I won’t be writing a recap or a review of tonight’s finale.
Why would I do that? There will be plenty, floating out there on Vulture or the AV Club or Grantland. And I want to enjoy it – it’s the last episode ever of Mad Men. As much as I love it, it’s also just a TV show, and it’s a show that’s been better than almost any at rolling with the punches it’s set itself up for.
I can’t think of another finale like tonight’s, one that’s so looked forward to and predicted for almost no reason whatsoever. And maybe that’s why there’s so much mystery surrounding it – maybe that’s why Esquire wrote a joking (but sort of serious) list of 100 guesses at how the show will end, and what song will play Don Draper out. (Will it beat ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ and Journey? Doubt it. But my money’s on ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver. Not for any reasons other than it came out in 1971 – and I think we’ll fast-forward to Betty’s funeral – and I just want to hear it.)
Unlike Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or even Friends, there’s no final conflict to resolve. There’s no bad guy that needs to die. There’s no Ross and Rachel, no Walter and Jesse or Gus, no Tony and whatever mafia boss he was feuding with at the time.
Mad Men has never been about making each season a series by itself. Other shows, they try to give you some quick feeling of satisfaction before dropping a cliffhanger to keep you clinging to its probably tired formula.
Men, instead, has treated its finale like its treated its midseason bottle episodes, as a series of never-ending checkpoints and hurdles – life is like that, after all. You’re supposed to treat each school graduation, each successful job interview, your wedding, your child’s birth, or any of that stuff like it’s the denouement to your own movie. But after your graduate high school, then comes college. After college comes a trip, hopefully a job. Once you get the job, which is an accomplishment on the day of the interview, then you have to work.
If you win a Stanley Cup, you still have to come back next year. If you retire, you still have to wake up and think of something to do, and probably watch your spending.
Nothing ever just ends. Except for TV shows, and they’re often written out that way, which is stupid.
And Mad Men has already wrapped up so many of its storylines – either the long ones or the short ones – that we’re really just watching for fun now. We’re watching because we want to, if we still want to. And so that’s why Esquire can throw 100 flecks of paint through a screen door, because there’s not supposed to be a painting on the other end of it.
(NOTE: It’s for the same reason above that I actually loved the finale for How I Met Your Mother. The show’s creators realized very quickly that their series was never going to be about the Mother, and that they’d never be able to rush her into the final season in time to wrap it all up and have it make sense. So what if her death was sad, or if the redo of the Ted/Robin deal felt redundant, to some? Why does every ending have to be happy – why does every finale have to be final? Like Mad Men, HIMYM was about the chase, the idea that the green light keeps flickering and you need to keep reaching for it, and the finale left the future open for five characters to keep living past the last credits. So I don’t care if it wasn’t perfect – actually, I’m happy it wasn’t. Mad Men, I think, will be much the same.)
Will Don just keep driving West until he hits the water? Will Pete’s happy new life really take off before it skids and explodes off the runway? How many square pounds of tobacco are stuck in Roger’s moustache? Will Joan be able to pinball her way up the levers, either to a man who treats her well or through a white man’s corporate world that refuses to evolve? Will Peggy stand out, like she’s always wanted? Will Ted blend into the background, like he’s always wanted?
But even those questions above, those are just how I see these characters right now. Others, if you’re watching, probably see it different.
For example, I’ve never seen Don as the awful guy so many others do – either the show’s real audience or the show’s fake characters. There aren’t any innocents in this show, after all – the ones who succeed are still the ones who know the curves are coming and they adjust to it, not the ones who wallow in pity or beg for sympathy.
Even Peggy, who’s for many the hero of the series, fathered a child with a married co-worker (then ditched the baby) and gave a random guy a handy in a movie theatre while her boyfriend was at home pretending to write a book, or something.
“You’ll be amazed how much this never happened,” Don tells her, after her she’s lying there on her hospital bed, post-pregnant and feeling ashamed.
But this last season, where it appears Don’s chickens are coming home to roost and so many commenters are happy about that fact, I don’t get the Draper Hate at all. (And I don’t get the point of the Detroit Free Press writing an article of the ’10 best’ Don Draper moments, while intentionally and proudly leaving out his ‘infidelities’. Do you actually like the show, or can you just not handle an anti-hero?)
Megan happily jumped into bed and then a marriage with Don. It was her choice. She even told him she knew the risks, seducing him with the line, “Let me be clear: I’m not going to run out of here crying tomorrow, I just want you write now” – sure, as if she wasn’t one of the other never-ending childish gossip girls in Sterling Cooper’s ranks. She then bobs in the boat between the crests of the advertising business and the troughs of the acting world, finally bailing on the former for the latter without the Ramen noodles or the crappy Greenwich apartment to fit in or survive.
Her parents chide her for this. Her father tells her she skipped the struggle on the way to the top, when she’s still in advertising. When Megan starts to throw a tantrum, her mother, played by Julia Ormond, tells Don, “This is what happens when you have the artistic temperament but you are not an artist.”
In a show of quips, fantastic insults, and wise one-liners, that’s perhaps the best the show’s writers even offered up. There’s nothing you could say that’s more demeaning, more cruel, and probably more accurate than that summary above, especially when delivered with Ormond’s sly side-of-the-mouth, French-Canadian, cigarette-puffing smile.
And then, Megan makes off like a bandit. She gets to move to Hollywood and she gets a million-dollar severance package and all of Don’s furniture to do it with. Then she lays into him, calling him out for being noncommittal, cold, and old – even though she fell in love with him for just those reasons, and seemed to pride herself on once being able to handle it.
She hasn’t had an easy romantic road to the end of the series, but she can’t say she wasn’t compensated for her efforts. Quite a few characters in this show are working with less, even now.
So hey, I’m hoping for some redemption for Don. Or that he’ll at least earn back the show’s love the way he toyed with it early on.
It seems like he’s settled into how over his heyday is, that the 70s won’t be the personal and professional cherry-pick the 60s were.
On this drive west or south, or maybe just away from New York, where he keeps tossing money and his old career out the window with every passing mile sign, Don’s saying goodbye to Mad Men, making it easier for his viewers to do the same.
It’s over. Enjoy it. Write about it, if you must. Then find a new show. Forget about Sarah Marshall.