The 15 Most Controversial TV Finales of All Time

9 minute read

Today, all six seasons of Lost drop on Netflix, sure to ignite a whole new round of discourse about its famously polarizing series finale. (No, they were not dead the whole time.) Time has been kind to “The End,” cementing the legacy of the massively influential ABC sci-fi drama, which ran from 2004 to 2010 and consistently prioritized deep, emotional character work over airtight plotting. Still, plenty of viewers would still list it as one of the worst ever, frustrated by its refusal to adequately answer some of the series’ long-standing questions.

Here are 15 other controversial series finales that we still talk about today. (Spoilers abound!)

“Something New,” How I Met Your Mother (2014)

After nine years spent listening to Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor in the present, Bob Saget in the future) tell his kids the story of how he met their mother, it’s hard to overstate the disappointment of watching this CBS sitcom come so close to nailing it: casting the preternaturally charming Cristin Milioti as the until-now unseen mother while allowing Ted to move on from his ex-girlfriend Robin (Cobie Smulders) and happily attend her wedding to his friend Barney (Neil Patrick Harris). Then time jumps revealed that Barney and Robin got divorced, the Mother died from a terminal illness, and this whole story’s purpose was to get Ted’s kids to approve of him reuniting with their Aunt Robin. Bold, certainly, but misjudged.

“Remember the Monsters?,” Dexter (2013)

A finale so powerful in its badness that you’ll never look at the word “lumberjack” the same way again. In some ways, this one isn’t so much “controversial;" these days, it’s pretty universally considered one of the worst finales of all time. But Dexter Morgan getting his sister killed, only to escape jail time and death and live out his days in the Oregon wilderness, still needs to be seen to be believed. It’s no wonder Showtime revived the series several years later with Dexter: New Blood, a miniseries that gave Dexter exactly what he deserved.

“The Iron Throne,” Game of Thrones (2019)

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, Isaac Hempstead Wright as Bran Stark and Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in the series finale of Game of Thrones.Macall B. Polay—HBO

Co-creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss always had a difficult path ahead of them when they ran out of material to adapt. But the final couple seasons of this HBO fantasy drama, supposedly based on material from the currently-unfinished final two books in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, still made some pretty baffling choices without nearly enough screen time to justify them. Daenerys Targaryen as a war criminal? Foreshadowed, but clumsily executed. Jon Snow back on the Night’s Watch? Boring. Bran, the soft-spoken weirdo who became less and less of a character as the show went on, as king? Maybe it’ll all make better sense when we read A Dream of Spring one day.

“The Finale,” Seinfeld (1998)

“No hugging, no learning” was Larry David’s unofficial motto for Seinfeld, a hit sitcom on NBC about four people too self-absorbed and codependent to ever truly grow or learn from their mistakes. So in many ways, it’s fitting where they ended up in the final scene of the show: sharing a jail cell, charged with violating a Good Samaritan law. But viewers in 1998 rejected the ending, partly due to the unnecessary parade of old Seinfeld guest stars making cameo appearances during the trial. Even today, its defenders are in the minority, though the Curb Your Enthusiasm finale cleverly brought the story full-circle.

“Made in America,” The Sopranos (2007)

Even in the TikTok age, people are still posting family members’ reactions to the abrupt cut-to-black at the end of the Sopranos finale, perhaps the most famously ambiguous ending in TV history. In the years since, the scene has been subject to endless analysis and speculation: did the cut indicate Tony Soprano’s death, foreshadowed earlier in the season with a comment about how “You probably don’t even hear it when [death] happens”? Just this January, creator David Chase offered this insight: “I wanted to imply that he could die in that diner, not that he did die.”

Read more: Is TV Too Broken to Ever Make Another Show Like The Sopranos?

“Person to Person,” Mad Men (2015)

Jon Hamm in season 7 of Mad Men
Jon Hamm in season 7 of Mad Men.Justina Mintz/AMC

Compared to others on this list, the finale of Mad Men is seen by most critics as a pretty great series finale. But aside from a few crowd-pleasing moments—like the borderline fan-service-y union of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson)—it’s also a fascinatingly ambiguous one, particularly when it comes to our final glimpse of antihero Don Draper (Jon Hamm). To some viewers, Don’s meditation leading to the creation of the “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial indicates a cynical regression; to others, it’s a sign of genuine growth and enlightenment. Maybe both can be true.

“Into That Good Night,” Roseanne (1997)

At the beginning of Roseanne’s critically panned ninth season, the title character won the lottery, completely shifting the basic reality of a show typically praised for its portrayal of an average working-class American family. But the polarizing finale revealed that the whole season had been a fictionalization, dreamed up by Roseanne for a book she began writing after her husband Dan (John Goodman) died of a heart attack. It’s no wonder ABC’s 2018 revival season (along with the spin-off The Conners) elected to undo it all, bringing Dan back from the dead in the first scene.

“The Last One,” St. Elsewhere (1988)

This realistic ’80s medical drama on NBC garnered critical acclaim throughout its six seasons, but its ending is one of the most notorious ever. In the very final scene, we seemingly learn that the whole series’ continuity only exists in the imagination of lead character Dr. Donald Westphall’s (Ed Flanders) autistic son Tommy (Chad Allen), who shakes a snow globe containing a replica of St. Eligius hospital. The implications have even led viewers to hypothesize about a whole larger “Tommy Westphall Universe” of interconnected TV series.

“Daybreak,” Battlestar Galactica (2009)

Battlestar Galactica
Michael Hogan as Colonel Saul Tigh, Kate Vernon as Ellen Tigh in Battlestar Galactica's 'Daybreak' episodeCarole Segal/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

According to many critics, this military sci-fi drama on the Sci-Fi Channel experienced a steep downturn in quality sometime in its third and fourth seasons. The finale is especially divisive for resorting to a deus ex machina ending involving a divine force that had only been hinted at throughout the show. For some fans who fell in love with BSG during its hard sci-fi beginnings, shifting toward the mystical was a betrayal.

Read more: The Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time

“Till Death Do Us Part,” Pretty Little Liars (2017)

In retrospect, Pretty Little Liars was never really built to keep dispensing new villain reveals every couple of seasons. That first “A” reveal from Season 2 was perfect, but by Season 7, the show felt like it was making things up as it went along, no matter how far back showrunner I. Marlene King allegedly planned the twists. That’s especially true in the series finale, which reveals that the gang’s latest tormentor is the heretofore unknown identical twin sister and impersonator of Spencer (Troian Bellisario): Alex Drake, a psychopathic killer with an inexplicable Cockney accent.

“New York, I Love You XOXO,” Gossip Girl (2012)

Dan Humphrey was Gossip Girl the whole time? Really? But while that legendarily nonsensical reveal lives on as the most outrageous moment in the finale of Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage’s six-season teen drama for the CW, it’s far from the only problem with the episode. Everything else about the end of Gossip Girl is uninspired and predictable, including the two perfunctory main-cast weddings (Chuck and Blair, Dan and Serena). Gossip Girl can be ridiculous, but it should never be boring. (A short-lived reboot was canceled by HBO in 2023.)

“Mirror Image,” Quantum Leap (1993)

Creator Donald P. Bellisario was forced to end Season 5 of this cult sci-fi series without knowing whether he’d get another season renewal. As a result, the finale is disjointed, answering a few larger questions while leaving others for a hypothetical Season 6 that never came. NBC tacked two title cards onto the finale to resolve the fates of the main characters, though most fans weren’t satisfied with the closure they got on the perpetually time-traveling Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), whose name was misspelled on the final card: “Sam Becket never returned home.”

“The Truth,” “My Struggle IV,” The X-Files (2002, 2016)

FOX's "The X-Files"
Guest star Robbie Amell and Gillian Anderson in the 'My Struggle II' season finale of The X-Files FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

One show, two finales: By the time The X-Files finished its initial run in 2002, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) had been gone for a year. But Duchovny’s return for “The Truth”—and his romantic union with Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson)—didn’t save the finale from a serious lack of payoff to the series’ ongoing mysteries. The X-Files later returned for a movie and two additional seasons, but the mythological aspects became even more convoluted, and the second series finale garnered even more negative reviews than the first, especially for saddling Scully with an unsavory pregnancy-by-rape storyline. (Anderson herself wasn’t pleased.)

“An American Girl in Paris,” Sex and the City (2004)

Many would argue that this revolutionary HBO comedy ended with too many happy endings for the quartet of flawed, complex women at the center: everyone ended the series coupled up, a particularly off-putting choice to the large segment of fans virulently opposed to Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) ever speaking to Mr. Big (Chris Noth) again. Of course, further entries in the franchise would complicate that ending: in the first of two follow-up movies, Steve (David Eigenberg) cheats on Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) breaks up with Smith (Jason Lewis), and the sequel series And Just Like That begins with the death of Big.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at