Before going any further, how did you expect “Mad Men” to end? A revenge killing by an ex-girlfriend? A quiet heart attack at 80? A flash-forward neatly wrapping up where every character landed? Sally Draper on a therapist’s couch, explaining her screwed-up childhood?
There are no right answers, perhaps. But based on the way series creator Matthew Weiner approached the show – and especially the meandering, detour-heavy nature of the half-dozen episodes leading up to this – there were clearly wrong ones, starting with those who hungered for definitive closure. After all, Weiner not only cut his professional teeth on “The Sopranos” but has also expressed his unreserved admiration for its ending, one of the more debated finales of the modern age.
As a complicating factor, as great as this series has been, it hasn’t been at its creative peak the past couple of seasons. “Mad Men” was never bad, but it did at times appear flummoxed by its gradual advance through the 1960s and away from its Eisenhower-era beginnings. Some have grumbled about Don’s marriage to former secretary Megan (Jessica Pare) as having undercut the story, but it was really more about struggling to reflect the increasingly groovy world in which the program existed.
As the sideburns got longer, in other words, the quality diminished accordingly. Whatever the cause, it’s hard to think of many moments in recent seasons that rival a favorite from the early going, when the Kodak carousel was pitched to the client as having the attributes of a time machine.
Written and directed by Weiner, the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t watched) was characterized by a lack of urgency that has been emblematic of the show’s brand of storytelling, but especially true since its return in April. So while the hour mixed in some wonderfully graceful notes and tied up a few loose ends, others were left dangling, starting with the cryptic question of whether meditation and peace with the universe birthed that famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola campaign.
Indeed, the decision by Don Draper (Jon Hamm, splendid throughout the run, but even more impressive in the finale) to drop out of life – abandoning his coworkers, toiling under the oppressive stewardship of McCann-Erickson – added a degree of difficulty dramatically speaking to the entire episode. That was because all of Don’s scenes with other key characters – from his dying ex-wife Betty (January Jones), to his daughter (Kiernan Shipka) to longtime colleague Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) – took place over the phone.
To their credit, the actors got the most out of those exchanges, and when Betty dryly said in regard to Don not taking custody of his children, “This way you see them exactly as much as you do now,” it had the impact of a punch to the stomach. Still, Don’s whole sojourn to California and the commune, while building toward the payoff ad, felt as frustrating during the episode as much of what has recently preceded it.
Weiner compensated for that, or at least seemed to be trying to, by introducing some fairly major developments in regard to supporting characters. Of those, the most crowd pleasing, potentially, involved hooking up Peggy with Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), which had a certain charm to it but also felt forced and, despite the long nature of their professional collaboration, rushed.
There were other big flourishes, such as Roger (John Slattery) marrying Megan’s mother (Julia Ormond), or Joan (Christina Hendricks) ultimately choosing career over romance. That said, a contingent of the audience doubtless came to this primarily wanting to feel as if they had seen Don’s entire journey, and on that score, the final shot risks being as divisive as Tony and his family sitting in that diner.
Then again, as stated in the frenzied run-up to the finish line, “Mad Men” didn’t really lend itself to a knock-your-socks-off conclusion. And given the reams of scholarly analysis the program has already generated — a cultural footprint that went well beyond its ratings — leaving something to the imagination has an element of poetry to it, even if it reads like a haiku.
AMC has promoted this last season as “The End of an Era,” a slogan fraught with meaning, inasmuch as the show helped transform the network, thus paving the way for “Breaking Bad” (a more fully realized and consistently executed series), “The Walking Dead” and the other prestige dramas that followed it. The phrase, however, also evokes the transition from the ‘50s into the Kennedy years, Vietnam and the cultural upheaval that went with it.
Indeed, Don and Betty owe much to the Kennedys: a beautiful couple whose outward image masked infidelity and pain. And Weiner’s creation has always derived power from re-litigating the impact of those years through the prism of where we are now. That’s a lot of baggage to hoist around.
Taking all that into account, the finale wasn’t bad, but like much surrounding “Mad Men” these last few seasons, it felt – in a somewhat exasperating manner – like less than it might have been. Then again, we’ll always have Camelot.