The X-Files’ 11th season may very well be the show’s last, which means the frustrating, awful “My Struggle IV” could be its ultimate ending. We wish things had turned out differently for Scully and Mulder, but it wouldn’t be the first time a stellar scifi show ended with a deeply disappointing finale. Here are three prime examples of how not to end a beloved, long-running TV series.
This only applies if you’ve been living under a pop culture rock for a long, long while, but:
One of TV’s most talked-about shows of all time wrapped up its tropical island/parallel universe hijinks in 2010 with what can kindly be described as... a controversial episode. The two-and-a-half hour “The End” bummed out legions of fans who’d stuck with the show’s increasingly out-there twists and turns hoping for at least some questions to be answered after six seasons. But in the series’ final moments, in a weepy scene set in a church, we realized we were seeing main character Jack after his death. He’d expired on the island, then proceeded to an inter-faith version of heaven populated by other Lost characters, because “the most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people.” So everything that happened on the island, even the craziest shit involving monsters and whatnot, really did happen—but the whole point of the show was actually some hokey lesson about people finding each other in life so they could be together in death.
In 2014, co-creator Damon Lindelof was asked about the finale—a not-uncommon interview topic for him, even years later—at an event marking the 10th anniversary of Lost’s premiere, as reported by E! News:
For us, one of the ongoing conversations with the audience... was that the island was purgatory and we were always out there saying “It’s not purgatory, this is real, we’re not going to Sixth Sense you.” And we felt it too that the show had to become sort of meta in this way. And so the writers said, “Obviously, there are all these mysteries. But what if we answered a mystery that was never asked, what’s the meaning of life and what happens when you die?”
Of course “The End” was well-intentioned. But damn, it was corny—and it’s not exactly what fans who’d obsessively tuned in for Lost’s action, mysteries, and intrigue were hoping for as a farewell. As for Lindelof, he enjoyed bit of a do-over with his subsequent show The Leftovers, which more overtly explored similar existential questions (while still leaving plenty of things unanswered), but did so in a much more elegant and satisfying way.
The 1970s cult series got a reboot in 2004 that was met with much-deserved acclaim, with character tweaks that made the story feel modern—like making hotshot pilot Starbuck a woman, and introducing Cylons that looked exactly like humans—and a propulsive, politically-charged plot that carried the show through four seasons. The three-part finale, “Daybreak,” wove flashbacks to events in the main characters’ lives before the Cylon attack on the once-idyllic planet of Caprica, offering insights that generally felt well-earned rather than tacked-on.
But mostly, the finale action is set in the grim present, with a dwindling number of humans and a few sympathetic Cylons racing to save the first human-Cylon hybrid child from evil Cylon clutches—which they manage to do after agreeing to help the Cylons recover their resurrection technology. Of course, the show couldn’t end with an outright Cylon triumph, so a series of events (an unexpected nuke launch, a hungry black hole, the song “All Along the Watchtower”) ends up wiping out the big Cylon base and sending the titular battleship on one final leap through space. Its destination turns out to be Earth, a fulfillment of the Colonial Fleet’s long-desired ultimate goal.
“Daybreak” is filled with bittersweet moments that you’d expect from a finale—but, to the chagrin of many fans, they came at the expense of actually answering the show’s lingering questions. When the mysteries did enter into the finale’s story, they were kind of waved away. As io9 founder Charlie Jane Anders pointed out in a 2009 post, published a few months after Battlestar Galactica ended, “The fact that the answers [to the show’s big, ongoing mysteries] tended to be either ‘God’ or ‘because we said so’ was, to be honest, a bit disappointing.” Similar to Lost, fans were drawn to the show because its many enigmas were so fun and enthralling; while viewers didn’t expect every riddle to be solved by the end, a little bit more payoff with regards to some of the show’s storytelling choices would surely have been appreciated.
Then, there was the finale’s biggest reveal: With just minutes left in the episode, we jump ahead 150,000 years to present-day New York City—where the ageless, mystical doppelgangers of Caprica Six and Gaius Baltar learn that archaeologists have discovered the remains of “mankind’s first mother,” namely the Cylon-human hybrid that caused so much chaos throughout the season. The pair are amused by this development, and wonder about the future of this version of Earth—will it come crashing down as they’ve seen so many times before, or will “God’s plan” whip out a surprising new ending? As the most important song ever written (“All Along the Watchtower,” duh) plays in the background, a montage of increasingly humanoid robots suggests we’re all doomed to repeat the fate of the ancient astronauts who came to Earth as refugees... but more importantly, since the show is ending forever, we’ll also never get closure on some things we were genuinely invested in. Like, what was the deal with Starbuck—did that kick-ass character really die and return just so she could be used as an angelic plot device, guiding the Galactica to its final destination before vanishing forever? What the frak.
The X-Files’ original run wrapped up in 2002, after a ninth season that suffered from the limited participation of Gillian Anderson’s Scully and David Duchovny’s Mulder—only the latter appeared in the two-part finale, “The Truth.” The episodes at least attempted to sew up the show’s mythology, but despite some callbacks to fan-favorite touchstones like the Lone Gunmen, “The Truth” fell flat by taking itself way too seriously. In the first act, Mulder gets ahold of some top-secret files that reveal aliens are planning to colonize Earth and wipe out the human race; after he’s forced to brawl a superhuman soldier played by Adam Baldwin, he’s sentenced to death in a subsequent military trial, which is naturally controlled by shadowy government forces, blah blah blah. Mulder manages to escape with Scully and track down the Cigarette Smoking Man, who’s grown out his hair and taken up residence in a dreamcatcher-festooned Southwestern ruin. He’s awaiting December 22, 2012 (the date of that impending alien invasion), but it doesn’t look good for the X-Files’ resident conspiracy-theory majordomo—in the ensuing fracas, we literally see the flesh melt off CSM’s skull when his lair is hit by a black helicopter.
The final scene of the TV show’s first iteration takes place in a Roswell hotel room, in a nod to a similar scene from the series’ pilot; there are no aliens, just a pensive Mulder and Scully. “You’ve always said that you want to believe,” Scully asks. “But if this is the truth that you’ve been looking for, then what is left to believe in?”
Mulder’s response: “I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us. That they speak to us as part of something greater than us. Greater than any alien force. And if you and I are powerless now, I want to believe that if we listen to what’s speaking, it can give us the power to save ourself.” Then, he touches Scully’s cross necklace... then her lips... and adds, “Maybe there’s hope.” The tender moment almost saved “The Truth,” but five minutes of deep (if vaguely religious) discussion between The X-Files’ most iconic characters couldn’t take away from the bag of hot air that was the rest of the episode. In fact, its brief recapturing of the show’s old magic made things worse, underlining the fact that the entire ninth season had, on the whole, the distinct air of an overstayed welcome.
Chris Carter and company got a chance for redemption when The X-Files returned for a pair of shorter seasons. Though seasons 10 and 11 were wildly uneven, overall I’d say they yielded enough delights (including one of the series’ best-ever episodes, which would have been a fantastic finale) to justify the comeback. But that doesn’t mean it all came to a satisfying finish; “My Struggle IV,” which capped off a quartet of episodes spread across the two revival seasons, was an absolute low point. Through all of season 11, Scully’s obsessed with tracking down her long-lost son, William (who is a jerkface)—but when she finally catches up with him, she ultimately decides it’s better to let him go and shift her focus to... the baby growing inside her. So, Scully is going to have a kid who’s the actual product of her and Mulder doin’ the deed, not some weird black-ops science experiment engineered by the Cigarette Smoking Man. At last, the show seems to say, Scully and Mulder can have the “normal” lives they’ve apparently been longing for, rather than scampering through sewers and woods and abandoned buildings chasing monsters—i.e., the whole reason why we fell in love with them in the first place. As of this writing, it seems likely that the just-completed season 11 might be The X-Files’ final bow, especially since Anderson has said she doesn’t want to return. Still, Carter has heavily hinted that it could be back in some form—not unlike the Cigarette Smoking Man, who has survived certain death before, and probably will again if The X-Files returns.