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End-Game Theory: How Today's 5 Biggest TV Shows Will Conclude by Year's End

Theories on how critically celebrated shows like Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, and The Newsroom will wrap up.

This year may well be one that continues to birth and nurture innovative TV—True Detective and season two of House of Cards come to mind—but it could also be remembered for ushering in the swan songs for critically celebrated shows Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy, True Blood, and The Newsroom, all of which sign off for good by December. The critically acclaimed Mad Men, meanwhile, will serve up an aperitif with seven episodes in 2014—starting this weekend—and a final digestif in 2015.

Below, we've gathered intel on TV's most popular dramas from showrunners, rabid fans, and a host of other admittedly questionable resources to help predict what will happen to our beloved characters. Theories involving finales range from the tame to the downright silly. More spoilers follow. You've been warned.

Mad Men

Look to the opening credits for foreshadowing, and you'll see Don Draper and his acolytes are facing either a real or metaphorical fall. With 1969 said to be the year that will ultimately serve as the backdrop of the finale, real-world events like the Chappaquiddick incident, Woodstock, Altamont, and the grisly Manson murders all seem to be of interest to the world created by Matthew Weiner, who is notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to pending story details.

Elements have already been set in motion that suggest that Peggy Olson is poised to become a creative director (or will it be Bob Benson who has no past just like Dick Whitman?) and that Don is looking toward California as a locale for rebirth. In the newly released teaser photoset from AMC, the cast is entering a TWA terminal, enjoying a drink on the flight—establishing that Roger Sterling is still alive after his season six heart attack—and Peggy Olson back-to-back with the Don Draper (a signature shot utilized by Weiner in the past to insinuate animosity). Last we saw of Peggy she was wearing pants and sitting in Draper's office mimicking the same opening credit chair motif. We're betting that Olson turns into the new, ruthless Draper.

The appearance of TWA appears important for two reasons. One, in 1969 the airline was the largest transatlantic carrier and featured a new concourse-lounge at JFK called Flight Wing One. Does this mean Don has finally landed a real airline? Second, TWA flights were frequent targets of Palestinian terrorists, including hijackings in 1969, 1970, and 1971. Does Matthew Weiner dare add something this bold to his final season?

In speaking about his plans Weiner has said, "I don't really know what I'm going to do, and I don't know that the show will ever offer anything [concrete]. I find it difficult to even express resolution on the show. It's not a creative problem for me." He went on to say, "I have something that I think is the image for the very, very end of the series. Other than that, I just sort of leave things where they are."

Interestingly, we seem to be back at the beginning—Don is cheating on his young wife, Peggy is fighting for relevance at work, Pete has uncovered someone's true identity at work and, of course, it's called "Sterling Cooper" once again.

Boardwalk Empire

When it was announced that season five would be its last, creator Terrence Winter said that he and his staff were "looking forward to a powerful and exciting conclusion." Jeffrey Wright (Dr. Narcisse) and Gretchen Mol (Gillian) have been confirmed to return despite the drastic changes to their character's lives—both finding themselves in legal hot water following the season four finale. And with the possible introduction of civil rights activist Marcus Garvey to the cast of characters, the series has multiple possible catalysts in place for the season finale.

Boardwalk Empire also has a finite number of characters left that can be killed off if Winter wants to remain true to real-world scenarios—considering that Eli's been exiled to Chicago to potentially play a hand in Al Capone's St. Valentine's Day Massacre with Van Alden, and Chalky's North side kingdom has been ruined following the death of his daughter.

We know Charlie Luciano and Meyer Lansky are safe because each man died of medical issues—a heart attack and lung cancer, respectively—much later in life. We also know that the real Arnold Rothstein was murdered in 1928 after failing to pay a large debt from a fixed poker game. Since the fourth season took place in 1924, it is possible that Rothstein's death and the 1929 St. Valentine's Day Massacre would fit perfectly in the already established timeline.

As for Nucky: The author of the source material for Boardwalk Empire, Nelson Johnson, says that he's "60 percent" accurate, and fans should know that the real Nucky Thompson died quietly at home in 1968. For a show that allows for certain creative licenses, Nucky's death seems to be a real possibility.

Over the course of four seasons, Nucky's ruthlessness has kept him on top, but he has shown a willingness to forgive his brother, Eli. Despite Eli's move to Chicago, Winter explains, "They will continue to be in each other's worlds. How [what transpired in the finale] affects them emotionally and what the real feelings are remains to be seen." There are notable examples, including Eli's demotion (season one), abandonment (season two), and his own resentment of Nucky's relationship with his son Will (season four) that points to Eli as a real threat to Nucky's longevity.

Conversely, one could deduce that Nucky's season two comments "Et tu, Eli?" intimate that Nucky hasn't really trusted his brother since power shifted in Atlantic City. Additionally, Thomson has a real enemy in Genovese boss Joe Masseria who would later be gunned down in real life by consorts of Lucky Luciano. If Winter sticks to the timeline, but gets creative with the story, both Masseria and Eli are suspects in the possible impending—but not yet foreseen—death of Nucky Thompson.

Sons of Anarchy

Creator Kurt Sutter has mentioned in several instances that his outlaw motorcycle drama depicting the exploits of SAMCRO is loosely based on Shakespeare's Hamlet. While not a perfect template, the relationship between Jax Teller and Clay Morrow was similar to Hamlet and Claudius. And after Gemma killed Tara, Sutter explained, "I knew I wanted Tara's death to really feel like straight-up Shakespearean tragedy [with the] device of mistaken information right from Romeo and Juliet." Following Tara's death, Wendy (Jax's ex) now has an opportunity to be apart of his son's life—especially since the lead females have made an unsuspecting arc in the show, something Sutter did not intend. Wendy has proven that she is willing to align with whoever offers the opportunity to be with her son, so she's definitely a wildcard absent of any SAMCRO alliances. Sutter has mentioned that the seventh season will kick off weeks after the season six finale (airing in fall 2014) and "is the season coming up where Jax needs to decide. There is no more debate. I think it's the season where he's in or out."

We left the club in season six in a direction that Jax has always envisioned—absent of Irish guns and Mexican drug beefs. With his family in complete ruin, one could surmise that Jax will ultimately have to decide if answering the question "Who killed Tara?" will come at the expense of the club. With both of his "moral compasses" (Tara and Opie) now gone—something Sutter has referred to as his "True North—Jax's unresolved issues with his mother (like those between Hamlet and Gertrude) suggest more dead bodies than long Harley rides off into the sunset when the curtain finally closes. Sons of Anarchy could be the first show where there's a legitimate chance that everyone ends up dead just like the Shakespearean tragedy.

True Blood

Is Eric still alive after being barbecued atop a mountain when Warlow's vampire-fairy blood lost its sunblock properties? That's the burning question (no pun intended) as True Blood attempts one more season absent of the daylight with the confirmation of Alexander Skarsgard (Eric) back for the final season, but it remains to be seen if it's merely in flashbacks or if he'll be a major part of the end game. It's possible that Pam did get to her beloved maker in time to save him, but either way we are definitely going to see the wrath of Eric Northman in the final season.

Season seven is sure to expand on the vampire/human cooperation; we left off with a mutual agreement (blood for protection) as a Hep V outbreak threatened both the living and the undead. Over its run, True Blood has established a world where those deemed "different"—vampires, fairies, werewolves, and shapeshifters—aren't necessarily unified despite the fact that they have a common enemy in "normal" people. Thus, we should expect nothing short of a supernatural Civil War for the final season—especially since we left season six with a pack of infected vampires headed towards a gathered group of townspeople at Bellefleur's Bar (formerly Merlotte's). In the midst of all the fighting, it's seems like there will be some sort of saving grace or salvation—season seven's lead episode is titled "Jesus Gonna Be Here."

One can't discuss the finale of True Blood without focusing on the romantic implications. When Steven Moyer (Bill) was asked about the notion of Bill and Sookie being the "end-game" he said, "I don't know whether they can be, given everything that's happened between them. What Bill did was open up something inside her that she had never had before. He was the key to a new world for her. And maybe that's all he was supposed to be—a window into that world." If Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels provide a clue, Sookie and Sam are actually the ones that end up together.

Showrunner Brian Buckner has promised to fulfill creator Alan Ball's vision by remarking, "The show started out as 'popcorn for smart people'—that was Alan's mission statement, and I would love it to still be for smart people." He goes on to say of the last season, "The story is 'for every human a vampire, for every vampire a human,' and now that there's a lesser need for separate plot and separate story development for every single character that we have, we're actually going to get to spend more time with them. That's my hope, that's the motivation, and that's where it's all coming from."

The Newsroom

The penultimate season of HBO's The Newsroom ended with a two-parter on election night 2012. As has been the case with Aaron Sorkin's show in the past, real events pulled from the news are framed using the fictional delivery system that is Will McAvoy and his cohorts at Atlantis Cable News. In 2012, Sorkin told NPR, "I know that this device has bothered some people who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters stronger. That wasn't the idea." However with events such as the Sandy Hook Massacre, Boston bombing, Edward Snowden, the healthcare.gov meltdown, and the papal transition, we're sure some of these will be inspiration for season three.

Sorkin has also dipped into the fictional well a number of times—using items like chemical weapons as plot elements long before coverage emerged from Syria regarding its atrocities. Most assume that the news will all come out, but the way in which Will McAvoy delivers it will cost him his job—thus ending the series. If the conclusion of Sports Night—a seminal show for both Sorkin and TV fans alike—is any indication, the machine continues to run no matter who is behind the desk.

Interestingly enough, Sorkin has used the episode title "What Kind of Day Has It Been," for three different season/series finales: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, The West Wing and Sports Night. If Sorkin uses this, as well as the knowledge of impeding cancelation as a point of inspiration, perhaps the "day" in question is a clue that a singular event causes McAvoy's removal.

Alec Banks (@_smart_alec) is an LA-based pop-culture writer and a contributor to Details.com.

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Image courtesy of FX, HBO, and AMC.
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