And so this is the way it ends, not with a bang but a jingle.
After days of stalling and avoiding spoilery news articles, I sat down and watched Mad Men's final episode Thursday night. Then I went to bed. Then, around 3:30 a.m., I woke up angry and dissatisfied.
I’m starting to think this is all part of creator Matthew Weiner’s master plan.
First, let’s concede how difficult it is to end a beloved television series on a high note. The Sopranos and Breaking Bad sort of accomplished it, though both finales had detractors who complained they were too ambiguous or too on-the-nose, respectively. Seinfeld famously coughed up a hairball, while my two favorite dramas of all time—The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street—had peaked by the time they faded out. I guess no one really complained about Friday Night Lights’ ending; then again, not many people talk about it today.
So, yeah, ending a show as lauded and scrutinized as Mad Men is tough business. Not digging-ditches hard, but it’ll chase you off Twitter if you screw up badly enough.
Which, maybe, is why Weiner decided to end his show by not resolving much of anything. In fact, the 92nd and final episode felt more like a midseason installment than it did the capper to AMC’s period drama about advertising muckety mucks in the 1960s and ‘70.
It made me openly question whether all the pressure turned Weiner prematurely defensive. For maybe the first time, we could see the puppeteer’s strings, tugging his figurines toward multiple deus ex machinae that, for the most part, weren’t just sad but unearned.
In episode 7.8, “Severance,” both Don Draper and Ken Cosgrove receive disquieting omens that nudge them to reconsider their life trajectories. The episode cues us to expect Ken will finally embrace a budding career as a sci-fi novelist; instead he succeeds his father-in-law at Dow Chemical so he can stick it to his former colleagues at SC&P.
In episode 7.9, “New Business,” it’s Megan
Draper’s Calvet’s turn to be undone. First she’s humiliated by that pig Henry, then written off as a bitter ex-wife who collects a $1 million payout from Don without so much as a “thanks and au revoir.” The portrayal drastically rewrites a character who was relatively grounded.
Episode 7.11, “Time & Life,” cleverly evokes the classic season 3 capper by imperiling the ad agency with a takeover that energizes Don. Only his inspired plan to move the company west fails before the pitch and the agency is gobbled up by McCann-Erickson. Unlike most of the semi-season, this subversion feels earned, as we’ve watched Don & Co. outwit too many near-collapses to buy yet another one.
It’s also followed by the year’s best episode, “Lost Horizon,” which has Don and Joan realizing they’re cogs in a malevolent machine. Don is slower on the uptake, and initially mistakes the smoke blown up his ass for sunshine. But Joan has to contend with one monstrously chauvinist offense after the next. She gets a hell of a scene confronting McCann’s head prick, Jim Hobarth, but is denied her just reward and limps off half-whole.
Don, meanwhile, figures it out in a boardroom, surrounded by interchangeable creative directors like him. Staring out the window at a distant airplane trawling the sky, Don stands up and follows his true bliss—running away.
In hindsight, “Lost Horizon” was a more fitting finale than the actual one: Don hitting the road, slipping off the coat of his stolen identity and searching for a new creation myth. An act of bravery and cowardice in equal doses. How fitting. How goddamn American.
Instead, the show muddled on, throwing sucker punches in its last two hours. “The Milk and Honey Route” slaps Betty with a terminal cancer diagnosis. The bookend shots of her struggling up the stairs of her college evoked a noble, if painfully unfair, purgatory.
Much of last Sunday’s finale, “Person to Person,” simply felt ill-conceived. The stridently unsentimental goodbye between Peggy and Pete; the rush-job union of Peggy and Stan; the lack of killer lines for Roger; and, most fatally, the separation of Don from the other main characters.
Adrift in his cross-country wanderlust, Don’s most pivotal scenes occur by phone as he connects long distance with work-wife/daughter Peggy, ex-wife Betty and daughter Sally—the three most important women in his life, in that order.
This decision certainly does Jon Hamm no favors, as the talented actor comes off remote in scenes that should land harder.
Or maybe Weiner, who directed the episode, was going for muted moments and false epiphanies. Consider his ending:
The camera closes in on an exiled Don, meditating with the hippies in California and “ommming” in that mahogany baritone of his. A smirk flickers at the edge of his mouth.
Then, cut to commercial.
A classic one, from 1971. A grassy hilltop under sunny skies. On it, a sea of young, multiracial people holding hands and singing of a world united through the power of Coca Cola.
The implication being that Don found enlightenment—and it was the perfect advertising campaign.
Fade to black for the show. Full body heave for me.
There’s a passage in this song by the Clash, one of my favorites, that I misheard for the longest time. I thought it went, “And the news groups are not concerned / with what there is to be learned. / They’ve got Burton suits; / Ha, they think it’s funny / turning rebellion into money.”
Trenchant words from my man Joe, even if he was referring to “new” bands, not the news media, like I thought. My greatest fear as a journalist, besides general suckage, is taking someone’s pain and turning it into cheap commerce.
That’s never been Don’s hangup, and fair enough. His philosophy seemed to be: As long as the emotion you’re manipulating is real, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling—be it slide projectors, floor polish or laxatives. Because what we’re really buying are religions: The belief that meaning can be found outside of us. The notion that we can consume our ways past regret. The idea that actions only define us if we look backward. The faith that we can always climb to a better ledge.
For seven frequently brilliant seasons, the makers of Mad Men erected cathedrals to these falsehoods and, with equal care, tossed rocks through the glass. Somewhere around the fourth season, they began stripping this philosophy’s chief espouser, Don (he’s also a client), to his hollow bones.
With this final episode, that journey stumbled backwards.
Don, who had become more comfortable discussing his true past, who had finally lost his superhuman magnetism with the opposite sex, who finally seemed sick and tired of the joyless ascent, has an epiphany … about how to move more units of pop.
Apparently Draper isn’t the only gifted flimflam artist, as this last salvo felt like the unsatisfactory punchline to an extravagantly long hustle.
Or maybe Weiner thought he was going for realism here, showing how difficult and unlikely it is for a bird to change its colors. The problem is he and his writers had already pushed the character too far forward to make this regression feel anything but forced and cynical.
Part of me thinks that’s OK. After all, these are Weiner’s chess pieces to arrange as he damn well chooses. I just didn’t realize his strategy was to shuffle his King between two squares to avoid getting checked.
If that’s your ending, then that’s your ending. But see me putting my wallet away? It’s because I’m not buying.
-Looking back, maybe the show should have ended after the season six finale, when Don completely unmakes his legend during a disastrous meeting with Hershey and shares an honest moment with Sally in front of his childhood home. Their unspoken exchange ranks among the series’ most poignant.
-Both Rachel Menkin and Betty made a point of excluding Don as they confronted terminal cancer diagnoses. Is that because they know he only likes the beginning of things, and is no good with the endings? Kind of poetic, all things considered.
-When Stan and Peggy blurted their love for each other, I thought Aaron Sorkin had pirated the control room. It’s not that the writers didn’t sew the seeds for their budding romance; it’s that they cultivated them so slowly that shoving these two buddies into each other’s arms at the last minute felt jarring. Seeing them embrace, all I could think was, “Aww, how … comfortable?”
-Oh, why couldn’t have Peggy taken Joan up on her offer to partner on that production company? It might spare us another Walking Dead spinoff.
-When Don and his lumpy alter-ego bro-hug it out during that hippie seminar, all I could think was how difficult it must have been to be a white man in 1970 America. At least they’ll soon have a diet Miller beer to wash down those tears with.
-The finale certainly wasn’t all bad. I dearly enjoyed seeing Roger and Marie Calvet in love and being snarky in the cafe. Finally, Roger found his true soul mate—someone who thinks as little of people as he does.