Mad Men and the Art of the Finale (2015)

Mad Men - image from title sequence

Mad Men - image from title sequence
Let the griping and sniping begin. Actually, it began last night, a continuation of the odious virtual water cooler – people who aren’t creating anything except content for social media moguls judge the efforts of reasonably talented and hardworking people and inevitably find them lacking. We’re all smart and special! Give us what we want! The Sopranos, Lost, Friday Night Lights, How I Met Your Mother, Breaking Bad… (Actually, most people loved the Friday Night Lights finale.) Every one of these shows ended as they should have – the committees that finished them were largely the teams that worked them all along. (And in most cases, anybody paying attention would have seen the endings as perfectly inevitable. Yes, I’m talking to you, erstwhile How I Met Your Mother fans.)

After the first season of Mad Men (2007), I thought the show was a brilliant, beguiling allegory of postwar America, with Jon Hamm’s Don Draper standing in for… all of us. The country itself. I thought the show had maybe four seasons in it, and none were likely to surpass the first 13 episodes. Somewhere during season three, I realized the individual stories creator Matthew Weiner was telling had become individually compelling – the character arcs had outgrown my simple allegory framework. As the show ended last night, after seven seasons and 92 episodes, I’m back to my original thesis. The collection of specific stories Weiner wrapped up still tell the story of the United States after World War II, as we struggled with identity, responsibility, and desire. And the last fourteen episodes were best of all, no small accomplishment.

Some have accused the Mad Men finale, written and directed by Weiner, of pandering – that it offered “shameless fan service;” that it was the “saddest happy ending,” or vice versa. For his part, Weiner says he doesn’t read the commentary. “I hate to say it: I don’t really feel like I owe anybody anything.” Bravo. Weiner says he envisioned the final shot of the series from the very beginning, which I find plausible. Bread crumbs have been dropped through the years, and it was all there – none of the prognosticating trolls got it right, as far as I can tell.

Mad Men has always played a long game, within episodes, across seasons. Scenes go on longer than we expect (perfectly designed, framed, lighted, costumed, and edited.) Seasons wind up where they began, suggesting the characters don’t learn, don’t advance or improve. The show takes patience to absorb; it’s told like a novel (or a series of novels), and the author is more concerned with character than narrative. That doesn’t mean Mad Men doesn’t consider issues. One of its more compelling themes has been women’s rights, and gender parity in the workplace and at home. The show hasn’t been afraid of homosexuality or race, although those have been lesser concerns. Weiner’s primary concern has been identity: individual, corporate, familial. This is well suited to an allegory about America, where all of the rest comes into play but is ultimately determined by the central question.

The opening credit sequence of Mad Men (the brilliant work of production house Imaginary Forces) shows the silhouette of a man falling – perhaps he has jumped – and surrounded by images from advertising. The implication is that the man is subsumed by a created world, Alice down the rabbit hole, overwhelmed by his own creation. There probably isn’t a fan who didn’t wonder if the sequence was literal – that Don Draper would eventually kill himself by jumping from a building. If there’s any fan service in the final fourteen episodes, it’s the repeated tease that Don might jump – testing windows, looking down to the street below, gazing at airplanes. The actual finale fulfills the promise of the opening credits though: Don is ultimately assimilated and fulfilled vis–à–vis his place in the universe. Just as America might yet be.

I want to mention two moments in the final episode that worked like gangbusters for me. Peggy and Stan’s ultimate confession of mutual love, something that began in season four (47 episodes ago), blossoms in a long scene that plays entirely without music. (Think about how music is to drama as the laugh track has been to comedy – the idiot’s guide for how to react.) The second great moment is Weiner’s long-planned final shot. Don Draper, smiling at last; a shot that dissolves into (what else) an ad jingle. That bit, for Coca Cola, is arguably the greatest marketing ploy ever. (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke…”) Does the show suggest that Don returned to his job, and brought the jingle with him? Yes. Would it have also worked if Don’s face had been superimposed on a singer in the historic ad, making the title sequence literal in a manner different than we’d expected? Yes. No matter. It’s wonderful as-is, a ride I’m happy to have taken.