As Mad Men prepares for its final run of shows, it’s impossible not to examine its place in the canon of great television and the unfortunate importance of how a show ends.
n the mount rushmore of television’s greatest shows, there isn’t a whole lot of variation among critics and connoisseurs. For almost everyone, the run-down looks something like this: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad. There are people who would stump for outliers like Deadwood or Game of Thrones, but generally those four are the four. I personally have a hard time calling anything the greatest ever until it has finished doing what it does, whether it’s a TV show or an athlete or a politician— whatever the case may be.
Six years ago, many people would have called Tiger Woods the greatest golfer of all time and of course that argument could still be had today, but that argument exists in a very different place now than it did then1. Whether we like it or not, something cannot be judged solely on its very best, it has to be examined as a whole. That’s why a show’s final season and final episode matter so much: they are either the icing on the cake or the fumble before the goal line.
For me, The Wire is the greatest show television has ever produced. It’s the leader in the clubhouse because it is a finished product. I can examine the whole of its effort and compare it to other finished products. The Sopranos, in my own personal ranking, would be next with Breaking Bad a very distant third. Let me be clear: no show is perfect, they all have their flaws: The Wire‘s serial-killer arc was the show’s greatest departure from realism, The Sopranos had a host of cast members who weren’t actors and while that often gave it an authentic feel, it could also be painful to watch when it didn’t work. Breaking Bad, in my opinion, was never quite as consistently good as the other two shows and its final episode went far too out of its way to pander to the audience, to give everyone what they wanted.
I know that a show’s final episode shouldn’t weigh more heavily than any other single episode, but of course it does. It could be said that the entirety of a show, or any story, is simply a build-up to a conclusion. So while we can rationalize about not letting a less-than-perfect ending taint the show as a whole, we should do so knowing that it’s ultimately futile. The final episode matters greatly.
True Detective is a perfect example. A short-run miniseries with two big-name movie actors, I was captivated from the beginning. Interesting characters, a dark, intriguing plot and just as importantly, a beautifully-crafted production, it’s safe to say I was all-in on True Detective. What happened in the final 30 minutes of the show’s final episode was a complete undoing of the show’s efforts. The show’s brooding, nihilistic talisman, Rustin Cohle, who questions everything and believes in nothing suddenly recants everything about his entire life philosophy? Not buying it. It reeked of backing away from a belief that most of the audience would have otherwise found challenging, and it all but ruined the show’s first season for me.
To be fair, those moments can take place at any point in a series, but the reason a finale seems so important is, if the show hasn’t had a series-killing moment yet, it’s as much an anticipation of whether that moment will come or not as it is an anticipation as to how the show will end. It’s the same reason the ninth inning of a no-hitter is more exciting than the fifth.
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ll of this is my introduction to saying that as long as Mad Men stays true to itself, true to everything the show has put forth so far, I believe it will be the best show of all-time2. The Wire may be the leader in the clubhouse, waiting to see what Mad Men does on the final hole, but Mad Men has a tap-in for Eagle, and the tournament3.
Now I know there’s a lot of people out there who will be groaning with disagreement. There will be a lot of “are you kidding me?” from the peanut gallery, but that’s only a sign of the show’s criminally small audience. Mad Men‘s creator, Matthew Weiner admittedly told AMC executives from the beginning that he had no intention of rushing the plot. It was given a deliberate, thoughtful pacing that few other shows have the nerve, or the talent, to execute. There’s no question the pace of the show has cost it a larger audience, but what it has lost in quantity of viewers, it has gained in quality of product.
As I watched the first-half of season seven4 I realized what made Mad Men so phenomenal. I had known it was, of course because I could feel it, but describing why was hard. Then, while I was pondering Peggy’s arc from shy office newbie determined to make it in the big city to eventually becoming her mentor’s boss, it occurred to me that Mad Men‘s genius lies in the fact that it unfolds the way life does. Not in action-packed episode after action-packed episode, but slowly, over time, building, until things happen all at once and change is forced upon us for better or worse, and then the build begins again. The words that aren’t spoken are as important as the ones that are, and the characters are so deep and textured they have histories we forget about. Like we all are, like we all do.
If the strength of The Wire was its broad subject matter and the central message it told, Mad Men‘s strength is in its lack of a message about its very specific subject matter. Mad Men‘s characters would seemingly live their lives whether we were watching or not. We make judgments about them the way we judge people in our lives, but the show never does— the way life itself is indifferent.
So, as I pondered Peggy’s past and present, I had the same feeling I often have when I think about my own past, or a friend’s past: at times things can feel like they happened both yesterday and, at the same time, ages ago.
Peggy’s history with Pete, for example, or Don’s visit from his brother5, felt so long ago as to seem like it happened to different characters altogether, even though it was only (in real life) a few years ago. To recreate that most peculiar of human sensations in and about a television show’s characters is an astounding feat, and it’s the reason I’ll have Mad Men ahead of The Wire when things are said and done.
As long as it sticks the landing.
At the time this is written, Tiger Woods is ranked 79th in the world, which would have been unthinkable in 2007.↩
As with any “Greatest ____ of All Time” proclamation, the caveat is, of course, “So far.”↩
Can you tell it’s almost spring with the extended golf metaphor?↩
Networks, please for the love of god stop breaking seasons up into halves.↩
I’m trying to avoid any real spoilers here. Go watch the goddamn show already!↩