A season finale (British English: last in the season; Australian English: season final) is the final episode of a season of a television program. This is often the final episode to be produced for a few months or longer, and, as such, will try to attract viewers to continue watching when the series begins again.
A season finale may contain a cliffhanger ending to be resolved in the next season. Alternatively, a season finale could bring storylines to a close, "going out on a high" and similarly maintaining interest in the series' eventual return.
In the 2000s, the terms "mid-season finale", "fall finale" and "winter finale" began being used by some cable and broadcast networks in the United States, to denote the last episode in the first half of a split television season, ahead of a break in the broadcast schedule in order to make room for a mid-season replacement series, or to simply demarcate the interregnum between November sweeps and the end of the Christmas/Hanukkah/New Year holiday period, when most regular programming is in hiatus.
- 1980: Every season of Dallas (1978–91) finished with a cliffhanger ending, but most famous is the "Who shot J. R.?" storyline, when an attempt on J. R. Ewing's life takes place in the season three finale "A House Divided".
- 1983–1989: Blackadder – "The Black Seal" (series 1), "Chains" (series 2), "Duel and Duality" (series 3), "Goodbyeee" (series 4). Blackadder took a liberty that many series would be unable to take, by killing off the major characters (apart from in Blackadder the Third when only Prince George died). This reinforces the idea that the four series stand alone from each other, and the series' general black humor.
- 1987-1996: During the first three seasons of the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV series the Technodrome would usually switch location. This was later changed to occur early during the seasons.
- 1990: Star Trek: The Next Generation – In the season three finale, "The Best of Both Worlds", the Borg attack several Federation colonies and when the Enterprise finally catches up with them, they kidnap Captain Picard. The Enterprise's normal weapons have very little effect on the Borg ship, so the crew devises a way to channel excessive levels of energy into the main deflector dish, turning it into a massive weapon. An Enterprise away team boards the Borg ship to try and rescue Picard, but discover that he has been assimilated – he is now Locutus of Borg. The episode ends with Locutus informing the Enterprise that they will be assimilated as well. Riker's only response is "Mr. Worf, fire."
- 1995: The Simpsons parodied the "Who shot J.R.?" episode with "Who Shot Mr. Burns?", the season six finale. The episode launched an official contest on the internet to determine who shot Mr. Burns. It is the only two-part episode in the series' 29-year history.
- 1998: Friends – In the season four finale "The One with Ross's Wedding", Ross and several main characters travel to London for his wedding to Emily Waltham. Rachel unexpectedly arrives, intending to tell Ross she loves him and possibly stop the wedding, but she decides against this at the last minute and the ceremony goes ahead as planned. However, during the vows Ross says Rachel's name instead of Emily's, and the episode ends with the registrar asking whether he should continue the ceremony.
- 2000: Frasier – In the season seven finale, "Something Borrowed, Someone Blue", the major plotline involving Niles' secret love for Daphne ended, as Daphne seemingly rejects Niles on the night before her wedding, but then joins him in the final scene and asks him to take her away with him, and they leave as her wedding to Donny is supposed to be beginning.
- 2000: The Sopranos – The season two finale, "Funhouse", largely concerns a series of fever dreams experienced by protagonist Tony Soprano, brought on by food poisoning. The episode became iconic for its dream sequence in which Tony encounters a fish that speaks with the voice of Big Pussy Bonpensiero and confesses to turning informant, arousing Tony's suspicions in real life and culminating in the murder of Big Pussy. The Sopranos would become infamous for its abrupt killing of regular characters, as well as its often surreal and bizarre dream sequences and metaphysical elements.
- 2003: Farscape – The season four finale, "Bad Timing", ends on a cliffhanger where it appears John Crichton and Aeryn Sun had been killed. The SciFi Channel had announced the series' cancellation several months earlier, and despite intense fan pressure on the network, negotiations between SciFi and the Jim Henson Company failed to renew the series. In protest to the cancellation, the Henson company retained the cliffhanger and the "To be continued" titles at the end of the episode. The cliffhanger was eventually resolved in the Peacekeeper Wars two-part miniseries.
- 2004, 2006: Green Wing – The series 1 finale and series 2 finale. In an ironic parody of certain season finales, both series of the British hospital sitcom Green Wing conclude with literal cliffhangers. In series 1, Guy discovers that Joanna is his biological mother, directly after sleeping with her. In a confused rage, he steals an ambulance (with Mac and Martin managing to jump aboard), and drives it to the edge of a cliff. In series 2, Dr. Statham, having accidentally killed a dwarf, worries that the police are about to find and arrest him and Joanna, so hijacks a couple's campervan (Martin again rides in the back), but Dr. Statham takes them to the edge of the same cliff. Their survival is not explained in the following Green Wing Special, and this plot device could be a criticism of the "cliffhanger" method of generating tension and ratings.
- 2013: Doctor Who – The season 33 finale, "The Name of the Doctor". The Doctor and his companion, Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) visit The Doctor's grave on a planet called Trenzalore. This episode takes place shortly before the events in the 50th anniversary special, as the last scene of the episode shown is a shot of an unknown incarnation of The Doctor, saying to his right, "Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor."
The final episode of a television series often concludes the entire premise of the show, wrapping up any loose ends and storylines. On occasion the season finale has become the series finale due to cancellation of the series, sometimes unexpectedly so, leaving plot points unresolved.
In soap opera
As most soap operas in the world tend to air all year round, Australian soap operas do screen in season format, like a typical television series, as they go off air over the non-ratings Christmas period. For example, classic prison drama Prisoner (AKA Prisoner: Cell Block H, 1979–1986) and Australia's flagship soap opera Home and Away (1988–present), among others, traditionally broadcast their season finale episode in November or December of each year, going off air for about two months, while a new season would commence in January or February.
In American English, the term has evolved to describe the final event of a sporting season, e.g. in soccer or motocross, perhaps partly because of the popularity of these with television viewers.