×
Cookies help us deliver our Services. By using our Services, you agree to our use of cookies. Learn More.

The ending of Seinfeld explained

For almost a decade from 1989 to 1998, Seinfeld was one of the funniest shows on the air. Following a gang of New York misanthropes played by Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia-Louis Dreyfus, and Michael Richards, the show took the sitcom formula to new comedic heights. It would be quicker to list shows that weren't inspired by Seinfeld than to point to the many that were, like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The Office, just to name a couple. That's not even mentioning the beloved shows that the stars and creators of Seinfeld have made since, including Veep and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But while many of Seinfeld's jokes and turns of phrase have entered the cultural lexicon (how many times have you heard someone complain about double-dippers?), the show's ending was one of the most controversial and talked-about events of 1998. Even today, people disagree about what exactly was up with "The Finale," so we're here to give a rundown on Seinfeld's infamous final episode.

Seinfeld broke the mold

While beloved sitcoms existed before Seinfeld, no other show captured the strange mundanity of life quite like it. Older sitcoms like Cheers established tight humor through likable characters and television-worthy hijinks. Seinfeld, in contrast, famously had the unofficial motto of "No hugging, no learning," and that shined through in the show itself. Instead of following a family that loved each other, the protagonists were just friends who hung out together seemingly out of inertia.

Episodes revolved around the kind of day-to-day stuff that many viewers dealt with daily — instead of prank wars with a rival bar, the cast of Seinfeld were more likely to wait for a table at a Chinese restaurant or accidentally wear an ugly shirt. The only throughline of the show was that episodes would usually be about nothing, and that it would be absolutely hilarious. In one of many meta-textual winks, we even watched characters pitch a Seinfeld-esque show to an NBC executive as "a show about nothing," which doubles as a perfect summation of Seinfeld's appeal.

Selfish characters

Seinfeld might have been about nothing, but it was also about selfish, single-minded characters that burrowed their way into fans' hearts. Jerry Seinfeld (the character) was the voice of reason, but that usually manifested by telling his friends that their ideas were stupid and then gleefully watching them fail. Elaine was vindictive and proud, and George broke the mold as a singularly disgusting, vain individual. Even Kramer, who was usually the most kind-hearted of the gang, was routinely shallow and brutally honest.

The characters were almost parodies of a very specific kind of New Yorker, with such severe tunnel vision that anything that didn't personally affect them was irrelevant. The characters might have been unlikable, but those same qualities made them eminently lovable to millions of fans. In fact, the most unrealistic parts of the show was arguably just how few consequences they experienced for their unrelenting selfishness.

Turning the sitcom formula on its head

The show's predilection for making episodes out of anything meant that viewers had no idea what the show would focus on week to week. Even when characters sometimes suffered logical consequences for their actions, there was rarely any change in how they acted the next week. The world of Seinfeld was springy and malleable, filled with the kind of petty inconveniences that could be solved by just not going back to the restaurant where you were rude to your waiter.

In one memorable episode, George barely cares when his fiancee dies suddenly (from licking the cheap wedding invitation envelopes he insisted on buying). The sitcom formula of repetition, often used so that viewers could jump in anywhere without getting lost, was escalated to the point of tragedy — the characters of Seinfeld would never learn a lesson even if they really should. That all changed in the series finale, which finally brought genuine consequences to the gang of lovable monsters.

Not quite dead

The series finale certainly starts off on a positive note: Jerry and George seem to have finalized their deal for the Seinfeld-esque show they're making called Jerry. Network executives even loan the cast a private jet, so Jerry and his pals decide to go to Paris. It's about the happiest ending the self-obsessed crew could get, so of course it doesn't last. Almost immediately, they muck things up by nearly crashing the plane (which could've been its own series finale), and getting stuck in a small Massachusetts town while they wait for it to get fixed.

In classic Seinfeld fashion, they witness a crime and, instead of helping, crack jokes and mock the victim for his obesity. However, the characters aren't in New York, and their unique brand of city-bred apathy lands them in court for failing to help. It's fitting that they experience real consequences for their daily rudeness almost as soon as they leave New York.

Carjacking Karma

Of course, it's ridiculous that they're arrested for failing to help a carjacking victim — especially when, as their lawyer reminds the judge, the actual criminal is still out there. Still, you can't say that Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer didn't have it coming in some way. Over the course of the show, the group committed so many minor crimes (against nature and polite society, if not actual laws) that it's a wonder that they weren't arrested years earlier.

The actual crime they get arrested for might be "criminal indifference," but the real reason that they get arrested is that they've amassed so much negative karma over the years that something needed to break. Even their altruistic acts are tainted with the need to make sure that another person sees them do the good deed — like when George tries to take back a tip when the cashier doesn't notice him originally tipping. At their core, they're selfish, and it was bound to catch up to them in some way.

A cavalcade of cantankerous characters

After the Seinfeld friends are arrested, they're forced to stand trial. The prosecution calls in a series of character witnesses that become a sort of greatest hits parade of some of the funniest Seinfeld episodes while also reminding the viewers just how many awful things the cast have done. The Soup Nazi, Leslie the low-talker, and many more arrive to recount the group's lowest and most illegal actions. While it's hilarious, it's also a reminder of how morally absent they are; instead of taking the opportunity to realize how many people they've hurt, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer seem largely unmoved by the parade of their past sins.

As it turns out, they're judged guilty and sentenced to a year in prison. As the judge says: "I do not know how, or under what circumstances the four of you found each other, but your callous indifference and utter disregard for everything that is good and decent has rocked the very foundation upon which our society is built. I can think of nothing more fitting than for the four of you to spend a year removed from society."

Nothing ends, nothing ever ends

After they get convicted, Jerry talks to George about his shirt button placement, in an exact rehash of the very first lines of Seinfeld. George responds by asking if they've had the conversation before, and he and Jerry both agree that they have. Having completely ignored any chance to redeem themselves or express remorse for their actions, the show ends exactly where it begins: with George and Jerry having a conversation about nothing. Jerry is even shown doing stand-up in prison, seemingly unchanged by his new venue.

The finale almost seems to directly represent a karmic vision of the afterlife. Without repenting, the characters are doomed to repeat their lifetimes until they prove decent enough to surpass their mortal coil. It's a surprisingly grim ending for one of the funniest television shows in history, implying that there was a chance for them to overcome their base impulses and they unquestionably failed that test. With themes of death, rebirth, and the mortal weight of the characters' sins, it's probably also the only sitcom that shares thematic concerns with Twin Peaks.

Controversial conclusion

Love it or hate it, the Seinfeld ending is certainly audacious. Unfortunately, it was also pretty divisive. Entertainment Weekly's Ken Tucker gave it a C- at the time, while USA Today's Robert Bianco wrote a scathing review of the finale. On the other hand, Grantland's Sam Hockley-Smith wrote a defense of the finale in 2015, proving that the discourse surrounding the ending wasn't just limited to the '90s. It wasn't just critics either — the actors were likewise torn about the unique ending.

Jerry Seinfeld himself initially defended the show in a Reddit AMA, saying "I was happy with the Seinfeld finale because we didn't want to do another episode as much as we wanted to have everybody come back to the show we had so much fun with." Later, however, Seinfeld said "I sometimes think we really shouldn't have even done it." Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who played Elaine, even made a joke about the finale on Late Show with David Letterman when, appearing on his final show, she thanked Letterman "for letting me taking part in another hugely disappointing series finale."

A jealous Soprano

Crafting a perfect ending to a beloved show is difficult — just ask David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos. The mob family drama came to an abrupt ending not in a shootout or police sting, but in a diner with a hard fade to black and Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" playing. Fans were confounded by the meaning, and Chase has had to explain the ending multiple times since.

In fact, fan reactions to controversial endings aren't the only things that Seinfeld and The Sopranos have in common. Chase has even acknowledged that they should have probably switched endings, telling the New York Times that "It's just very difficult to end a series… For example, Seinfeld, they ended it with them all going to jail. Now that's the ending we should have had. And they should have had ours, where it blacked out in a diner."

Not the real ending?

 While the actual finale of Seinfeld might have been fairly divisive, it's not necessarily the final word from co-creator Larry David. On Curb Your Enthusiasm – which presents a lightly fictional depiction of David's real life — David put together a Seinfeld finale more in keeping with fans' expectations during the seventh season, when he brings the cast back together in a ploy to regain the affections of his ex-wife.

In the reunion, Jerry has gotten together with Elaine while George tries to get back together with his ex-wife Amanda after losing all of his money in a Ponzi scheme. Jerry and Elaine have even had a daughter together (although she doesn't know that she's Jerry's child, since he was Elaine's sperm donor). The ending is much closer to what fans likely pictured when Seinfeld was wrapping up its run, and David even called the faux reunion "a perfect way to do something like that but not to do it." If you're curious, you can even watch the entire reunion cut together by Topher Grace (yes, from That '70s Show).