This TV Geek Army Roundtable features a discussion of television series finales. Check out Part I here.
Though it's often unfair, I can't help comparing television series finales to those of The Sopranos, The Wire, and The Shield. The three represent brilliant shows that were allowed to end largely how the creator(s) envisioned (the narrative ending as RevViews mentions) and take their own deliberate and original steps in getting to the finish line.
The Sopranos is of course arguably the greatest television show of all time, and manages to pull off a truly controversial final moment (and we mean final: don't stop…) without tarnishing its legacy in the slightest. The cut to black from Tony Soproano (James Gandolfini) showing his amiable side, his family man (as composed to family man) side, waiting for Meadow to get to the dinner table at a Jersey greasy spoon perhaps even raises the level of mystique (and certainly debate) after a final season that raised the stakes across the board and pushed the boundaries and buttons of anyone who dared to lazily "root" for "hero" Tony (goodnight Chrissy, as one mere example). So The Sopranos ending was a "shocking" ending in a sense, and while some call it a sell out or a disservice to loyal viewers, I think it's a terrific and fitting ending.
And because the ending is totally left up to the opinion and the mind of the audience, here's my take: I think David Chase and company went out of their way to foreshadow that there's no way Tony and his family were going to see a happy ending and ride off into the sunset. Nearly everyone close to Tony's nuclear family has been killed off or badly maimed by the end of the run, and we've also seen relative devastation in the New York family, to say nothing of the peripheral damage and "friendly" fire that went down over the run of the show (I love thinking about Tony-as-devil, by the way: everything he touches becomes corrupted, whether he intends it or not). Therefore while there's no clear indication that Tony, Carm, and the kids get clipped at the restaurant, I think the implication is that that level of luck (and it is luck in many ways, as competent a mob boss as Tony turns out to be) can't go on forever.
Then we have The Wire, which ends on gorgeous and gritty and melancholy and bittersweet tones, perfectly wrapping up the Dickensian story that played out over five seasons in the mean streets of Baltimore. There was nothing entirely unexpected in the series finale, but it rewarded viewers wonderfully for the time they had invested in the show. We saw a level of redemption for some beloved if flawed characters (McNulty, Bubbles), but I particularly appreciated that there was not a tidy wrap up of the Marlo (Jamie Hector) storyline. In some ways, Marlo's fate is similar to Vic Mackey's (more on that fellow in a moment): he's been "freed" into a life that is absolutely contrary to his character and makeup and therefore finds himself trapped in a virtual life sentence in prison. The cool thing is that in Marlo's case we got to see Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) use his crafty genius to bust his crew and saw some of its major players taken out in various ways, but it's absolutely obvious that the beat goes on: Baltimore's institutions are still broken (if not totally corrupted) for all the good people who struggle within them, and the streets are still overrun with drugs and despair. So while the "camera" of The Wire fades out we feel a satisfying summing up of a huge cast of characters while understanding that the players (or their real life counterparts) and the setting aren't going anywhere.
Finally, The Shield's final episodes stay with me and even haunt me like nothing I have ever seen on television. For all the praise and credit that I give to The Sopranos, this is the ending that I had actually hoped Tony would get: everything – and I mean everything – stripped away: family, friends, honor, dignity, respect. And then it gets even better/worse: Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) is almost literally handcuffed to a desk, forced into pushing paper for the feds as part of a plea bargain that bargained away the remaining bits of his soul, sending his only remaining friend Ronnie (David Rees Snell) down the river while protecting an ex-wife who had rightfully written him off for good.
It's a completely engrossing and dark-as-night and satisfying ending because this is exactly what our most anti of anti-heroes deserves. And what's so delicious about it all is that everything that happens through The Shield's long run basically goes back to the murder of a cop during the series pilot. Basically Mackey's corruption was complete from the first moments we met him, and we were witness to his long and slow decline over the show's run. Not puppy dogs and ice cream, but a tremendous achievement as dramatic fiction.
I think I just voted for The Shield as greatest series finale of all time then?
That, or the one where Ross and Rachel finally get together.