How the Game of Thrones finale compares to other controversial TV endings

Game of Thrones
Image credit: HBO

The Game of Thrones season 8 finale has been and gone and, whether you thought it stuck the (King’s) landing, or if its last moments saw the show go up in a blaze of Wildfire in your eyes, it’s undoubtedly going to be a swansong we’ll be talking about for years to come. But how does it compare to some of TV’s other controversial closing chapters?

From black screens, to Coke adverts, and even a second life as a lumberjack, here are some of telly’s most teeth-grittingly frustrating final episodes and, crucially, how they stack up to the final Game of Thrones episode. Spoilers, of course, follow.

The Sopranos

Game of Thrones

Image credit: HBO

What happened in the end?

Even if you haven’t seen a single second of mob drama The Sopranos, chances are you know about its ending. With the net closing in on Tony Soprano, he sits down for a (last?) supper with his family.

You know something is going to go down, but you just don’t know what. Meadow’s 54-point turn heightens the tension, and the power ballad Don’t Stop Believin’ reverberates around the diner as people come and go and then: a black screen. That’s it.

Why was it so controversial?

In perhaps the most hotly-debated TV ending of all time, it was the complete lack of closure that irritated many. Famously, there were even some viewers who contacted HBO to complain that their cable had been cut during the final minutes of the episode because of how confusing the sudden cut to black was.

Still, the fact people still talk about whether Tony was or wasn’t whacked and left to die in a bowl of onion rings suggests that, though this is a controversial ending, it definitely isn’t a bad one.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

Better. So, so much better. The final Sopranos episode may have been immortalised by the black screen of death, but what came before it was so much more measured and genuinely heartfelt. Tony got to say goodbye on his own terms without being shoehorned into a shootout in a diner and, crucially, it felt like a gut-punch of a closer rather than something you just wish would end already.

Lost

Game of Thrones

Image credit: ABC

What happened in the end?

One final showdown between Jack and the Man in Black takes place on the infamous island. Jack, eventually, gets the upper hand and kills the Man in Black before succumbing to his wounds. 

The kicker, though, is the grand reveal that the ‘flash-sideways’ we’ve been watching all season is actually one big look at the characters in the afterlife. Jack turns up alongside his dad in a church as the major characters (though a few are weirdly missing) walk into the Great Beyond together.

Why was it so controversial?

Viewers’ expectations were sky high for Lost from the beginning with its realm of riddles and mysterious goings-on but the crux of the issue here is that the finale’s answers aren’t very satisfying.

Sure, everyone was redeemed in the end but, unlike Damon Lindelof’s other big box of mysteries The Leftovers (which wisely chose to leave an ambiguous answer as its parting shot), everything was wrapped up a little too neatly. It betrayed the overall message of the show and diminished everything that came before it by trying to hand wave it all away with one big finish.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

Honestly? About the same. Both Lost and Game of Thrones achieved eerily similar final seasons insomuch as they ripped up everything that was carefully set up before it, while simultaneously attempting to answer everything at once in a series of scattershot final scenes.

Lost might just edge it because everything was set up for a big finish in the final hour while Thrones was still stumbling about half an hour into its finale. Both feature the series’ leading man walking off into the unknown, too, which is a nice piece of symmetry.

Sons of Anarchy

Game of Thrones

Image credit: FX

What happened in the end?

Jax ties up the remaining loose ends for himself and his SAMCRO biker gang, including mopping up the few remaining baddies left in the show. When Irish gangsters and the authorities inevitably come gunning after him, the blonde biker, played by Charlie Hunnam, decides to end it all by ploughing into the back of a truck.

Why was it so controversial?

Sons of Anarchy’s entire final run read like an exercise in box-checking an ‘epic’ ending. There were plenty of deaths, backstabs, and betrayals, but each episode felt bloated. So much so that, by the end, much of the audience was exhausted and exchanged eye-rolls at the uncharacteristic way its lead character, Jax, went out.

Death by truck. Really? After several seasons of genuinely thrilling TV, the crawl of a motorbike chase to end it all makes you wish they put the brakes on years ago.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

Worse. Sons of Anarchy was so concerned with ripping off Hamlet’s plot beats that it didn’t stop to think about whether anything made any sense. Game of Thrones season 8, meanwhile, ripped off George RR Martin’s carefully-constructed set of books, but at least had the built-up cache of several seasons of beloved characters and story arcs at its back.

Thrones, even in its final moments such as Jon’s reunion with Ghost, carried with it a level of complexity and nuance that was years-in-the-making. Sons of Anarchy took us home with all the subtlety of, well, a bike driving into the back of a truck.

Mad Men

Game of Thrones

Image credit: AMC

What happened in the end?

The ever-enigmatic Don Draper does what he does best when things don’t go his way: turns tail and heads West. The apparently never-ending roadtrip away from corporate monotony at McCann ends with the slick ad man seemingly ‘finding himself’ in a hippie resort. One final scene plays which shows he’s reached inner peace after a lifetime of lying and debauchery. An advert for Coca Cola starts playing.

Why was it so controversial?

Unless you joined the dots, you either felt Don’s sudden about-turn into a nice, peaceful guy was a misstep or you thought the Coke ad, 1971’s I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke, was obscure for the sake of obscure. The truth, though, is much better: It implies that Don continues his destructive cycle and eventually ended up crawling back to McCann, using his experiences on the Californian resort to put pen to paper on one of the greatest ads ever created. A salesman to the very end.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

Each of Game of Thrones’ Big Finale Moments looks so much worse when set alongside Mad Men’s ending – mostly because it was brave enough to stray away from the traditional trappings of a TV finale. No one says goodbye face to face to Don Draper in Person to Person, the final episode of the period piece’s seventh season. Instead, Don eventually comes to term with who he really is: No one.

Thrones, meanwhile, raced from plot point to plot point – Dany dies, the Iron Throne is gone, now there’s a new King, and Jon is sent North… and we’re done – without much thought given as to how each piece falls in the overall story.

With Mad Men, each final conversation is riddled with layer upon layer of build-up coupled with an outpouring of emotion. Don breaks down with Peggy; Sally learns to grow up in the most tragic of ways; Joan breaks free of her old life, but each is done so in a way that’s a world away from Thrones and its tendency to rush towards the finish line.

Mad Men was often criticised for its glacial pace, but here it gives itself room to relax and let viewers enjoy seeing these characters one last time – even if Don will forever be a leopard who can’t change his spots.

How I Met Your Mother

Game of Thrones

Image credit: CBS

What happened in the end?

We finally learn who the mother of Ted’s children is. Hey, it’s some woman we’ve never met before!  What could’ve been a brave choice slowly turns into a mad dash of a two-parter involving a time skip, Barney becoming a father, and a twist-for-the-sake-of-a-twist about how Ted really loves Robin.

Why was it so controversial?

The finale smacks of showrunners who were never really committed to answering what the show had set up all along: How did Ted meet the mother of his children? In the end, it didn’t really matter, as she shuffled off the mortal coil long before she ever became relevant over the course of the finale.

That, coupled with Barney and Robin’s season-long wedding arc being shattered in the space of a few minutes rubbed many the wrong way. One episode that retroactively makes the entire series look worse takes some doing – but HIMYM pulled it off.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

A lot worse. How I Met Your Mother managed to get in the bad books of many a fan who had stuck by the show through several seasons. Its plot twists were nonsensical, its destruction of what came before insulting, and it’s now become a show where everyone will openly tell new viewers to skip the final season, such is its sudden dip in quality.

At least Thrones stayed somewhat true to its characters, while having them sign off in a way that didn’t feel like it instantly wanted to become a weird watercooler moment where everyone was discussing the “gotcha” moment. It was always a show about how power corrupts. How I Met Your Mother’s show was about, well, the clue’s in the name – and it barely cared about answering that come the big finish.

Dexter

Game of Thrones

Image credit: Showtime

What happened in the end?

Finally wanting to get out of the serial killer game, Dexter Morgan takes a boat out into stormy waters after several brushes with those who want him gone and seemingly perishes. No more Dexter, no more bloodshed. Easy, right? But wait, there’s more: Dexter survives and is now living a new live as a shabby lumberjack in the middle of nowhere. Because of course.

Why was it so controversial?

It makes no sense. Dexter, eventually, had to get his comeuppance but the show pulls the rug out from underneath us at the very last moment. Instead, what we get was something that was illogical (does Dexter really dump his loved ones like that?) and acts less like a definitive ending and more like a show that overstayed its welcome and tried to make amends.

Fumbling about for a sense of closure while leaving things teasingly open for a return wasn’t what we wanted from a finale.

Is it better or worse than the Game of Thrones finale?

Even at its most illogical, Game of Thrones can never compare to Dexter’s fuckton of what-the-fuckery that went down in its final episode. Dany goes mad and is almost instantly killed? Sure, but did she become a lumberjack? Bran is the king now? Fine, whatevs.  

When compared to Dexter, Game of Thrones’ final episode isn’t actually all that bad. It’s an entertaining romp, doesn’t feel overly long (like some finales), and just about does justice to the characters we’ve spent nearly a decade with. Plus, did I mention the lumberjack? It makes Drogon melting the Iron Throne look like the most masterful piece of thematic poetry in recorded history.

Want something fresh to replace your Thrones fix? Here are the best new TV shows coming your way in 2019.