The full story of Mad Men, whose Breaking Bad-inspired “midseason finale” aired Sunday night on AMC, won’t be written for another year. Seven more episodes will close the book on a remarkable television series… and give rise to many books by those who have chronicled the show from the start.
Looking back at the first half of season seven feels somehow insignificant if disconnected from the attempt to explore next year’s final stretch. What follows is an attempt to make sense of what you’ve seen the past seven Sundays, but to also suggest what might happen in 2015… otherwise known as the final months of 1969 and maybe the first months of 1970.
PART I: SUNDAY NIGHT’S 2014 FINALE
There might be only one year left of Mad Men, but the show will always exist for future viewers as a way in which to understand the human condition and, by extension, their own selves.
Exactly why is Mad Men such an effective conveyor of the human experience? Many different answers exist and are equally valid. Moreover, many answers can be phrased differently yet still arrive at the same endpoint. This is merely one person’s opinion (and phrasing), but Mad Men mirrors life in that it brings similar scenarios into the flow of daily events. The characters in the show keep encountering the same basic kinds of tensions and situations, over and over again. It shouldn’t be hard to appreciate the show’s human touch — and its resonance as an art form — when viewed through this prism of understanding.
Any person who occupies the role of a teacher, coach, mentor, or spiritual director (or some similar position) will tell you that life keeps bringing certain problems in front of us. Learning a little more about the best way to approach our problems — continuously failing but becoming wiser after each successive failure, until we get it right — is how we grow.
People work at a job day after day. They live in some kind of family-related context (which may mean being single as much as dealing with a wife or kids) day after day. Human persons hunger for meaning and the fulfillment of their aspirations day after day. Action-driven dramas demand the need for a fresh and isolated plot or dramatic situational complications. Mad Men, which is not a plot-driven show, merely needs the canvas of everyday life to put its characters in familiar situations, offering viewers the compelling drama of whether the characters have learned anything from past humiliations and heartbreaks.
Let’s look at what Sunday night’s episode did: For one thing, it evoked so many echoes of past seasons and past season finales, as Deborah Lipp wrote here. The upbeat nature of this episode strongly recalled the season three finale, “Shut The Door, Have A Seat,” in which a round of maneuvering lifts the core group of characters to a better, more optimistic place, free from several problematic entanglements.
More specifically, though, the last Mad Men episode of 2014 put Don and Peggy together again on center stage, and not just about any kind of product, either. This pitch revolved around food and, beyond that, the larger experience of bringing family together.
Peggy’s motherhood; her Popsicle pitch from a much earlier point in the series; her stormy argument with Don in the test kitchen, when the two most felt like a bickering married couple — these and other parts of the show’s history were brought rushing back to the surface by the Burger Chef pitch and Peggy’s proximity to Don. This proximity was magnified when Peggy and Don sat together during the lunar landing on July 20, 1969. The couple was not married… but it wasn’t bickering, either. Don and Peggy had both grown up, having learned how to live with each other again. They’re family to each other, and on this occasion, they learned how to accept each other.
This appreciation of how Don and Peggy had become family for each other — and more specifically, how their closeness in Sunday night’s episode meant so much for them and the series — could not exist without having walked with Don and Peggy for the previous six seasons. The happy nature of the Don-Peggy relationship really isn’t the reason this episode was great; what made the episode sparkle is that these events made complete sense based on everything that had preceded them.
In this sense, Mad Men is like Lost, only without the science-fiction smoke and mirrors. Mad Men is a show which demands to be seen from the first episode to the last. Any interruption in the progression of the story detracts from a full appreciation of it. Viewers who have lived with Peggy and Don since season one could see and appreciate just how resonant and powerful Sunday night’s episode really was for both characters. The same is true for other characters within Mad Men‘s innermost circle: Roger, Pete, and Joan, who all raised their hands while Ted Chaough (at first) and then Jim Cutler (with unmistakable resignation yet a sense of humor) hesitated before giving in.
The point is not so much to say that Roger, Pete and Joan have (or haven’t) changed in certain ways after yet another move through the labyrinthine world of Madison Avenue. The point is that they’ve been confronted with another familiar situation — different in its most granular details, but the same in its fundamental pronouncement of impending change.
Mad Men has this ability to take the same larger set of tensions; re-introduce them a few years apart; sprinkle in just enough nuances to avoid an exact replica of what went before; and offer viewers the question of how the characters will react, which enables us to see whether they’ve grown or not. In moments of success or failure, seeing the response of a character you’ve gotten to know really well over seven years is precisely what forges a strong bond between viewer and show.
Here’s the kicker: The depth of that connection between viewer and show is precisely what enables entertainment to be nourishing and even transformative.
I can relate to Don.
I can relate to Peggy.
I can relate to Roger.
I can relate to Joan.
I can relate to Pete.
I knew someone in New York in the 1960s who was like him.
My mother in New York in the 1960s was like her.
The more we can relate to characters, the more we can be moved by their joys, and the more we can learn something of value from their failures.
In Sunday night’s episode, you saw Don face the end of his marriage to Megan. He’s been there before.
You saw Peggy confront her loneliness and the motherhood she left behind. She’s been there before.
You saw Roger wrestle with how to re-imagine his work and his company. Been there.
You also saw Sally Draper assume the same exact pose as her mother, Betty, while moving in a different direction in terms of taking Betty’s advice. Betty had once said to her daughter, “Girls don’t kiss boys,” but when Sally kisses Neil, she says to herself more than her mom or anyone else that she is going to chart her own course in life.
With Neil Armstrong’s lunar landing seared into the minds of these characters in the summer of ’69, the invitation to transformation — a world that is never quite the same — is unmistakable.
How perfect… as Bertram Cooper slips from these earthly bounds, making life’s ultimate (and final) transition, something much more momentous than the fate of Sterling Cooper and Partners.
PART II: SEASON SEVEN AT THE MIDPOINT
The first half of season seven did far more than bring SC&P in touch with McCann-Erickson, the very behemoth Bert, Roger and Don had wanted to resist with all their might in the past. The past seven episodes completed a few circles while drawing the arc of a half-circle in others; those half-circles will be completed next year.
Some of the completed circles at the end of Mad Men’s 2014 run:
* Don and Megan’s marriage.
* Joan and the idea/temptation that she can or should live in an arrangement more than a marriage — she shot that down when she shot down Bob Benson.
* Pete and the idea that his heart existed most centrally in Southern California.
* Pete and the idea that he and Trudy could have a life together again.
* Roger and his relationship with his daughter.
* Bert’s life, and what that life meant to the people he left behind, Roger in particular.
The half-circles that beg for completion next year, based mostly on season seven as a whole but substantially on Sunday night’s “midseason finale”:
* Don and Betty’s relationship — not a reunion, but a coming to terms, which will likely involve a major experience related to Sally. This half-circle can be re-drawn or perhaps viewed from a different angle: Sally’s relationships with both of her parents, especially Betty.
* Don’s relationship with Joan, which took a negative turn but really hasn’t been explored directly, at least not in an extended scene between the two characters over the course of season seven.
* Ted’s relationship with his work family at SC&P, especially Peggy.
* Ted’s relationship with his own family, or if not that, his struggle to find a good life-work balance after the dislocations and depression that began in season six. Every season seven episode has shown this defeated, deflated version of Ted without too much exposition. Viewers finally received a small look inside Ted’s worn-out self on Sunday night, and they could also see Ted’s face perk up with recognition when Don talked to him, but Ted’s character — which, remember, was present long before he joined the Sterling Cooper gang — is only beginning to set out on a difficult journey.
* Peggy’s relationship with herself. Peggy’s relationship with Don has been mended. Peggy’s relationship with her work is good. Yet, another round of transitions will force Peggy to look inside her own self, and to confront the loneliness that has stabbed at her in season seven when she’s hungered for companionship, and when Julio has reminded her of the maternal world she eschewed way back in the beginning of Mad Men’s run.
PART III: LOOKING AHEAD TO 2015
We have spent seven years watching Don Draper wrestle with the world and its colorful whirlwind of constant change. What will the conclusion to the series bring next year? With Mad Men and Matthew Weiner, expect the unexpected… and a concluding moment which elevates complexity and ambiguity over the neat-and-tidy resolution.
When talking about Mad Men in online forums the past two months, I have been struck by one general observation more than any other: A lot of fans — not a majority, but a sizable minority — seem to think that certain characters were not written consistently, compared to how they were presented in the past.
Sunday night’s midseason finale did much to undercut this assertion, but with that having been said, it’s up to the end of the series in 2015 to bring that process to completion.
Let’s briefly mention some examples of “inconsistent writing”: Many fans think Joan’s anger at Don the past several weeks has come from nowhere. That’s a valid point, but a debatable one.
Joan carried such deep wounds from the Jaguar experience, and moreover, she showed both Don and the viewing audience how hurt she was even after she learned of Don’s gallant and noble effort to protect her dignity. Joan has become more sensible about her love life, but that doesn’t mean the wounds and hardships she’s endured have fully healed. Was Joan inconsistently written in the first half of season seven? No — her story and her internal journey weren’t exposed enough to us; we only received brief glimpses of that journey.
Another example of “inconsistent writing” cited by many Mad Men fans from the first half of season seven was Bert Cooper, when he coldly dismissed Don’s suggestion about pursuing the computer account (and nearly sending Don over the edge, only for Don to be saved by Freddy Rumsen).
Plenty of fans felt this coldness to Don was jarring, abrupt, and generally under-developed. Even more than in Joan’s case, the notion of an inconsistently-written character doesn’t hold up as far as Bert is concerned. We learned about this in the midseason finale on Sunday. Bert couldn’t stand Don’s lack of loyalty to the larger team at SC&P, but even while hating that part of Don, Bert still stood up for Don because he was part of the family… a family Roger became the leader of as soon as Bert died.
Bert’s code of loyalty was and is as complicated as Mad Men is as a show. How utterly fitting that is, because this is a series which earns the highest levels of respect from its audience precisely because it creates multi-dimensional characters who can’t be easily pigeonholed or stereotyped. As soon as one character seems to be irredeemable, that character does something profoundly generous. As soon as a character has made material or personal gains that would suggest complete peace in life, that character is revealed to be unsettled and anything but content in the face of outward prosperity and increased power.
We’re left with this larger truth: What one might view as an “inconsistently written” character is usually (though not always) a character that simply responds to a situation imperfectly and, in many cases, against the recent flow of events in the series.
With this in mind, what should we expect — and hope for — next season?
The biggest of all the big-picture questions surrounding the conclusion of Mad Men in 2015 is this: Will the show end more in darkness or in light, with a grim final image or waves of joy?
Faithful viewers will appreciate the centrality of this question. Why? Because Mad Men began and developed as a show that was designed to illustrate why all the money, power and sex in the world do not — cannot, will not — make the human person happy.
The extent to which Mad Men‘s fashions, set designs, and other visual nostalgic touches have been celebrated over the years rates as a deep and lingering irony, precisely because those material riches masked deep interior loneliness, self-loathing, and desperation. Series creator Matthew Weiner has used the character of Don Draper to show that devastatingly good looks, noticeable sexual prowess, immense wealth, and considerable power will not prevent you from feeling the overpowering weight of loneliness, shame, guilt, and inadequacy… at least if you don’t address them.
Don has always had the words and example of Anna Draper to fall back on — “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone” — but through the first few episodes of season seven, he didn’t take Anna’s words to heart. Only when Freddy reached out to him did he begin to climb out of the ditch he had dug for himself, and only when he and Peggy spoke at the end of episode six this season (“The Strategy,” May 18) did he begin to really believe that he wasn’t alone on a deeper, more soulful level. Material possessions have not coincided with peace for Don; through the beginning of season seven, it was precisely the opposite.
This necessary (and continuous) exploration of the inverse relationship between material abundance and personal wholeness has made Mad Men a fundamentally dark show. Until a few weeks ago, a bright and hopeful ending for the show really didn’t seem to exist as a strong possibility.
Now, after the past two episodes, the “midseason break” before the 2015 concluding run will be filled with talk about a happy conclusion. With Don and Peggy both making such pronounced progress in terms of self-acceptance and mature, mutual trust of each other, the table has been set for a feel-good conclusion, and moreover, a conclusion that would not come across as implausible. This opens the door to a wider range of possibilities next year, which is exactly what makes for more interesting and compelling television.
The remaining seven episodes of Mad Men do not have to lead to one kind of conclusion more than another, however. This path doesn’t have to lead to a rainbow in order for the series to max out as it moves into the annals of television history. Matthew Weiner is a great curveball pitcher whose characters are so complex that they can accommodate shifts in the arc of the show’s larger story. The bigger point is that the ending — whatever it is and however it comes about — is sufficiently developed. If the ending is a dark one, but the characters encounter traumas or challenges that make their descent into darkness entirely genuine, the impact of the show and its legacy will be preserved.
If the ending feels force-marched or if it seems to be crammed into a neat and tidy box, viewers will lament the notion that two seminal TV characters — Don Draper and Peggy Olson — were not given the sendoffs they deserved. They will be able to comfort themselves knowing that “Don, Peggy and Sinatra” near the end of “The Strategy” was a worthy series-ending scene. Similarly, fans will also be able to look at “Waterloo” as another acceptable series-ending episode, enabling them to toss out the 2015 finale without too much regret or anxiety.
Yet, as much as the above paragraph might be true — as much as the past two episodes have given many Mad Men viewers a great deal of comfort about the way this show has progressed in season seven — every fan wants the final episodes to shine. Every Mad Men devotee wants the last scenes and tensions to be worthy of everything that has preceded them.
What will enable a viewer to make this essential distinction? Very simply, if next year’s final episodes are anything close to Mad Men‘s two most recent ones, it’s going to be hard to leave the Drapers, Peggy, and Sterling Cooper with any real regrets… even if the characters themselves are surrounded by regrets in the world of 1970.