The 17 best TV series finales of all time, from 'The Americans' to '30 Rock'

FXHolly Taylor as Paige Jennings in ‘The Americans.’

“The Americans” ended last week with an incredible, thrilling finale that was the perfect cap to a phenomenal series.

Series finales are difficult. They require an ending, but not too much of an ending, and often don’t go well. After “The Americans” blew us away, we’re fondly looking back on some of the best series finales from the distant and recent past.

Here, we collected some of the greatest series finales that left us shaken, happy, or confused in the best way possible.

Here are 17 of the best series finales of all time, from “M*A*S*H*” to “The Leftovers”:


“M*A*S*H*” — season 11 episode 16, “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen”

CBS

When it aired: February 28, 1983

After 11 years on the air, “M*A*S*H” lived up to expectations in its series finale. And it is still the most-watched TV series finale of all time. In the end, the characters finally get to go home, but that also means they won’t be together anymore. It’s a bittersweet ending that forever changed what a series finale for a TV show can be, because it doesn’t always have to be the happiest ending possible.


“Cheers” — season 11 episode 26-28, “One for the Road”

When it aired: May 20, 1993

Besides the return of Diane, the series finale of “Cheers” is still so great because it isn’t much different than a typical episode. All of the characters have similar problems: Jack and Diane get back together but then they break up (they were the original Ross and Rachel), and Cliff is annoying, as always. The series ends as most episodes of the show do: with the Cheers gang contemplating life at the bar.


“Six Feet Under” — season 5 episode 12, “Everyone’s Waiting”

When it aired: August 21, 2005

It’s easy for a montage from the early aughts set to a indie song to age poorly, or just remind you of “Grey’s Anatomy.” But the “Six Feet Under” finale doesn’t, after almost 13 years. It hammers in the theme of the show – death – but never feels ham-fisted. It shows the deaths of all the major characters on the show, but is somehow more sweet than sad.


“The Sopranos” — season 6 episode 21, “Made in America”

HBO screencap

When it aired: June 10, 2007

A lot of people think “The Sopranos” finale is the worst. But the fade to black, Meadow parallel parking, and the man in the Members Only jacket ingrained themselves into pop culture. What happened after the screen went black is still a debate people have today, and for that it deserves a spot. The episode, even if you don’t like the finale scene, wrapped up enough storylines after its devastating penultimate episode and focused on what this show was always about: Tony’s family (both nuclear and mob).


“The Wire” — season 5 episode 10, “- 30 -“

HBO

When it aired: March 9, 2008

Season five of “The Wire” is a bit messy. While the show is still great, it took some leaps in its overall plot that included some questionable, unearned choices from its main characters (McNulty fakes a serial killer). This contrast was stark compared to previous seasons, which people loved for their realistic, documentary feel.


“The Shield” — season 7 episodes 13-14, “Family Meeting”

FX

When it aired: November 25, 2008

“The Shield” – the most overlooked TV drama from television’s Golden Age – paved the way for Walter White’s fate in its series finale. Among one of the first critically acclaimed TV dramas featuring an anti-hero, the finale ends with somewhat of a punishment for Vic. He doesn’t die like Walt, and doesn’t reach enlightenment after mediating one time like Don Draper. Instead, he gets stuck with a boring office job.


“Battlestar Galactica” — season 4 episodes 20-21, “Daybreak”

SyFy

When it aired: March 20, 2009

There are some major deaths in this series finale, but not all hope is lost. After years of searching for it, the Cylons finally find a safe place to call their home. The finale captures what made this a great sci-fi series. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking, and human.


“Friday Night Lights” — season 5 episode 13, “Always”

NBC

When it aired: February 9, 2011

The series finale of “Friday Night Lights” touched on all the details that made so many people fall in love with this show. It focuses on the Taylor marriage, with an emphasis on Tammy’s career goals. One of the most memorable scenes from the finale (and the series) shows Tyra Collette and Tim Riggins discussing their past and their futures. The episode doesn’t show any of these characters too far into the future, it shows just enough.


“Chuck” — season 5 episode 13, “Chuck Versus the Goodbye”

NBC

When it aired: January 27, 2012

The “Chuck” series finale ends nearly right where it started, but reverses the roles. It ends with Sarah (Yvonne Strahovski of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) losing her memories, including her relationship with Chuck – at this point in the series, they’re married. So they have to start all over from scratch, with Chuck knowing everything, and Sarah nothing. While it’s sad, it is a bit hopeful, because it implies that Sarah will fall in love with him all over again, but it won’t be as tumultuous as the last time that happened.


“30 Rock” — season 7 episode 13, “Last Lunch”

NBC

When it aired: January 31, 2013

Ironically, one of the most memorable lines in “Last Lunch” is, “Don’t you want to know how Mad Men ends?!” Liz shouts this at Jack when he’s about to leave to pursue a life at sea (he gives up immediately). This series finale has everything that everyone loved about the show: Liz and Jack’s friendship, Lutz being the worst, and Jenna singing an awful but catchy song. And it wraps it all up by confirming the best running joke on the show: Kenneth is, indeed, immortal.


“Breaking Bad” — season 5 episode 16, “Felina”

AMC

When it aired: September 29, 2013

The finale sequence of “Breaking Bad” is a bit on the nose, but the series was into that kind of thing. Walter White, who has lost everything from his family to his partner Jesse but doesn’t seem to care that much, admires a meth lab as Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” plays (White’s meth was blue). “Guess I got what I deserved, kept you waiting there too long, my love.” Walt dies on the floor of the lab. In contrast, Jesse is free. He’s no longer a prisoner, and he’s also free of Walt.


“Mad Men” — season 7 episode 14, “Person to Person”

AMC

When it aired: May 17, 2015

The final scene of “Mad Men” doesn’t even feature any of the characters. Instead, it ends with the iconic “I Want to Buy the World a Coke” commercial, leaving Don Draper’s fate up in the air. What makes it so great was what led to this moment, seeing all of the characters we saw grow over a decade truly become themselves after all this time, and all this drama.


“Review” — season 3 episode 3, “Cryogenics; Lightning; Last Review”

Comedy Central

When it aired: March 30, 2017

The series finale of this comedy is meta and meaningful. The show’s protagonist, Forrest MacNeil, finds out that his show within the show is canceled. Throughout the episode, he wonders what his life is outside of the show, and who he is without it. For a show with so much irreverent comedy which included deaths, a prison sentence, and too many pancakes, it really cut deep emotionally.


“The Leftovers” — season 3 episode 8, “The Book of Nora”

HBO

When it aired: June 4, 2017

Emotional and uplifting, the series finale of “The Leftovers” was a satisfying ending for an experimental show that vastly improved with every season. Creator and showrunner Damon Lindelof was criticised for the disappointing “Lost” finale, and he clearly made it a goal to do the opposite with this ending. It doesn’t answer any questions directly, leaving room for speculation, and just enough closure.


“Halt and Catch Fire” — season 4 episode 10, “Ten of Swords”

AMC

When it aired: October 14, 2017

This exquisite show dramatized the computer boom in the 1980s and in its final season explored the early days of the internet. But the premise didn’t make this show great. Its layered, truly human characters did. Its finale emphasises their humanity in moments that reflect the show’s first two seasons, when the characters were fighting to be the first and the best in the tech world without losing themselves.


“The Middle” — season 9 episodes 23-24, “A Heck of a Ride”

ABC

When it aired: May 22, 2018

“The Middle” never got enough credit, likely because it premiered the same year as “Modern Family” and always lived in its shadow. A great sitcom finale is quite rare, and this is the first truly great one in a while. Some of the best side characters throughout the series make appearances without any desperate tie-ins, and every member of the Heck family gets a better, well-deserved future that might make you sob.


“The Americans” — season 6 episode 10, “START”

FX

When it aired: May 30, 2018

“The Americans” finale represents what this show was always about: family. And it also hammered in who its characters are. No fans could have predicted the ending, but as it played out it felt like the only possible one. Plus, it used U2’s “With or Without You” in a way that will be a bit emotionally triggering for fans from now until the end of time.

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