If Jim Cutler is the enemy, doesn’t that make SC&P seem like … a pretty nice place to work? One of the notable results of this season, a painful but not particularly destructive detour in the work life of Don Draper, is just how much more functional it will make SC&P, assuming McCann keeps its word. Jim’s vision may be too machine-based, but he’s a straight shooter: a guy who announces what he is going to do (oust Don) and sets about doing it (too soon, before he has the votes), and is, as his last-minute change of heart demonstrates, utterly pragmatic. Roger, for the first time since the show’s early seasons, is more than just an account man whose best days are behind him. And Don, despite Cutler’s insult, is significantly less mysterious than he once was: His partners know about his past, he’s creatively rededicated, he’s no longer an everyday kind of drunk. He should be a much improved creative director. Other iterations of this company were riven by assignations and secrets and suicide. SC&P is in better shape than it has ever been.
It is the prerogative of Mad Men viewers to see doom everywhere—it’s been promised it to use since the very first opening credits!—and so, as I typed the words “better shape than it has ever been” I felt like I was pulling the pin from a grenade. The ’60s don’t end with harmony and accord, a slow dance and a soft shoe, our makeshift family working together seamlessly to land cigarette accounts, do they? And it brings to mind one remarkable thing to about this season, which stands in opposition, perhaps, to the secure position in which SC&P finds itself: just how aged Don has looked. Remember way back in the early seasons, when Don could drink all night and screw all day and always look like a dreamboat? That Don, this season, regularly looked so awful drunk— think of the day with him singing about the Mets and stewing about computers—is not, I don’t believe, a comment on Jon Hamm’s physique (which seems to be doing fine off-camera) but an intentional, slow-burning sign of aging, similar to, but less noticeable than, Pete’s hairline.
This gets to the heart of one of Matthew Weiner’s projects in this show, one of the things that he sees only TV doing well. There’s the crashing waves of change—the social revolutions, the rapidly cycling styles, the astronauts on the TV—and then there’s its slow tug—age, which marches on and on no matter how peaceful or chaotic the period. In interviews, Weiner has often talked about what it feels like to live through moments of great upheaval. It feels just like regular life. Maybe old age is all the future has in store for Don, and with him, as with everyone else lucky enough to get to it, that might be rough ending enough.
At the end of my last missive I started to percolate on whether Mad Men is as good as it once was, and if this tailing off in quality matters. I watched the finale with a group of friends, most of whom haven’t seen the show since its first season. Watching through their eyes I could see the whole thing was so exceptionally stagey, so mannered, so uninviting, a closed circle of intoned, self-important dialogue and interpersonal dynamics impossible for outsiders to parse.
Mad Men, because it airs on AMC and because its last season has been split in two, is often discussed in the same breath as Breaking Bad, whose audience grew and grew and grew, up to Walter White’s last shootout. But Breaking Bad was a plot-heavy show in an exciting, larger-than-life universe. It was inviting. Mad Men, conversely, is an insular, dense, almost claustrophobic show—you can always see the ceiling. Matthew Weiner requires his audience to be Mad Men-ologists in order to see all the depth and nuance—to hear Don and Megan’s breakup scene, for example, as more than stilted soap dialogue. Watching with the uninitiated made me think of Mad Men as almost an acquired language: If you don’t speak the details of Don and Peggy, don’t intuit the psyche of Roger Sterling, don’t understand the Betty lurking inside of Sally, the whole thing is pretty stiff. It’s no wonder, contra Breaking Bad, that Mad Men’s audience has not continued to grow. Unlike most shows in this binge-whenever-you-want-moment, Mad Men requires a from-the-beginning kind of dedication.
This does make me wish we weren’t talking about the season finale right now—or excuse me, the midseason finale—and instead plunging along to the next seven episodes, stat. This season didn’t build up the momentum the show usually gets going by Episode 10. Maybe the show will be fizzy from the start when it returns in—oh god—2015. There’s only everything, or nothing, still to get through.
We’ll get through it together.
Read all of Slate’s coverage of Mad Men.