While all great stories need one helluva ending to put them over the top, murder mysteries are particularly reliant on the final reveal. Those final moments don’t have to be overly twisty or even surprising. The ending doesn’t need to reinvent the genre or go out of the way to be different. The final unveiling just needs to satisfy the story that preceded it — which, usually, is about more than just solving the mystery. Heck, sometimes there doesn’t even need to be a murder — but we’ll get to that.
Over the past couple of decades, HBO has shown quite the knack for creating unforgettable murder mysteries, including last night’s top-tier “Big Little Lies” finale. So, to put Jean-Marc Vallee and David E. Kelley’s accomplishment in proper context, we’ve ranked the best murder mystery endings ever to appear on HBO. Now, to be clear, all of these are great, so let’s just enjoy the memories (and anticipate a few more).
[Editor’s Note: In case it’s not clear from the headline, the endings of each show discussed below will be revealed. This is your spoiler warning.]
7. “The Night Of”
Listen, if you were to make an 11th hour appeal a la John Stone in “The Night Of” and argue the whole show was about whether or not the cat lived or died, then this finale would shoot up the list. The sense of relief upon seeing the cat walk across the screen in the waning seconds of Steven Zaillian’s limited series cannot be compared to any human fate in other series.
But “The Night Of” was really about Naz (Riz Ahmed), and the final explanation of his innocence didn’t gel with the show’s condemnation of the justice system. It required a lot of work outside the system — Detective Box’s troubled conscience driving him to Atlantic City, where he personally interrogated the actual killer — and some extremely rare courtroom drama to get Naz sprung. While we’ll be thinking about him sitting on that rock, overlooking the river just as he did with Andrea the night they first met, the ending of “The Night Of” wasn’t quite as riveting as its impeccable premiere.
6. “True Blood” Season 1
In a show about vampires, it’s natural to assume a vampire did it. That’s the intriguing twist of “True Blood’s” initial murder mystery, played out in fun and thrilling fashion over the course of Season 1. Sookie (Anna Paquin) investigates a series of murders (primarily one woman, Maudette Pickens) in order to clear her brother’s name. He’d made the mistake of sleeping with Maudette the night before she was found dead, and thus people start thinking he was the one who killed her.
As Sookie investigates (and falls in love with Bill, a vampire played by Stephen Moyer), she runs across no shortage of angry, violent vampires, leading us to wonder if they’re the real threat. And as we’re torn between who we think did it, it’s finally revealed in a thrilling finale that neither party — Jason (Ryan Kwanten), Sookie’s brother, or the vampires — were to blame. Rene (Michael Raymond-James) was the killer, a human motivated by his hatred of vampires, and thus we all learned a lesson of tolerance, especially when it comes to sexual partners.
5. “Bored to Death” Season 3, “Gumball!”
Proving you don’t have to be a moody drama to make a grand murder mystery, “Bored to Death” may have peaked with the two-parter that kicked off its final season. Unlicensed private investigator Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) is framed for murder in Episode 1, and Episode 2 unites his best friends, Ray (Zach Galifianakis) and George (Ted Danson), to help clear his name. Jockeys and blondes get involved, but it’s palling around with all three hilarious stars at once that makes “Gumball!” such a refreshing episode, and a perfect ending to this arc of the madcap modern noir. (I could’ve watched three more seasons of Jonathan, Ray, and George smoking pot, buying assault gear from Patton Oswalt, and trying not to hurt each other in the process.)
4. “The Leftovers” Season 2
As a season of television, no show on this list compares to the second season of “The Leftovers.” But I’m already predicting the shit thrown over including it here, when there was no murder in Season 2. In fact, the debate over what happened to Evie Murphy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) revolved around whether she was kidnapped or departed, with no one willing to mention the M-word around her combustible parents, Michael (Kevin Connelly) and Erika (Regina King). But it always lingered, as viewers and characters wondered if the worst had happened to someone so innocent.
Of course, she proved to be the opposite. Thanks to Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s slow roll-out of information, combined with an ending no one could’ve predicted, Evie’s arc was viscerally and thematically similar to every other murder mystery on this list. And none of their revelations hinged on a fatefully funny knock-knock joke.
3. “True Detective” Season 1
Say what you will about the reveal of the Yellow King, but “True Detective” wrapped up an enrapturing first season with a kicker few predicted: Both Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) lived through it. Arguably constructed from the get-go to make it look like Rust (if not Marty, too) was on a kamikaze mission of justice, the beaten-down detectives summoned all their strength (and buried old differences) to bring justice to Dora Lange and the rest of Errol Childress’ victims, 17 years after it all began.
Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga’s combined vision stands up, three years and one failed sequel season later, evoking similar feelings of remorse, excitement, and wonder at the adventures of these opposite-minded officers. That its message — the light can conquer the dark — stands in direct contradiction to the morose Season 2 only makes Season 1’s ending more powerful. Such an optimistic spirit provided just the contrast needed to the dark shadows filling the Yellow King’s maze, and we didn’t realize just how much it added until the finale (and then again during the pitch black, joyless second season). If Rust and Marty ever return, let’s hope their spirit comes with them.
2. “Big Little Lies”
We loved the “Big Little Lies” finale, not only because of how satisfying the ultimate reveal proved to be (fuck you, Perry), but because of how well each revelation emphasized the show’s themes. That Perry’s son proved to be the kid abusing his classmate evoked Jane’s concerns about her own son inheriting violent DNA, and that Perry turned out to be Ziggy’s father offered the perfect counter: The child raised around violence repeats violence, not children born from it.
That it all came together to end in the death of everyone’s most hated character — by the hand of an unexpected shover — only made the ending feel sweeter, as did the unifying final shots of all the moms gathered together on the beach with their kids. How they came together may have been hell, but “Big Little Lies” left us with the rush of excitement you look for from a finale and an extra dose of progressive empowerment. Hell yes.
1. “The Jinx”
The real-world consequences of “The Jinx” are reason enough for it to top the list. On the eve of the final episode’s debut, Robert Durst was arrested by the FBI and charged with first-degree murder. He’s still awaiting trial in California, but Andrew Jarecki’s docu-series tracking the wild life of a peculiar real estate heir provided key new evidence that resulted in his arrest, and audiences got to see more than enough evidence to make a judgement on their own.
Circling three unsolved cases, “The Jinx” focuses on Durst’s connections to the 1982 disappearance of his wife, Kathie, an execution-style killing of writer Susan Berman, and the death and dismemberment of Durst’s Texas neighbor, Morris Black. He’s currently facing charges for Berman’s murder, but the six-part series paints a terrifying picture of an unstable individual intent on hiding much of his life, even when he can’t resist talking to the camera. It’s this latter addiction that proves his Achille’s heel, as Durst all but confessed during the shocking finale, muttering “What the hell did I do?” post-interview when he thought the mic was turned off.
“The Jinx” was riveting television throughout, and proof murder mysteries don’t have to be manufactured to work.