It truly is the end of an era. Mad Men took its final bow tonight, and to some, it’s just the end of another prestige cable drama, but I firmly believe that the conclusion of Mad Men means a whole lot more. Matthew Weiner created the flagship original series for AMC without a Heisenberg cooking meth or a horde of zombies devouring flesh. Mad Men was a series about people sitting in rooms talking.
As I look at the current landscape of network and cable television and survey all of the creative and ambitious ideas hitting the airwaves, I don’t see a single series that resembles Mad Men, and I’m not sure I ever will again. The impeccable, novelistic writing, the methodical pacing, the insane attention to detail, from every costume to every inch of the set design, was all a deliberate and unwavering portrait of one man’s vision. Weiner set out to tell a story about identity, about who we are, who we were, and where we’re going. The series never relied on cheap plot devices or pandered to what audiences wanted or expected.
With that being said, I don’t know if I enjoyed tonight’s finale, but that almost makes me happier than some extremely satisfying conclusion. Mad Men is not a show that anyone should be forced to make snap judgments about minutes after the credits roll, but here I am, and I can only express what I feel in this instant. I am almost entirely certain that those feelings will change by next week, and change again by next month, and then again when I re-watch this half of the season when it hits Netflix, but that’s exactly what makes this show spectacular. So maybe right now I think that “The Milk and Honey Route,” was a more fitting finale, but that doesn’t change the journey and the impact that Mad Men has left on me, and like every episode that I revisit, I can’t wait to see how “Person to Person” strikes the next time around.
However, this time around, I’m at a loss for words. Am I really supposed to believe that Don returns to the big evil machine at McCann-Erikson, after some meditation, with the greatest advertisement of the ‘70s in his back pocket? The last shot of Don, where he’s sporting a fantastic smile, brought me a lot more joy when I saw it the first time at the end of the last episode. The Coke-jingle being the final stinger is quite open-ended and up for interpretation, and I’m fine with that, I just didn’t expect for Don’s big revelation to come from some New Age enlightenment. It just seems out of character to me.
Don’s phone call to Peggy, where he can barely muster the energy to lament, “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it,” was the real climax in my eyes. Don and Peggy’s relationship was complex, with the lines of mentor and mentee blurred long ago, and it was genuinely heartbreaking to hear Don confess his sins and claim he never created anything worthwhile to his greatest creation. Without Don Draper, Peggy Olsen maybe never becomes the empowered, bad ass boss we know and love, and it says a lot that Don reaches his lowest point after he admits that he’s not the man she believed him to be.
The other two things that caused Don to collapse were equally heartwrenching. First, Don had to learn the hard way that Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, is not his family no matter how much he’d like her to be. Watching her struggle with her own emotional turmoil, Don starts making wild exclamations about how he’ll move to L.A., but this is just another Diana situation. It’s Don pushing his own inner-conflicts aside to leach on to someone else’s unhappiness, trying to play savior when he’s really the one in need of saving.
Then, when Don listens to a man’s testimony about how he fails to recognize the love that he receives in his life, Don hears a kindred spirit. The man recounts a dream about being passed over in a refrigerator, which sounds silly when summarized so briefly, but is absolutely devastating to hear. Maybe all Don needed to hear was that someone felt the way he did, and in the ‘60s, that kind of emotional honesty was hard to come by, but at the same time, I have a hard time believing that one sad story could be the real turning point after all the fake ones we’ve witnessed over seven seasons.
The finale’s most satisfying and fan-servicing bit comes in the form of Peggy and Stan finally coupling up. Their pairing felt honest and deserved, it featured a hilarious, quintessential Peggy reaction and a rom-com worthy embrace. It was sweet and fabulously acted and it was a turning point for Peggy, a moment where something in her personal life finally eclipsed an achievement at the office.
Throughout the course of the series, Joan Holloway was always one of my favorite characters, and I agree that where we left her in “Lost Horizon” was not a fitting end to her story, but I thought we certainly got too much of Joan in this final installment when such little time was given to the Don/Betty/Sally dynamic, which really felt shortchanged. Don and Betty’s phone call was beautiful, but there’s so much left to resolve and explore between the exes, and especially between father and daughter, and mother and daughter. I could have done without Joan trying cocaine or reaching the same conclusion with selfish Richard that we did at the end of the character’s introduction episode. But as I made clear above, Weiner owes us nothing.
Finally, I also had some gripes with Roger’s presence in the episode. I loved the closure that was given to he and Joan’s relationship, which proved to be one of the show’s healthiest romances, but I didn’t need to see more of Roger and Marie Calvet when those two shacking up was already a foregone conclusion. Ditto goes for Pete. I loved the subtlety and warmth that was shown in his and Peggy’s final goodbye, but I didn’t need to see him pop up again in that hokey final montage with the family and plane that we knew he’d already won. That final montage, oh that montage. I really didn’t think we’d get a “and everybody (but Betty) lived happily ever after” wrap-up. Maybe I was a little pessimistic in thinking that some of these characters would end on a sour note.
As I reread what I have written, I’m already starting to form my own counterpoints and differing opinions, especially as the episode repeats for the second time in the background, but I’d be here all night if I kept revising. Mad Men may be over, but it won’t leave me. More than any show that I’ve grown to love, Mad Men demands repeat viewings and only gets better with age. Something tells me I will be queuing up episodes for quite some time. Maybe on the surface the finale didn’t hold all the answers I wanted, but like Don Draper, I’ll keep searching.