The 15 most shocking TV season finales ever, from Lost to 24

Nicola Walker in ‘Unforgotten’; Evangeline Lilly in ‘Lost’; Kiefer Sutherland in ‘24’  (ITV/ ABC/ Greg Gayne/ FOX)
Nicola Walker in ‘Unforgotten’; Evangeline Lilly in ‘Lost’; Kiefer Sutherland in ‘24’ (ITV/ ABC/ Greg Gayne/ FOX)

There are many things that go into a memorable season finale: mystery; pace; character development.

More often than not, however, audiences want a surprise – something intriguing enough to justify carrying on next season.

Some of the most shocking moments in TV history have come during season finales. With another instalment on the horizon, there’s no need to offer audiences catharsis or resolution – if anything, the best season finales actively deny viewers those feelings. And the most straight-forward way of doing that? A good shock, usually followed up with a cliffhanger: a one-two punch that guarantees return customers.

Shock value – while not always equatable with great storytelling – will always provoke some Twitter conversation in its wake. Look at Lost... it’s been 14 years since the ABC show came to an end but people are still fixated on its much derided ending – and the possible alternate conclusion that could’ve been.

But countless others before Lost have shocked (and disappointed) viewers, too. Here’s our selection of the 15 most shocking season finales of all time…

(As is to be expected, MAJOR SPOILERS lie ahead! You have been warned!)

15) Unforgotten, season four

Viewers were left open-mouthed by the conclusion to Unforgotten’s fourth season, which saw DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) solve the case of Matthew Walsh’s death, only to learn that his partner, Nicola Walker’s DCI Cassie Stuart, had succumbed to injuries she sustained in a car accident. Shortly after the episode aired, ITV confirmed that the series was renewed for a fifth series, which will see Sunny paired with a new partner – Cassie is gone, but certainly won’t be forgotten.

 (BBC/Kudos/Angus Muir)
(BBC/Kudos/Angus Muir)

14) Spooks, season 10

British spy drama Spooks finally came to an end in 2011, having run on BBC One for nine years. The season 10 finale featured no shortage of incidents, but fans will most remember the tragic death of Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker) in the arms of Harry Pierce (Peter Firth). The unfortunate and surprising nature of Ruth’s death – being stabbed with a shard of glass while trying to stop Sasha Gavrik from killing Harry – made this finale a savage blow for many Spooks fans.

13) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season five

Buffy was another show that liked to end its seasons with a bang. Season two saw superpowered schoolgirl Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) stab her vampire boyfriend in the heart, while season three saw her destroy her high school during a fight with the town’s demonic mayor. But season five remains the most shocking finale of all, as Buffy ended up sacrificing her life to save the world. The character was ultimately brought back early in the next season, but ending on the sight of Buffy’s tombstone made this episode a shocker for the ages.

12) Line of Duty, season three

You’re pretty much guaranteed high drama in every Line of Duty finale – but the closer to season three probably stands above them all. Too much happened in the episode to aptly summarise here, but the excitement peaked when duplicitous DI Matthew Cottan (Craig Parkinson) was caught out by Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), and managed to escape capture – only to be shot dead by his associates, jumping in the way of gunfire to save Fleming’s life. This unexpected moment of redemption capped what might be the finest season of Line of Duty to date in gripping, explosive style.


11) Game of Thrones, season five

By the time season five rolled around, viewers knew that no character was safe from George RR Martin’s death grip but still Jon Snow’s murder came as a surprise. But bar the ending’s shock value – which fans of the book had already anticipated anyway – Jon’s “death” was almost instantly reversed in the second episode of the next season when he is resurrected by Melisandre. The event ended up having little consequence on the rest of Game of Thrones and actually undermined the show’s no-holds-barred approach to death that it had successfully set up in previous seasons (ahem... The Red Wedding).

10) Breaking Bad, season four

Breaking Bad’s fourth season saw the series’ best villain – fastidious meth baron and fried chicken restaurateur Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) – meet an appropriately memorable end. The deadly cat-and-mouse game that Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) had been playing with Fring all season had one final surprise in store, as the pair recruit the help of the loathsome Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) to blow their nemesis in half. If that weren’t enough, the episode also deployed a shocking last-minute twist, as it hinted that Walt is responsible for poisoning the six-year-old son of Jesse’s girlfriend, Andrea.

Read more: The 20 most hated TV finales of all time, from The Undoing to Seinfeld

9) House of Cards, season two

OK, it’s not a totally shocking finale but season two can lay claim to one of the most satisfying ends to any show. The last scene sees Kevin Spacey’s machiavellian Frank Underwood entering the Oval Office, kicking away his incumbent’s chair and rapping his knuckles on the table. Cliché? Maybe, but still gratifying to watch. More shocking than Frank’s new presidency, however, was the prospect of Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) showing any semblance of emotion. The sight of Frank’s ruthless partner-in-crime crying while perched on the staircase was the finale’s truly shocking moment.

 (Netflix / Youtube)
(Netflix / Youtube)

8) Lost, season three

After three seasons of Lost, audiences had grown extremely familiar with the flashbacks format of the show – so when creator Damon Lindelof flipped the script on us, we didn’t see it coming. The two-hour long special interspersed what we thought were cursory flashbacks, only for them to be revealed as “flashforwards” in a surprise twist ending. The flash sequences, in which Jack is depressed, addicted to Oxycodone and wishing to return to the island, take on a new meaning in this new, disturbing light. Suffice to say, the third series finale went down with fans a lot better than the show’s actual end three seasons later.

7) Homeland, season one

Throughout the entire first season of Homeland, you’re left guessing whether or not Damian Lewis’ US Marine Nicholas Brody had in fact returned to the US as a radicalised terrorist. In the high-octane finale, it is revealed that Brody was in fact recruited by al-Qaeda, and had been planning a large-scale attack. A malfunction with his bomb jacket prevents him from going through with it, however, and the character ultimately survives for another two seasons – before another shocking finale saw Brody executed by Iranian authorities.

 ((Twentieth Century Fox))
((Twentieth Century Fox))

6) The West Wing, season four

Aaron Sorkin went out with a bang on his final episode as writer of the political drama before he left in 2003. The hour-long episode sees Bartlet (Martin Sheen) invoke the 25th Amendment – in which the vice president steps in if the president is unable to do their job – after his daughter Zoe (Elisabeth Moss) is kidnapped. Given that the VP office is vacant due to John Hoynes’s sex scandal, this allows the Speaker of the House, Glen Allen Walken, to assume power, telling Barlet: “You are relieved, Mr President.” Chills.

5) Battlestar Galactica, season three

The Sci-Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica reboot had fans reeling at the end of its third season, when it was revealed that four of the show’s popular characters had in fact been Cylons (the robotic nemeses of humanity) all along. Previously unaware of their identities, Chief Tyrol, Samuel Anders, Saul Tigh, and Tory Foster all come to the simultaneous realisation about their identities in a montage set to “All Along the Watchtower” – a moment that had massive ramifications throughout the remainder of the series.

4) Dexter, season four

The most surprising series finales often coincide with the most heartbreaking, which was certainly true of Dexter’s fourth series. Fans will remember the scene perfectly: Dexter comes home to find his wife Rita dead in the bathtub, murdered by Arthur (aka The Trinity Killer, played brilliantly by John Lithgow). While there were a few clues interspersed in the minutes leading up to the tragic reveal – the baby crying, lingering shots – Rita’s death was one of the biggest shocks to rock Noughties TV.


3) 24, season one

There was hardly a dull moment on 24, a viewing experience that can be compared to a day-long heart attack. But out of all the twists and turns, it is hard to live up to the bombshells dropped at the end of its first season. Not only was Nina Myers, the distinguished federal agent and confidante of our hero Jack Bauer, revealed to be the mole selling government secrets – but in her attempts to keep her cover she murders Jack’s wife Teri. Cue the hysterical crying.

2) The Good Place, season one

There are few shows that actually catch you by surprise. Most of the time, the viewer has some inkling that a twist is on the way, but it’s safe to say that jaws dropped worldwide at the season one finale of The Good Place. We found out that despite appearances, Eleanor (Kristen Bell) and her cohort aren’t living it up in heaven but are actually the victims of a newfangled means of torture in hell. Even the film’s cast – minus Bell and Ted Danson – weren’t clued in on the afterlife-altering twist.

 (YouTube / Netflix)
(YouTube / Netflix)

1) Dallas, season three

It was the season finale to end all season finales. The third season of CBS’s hit Texas soap opera Dallas concluded with the shooting of amoral oil baron JR Ewing (Larry Hagman) by an unknown assailant. For eight months (between the airing of "A House Divided" in May 1980, and the start of the fourth season in October), the character’s fate and shooter were left in limbo. The US was consumed with the mystery of “Who shot JR?” The episode left a lasting imprint on pop culture; years later, the famous cliffhanger was still being parodied on series like The Simpsons, which ended its sixth season with “Who Shot Mr Burns?”