Hello Seth and Willa,
Can I tell you how I really feel about this final season of Mad Men? I don’t care what happens to Don. I care what happens to Matthew Weiner. As television has become an increasingly respected and high-stakes medium, the problem of how to end an excellent TV show gets ever thornier. The real drama in the episodes ahead lies in watching Weiner bring his series to a close. I don’t envy him the task.
We’ve seen showrunners stick the landing, as with The Sopranos (a show whose abrupt and initially reviled conclusion is now generally admired) and arguably Breaking Bad (which, whatever quibbles there may have been about the final few installments, gained remarkable strength and power with every episode, ratcheting up tension notch by notch through its finale). Then there are shows like The Wire, a brilliant effort whose final season was flaccid. We’ve also seen Lost and True Detective, shows whose mesmerizing puzzles went mostly unsolved as the creators dipped us slowly into a warm bath of metaphysical hooey.
Of course, Mad Men has been a warm bath of hooey all along, although its interests are psychosocial, not metaphysical. It is mostly about what it feels like to be Don Draper in America in the 1960s. There is no overriding mystery to solve, no revenge to exact, no unused Uzi stashed in the trunk of our hero’s sedan. Which means Weiner has limited choices: He can give us a Don who feels good, who feels bad, or who, being dead, feels nothing at all.
I’m aware that these shorthand options are reductively broad and discount what’s best about the show. Although Mad Men has soap operatic elements—sex! drugs! secret lovechildren! lawn mowers!—it has been uniquely good at finding drama in small moments. When the show is brilliant, which is an enormous amount of the time (something that’s easy to forget now that everyone is sick of Draper et al.), it can be emotionally incisive, tracking the subtly shifting psychic terrain of an ad executive who hates his interior office, or a dad taking his kid to a movie that’s too grown up for him on the day after MLK gets shot.
That last scene—when Don took Bobby to see Planet of the Apes in the wake of the King assassination—also points to the show’s most distinctive subject, and its true focus: what it feels like to live through momentous historical transformation. As you point out, Willa, Don has long been a weathervane for the changes blowing across America; hence last season’s self-loathing and desire for a fresh start.
Unfortunately, though, those elements also felt a bit familiar. It seemed like a heartening sign of honesty and rebirth when Don showed his kids the dingy whorehouse where he grew up. But Don has come clean before. To Bert Cooper, when Pete discovered his true identity. To Betty, when she found out the truth about Don’s past. When he married Megan and embraced the idea of a more modern partnership with fewer secrets. We’ve seen fresh start after fresh start with this guy. I’m not sure he’s ever going to get off of that strange loop.
Sally and Peggy, though, I do have hope for. Peggy has to stop working for these monsters. Maybe she and Joan can leave to start a firm of their own. As for romance, I don’t see Pegsberg or Steggy happening. I like the simmer between Peggy and Ted Chaough, whose utterly un-Don fuddy-duddery I enjoy. I’d also like to see Roger and Joan have a rapprochement. But before we start pairing everyone up, we will have to see which coast everyone ends up on as the new season dawns. I’m very excited to be examining all of these elements with the two of you.
Also, the Miracle Mets are gonna win the World Series! We’re bound to see some of that, don’t you think? A metaphor about the rebirth of New York? Or Don? Or maybe someone will just get beaned in the face! Never count Mad Men out when it comes to random, sudden, comical violence.
Read all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men.