Not all shows save the fireworks for their penultimate episodes
Credit: Monty Brinton/Showtime

In this current Golden Age of Television, many of our biggest shows follow what one might call the HBO Rule of Drama: Use each season’s penultimate episode for the fireworks, and spend the finale picking up the pieces.

Fortunately, there are still shows out there practicing the ancient art of the season finale cliffhanger – most notably Showtime’s Shameless, which wrapped up its fourth season Sunday night by bringing back Justin Chatwin’s Steve Wilton, a former boyfriend to Fiona Gallagher (Emmy Rossum), who fans thought murdered at the end of the previous season.

In honor of the throwback nature of the drama’s surprising twist – seriously, it was straight out of the Dallas playbook – let’s go back in time and run through some of the most shocking finales in TV history. (We’re talking season finales here, not series; that’s a whole other listicle.) Warning: Major spoilers for all shows below.


Season: One

Air Date: December 18, 2011

Shocker: At the climax of a season of ambiguity, Brody’s true plan was revealed: He would detonate a suicide vest in a government bunker, killing the vice president of the United States. In the crucial moment, though, a phone call from his daughter convinced him not to blow himself up; Brody held on for two more seasons of Homeland fan aneurysms.


Season: Four

Air Date: December 13, 2009

Shocker: Shortly after dispatching the fourth season’s major villain, Dexter found out his own wife had been the killer’s last victim. That’s why you always leave a note!

Mad Men

Season: Three

Air Date: November 8, 2009

Shocker: In a madcap adventure reminiscent of the best ’60s caper films, Don and Roger found a solution to their firm’s impending sale: They got fired, so they could strike out on their own.


Season: Three

Air Date: May 25, 2007

Shocker: While the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 struggled to establish contact with the outside world, the episode’s periodic flashbacks to a drunken, bearded Jack were ultimately revealed to be flash-forwards – Jack had gotten off the island, and he wanted to go back.

The Office

Season: Two

Air Date: May 11, 2006

Shocker: After two seasons of innocent flirtation, Jim finally confessed his love for Pam. She brushed him off – for about five minutes. Later, in the empty Dunder-Mifflin office, TV’s cutest crushing couple had their first kiss.


Season: One

Air Date: May 21, 2002

Shocker: Jack Bauer saved the day, but only half of it: While he was able to rescue his daughter, his wife was murdered by a government mole.

The West Wing

Season: One

Air Date: May 17, 2000

Shocker: The West Wing‘s fantasy world of liberal wish fulfillment was shattered by an out-of-nowhere assassination attempt on the president. He survived, but the cozy promise of a Bartlett presidency was shaken for good.


Season: Four

Air Date: May 7, 1998

Shocker: In the Freudian slip to end all Freudian slips, Ross accidentally said Rachel’s name while marrying his British fiancée. As they say in London, that’s a sticky wicket.

The X-Files

Season: Four

Air Date: May 18,1997

Shocker: Mulder encountered evidence that aliens were a hoax, shaking his faith and leading him to commit suicide. As fans learned in the next episode, the whole thing was a hoax – when the X-FIles producers told viewers to “trust no one,” they were including themselves.


Season: Seven

Air Date: May 16, 1996

Shocker: The Seinfeld core foursome did a lot of horrible things throughout the show’s run, but the death of George’s fiancée Susan at the hands of cheap wedding invitations was new ground. For the first time, their hilarious selfishness ended up actually killing someone – a fitting argument for the comeuppance they received two years later.

The Simpsons

Season: Six

Air Date: May 21, 1995

Shocker: In a plot that owed more than a little to Dallas, evil billionaire Montgomery Burns was shot by an unknown assailant shortly after inventing a machine that would block out Springfield’s sun. It was a naked publicity stunt – the villainous victim survived to scheme another day.


Season: Three

Air Date: March 21, 1980

Shocker: After burning friends and family one too many times, Texas oil magnate J.R. Ewing was shot in his office, setting off an eight-month pop-culture frenzy and inspiring every other cliffhanger on this list.

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