So Mad Men came to a close this week. Wait, no, it’s over? What just happened?
In my excellently scientific scale of worth, I’d give this episode a “meh,” on a scale of Big Bang Theory to The Wire. As far as season finales go, nearly every other season has had a better finale (minus 5, which was the weakest season anyway), as each one managed to pull the different threads together (in terms of plot or theme), for a fitting cap to the arc. This season, meanwhile, you could tell the show’s creator Matthew Weiner had some difficulty balancing everything, as he had to close the season as well as the series, a problem further exacerbated by the final season’s structure, which split season between two years (a pattern which worked amazingly for Breaking Bad, but ultimately terribly for these Ad Guys, something I knew from the get-go).
As a series finale, it functions quite a lot better. In terms of season finales in the greater television pantheon, I’d say it ranks somewhere in the middle—it wasn’t anything special, but it also didn’t resort to a cut to a black screen, or bring in random Nazis in order to tie the plot together. Every character reached a state in their life that they’d been searching for (or, at least, been heading towards) for most of the series. None more so than Peggy and Don, whose moving last couple of scenes had been hinted at in various times across the entire arc of the series. Things probably closed a little too nicely for all the characters, as Weiner clearly loves the people he put through hell and back to close on a cynical note. Of course, the now-infamous Coke-commercial ending added the perfect dash of cynicism to Don’s “enlightenment” before the series closed for good.
And I will say this: Mad Men isn’t the kind of show that makes goodbye easy. This is somewhat true of every television show we love, as we grow to become so invested with each character, it becomes like saying goodbye to close friends of ours. And Mad Men, with its constant return to realism, both in pace and its ever-swooping and cycling arcs, is a show which seems to imply that it will continue, that it will be there whether you choose to tune in or not. To have it ‘close’ in any formal fashion immeadiatly upsets the narrative structure. The moment it ended, it became a normal TV show, and not Mad Men for me anymore.
But that’s just me; I mean, how do you say goodbye to the show that you grew up with?
I started Mad Men in the last term of high school, where its sets, costumes, and grandiose methods of storytelling captivated me immediately. I ate up the four available seasons at the very same time that I was preparing for the first big move of my life. Over the course of my undergrad, I would return to the show (both the new and the old episodes) many times over. And now, the week I graduate from UBC is the same week the show closes forever.
Lucky for me it was never a show that can be easily digested. The characters and their world are so infinitely complex that I’m always finding new layers, new aspects, new tensions, so that each opportunity to rewatch is an opportunity for further discovery. The show—more than Sopranos, the Wire, or Breaking Bad—is infinitely complex, as the writing withholds emotional answers from both the characters and the viewers. As the characters bumble their way through the sixties, themes come in and out of focus during key moments of revelation or upheaval, and yet every time it feels like one theme (gender and discrimination, materialism, image v. reality etc) begins to become the dominating motive behind the work, it upsets that balance and you’re left scratching your head again. You find yourself asking—from episode 1 to 92—‘what the hell does this all mean?’ just like the characters to whom its all going down for.
Beyond this, however, I’ve often had the hardest time pin-pointing what qualities make it so irresistible for me. Sure, it’s got incredible acting, untouchable writing, impeccable style, and airtight story arcs, but breaking the series down into its composite parts always felt wrong, always like it was missing something at its core. Looking back on the entire series now, I’d argue that perhaps what makes Mad Men so special (and ultimately so different from other television) is its ability to capture and propagate the essence of nostalgia. Stepping into the world of Madison Avenue is to peer through a scotch-soaked lens, a fantasy recreated by memories that aren’t yours, thinking about people who never actually existed yet are (somehow) real enough to feel like they live before and beyond the tiny window you’re allowed to peer through. As the series moves forward, that nostalgia builds upon itself, until you find yourself nostalgic about those very moments which first capitalized on that nostalgia—ie, the beginning.
That ability to capitalize on nostalgia has been one of the show’s most lauded and controversial qualities, as some worry that the very style which so attracts viewers tends to romanticize the very narcissism, materialism, and sexism it criticizes. But the characters of Mad Men are searchers: wandering through life, they’re always yearning for the bigger the better, always hoping that this next move will finally be ‘the right one,’ to the place they can finally be at peace. None more so than Don Draper, the gargantuan and consistently inconsistent frontman, the last of television’s antiheroes. Perhaps that wandering and restless nature at the core of the series is what makes this show my show, the one I’ll always come back to again and again: where the Wire, for the basis of its scope and complexity, is almost certainly a greater show, I’ll always like Mad Men better for its ceaseless return to the Great American Question: what happens when you get the life that you’ve always wanted, and you don’t want it anymore; what happens when everything’s perfect and you’re miserable?
Each season manages to capture the essence of its era. When many people talk about Mad Men, they have in their minds eye the world of the first three seasons—black suit, chain-smoking, women hating Kennedy-era New York, when it was still cool to like Sinatra and living in the suburbs (with the two kids, the wife, the car) was ‘the good life.’ That world is the first glimpse we get in the series, and it’s the vision that has attracted so many to the show in the first place (even garnering its own Banana Republic Line as a result). From season 4 onwards, however, that image is slowly chipped away as the roaring tides of the sixties sweep past. With each successive season, the characters are lost in that noise and transformed by it: Roger takes LSD, black secretaries are hired and gay people emerge, half the office moves to California, suits are tossed in favor of beards and bandanas, and (most importantly) Peggy and Joan fight their way into positions of influence in the wake of the women’s liberation movement.
Some of the most thrilling moments on the show depict the characters working around some of the great traumas of the decade (Don and Betty having a standoff the same time Russia and the States are in Cuba; Don taking Bobby to the movies to escape from the MLK assassination; Don losing his job as the Americans are landing on the moon). But for me, the real thrill was the subtler shifts which came with each new tumultuous year. It’s in the flashy costumes of the ’66 season, it’s in the psychedelic flash of the camera from the ’67 season, it’s in the abiding darkness stretching from every corner in the ’68 season.
Ultimately, Mad Men opens a window on America in its most American; in telling of the greatness and fundamental flaws of America’s strongest and most terrifying decade, it brings its scathing criticism into contemporary America. Everything wrong with the nation today (and every passion and promise) is examined through its characters. At the very same time it attracts viewers to look into a world where everything seems simpler and nicer, it shatters every dimension of that image, and in the process forces viewers to take a look at contemporary society. So when you’re watching Mad Men, don’t ever think it’s just a history show. That’s so much a requirement of really excellent art that it’s basically a cliché for me to point it out here.
Its Greatest Moments
At times the series can go neck-and-neck with the Wire for its mastery of the television season. Whereas Breaking Bad gave us the perfect overarching story, Mad Men always showed its true skill in the self-contained season. No season so succinctly captures this feeling more than its third. It opens with a clip from the movie Bye Bye Birdie, thus starting the season in which Don finally gets divorced from Betty (whose nickname—wait for it—is Birdie). Some of the series most climactic moments occur in these thirteen episodes, but few take place on screen: mastering the iceberg style, Weiner unveils a world which is slowly crumbling, but mostly completely below the surface—Don and Betty are drifting apart at the same time the company is splitting from the seems, but all of it is implied, whether through a symbol, a glance, or a turn the other way.
It’s only when Don makes the mistake of coming home after meeting his lover and Betty corners him about his real identity that everything rapidly unravels: in a single, excruciating 14 minute scene, Don and Betty finally tell each other everything they’ve felt about their ten year disaster of a marriage, until nothing is left at the end. Then, the show rewards its patient viewers with “Shut the Door, Have a Seat,” and never is Mad Men more unexpected, hilarious, and fun.
But my favorite part about season 3 is that I hated most of it the first time I watched it through. I mean, man is it ever slow! (okay, so a guy gets his foot mown off, but that was one time!).
It’s only the second time round that you start to notice the greater workings of the arc, so that every moment and every scene has meaning. Like the Wire, the season expertly weaves every thread through each episode, creating one helluva tapestry by the end.
And I understand why many viewers would gripe with such a format and outcome—I mean, what’s the point of a show that’s only enjoyable when you have to watch the whole thing twice? But television and its greater arc offers tremendous potential as an artistic medium, and for every time that the season-format creates greater risks than a movie (sloppy writing, go-nowhere arcs), it also provides the chance to dig deeper, tell more, and ultimately give a greater statement on a time, a culture, and even human nature.
Over its seven seasons, Mad Men has showcased the power television can have time and time again. There’s so many moments I want to talk about on here—really, if I could make this blog more like this buzzfeed article which breaks down (in-depth) the whole series, I would (also, that article gives some vague proof as to buzzfeed being secretly smart this whole time it’s Doge-ing it up all over the internetz). But I can’t.
Instead, I’ll just talk about “The Suitcase,” even though probably more has been said about that single episode s than every other episode combined. It’s a bottle episode like no other, with 80% revolving around Don and Peggy, locked in the office as they have to come up with an add for a crappy industrial-grade suitcase. Over the course of the night, Don learns that Anna Draper (who in many ways acted as the emotional kernel of the series, showing the viewer the fragile sensitive core of Don) has died of cancer; in the resulting alcoholic bender he puts himself through, him and Peggy finally begin to see each other as equals and ultimately as kindred souls.
Taking place (S04E07) exactly halfway through the series, it’s the meeting point of the show, where Don (who starts the show at the top) meets Peggy (who starts the show at the bottom), as they switch fortunes and Peggy finally begins to make a name for herself. There’s never been a relationship like Don and Peggy’s on television: perfectly platonic, they reflect and complement, aggravate and deconstruct, each other like no one else can. It’s a shame, then, that the final scene wasn’t one between Don and Peggy, as the show has always been about their mutually beneficial-acidic relationship. Instead, when I look for that perfect moment on Mad Men, I just have to go back to that episode, to the moment Don pukes his guts out and Peggy rubs his back. It may just be the perfect episode of television.
So let’s have a glass (or a bottle) of bourbon to cap off the series, swirl it back as we think of Don and Peggy in that office alone—or Lane telling his British Bosses to fuck off, Betty shooting some birds, or that guy without a foot. I’ll admit that, despite all my critiques of the final episode, I was a sobbing mess from start to finish. I just couldn’t believe that with each close to a scene, that might be the last time I get to see my friends. In many ways, I was saying goodbye to them and that part of myself that grew up with them too. I’m sure that I will come back to Mad Men numerous times throughout my life, and will continue to find new layers and dimensions to those that populate its world. But there will always be a part of me that will be left there, and when I go back, I’ll probably be able to find bits of that person again. That’s the magic of television when it’s done as well as Mad Men, and that’s why I’ll always be indebted to Matthew Weiner and his amazing team.
Thanks guys, look like this turned out to be less a review and more a like a love letter.