How Mad Men should end

With only five episodes remaining of the best television show ever, it’s time to accept that things are wrapping up quickly. Here are the things I hope to see as Mad Men comes to an end.




hen we start to think about how a show that has been around for seven seasons1 will end, it’s important to first define a few things. For instance, are we talking about how a show will end or how a show should end? I think it’s safe to say that if a show has any real quality (and probably even if it doesn’t,) it should have developed a certain tone and a certain rhythm if it’s been around for that long. I would argue that show should always end in a manner that is in keeping, first and foremost, with that tone and rhythm. To me, that is the only way a show’s ending can be successful. You may not like everything that happens, but if a show stays true to itself in its most pressure-filled episode2, one can’t have too many qualms about it.

So there, that was easy, that’s how all shows should end. Now, how should Mad Men end? If all shows should stay true to themselves in their endings, we have to examine what a show is really about in order to decide what staying true to itself would look like. As I’ve written before, Mad Men‘s genius lies in its life-like pacing. It’s a show about life and about whether people can change or whether they simply grow3, whether people can pave new roads for themselves or whether they merely change lanes on the road they’re born on.

The tricky part is determining what stance the show decides to take on the matter. I think it’s likely that each viewer projects what they themselves believe onto the show, interpreting each plot point differently from the next person as a kind of Rorschach test.

This is a convoluted explanation of why TV shows are notoriously incapable of pleasing, not just everyone, but even everyone who’s decidedly labelled themselves a fan of the show. We can all agree that Mad Men is great, but still differ wildly on whether specific characters are good or bad people or what the show is trying to tell us, if anything.

So, this is where it gets personal. To me, Mad Men is neither optimistic nor overly cynical. It doesn’t seem to judge its characters in terms of good and bad, but merely demonstrates that its characters are capable of both. I do think that Mad Men shows us that people never really change — even if they are able to grow into a better version of themselves — and I suppose you could call that cynical. One thing I refuse to buy into is the the interpretation of Don as a villain. Don is not a perfect person by any stretch (who is?) but he’s no villain. He’s not even an anti-hero of the same ilk as Tony Soprano or Walter White.

Don Draper is a tragic hero. He’s heroic to me because he decided that even if he couldn’t change, he could at least pretend to, and in this world of ours, that’s often enough. He’s tragic for the obvious reason that, despite his creative genius and his undeniable charisma and charm, he can’t help himself stay out of the eternal pattern of self-destruction he eventually reverts to. Don is a modern-day Jay Gatsby, and I want to live in a world where Jay Gatsbys are possible.

The most telling line from the entire series takes place in the season two episode The New Girl, when in a flashback, we see that at a critical time in Peggy’s life, while she’s in the hospital, Don is the only one outside of her family who goes to the effort of finding her. Don tells Peggy:

Peggy, listen to me, get out of here and move forward. This never happened.
It will shock you how much it never happened.

Meaning that if you really want to, you can move on from anything4. And for the most part, he’s right. Peggy moves on with her life and never lets the incident overcome her. To me, this is the show telling us that we make our own fate, we are in charge of our own lives and are free to be whatever we want to be. Earlier in the same episode, one of Don’s coital partners tells him “This is America; pick a job and become the person who does it.”

Mad Men is another look at the American dream. Less “work hard and be yourself,” and more “work hard and be who you need to be.” We all wear masks depending on the situation and what we want from it, some of us have more masks than others and some of us wear them more expertly, but we all do it, Mad Men simply admits it for us.

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o then, what then does a Mad Men finale look like to me? I think the most important thing is that it signs off with a whimper rather than a bang. We shouldn’t have some big revelatory piece where Don realizes the error of his ways and decides to continue as Dick Whitman, managing to turn his ship around and find happiness. Nor should he, as I’ve heard some suggest, die in the final episode5, unless it’s via some cosmic never-saw-that-coming, hit-by-a-car kind of way that would have no moral connotation to it. Mad Men hasn’t judged its characters and it shouldn’t start at the eleventh hour.

Basically, it should be like any other Mad Men epsidode: the characters were living their lives before we started watching and their lives will continue after the series stops. That’s the way the series has always felt. If it does it properly, the final episode will be like a boat launch: we’ll get the characters in the water one last time, push them away and hopefully we get an idea what direction they’re headed. We can draw our own conclusions from there. Maybe there’s an unexpected turn for a minor character or something but anything too definitive would be un-Mad men-like. I want something like The Wire, like The Sopranos, but less dramatic. I want the antithesis of Breaking Bad and True Detective.

I just want the final episode of Mad Men to be Mad Men through-and-through. If it manages that, it will be perfect.

  1. Eight seasons, really

  2. The pressure in question is on the show and the writers/creators, not necessarily the characters.

  3. Those are most certainly not the same things, even if there’s only a fine line between them.

  4. You could also argue that he means that you can move on from anything if you bury it deep-down inside and ignore it, which I would agree with, but has become a far less popular stance in recent times.

  5. Only a really weak-willed series would end like that— especially if throughout the series the main character had become the villain but conveniently, in the final episode, manages to redeem himself by dying as he kills the really bad bad guys, saving the likable not-so-bad bad guy.

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