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The 10 most shocking season finales ever on TV

It’s bittersweet when a popular show ends with an explosive season. Fans are left wanting more while the internet is aflutter with theories, questions, and anxious expressions of disbelief, wonder, excitement, or even tears. Some season finales have been particularly shocking, in various ways.

Many of the most shocking season finales were also series finales. But some of the ones that resulted in the most chatter were ones that left fans with frustrating cliffhangers while awaiting the next season to commence.

10. Dexter (season 8, 2013)

Dexter Morgan from Dexter with a beard in the series finale.

The eighth season finale of Dexter was also the show’s series finale. To this day, almost a decade later, it still remains both one of the most shocking and one of the worst series finales ever. Fans were gearing up for a climactic end to a fabulous show. Instead, they got the exact opposite. The vigilante serial killer they had come to loathe and love was reduced to a shell of a man. Having lost his sister, his career, his cover, and his son, he felt there was only one answer: Skip town and become a lumberjack.

Wait, what? That was precisely the reaction fans had after sticking through even the most lackluster seasons in the hopes they would at least be rewarded with a satisfying end. Thankfully, Dexter redeemed itself with an exciting 10-episode limited series revival called Dexter: New Blood. Released in 2021, it brought back to the titular character along with the original series showrunner and finally gave fans the equally shocking but far more satisfying end they deserved.

9. The Sopranos (season 6, 2007)

The final dinner table scene from The Sopranos.
Will Hart / HBO

It’s one of the most-talked-about series finales to this day, mainly because the situation was left ambiguous. Did Tony Soprano get killed or not? Inspiring a renewed interest in Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, the final episode saw Tony and his family enjoying a lovely meal together. And as Tony looked up, the screen went black, resulting in fans frantically checking their remotes and cable connections to make sure they didn’t miss something pivotal because of a technical difficulty at home.

As it turns out, this was no mistake. The point was for fans to be left wondering about the big boss’s fate. Fourteen years later, show creator David Chase finally confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that Tony did, indeed, die at the end.

8. Manifest (season 3, 2021)

A grown Cal looking worried and sad in the season 3 finale of Manifest.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Manifest isn’t as high-profile a show as some of the others on this list. But the end of season 3 was so shocking that when fans learned NBC had canceled the show, secondary viewership and fan outcry was enough to convince Netflix to commission a fourth and final season. The supernatural drama tells the story of passengers from a plane that went missing five years prior suddenly returning, confused and unscathed. None had aged though the world had continued on without them. With no recollection of what happened and where they had been, each passenger begins to see visions and premonitions they refer to as Callings.

With elements of mythology, sci-fi, and mystery, fans were easily sucked into the plot. What had fans up in arms about the season 3 finale of Manifest was both the death of a major character, and the appearance of a key child character who had all of a sudden mysteriously aged five years. There was no way Manifest could have ended so abruptly without giving fans the closure they deserved.

7. Game of Thrones (season 4, 2014)

Tywin Lannister on the privy, Tyrion in the foreground in a scene from Game of Thrones.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Fans could never envision that a shocking scene on a show like Game of Thrones might involve a regal man sitting on a privy (toilet). Alas, this was precisely the type of throne that would be the last Tywin Lannister would sit upon. Having had enough, his son Tyrion flew open the door and boldly shot his father dead while he conducted his, er, business.

Before that, Tyrion visited his former love Shae and strangled her to death. The season ended with Tyrion being smuggled on a ship by Varys, with fans in awe of his bravery and stunned by his murderous outrage. As a fan-favorite character, it’s no surprise fans could not wait to find out Tyrion’s fate.

6. Game of Thrones (season 5, 2015)

Jon Snow lying on a table, bloody and white in a scene from Game of Thrones.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The epic season 4 finale was followed up by another astonishing one in season 5: The presumed death of the beloved Jon Snow. It was all fans could talk about for months: Is he still alive, and if so, how? Or is the character gone for good? He couldn’t possibly be leaving the show given how integral the character was to the story, not to mention he was a big fan favorite.

The image of Jon Snow lying naked, cold, bloodied, and lifeless was imprinted in fans’ heads and appeared in every entertainment news outlet. Even Apple’s digital assistant Siri joined in on the fun with some hilarious responses to fans resorting to asking about his fate. They went through every scenario possible to explain how he might survive. Spoiler alert: he did.

5. Lost (season 3, 2007)

Charlie underwater holding his hand up to glass showing the words "Not Penny's Boat" in a scene from Lost.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Delivered in two parts, the season 3 finale of Lost featured that pivotal scene with Charlie’s hand on the glass displaying a message: “Not Penny’s Boat.” It brought chills down fans’ spines, so it’s no surprise this episode is featured on many lists of the best TV show episodes ever.

With Charlie having been a fan-favorite character through the first three seasons, fans were devastated and completely blindsided by his death. The episode was full of action, twists, and heartfelt, emotional moments that left fans begging for the fourth season to begin.

4. Breaking Bad (season 4, 2011)

Gus Fring adjusting his tie, half his face blown off in a scene from Breaking Bad.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The image of Gus Fring, half his face burned off from an explosion, adjusting his tie right before he falls to the ground and perishes, is one of the most iconic of the series. It remains ingrained in fans’ heads, marking the end of one of the most villainous antagonists on Breading Bad up to that point, and arguably through to the end.

The manner in which Walter White was finally able to take out his mortal enemy was explosive, to say the least. Fans only got to truly understand the disdain Hector Salamanca felt for Fring once the backstory was revealed in the prequel series Better Call Saul. But that moment was still a turning point for White and for the show as fans finally got to see, and were shocked by, what he was truly capable of.

3. Mad Men (season 6, 2013)

Don Draper standing in front of a house with his kids on Mad Men.
Jamie Trueblood / AMC

For much of the series, fans did not know the truth about Don Draper’s past and his true identity, Dick Whitman. But in a shocking turn at the end of this season’s final episode, Don finally reveals the truth to his family, including his kids. He takes them to an old, dilapidated home and reveals that it’s where he grew up. It was, back then, a home for prostitutes where they conducted their business.

It’s a turning point for the character who, up until that moment on Mad Men (and arguably still after), had a wall up around him and never let anyone in. In this moment, he finally pulled back the curtain and made an effort to show his true self to the people who should matter most to him. It was more emotional than shocking, but it was surprising, nonetheless.

2. Grey’s Anatomy (season 11, 2015)

Dr. Derek Shepherd lying in a hospital bed, a bandage around his head in a scene from Grey's Anatomy.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Fans of the long-running medical drama still haven’t gotten over the surprise death and departure of Dr. Derek Shepherd, a.k.a. “McDreamy,” on the series. Given that his relationship with Dr. Meredith Grey was central to Grey’s Anatomy for so many years, it came as a complete surprise when his character was killed in a car accident.

Ellen Pompeo’s performance was praised in the episode, and die-hard fans of the show probably felt the same emotions she did as they watched a fan-favorite character leave a show in the most emotionally draining way. What made it more shocking is that Dempsey did not officially confirm that he would be leaving the show until a few hours prior to the episode airing, which meant many fans had no idea his death was coming.

1. The Walking Dead (season 6, 2016)

Negan standing in front of Rick and other members of his group holding his bat Lucille on The Walking Dead.
Gene Page / AMC

It marked a turning point for the show that resulted in once adoring fans boycotting The Walking Dead. The long-running series, which just wrapped up its run, eventually managed to gain back viewers following a few lackluster seasons. However, it was this season finale that frustrated fans, and the season 7 premiere episode that subsequently left many to abandon the show altogether. The storyline with Negan and his group The Saviors was drawn out for so long, so when the season finale shockingly ended on a cliffhanger instead of a reveal, fans were livid.

Many thought the pivotal scene that was being built up for so long, who Negan would brutally kill, would finally come to fruition. But it was just a fade-to-black and time-to-wait teaser moment. Fans who did stick with the show got to work for months, drawing diagrams to analyze every angle, preview, teaser, and moment to try to figure out the identity of the victim. The answer didn’t arrive until a grueling six months later.

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Christine Persaud
Christine has decades of experience in trade and consumer journalism. While she started her career writing exclusively about…
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