I’ve been a fan of Mad Men for nearly as long as I’ve been writing for this blog, and yet I’ve basically never written about the show in any sort of in-depth manner. And there’s good reason for that I suppose. Mad Men for me belongs in a class of it’s own in terms of thematic richness and it’s subtle ability to leave little metaphorical crumbs for it’s viewers to chew on with each episode. And where lots of the great TV shows of the last decade have tried to rise to the cinematic quality of the movies, Mad Men went for something smaller, like some sort of great American novel, except that each chapter aired after a rerun of a Die Hard movie (thanks AMC). What I’m trying to say is that writing about Mad Men is hard unless you’re willing to get deep, but here are a few words anyways about this most prestigious of prestige dramas, which just ended about a day or so ago and has already left a big, booze-drenched hole in my heart.
Thinking back on it, Mad Men was more or less the first one-hour drama that got me invested in this modern era of television. I believe it was the fall of 2008, and I had just moved to San Francisco for school, and for whatever reason I decided to buy the first season DVD at a Borders on Powell Street that no longer exists. By that point, the buzz around Mad Men had already grown to the point where I felt curious about it, and the fact that it was created by a former Sopranos writer (Matthew Weiner) didn’t hurt, since I believe I was in the middle of marathoning Jersey’s homespun mob masterpiece just as I was getting in to Mad Men. What I found was a show that I probably half-forced myself to enjoy and half-actually enjoyed at first, since despite the fact that not much was happening on Mad Men, there was something strangely alluring about this world of smooth-talking men set against a less rosy version of the 1960s. It all just seemed very adult, and maybe just by virtue of me technically no longer being a child (I think I was 19 at the time), Mad Men seemed like my kind of show.
And Mad Men continued to be my kind of show as the seasons went by and things got progressively stranger and the characters continued to display new shades of their own imperfections. As we got deeper into the ’60s, the show put on a masterclass in how to make your characters products of their times, and yet without ever losing sight of the human thread that connects all great drama in any era. There will always be Don’s out there — shaping the world while destroying their own interior worlds. There will always be Peggy’s — trying to climb to new heights while feeling trapped by circumstance. There will always be Pete’s — entitled rich douchebags that pretty much get to continue being rich douchebags. And then there will always be Harry Crane’s — guys who are just, kinda there, I guess. Anyways, what I’m getting at is that it was a show that managed to communicate that just because something happened a long time ago, doesn’t mean it’s any different from the same existential bullshit we deal with everyday — there are just less sideburns involved.
But I suppose I should actually get around to talking about that whole finale thing that just aired. As a show that could occasionally throw in a bold narrative curveball at any given time, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of a Mad Men finale. These last few episodes had already given us an intriguing enough set-up, as we saw Don basically saying “fuck it”, and hitting the open road in hopes of finding that something that he seemed to be chasing this entire series. The fact that the finale saw Don grappling with the meaning of it all and whether the mistakes he’d made would keep repeating themselves felt appropriate for a show that had always reveled in its own sadsackery. Hell, it even for a moment had me thinking the show would end on that obvious final image of Don jumping to his own death like in the opening credits (but not really).
Speaking of curveballs, the one I didn’t expect being thrown at me in this finale was that things would basically turn out alright for everyone in the end. Peggy and Stan got together, which was a sweet little moment that I didn’t see coming and might’ve been one of the few instances of this show depicting a genuinely romantic moment that didn’t seem like it’d end up ruining someone’s life. Roger’s marriage to Megan’s mom might not quite fall in to this category, but for the moment, it seemed like a nice way to send off Roger. Meanwhile, Pete moved to Tulsa with a newly reconciled Trudy, Joan couldn’t quite nab Bruce Greenwood but has her new career I guess, and Betty well, has cancer and is going to die. But it wouldn’t be Mad Men without at least one main character dying by the cold and random hands of cancer by the end of the show’s run, right?
Which of course brings us back to Don, and that final shot of blissful satisfaction on his face that will surely linger in the public consciousness along with Walter White’s final gaze towards the heavens from the floor of his meth lab, or Tony Soprano’s abrupt stare from his seat in that diner. If there’s one thing I was hoping for in a Mad Men finale, it was that it would take a page from it’s forebear The Sopranos and end on a note of at least somewhat ambiguity. And somewhat ambiguous is about how I’d choose to describe those final moments and its hints that Don Draper might be the man responsible for the immortal slogan “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” But for now, I’d merely like to buy Matthew Weiner a Coke for making the kind of uncompromising show that I doubt we’ll see the likes of again, in this decade or any other.