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Seinfeld’s Polarizing Ending, Explained

When “The Finale” episode of Seinfeld debuted, it confounded fans and critics who found it off-putting, too big and tidy, and too different from what the show normally did. Here’s our Take on what “the show about nothing” did when it found itself forced to say something, and what Seinfeld’s finale reveals about what we expect from TV shows, even ones that break all the rules.

TRANSCRIPT

In the fourth season of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza pitch NBC a sitcom—based on the stand-up comedy of Jerry Seinfeld.

George: “Nothing!”

Russell: “What does that mean?”

George: “The show is about nothing.” - Seinfeld 4x03

George is describing a show that’s a lot like, well, Seinfeld: a sitcom about the minutiae and minor struggles of everyday life This idea that Seinfeld was a “show about nothing” stuck—even if Seinfeld himself resisted it. And doing nothing ended up making Seinfeld one of the most innovative—and popular—shows of all time.

But this popularity created a contradiction when it came time to end Seinfeld. How does a show about everyday minutiae stage the kind of grand finale expected from such a massive TV phenomenon? A big, sentimental farewell—like the kind for similarly sized hits MASH and Cheers—would be at odds with co-creator Larry David’s famous edict of “No hugging, no learning.”

So, when “The Finale” debuted on May 14, 1998, it confounded fans and critics who found it off-putting—too different from what the show usually did, while not at all what fans assumed a series finale should be. Was some of this disappointment inevitable? Or did the Seinfeld finale actually deliver on something the show promised all along? Here’s our Take on what the show about nothing did when it found itself forced to say something—and what Seinfeld’s finale reveals about what we expect from TV shows, even the ones that break all the rules.

What’s The Deal With Finales?

Seinfeld episodes are made to feel small. They’re comic sketches drawn from petty, everyday grievances, staged in the familiar confines of Chinese restaurants and parking garages. Reveling in the mundane drama of close talkers, condiments, and whether it’s okay to eat eclairs out of garbage cans.

George: “It was on a magazine! And it still had the doily on!”

Jerry: “Was it eaten?”

George: “One little bite.” - Seinfeld 6x06

A normal Seinfeld plot finds Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer trying to further their own selfish aims while chafing against the unwritten rules that govern us. Their only real conflict is the ordinary, yet often-insurmountable fact that they’re surrounded by other people. “The Finale” starts off in this typical Seinfeld fashion, albeit with a noticeable air of restlessness. The characters are still talking about everyday things and debating minor social niceties. But things suddenly shift gears with an unexpected phone call about Jerry and George’s long-shelved sitcom. It’s a momentous change—one that telegraphs that this episode will break from Seinfeld’s usual, low-stakes routine.

The episode gets even bigger when NBC picks up the show, and Jerry and George are summoned to Los Angeles. This is a device we’ve seen time and again in more conventional sitcom finales, where we watch as characters say tearful goodbyes, pack up their TV homes and embark on the next chapters of their lives. But before Seinfeld can stage its own heartfelt farewell, Jerry and George decide to take Elaine and Kramer on a last blowout trip to Paris aboard NBC’s private jet.

Jerry: “So we’ll all go somewhere, the four of us. One big fling before George and I go to California!” - Seinfeld 9x23

Again, this is another TV trope—the sort of splashy adventure we’ve seen in the countless sitcoms where families close out the season with a trip to Disney World.

At this point, it’s clear that Seinfeld is offering a parody of what we’ve come to expect from a finale. When Kramer causes a commotion that sends the gang’s plane into a nosedive, the show openly winks at the sort of life-or-death stakes we might predict for a final episode. The episode uncovers a new, fan-service-y revelation about a main character—but in typical Seinfeld fashion, this reveal is incredibly trivial. And it mocks another popular sitcom final convention by teasing a romantic climax for Jerry and Elaine only to laugh this off as another joke

The self-referential aspect of the finale becomes even more pronounced after the plane makes its emergency landing. The gang discovers they’ve entered an entirely new world—a kinder, gentler town somewhere in rural Massachusetts that marks a symbolic displacement from their TV home. Looking down on the world from their New York apartments, Seinfeld’s characters often demonstrated a complete indifference to others misfortunes. And they do it again here, witnessing a carjacking while openly cracking jokes about the victim.

Jerry: “Well, there goes the money for the lipo.”

Elaine: “See the great thing about robbing a fat guy is it’s an easy getaway, you know. They can’t really chase ya.” – Seinfeld 9x23

But in this world, they can no longer get away with it. They’re arrested under a “Good Samaritan” law, forced to stand trial for being who they are. The trial premise sets up yet another TV finale staple—the replay of the show’s greatest hits, with favorite clips and curtain calls for all its most beloved characters. But Seinfeld subverts this convention, too. Rather than offering us fond flashbacks, the Soup Nazi, Marla the virgin, restaurant owner Babu, and all the others are here to cast judgment on the main characters, finally offering their perspectives on the group’s selfish behavior. And from their point of view, none of it seems particularly funny.

Most of the show’s episodes have a way of evening out: no matter what, things always seem to reset by the next episode. This time, however, there will be no return to normal. The finale positions the trial as a karmic payment that’s long overdue. They get it when Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer are sentenced to spend a year in prison. As its one-time rival, Roseanne Barr once sniped “They think they’re doing Samuel Beckett instead of a sitcom.” And in the finale, the characters’ “no hugging, no learning” ethos has finally led them to a dead-end: to be stuck with each other in a purgatory that indeed resembles the existential absurdity of a Samuel Beckett play more that it does a sitcom.

And rather than its characters moving on to the next chapters of their lives, the finale finds them locked into being themselves, doomed to repeat their meaningless lives forever: Our last glimpse even finds them rehashing dialogue from the very first episode.

Jerry: “See now to me, that button is in the worst possible spot.”

George “Haven’t we had this conversation before?”

Jerry: “You think?” - Seinfeld 9x24

Ultimately, this final fate is Seinfeld’s meta-commentary on the hype surrounding its own finale: The characters are imprisoned for literally doing nothing, right when the world most expected them to do something.

The Opposite

It’s hard to overstate just how much expectation surrounded the Seinfeld finale. When Seinfeld left the air in the spring of 1998, it was the most popular series on television—a rarity for any show ending its run. Its loss was preemptively mourned for months across magazine covers and preceded by a loving hour-long retrospective, ending with the sort of weepy, sentimental song that’s usually reserved for high school graduations.

Green Day: “I hope you have the time of your life” -“Good Riddance”

While the finale aired, the classic TV network TV Land even paused its programming out of respect implicitly coronating Seinfeld itself as a classic before it was even gone. “All of this hype—along with the show’s enormous, dedicated following—inevitably contributed to the feeling that Seinfeld would—and should—sign off with a proportionately big, equally heartwarming goodbye.”

“The Finale” is certainly self-aware about those expectations. And it largely turns them into a joke—making fun of the audience for even desiring that kind of conclusion. But while it’s safe to say that the 76 million people who tuned in may not have actually wanted to see Jerry and Elaine get married, or Jerry and George become successful TV moguls, or even Kramerica Industries finally take off, they probably didn’t assume the characters would wind up in jail—or that they would be teased for having expected something more. They surely didn’t expect to be made to feel guilty for having ever enjoyed the show at all.

Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker criticized co-creator Larry David’s choice to cast a moral judgment on the characters—and implicitly, the audience. After all, as Tucker pointed out, it’s not as though Jerry, George, and the gang had never paid for their various transgressions: They were punished constantly, just by virtue of continuing to live vexing lives filled with petty grievances.

The finale seemed to contradict the show’s internal sense of ethics. Across years of watching these characters scrutinize social interactions, the show had often sided with them in finding most of its rules ridiculous. As the critic Matt Zoller Seitz observed, Seinfeld carved a path for TV antiheroes like Tony Soprano, Walter White, and Don Draper, in that it “let [its] characters be purely selfish, treating the rest of humankind as a resource or obstacle while standing back and observing their shenanigans with a jaundiced detachment.” By suggesting (even as a joke) that fans shouldn’t have approved to these despicable, despicable people, the finale arguably betrayed both its spirit and the audience who’d gone along with it.

But while the finale strays from Seinfeld’s typically small story structure, and slippery moral sensibility, it’s undeniable that it stays true to its characters. As Larry David later told Grantland, “I was not interested in an emotional ride, and neither was Jerry.” And there’s no denying that “The Finale”—like the entire series that preceded it—didn’t offer one. The finale doesn’t take itself or the moment seriously: It approaches those implicit demands to offer a heartfelt goodbye with the same prickly sensibility that made the show so beloved in the first place.

The Legacy

Decades later, it’s hard to say the reputation of Seinfeld’s finale has improved. It’s become a sort of received wisdom that the finale was a letdown. David even turned that disappointment into a running gag on his own show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he and the actors gather for a fictional Seinfeld reunion.

Jerry: “Larry we already screwed up one finale, we can’t do another!”

Larry: “We didn’t screw up a finale, that was a good finale!” - Curb Your Enthusiasm 7X03

Over David’s protest, everyone seems to agree that Seinfeld could have ended better. Curb’s slightly fictionalized world only somewhat reflects the players’ real-life attitudes. While Jerry Seinfeld has admitted, “ I sometimes think we really shouldn’t have ever done it” he’s also said his main regret was bowing to pressure to do a big finish at all. Larry David has been even more reluctant to express any regrets, blaming audience disappointment largely on their own impossible expectations.

Larry David:They all have their little ideas of what should happen, and your show isn’t gonna be better than the one they have in their head.” - Seinfeld Roundtable

So, what do we expect from a series finale, anyway? This conflict—between audience expectation and what shows can actually deliver—has only become more pronounced since Seinfeld went off the air, as the finale has been joined by even more controversial disappointments. Creating a satisfying finale is an especially difficult proposition for sitcoms, which tend to lack the sort of big, overarching plotlines that naturally lead to equally momentous conclusions. Comedies emphasize character, which is why so many sitcom finales tend to hinge on relationships. For sitcoms about singles, it’s a romantic resolution. Family sitcoms typically end with the kids growing up and moving out while workplace comedies usually find their makeshift families splitting up and moving on to new opportunities. Sitcoms tend to end with emotional closure—something that leans into the bittersweet feeling of saying goodbye to people we’ve spent years hanging out within our living rooms.

But Seinfeld didn’t do closure—or emotions. Yet at the same time, if the finale had been a smaller, more typical episode, it likely would have been deemed anticlimactic—a different kind of letdown that failed to live up to those months of anticipation. This created an unusual paradox for Seinfeld’s creators—a no-win situation that the finale addressed in its usual ironic, self-referential nature, illustrating exactly how the burden of delivering a big finale can leave shows trapped in a prison of their own making.

Conclusion

Most Seinfeld fans probably wouldn’t list “The Finale” among their favorite episodes. In some ways, it’s the most off-model Seinfeld episode ever produced—which makes it even stranger that it was also the most-watched. But unlike with some other shows that missed their landing, Seinfeld’s final episode doesn’t seem to have cast a pall over the show as a whole. The fact that it isn’t like other Seinfeld episodes has instead allowed “The Finale” to exist outside the rest of the series. Whatever final judgment the finale makes about its characters, it surely doesn’t stick: Even in prison, we see that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer will just keep talking about nothing like nothing has changed. There’s been no hugging, no learning, no something.

In this, a sense of a larger, cyclical equilibrium is restored: They’ll always be stuck here together, forever debating life’s minutiae, just like they will in endless reruns.

Jerry Seinfeld: “If we did one more scene, you know, it would be a coffee shop scene of them getting out of prison, and they’d get in the booth, the four of them, and the first line would be.”

Jason Alexander: “That was brutal!” - Seinfeld Roundtable

So, in the end, Seinfeld’s finale may not have been what we thought we wanted, but it was ultimately what it needed to be. And doesn’t that make it a success?