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‘Mad Men’ Finale: Why the Ending Doesn’t Really Matter

The “Mad Men” finale will be analyzed and rated, debated and recapped. Meaning will be ascribed to it that the writers likely never intended, and much of fans’ pleasure and disappointment will be expressed in real time. What it won’t do, really, is matter – at least, not in the way several other much-anticipated series finales have.

People had good reason for wanting to know whether Dexter Morgan got away with being a vigilante serial killer, or if Walter White, Nucky Thompson and Tony Soprano could live lives of crime without receiving a cosmic comeuppance. They wanted to see if Sookie Stackhouse could find true love with someone (living or dead), where that “Lost” island really was, or if the “Battlestar Galactica” crew ever reached a place called Earth. Heck, a few hearty souls even hung around to learn whether Amanda Clarke actually got her “Revenge,” and how Ted met his kids’ mother.

Mad Men,” however, doesn’t lend itself to closing with life-or-death histrionics, a trail of bodies or the always-popular wedding. Its protagonist, Don Draper, is fascinating, yes, but he’s not evil, just morally conflicted. Perhaps that’s why when this last flight of episodes began, Variety’s review noted that someone like Don “doesn’t go out in a hail of bullets, but rather alone in a smoke-filled room.” That sounded plausible enough to one reader to inspire an angry comment (since deleted) about having ruined the ending.

Fundamentally, the show was a snapshot in time, a look back initially at what life was like during the Eisenhower years, before Vietnam and the counterculture and sexual revolution so dramatically changed things. From the very first episode, Don appeared to have a perfect life, but it was filled with lies – with inner conflict and personal betrayal. And while Don and his fellow white-shirted ad men were very much Masters of the Universe in a Tom Wolfe sense, their privilege and entitlement came at the expense of other societal constituencies, including women and minorities.

As noted, though – and reinforced by a very clever imagined “obituary” of Mr. Draper, in which he recently passed away at the age of 88 – there are plenty of those guys still among us, who survived the three-martini lunches and trysts with secretaries and divorces and kids who grew up hating them. For those seeking some sense of fallout from Don’s excesses, lung cancer or liver damage is an option, sure, but living to a ripe old age makes every bit as much sense.

Unlike, say, “Friday Night Lights” – where fans understandably wanted to see the Taylors find happiness after all they had been through together – a series like “Mad Men” could go either way. And based on how much time series creator Matthew Weiner has devoted to detours this final season, providing much closure beyond Don would almost certainly be rushed, barring a montage on the order of “Six Feet Under’s” brilliant flash forward.

All this isn’t to say that the final episode won’t elicit strong reactions, leaving people feeling satisfied or gypped. That’s simply a part of TV’s new order. But whatever happens, “Mad Men’s” legacy is secure. In revisiting these tumultuous years as the nation continues to culturally relitigate the 1960s, the show was never about the destination; rather, the series looked at where these characters were a half-century ago, in the process holding up a mirror to where we are now.

So while it will be nice to see how the show wraps up – and whether Weiner really did have an ending in mind for some time, as he has stated — will that final shot leave you with the sort of aftertaste associated with some of the aforementioned finales, either good or bad? If it does, as Don’s buddy Roger might say, then you’re probably not drinking enough.

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