Most American cartoons don't really have "endings" so much as just stop making episodes. Traditionally, serious continuity has been frowned upon, so most cartoons wouldn't have any big ongoing plots in need of an ending. In the past, even acknowledging that a cartoon was ending could prove controversial, in fear that expressing any sense of finality would hurt kids' interest in watching endless reruns of the same old episodes. Exceptions to this rule, however, have grown increasingly common. Reruns aren't as big a deal, while streaming binge-watching, which rewards serialized storytelling, gains increasing importance. The increasing international success of anime, where series often have concrete beginnings, middles and ends, has proven influential. It's increasingly possible for American animators to give their shows spectacular conclusions.
Sometimes, however, cartoons continue long after their intended "conclusions." You aren't always going to expect demand for a show to continue after what was meant to be a series finale, but it happens. In a world where a new cult favorite seemingly gets revived ever day, the number of "finales" which are no longer finales increases. TV Tropes calls these episodes "fauxnales." This list is essentially two parallel lists: a qualitative ranking of great animated series fauxnales alongside a similar ranking of great actual series finales. Both anime and Western cartoons are under consideration. This is by no means the most extensive review of every great cartoon ending or almost-ending, so if there are any stand-outs we missed, feel free to give us your recommendations in the comments.
20 FINALE: MAMA LUIGI (SUPER MARIO WORLD)
If we're judging finales based on how successful they are as a narrative conclusion, "Mama Luigi" probably shouldn't be on this list. Nothing about it seems like a particularly special wrap-up to the Super Mario World cartoon. Going by general metrics of quality, frankly nothing from the Super Mario World cartoon should rank. So why does "Mama Luigi" make this list?
"Mama Luigi" ranks because millions of people remember "Mama Luigi," making it the only thing anyone remembers from its series. Its quotable silliness made it a legend of the "YouTube Poop" viral video genre, and the fan-animated remake is genuinely amazing. "Mama Luigi" also gains a weird poignance in light of recent revelations about Luigi's gender-bending desires.
19 FAUXNALE: THREE AQUA TEEN "LAST ONES"
I don't think anyone expected Aqua Teen Hunger Force to last 11 seasons. It makes sense the show would prepare for cancelation a few times. Season 2's "The Last One" featured a team-up of almost all the show's villains. Season 6's "The Last One Forever and Ever" mixed things up as a live-action episode, where the Aqua Teens move out and Carl gives the line, "Truly, they were an Aqua Teen Hunger Force."
The last season flat-out trolled viewers. "The Last One Forever and Ever (For Real This Time) (We ****ing Mean It)" seemed like an oddly emotional finale, complete with a melancholy Patti Smith ending theme. So of course Adult Swim had a much sillier actual final episode up its sleeve.
18 FINALE: THE FINAL EPISODE (PARANOIA AGENT)
Any anime distributors reading this: please license Paranoia Agent! It's absurd that the one TV series from the legendary director Satoshi Kon has been out of print for over a decade now. Somebody fix this so a new generation can experience (legally) the best horror anime ever made.
"The Final Episode" maintains the series' Lynchian sense of mystery and wisely avoids explaining all of the show's weirdness. The things it does explain, however, are the emotional truths at the series' heart. Even if you can barely understand what is happening, you'll still be moved by why it's happening. The closing scenes practically demand viewers start over and rewatch the whole series again.
17 FAUXNALE: THE END (TEEN TITANS)
There honestly wouldn't be so much demand for a proper continuation of the 2003-2006 Teen Titans series had it ended when it was originally supposed to, with season 4's appropriately titled three-parter "The End." The actual series finale, "Things Change," was a solid episode in itself but opened up so many unanswered questions that it made for a frustrating non-ending.
"The End," in contrast, would have by all means made a solid wrap-up to the show as a whole. The Titans defeat their greatest threat, Raven's apocalypse-threatening father Trigon. The three-parter is exemplary of how Teen Titans could deal with dark subject matter while still keeping things fun and relatable to young viewers.
16 FINALE: STARCROSSED (JUSTICE LEAGUE)
You could argue "Starcrossed" counts as a fauxnale if you consider Justice League and Justice League Unlimited to be the same show. While the two series are grouped together, being from the same creative team and having direct continuity, the fact "Starcrossed" changed things so much that any continuation had to be branded as a new show puts it squarely in the finale category for the purposes of this list.
"Starcrossed" has the action you'd expect from Justice League, but more than anything this movie-lengthed finale is a romantic tragedy. Hawkgirl's revealed as a traitor, and though she did come to care about Earth and her boyfriend Green Lantern in particular, the guilt of her sins forces her to leave the League.
15 FAUXNALE: AKU'S FAIRY TALES (SAMURAI JACK)
There was no guarantee Samurai Jack would last more than one season, being as offbeat and experimental as it was. Fearing he wouldn't be able to complete his story, Genndy Tartakovsky made sure to include a potential ending of sorts in the season finale "Aku's Fairy Tales."
The episode, wherein Aku tries to turn children against Jack using messed-up stories, ends with the children telling their own story about Jack ultimately defeating Aku. Samurai Jack had a far less satisfying fauxnale with Season 4's "Jack and the Baby" before coming to an actual (if somewhat rushed) conclusion in Season 5.
14 FINALE: MEANWHILE (FUTURAMA)
Futurama made four potential series finales in its long on-again, off-again run. One of the fauxnales ranks elsewhere on this list, but "Meanwhile," the actual final episode of the series (for now), is no slouch either, and certainly feels the most conclusive out of the four possible endings.
Futurama only dealt with time travel sporadically, but the results were always something special. If the start of the episode is a bit contrived, the final act wherein Fry and Leela grow old together as time is frozen around them is as beautiful a segment as the show ever put together. The ending, wherein the couple agree to "go around again" as the universe resets, allows room for possible continuation, but why would you want that?
13 FAUXNALE: THE MOST HORRIBLE XMAS EVER (INVADER ZIM)
This is a weird one because it was never intended as a series finale, until it became one, until it no longer was one. "The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever" was the last episode completed from Invader ZIM's unfinished second season, but now that ZIM's returning with the Enter the Florpus movie, it no longer has to stand as the series finale.
Regardless, it's a pretty great episode, and would have been a strong note to go out on if that had been the case. As gothic Christmas specials go, it's scarier than anything Tim Burton ever dreamed up, and Invader ZIM's satire of human stupidity only seems to grow more prescient as the years go by. Also, how could you not love Mini-Moose?
12 FINALE: SOZIN'S COMET (AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER)
Avatar: The Last Airbender was one of the first American cartoons concieved with a clear beginning, middle and end, and its ending did not let us down. The four part "Sozin's Comet" was a truly epic conclusion to the series, with stunning action, strong character development and a complex philosophical dilemma.
Some have criticized the resolution to Aang's fight with the Fire Lord as being a bit of a deus ex machina, but it both makes sense within the bounds of this fantasy world and is really the best possible way for the show to stick to its philosophical guns. Azula's downfall is downright Shakespearean, and each member of the Gaang gets worthy parting moments.
11 FAUXNALE: HOLIDAYS OF FUTURE PASSED (THE SIMPSONS)
It will be an event when The Simpsons finally ends. Almost everyone would agree it probably should have ended a long time ago. Difficult voice actor negotiations almost ended the show in 2011, so the episode "Holidays of Future Passed" was written as a potential final episode.
It would have been fitting ending a show the show as it began, with a holiday special. This special is also a future-based episode, something The Simpsons has done before both better and worse, but here the conceit is pulled off well (the family photo montage is exceptional). Well past the show's prime, there are still big laughs and emotional moments to be had.
10 FINALE: COME ALONG WITH ME (ADVENTURE TIME)
There are many great touches in the Adventure Time series finale, from a far future where BMO is the King of Ooo to the resolution of the Ice King's story to romantic moments both sweet (that Bubblegum/Marceline kiss!) and hilarious (Lemongrab/LSP!). More than anything, though, what makes "Come Along With Me" so amazing are the songs.
"Time Adventure," composed by Rebecca Sugar, is a tearjerker written to help both kids and adults process loss: "It seems unforgiving when a good thing ends, but you and I will always be back then." The montage set to full version of the show's ending theme then provides closure on pretty much every important character in Ooo and sends longtime fans off on a burst of nostalgia.
9 FAUXNALE: THE SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS MOVIE
Talk to any Millennial who grew up on SpongeBob SquarePants and they'll typically cite the The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie from 2004 as the end of the show's Golden Age. That's not just nostalgia talking. SpongeBob lost a lot when creator Stephen Hillenberg retired following the movie, which he initially intended as a series finale.
Hillenberg did end up returning to his creation for the second movie and continued to work on seasons seasons 10 through 12 up until his unfortunate passing. While the show arguably returned to form with his return, when it is time to end Nickelodeon's biggest hit, it'll be hard to find a way to top that first movie. We're all Goofy Goobers (ROCK!).
8 FINALE: CRYBABY (DEVILMAN CRYBABY)
Until Devilman Crybaby, no adaptation of Go Nagai's Devilman manga included his original ending. The 1972 anime finished up a few months before the manga did, and it's unlikely the manga conclusion could pass on '70s TV. The '80s OVAs didn't get nearly so far in the storyline. Masaaki Yuasa's Netflix series, though taking many liberties in modernizing the story as a whole, actually went there with the apocalyptic finale.
Everyone dies in Devilman Crybaby. Satan, the last being alive, realizes his love for Devilman while hugging his severed torso on a decaying Earth. God completes the annihilation and resets the world. The reset allowed for various manga reboots, and more anime reboots are possible, but Crybaby is a tough act to follow.
7 FAUXNALE: EPILOGUE (JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED)
"Epilogue," the season 2 finale of Justice League Unlimited, is unusually ambitious as intended series finales go. Not only was it supposed to serve as the end of JLU, but the conclusion of Bruce Timm's DC Animated Universe. Given it's set in the future, after even the events of Batman Beyond, it's still the in-universe chronological finale even if JLU got renewed for a third season.
The focus is on future Batman Terry McGuinness, upset to discover he's actually Bruce Wayne's son and his whole childhood was engineered by Amanda Waller. From this upsetting situation, however, he ends up realizing Batman's true strength: his compassion. The flashback wherein the Bruce Wayne Batman comforts Ace in her last moments will get any DCAU fan emotional.
6 FINALE: THE END OF EVANGELION
Heavily inspired by the Devilman manga ending long before Devilman Crybaby properly adapted it, The End of Evangelion is a controversial alternate ending to the Neon Genesis Evangelion series made as a reaction to the even more controversial TV ending's response. It's perhaps scariest animated film ever made, but also one of the most beautiful.
Where the TV ending had extremely rough presentation but an optimistic conclusion, The End of Evangelion is more polished and more properly concludes the show's various storylines but goes in a decidedly darker direction. You can't blame director Hideaki Anno for being angry; freeze frame at certain points and you can actually read the death threats he got over the TV ending!
5 FAUXNALE: MY VERY BEST FRIEND (MADOKA MAGICA)
Puella Magi Madoka Magica reached a near-perfect conclusion in its final episode. Madoka made her wish, saving all other magical girls from the torment of becoming witches as she ascended to godhood. Only Homura would remember her in this new world, pained by the loss of her loved one but ultimately finding the strength to go on and keep fighting.
If you never watch the Rebellion movie, you can pretend this is the whole story. Rebellion starts off as a solid epilogue to the TV anime, only to turn everything on its head and negate the story's whole message in its last 15 minutes. Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi disliked the movie ending but was forced to include it as a hook for sequels which never came.
4 FINALE: WEIRDMAGEDDON (GRAVITY FALLS)
The three-part "Weirdmageddon" series finale of Gravity Falls, true to the show's history of bizarre scheduling, was spread out over the course of four months. Taken as a whole, however, and you couldn't ask for a better conclusion to an outstanding fantasy-comedy series.
Weirdness was unleashed. Mysteries were revealed. Conflicts were settled. Goodbyes were given. Soos forced Old Man McGucket to watch anime. What more could you ask for? The final moments of Mabel and Dipper leaving the Falls, and Dipper opening up Wendy's letter, made fans both smile and sob. The only thing that doesn't hold up from the initial broadcast are some extremely creepy lines read by Louis C.K., which have since been dubbed over by creator Alex Hirsch.
3 FAUXNALE: THE DEVIL'S HANDS ARE IDLE PLAYTHINGS (FUTURAMA)
While the Comedy Central revival of Futurama had some great episodes (one was already discussed on this list), it wouldn't have been the worst thing if the FOX cancelation was final. While FOX did unfortunately mistreat the show, constantly preempting it for football, at least the original crew were able to put together an outstanding finale with "The Devil's Hands are Idle Playthings."
The episode, in which Fry trades hands with the Robot Devil to get better at playing the holophoner and compose an opera to express his feelings for Leela, is at once silly, clever and heartfelt. The songs are great and so many lines are quotable ("You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!"). Also, Hedonismbot.
2 FINALE: THE REAL FOLK BLUES (COWBOY BEBOP)
Cowboy Bebop is a show which could have gone on forever if given the chance. The potential for more genre-bending adventures with the crew of the Bebop was limitless. Yet Bebop had to end after 26 episodes, and it made sure to go out with a "bang."
Yeah, it's kind of impossible not to cry as the children's choir kicks in after Spike falls down on staircase of the Red Dragon headquarters. Conspiracy theorists desperate for a sequel might claim he's just unconscious, but there's no thematic sense in such a claim. His crew disbanded and his enemy defeated, a man who saw life as a dream is forced to wake up.
1 FAUXNALE: CHANGE YOUR MIND (STEVEN UNIVERSE)
"Change Your Mind" was the spark of inspiration for this list. Steven Universe isn't over; the movie comes out in the fall and more episodes are in production. This hour-long special, however, was the end of Rebecca Sugar's initial pitch for the show, and it's as great an "ending" as one could hope for.
Almost every dangling plot thread (White Diamond's terror, Steven developing fusion abilities, Lars returning to Earth, healing the corrupted gems) is wrapped up with amazing efficiency. The music's as great as ever, the animation is better than ever (Disney legend James Baxter animated some shots) and the messages about self-esteem, accepting imperfection and helping broken families are potent. Where Steven goes for here, we have no clue.