then there's Tim and Dawn: Tim is still sadly stuck at Wernham Hogg and Dawn is off in Florida living with her wretched fiancé Lee. How all of this manages to turn into one of the happiest, most life-affirming endings of any sitcom is exemplary of Gervais and Stephen Merchant's twin ability to turn the mundane into the magical. When Dawn finally ditches Lee and comes back to Tim, there isn't a dry eye in the house.
6. "Daybreak," Battlestar Galactica
Through numerous political, social, and spiritual upheavals, Battlestar Galactica's driving theme was always, "All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again" (even though it took some time for that now-iconic phrase to be voiced). It opened with a healthy, Earth-like planet being nuked by the man-made Cylon robots, which were thought to have been destroyed in a violent war. It turned out that they had been so efficiently made that they had evolved into humanoid form to come calling for revenge. The series ends with a new healthy, Earth-like planet (heavily implied to be our own) on its way toward the same kind of omnipresent technology that led to all of this in the first place. In between, its characters grappled with fate, destiny, and all manner of other heady, life-or-death matters.
And yet it was always about cycles. As "Daybreak" so brilliantly shows, there was always a script these people were unknowingly following, and as prophetic vision after prophetic vision is fulfilled in an extremely intense final battle, we begin to realize that the show's still got a frakking hour left. So then it goes on to pose the question: once your purpose has been executed, what's next? You live. You continue on. You find new destinies, new purposes. It may all lead back to the same thing, but it's crucial to realize that it doesn't have to. If "Daybreak" is frustratingly vague on a few storytelling points, that's okay, because emotionally, it's as satisfying a conclusion as I've ever seen. Adama's ode to departed love Roslin, as he watches a fresh morning dawn on their new planet, is particularly heart-tugging: "When the sun rises behind the mountains here, it's beautiful. It reminds me of you."
5. "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen," M*A*S*H
There's a reason that "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" remains the highest-rated television program in U.S. history after 26 years: It is one of the most satisfying, gut-wrenching finales ever made. The Korean War finally comes to a close (M*A*S*H famously ran eight years longer than the actual war), and the occupants of the 4077 have to decide what's next. Hawkeye winds up in a mental hospital for a short time, Klinger marries a Korean woman and decides to stay behind, and, well…everyone has to say goodbye, farewell, and amen. The best part of the episode, though, is that B.J. refuses to say goodbye to Hawkeye. He just can't. So when Hawkeye's chopper lifts off and he sees a giant "GOODBYE" message B.J. has spelled out for him on the ground, it's the ultimate lump-in-the-throat moment. In fact, I just watched it again, and it still makes me tear up.
4. "Development Arrested," Arrested Development
One of the things that made Arrested Development so brilliant was that it was one of the only sitcoms that demanded you watch every single episode without fail in order to process all of its obscure references and surprisingly complex storylines. As the show was forced into a close, Mitchell Hurwitz and the gang took one last shot at the network and the situation it had put them in, crafting a final episode that was three things at once: A resolution as zany and surreal as the show had ever been, an intricately structured parallel to the first episode, and a scathing attack on FOX and its head idiots. Arrested Development asked a lot of its viewers, and that's one of the reasons it never found a large audience, but it was their loss: this was the smartest, funniest, and most relevant show on the air from 2003 to 2006, and the finale was an utter masterpiece. And, of course, FOX dumped all four final episodes onto one night, opposite the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics.
3. "Chosen," Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy was always about female empowerment. So what better way to end the series than with Willow using the Slayer Scythe to activate every single potential Slayer on the planet? With "Chosen," Buffy had reached her goal of breaking free of the shackles of the patriarchal system which had so many centuries ago tied down the First Slayer, and with it, some sense of freedom. Of course, with Joss Whedon at the helm, the journey to the end of this final hour was filled with action, twists, angst, and plenty of clever dialogue. The final battle on top of the Hellmouth is one of the most rousing in the series' (and television's) history, perhaps rivaled only by the Scoobies' masterful take-down of Glory in "The Gift." My favorite moment? Buffy: "I love you." Spike: "No, you don't. But thanks for sayin' it." And then he who had originated as one of the series' most thoroughly evil characters sacrifices himself to save the world. Redemption, tragedy, triumph: All in a day's work for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
2. "Not Fade Away," Angel
If there was ever a more powerful show about redemption than Buffy, it was its spin-off, Angel. After Angel and the gang took over the Los Angeles branch of evil law firm Wolfram & Hart at the end of the fourth season, attempting to defeat the enemy from within, they soon realized that it would be all too easy for them to be tainted by corruption. But for this lesson to finally take hold, they had to lose Fred to a demon goddess resurrected by employee Knox. From then, Angel became hellbent on destroying Wolfram & Hart by any means possible, seemingly allying himself with the Circle of the Black Thorn to get the job done. And in "Not Fade Away," everything comes to a head: Angel, Spike, Wesley, Gunn, Lorne, and Illyria all spend one final day before assassinating every member of the Circle in one of the most kick-ass action sequences ever put together.
What each of them does on their last day is touching, and telling. Angel spends time with Connor, the son he couldn't raise. Spike goes to a bar and, in a lovely shout-out to longtime fans, reads aloud poetry he wrote way back in the 1800s when he was just the meek William. Gunn helps Anne (who, if you were paying attention, is the same character that started out as Chantarelle in the season two Buffy episode "Lie to Me") pack up shop. Lorne sings karaoke. And Wesley…well, Wesley cares for Illyria, who resides in the body of his beloved Fred. Wesley's eventual death is a scene poignant beyond all reason; as he lies dying in Illyria's arms, she asks him, "Would you like me to lie to you now?" Then she changes her appearance to Fred, and I honestly can't think of a television moment that's made me cry harder. As what remains of the group gathers in the alley for a final showdown, a series that was never meant to end this soon charges to the finish line as Angel declares, "Let's go to work." Fighting to the last.
1. "Everyone's Waiting," Six Feet Under
This is, quite simply, a perfect episode of television. After five long, stressful, and depressing seasons that saw each episode open with a death, Six Feet Under's finale opens with a birth. Brenda gives birth to she and Nate's child, only of course the recently departed Nate isn't there to see it. Plus, the baby's premature, and requires an extended hospital stay, which shakes Brenda to the core. Ruth, of all people, is the one who comforts her. And that seems to be a running theme in this episode, as well as in the series as a whole: People struggle with overwhelming problems, only to find them solved in the most unlikely of ways. Rico and Vanessa want to buy a funeral home, but can't afford it; David and Keith then buy Rico's 25% of Fisher & Sons so that not only can Rico get his own funeral home, but David can keep his. Claire's doubts about her artistic ability are cured by Ted, the lighthearted right-winger she can't believe she's falling for.
Nate appears to most everyone in this episode; he taunts and insults Brenda, he eggs David to face his fears, he has a poignant chat with Claire. This is all quality, top-notch stuff, just the emotional and fitting tying up of loose ends you'd expect from a series finale. But what pushes "Everyone's Waiting" over the top to become the grandest of them all is a final montage, as we watch Claire drive to her new life in New York, of the deaths of every single major character, all set to Sia's beautiful "Breathe Me." It's an unprecedented move, and one that completely works within the context of the series; after all, the tagline for the season had been, "Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends." The montage is a gut punch, one that hits you hard. Ruth dies with her family around her, seeing visions of Nathaniel, both Jr. and Sr.; Keith is shot to death, the only violent demise any of the characters face; David dies at a family picnic watching his sons play football, right after he sees Keith come up and catch the ball; Brenda dies as Billy blathers on; and Claire lives to be 102, blind, a cruel fate for a photographer. It is quite possibly the single most affecting piece of television I have ever seen.
One of the things that made Six Feet Under so great was that all of the characters were fully realized people, to the point that getting to look in on their lives felt like some kind of privilege. "Everyone's Waiting" conjures that feeling more than any other episode. The years of each character's death are listed after we watch them die, and there are times when I'll take a strange sort of comfort from knowing that somewhere out there, Ruth is still alive, and she's still got time. They may have been fictional, but these people were one hell of a family.
What were your favorite series finales? And if you're going to divulge spoilers, don't forget to give a little warning!