Meditations on a Finale: A Mad Men Discussion

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) meditates on a hill in California in the series finale of Mad Men, "Person to Person" (Image © AMC/Lionsgate). 

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) meditates on a hill in California in the series finale of Mad Men, "Person to Person" (Image © AMC/Lionsgate). 

The series finale of Mad Men came with a lot of theorizing, ranging from Don Draper being D.B. Cooper to the show’s final scene reenacting the opening credits. Instead, Mad Men’s finale offered up ample amount of closure, ambiguity, and, possibly, new beginnings. Five of our writers, Donald McCarthy, Matthew Guerruckey, Ryan Roach, Allan Ferguson, and Pamela Langley, all of whom have written about the series on Drunk Monkeys through its run, gathered for a roundtable discussion on what they felt about how AMC’s drama came to an end. 

Donald McCarthy, Features Editor: The last scene of Mad Men has stoked debate between fans and critics, but I find myself fascinated at how I debated it with myself for a while before coming to terms with what I really felt.

I did not think the ending meant to imply Don wrote the ad when I first watched the finale, “Person to Person.” I thought it was writer Matthew Weiner showing how Don had the real experience of catharsis while we, the audience, often have to go along with a fake, commercial experience. I saw the coke commercial as existing outside the narrative of the show but within the thematic framework.

Boy was I shocked when I went on Twitter and saw no one else thought that. At first I balked a little, not sure of what to make of the fact that Don returns to the ad business and works for McCann. Yet I made peace with it pretty quickly because I don’t think Don’s return to McCann means he’s backslid. I don’t think he even can backslide after all he’s been through since Sally walked in on him having an affair. Just think how much he’s changed. He allowed his children and coworkers to know about his past; he understood why Megan needed out of the marriage and gave her all she needed and more; he realized he needed to earn back the trust of the partners and Peggy; he admitted to the emotional destruction he’s caused in the past; he started opening his mind to new experiences and chances. Even before “Person to Person” aired it was clear that Don had changed significantly from the Don who went back to cheating in the season five finale. “Person to Person” goes further than just showing changes, though. It gives the audience one big, generous moment: Don’s comforting of Leonard in group therapy.

Don’s embrace of Leonard was a genuine moment that will make a real, positive difference in someone’s life. There’s no ulterior motive and, unlike with, say, Peggy, Don won’t be around long enough to mess it up. Leonard will always remember Don as the man who hugged him when he was in his darkest moment. Don has guaranteed himself a legacy, one that involves love. 

If “Person to Person” ended with the bell ringing and Don’s smile I’d be perfectly happy. However, the coke ad gives an additional level of ambiguity to it, a layer that allow for the viewer’s opinion of Don and human nature to dictate what happens next. 

After much thought, I think Don’s ending was a positive one. Don found contentment and some sense of catharsis. He went on to express it in the only manner he knew how: through advertising. Is there some sadness in the fact that Don still can’t express himself well outside of advertising? Sure. But he’s now making real strides and the blanket emotion and, let’s face it, sappiness of the Coke ad shows a creative mind that is different from the one who put implications of suicide in a billboard.

Matthew Weiner is not a nihilistic writer. Most of the characters end in a happy place. Even Betty, who has a death sentence, is able to connect with her daughter in a way she never could in the past. For Don to be a completely free spirit might feel nice in the moment, but it would not be an honest ending because people don’t work like that. No one changes that radically that quickly. Instead, Weiner gave Don significant growth and gave the audience the knowledge that Don can grow even more, should he want to. And I suspect he does. 

What did you folks think of the last scene? Did you find it optimistic, pessimistic, or a mix? 

Matthew Guerruckey, Editor-in-Chief: A finale, well accomplished, acts as a kind of thesis statement for a television series, and the last scene of “Person to Person” suggests that the thesis of Mad Men (like the thesis of The Sopranos) is that we never really change, we just find new ways to be better versions of the bad things that we already are. Over the course of the finale, Don hits rock bottom, and pulls himself back up again. Hardly new territory, as there have been entire seasons devoted to this. And even though Don has a cathartic moment after hearing Leonard’s speech (a great moment, among many great individual moments in this episode), and even though we last see him bathed in sunlight with a beatific smirk on his mug, we know that, someday, he’ll be at that rock bottom again. Because as the closing ad proves, Don’s heading back into his old life, having finally embraced the idea that his true self is whatever he wants it to be. Don Draper, not Dick Whitman, was always the “real thing”.

But that’s too cynical, and Mad Men, though it sometimes masked its intentions in era-appropriate existentialism, was never a cynical show. That’s the problem with the popular theory that Weiner’s use of the Coke commercial is an ironic juxtaposition against Don’s newfound serenity, and that Madison Avenue has now found a way to bottle and sell enlightenment. That’s not how the series has ever used advertising. Advertising is merely the medium of Don Draper, creative genius. It’s Don’s art.

Don’s only moments of true expression were delivered in advertising pitches--his brilliant “carousel” speech, his emotional unravelling during the Hershey pitch. To have created one of the most recognizable ads in history is a victory for Don. Off-the-scale happiness. His apotheosis as a creative being. He’s found his bliss, he’s created something immortal, that he can share with the entire world. That ad is his legacy, not Sally, not Peggy. Leonard may still be in the back of the fridge, but Don Draper is immortal. 

Ryan Roach, Film Critic: Hold up, people. A happy ending for Don? Is that where you’re going with this? Bah. Carousel? Let’s talk about Carousel. Don presented an idyllic home life in those photos, and it was profoundly moving. It was also all a lie. We knew Don didn’t have any respect for Betty and barely seemed to care about his kids, either. When he came home in triumph after the pitch of his life, no one was there to greet him. That’s how the episode ended. That’s how every “rebirth” and renewal of Don’s ends, with a phonebook to the face.

And it’s not just Don. Remember when Harry was an actual character instead of a punchline? At the New Year’s Party at the end of season one, Harry cheated on his wife Jennifer for the first time, and he was so wracked with guilt he confessed immediately. Don’s Carousel pitch affected him so strongly he had to leave the room in tears. It was clear that he was never going to put his family in jeopardy like that again. Cut to season seven where Harry the TV guy has to replace his casting couch every six months on account of it getting too sticky. And Ken...Ken was going to be a writer. His wife was even going to support him doing it, and instead he gets a job at Dow, a place he called evil and soulless in that very episode. All so he can get back at Roger and Pete for being mean. And there’s Roger marrying Jane and Pete marrying Trudy and Joan marrying Greg and Don marrying Megan. All of them thought it was true love (and many times I did too--damn you, Weiner).

Every character on this show wants his or her fresh start. It’s the American Dream, after all. And maybe some of them got it this time around. Maybe. Maybe I’ll allow Peggy and Stan some happiness. Maybe Roger and Marie will be okay. But not Don. Not if this is what Don’s triumph looks like. Look, there’s no question he’s become a better man than he was when we met him 10 years ago. There’s no question he’s far more content with himself and his place in the world and has achieved a kind of enlightenment. But he’s used that enlightenment to sell the soda version of McDonald’s at the company that has been considered the death of creativity since season one. He’s turned the counter-culture movement into a way to sell sugar water. I will not allow this to be called a triumphant ending. I simply will not!

Allan Ferguson, TV Critic: It’s an optimistic ending for Don, of course. He's inspired to use his transcendent moment of connection at Big Sur to restore his reputation and career, and the result will be the “buy the world a Coke” commercial — an all-time classic surpassing anything we've seen him do before. 

But it could be seen as a mixed ending in a larger sense. If his breakthrough merely helps him become an even greater Mad Man, then it's both sincere and pointless, like Tony Soprano's therapy breakthroughs. If his epiphany helps him to finally see how to domesticate The Others – the various countercultures he's mostly failed to understand throughout Mad Men — and bring them inside the corporate campfire, then whose happy ending is that?

Unlike his mentor David Chase who, when fans asked for more whacking on The Sopranos, felt he needed to make his disapproval of murder more explicit, Weiner doesn't lead the viewer to a critique of advertising or capitalism one way or another. And unlike David Simon's scorched earth approach on The Wire, questions of morality or ethics on Mad Men are usually localized, not systemic. Can I take over a dead man's identity? (Only if you think you can be a better Don Draper than he would have been.) Is it cool to take credit for someone else's work? (Depends on who's doing it.) Should we advertise a deadly product? (Not that one since the government's about to drain that pond, but yes to some others.) Should we pimp out our office manager in order to land a prestigious client? (Only if we compensate her fairly.) 

I don't mean to say that Weiner should have taken the show in a more politically engaged direction. As it is, a broad audience can enjoy the show and exit with most of their opinions intact. But one thing has struck me as a bit disproportionate: how dismissively Weiner dealt with nearly all the oppositional voices that the 1960s had to offer. On Mad Men they were available but by various means neutralized — beatniks and Hare Krishnas and Warholians and hippies and Marxists were either laughed off the stage or their arguments dissolved in personal weaknesses.

Further, I’ll risk accusations of cynicism by wondering if Leonard might have aroused not only Don’s compassion but also his adman instincts: Leonard on his dark shelf inside the fridge is a product nobody wants to buy — and Don realizes his particular gift, amid all the wreckage of his life, is to get people to notice something he wants them to notice. So his tearful embrace of Leonard’s sky-blue sweater might have mixed motives. “Your Mileage May Vary”, as your grandparents used to say.

Pamela Langley, Writer: In Mad Men episodes, every element of a scene, from lighting to attire to set decoration or word choice is a clue. From the moment Don walked out of the creative meeting for Coke—Coke, having been the representative white whale throughout the series—the ongoing, meandering, deconstructive collision of the Don and Dick identities amplify. Don’s journey in the final episodes was surely one of divestment: He lost his wife, his furniture, his car, his job, his clothes … until he was left clutching his immediate possessions in a paper bag. Don is greasy and unshaven and driving test cars as fast as he can across desolate salt flats to nowhere. He’s repairing an old Coca-Cola machine for a proprietor/veteran of a drab motor inn who refuses to swap it out for a newer unit. 

There’s been evidence throughout the seasons about Don’s Freudian symptoms (denial, displacement, identity-crisis). He’s a vortex of ego-id clashes, and there’s no doubt that we’ve seen the concept of death drive fleshed out in Don’s ceaseless, misdirected and futile yearning. His need is as bottomless as consumerism itself—one writer suggests Don represents the late-century interrogations of masculinity and capitalism.

So where did Don end up, and what was the meaning of the final image and the ad? 

There was a legitimate turning point for Don at Esalen (or the imaginary retreat that mimicked the famous institute). When Leonard, the anti-Don, the ordinary everyman/nobody in the stodgy pastel sweater, shared his profound alienation and despondency, Don FINALLY connected to someone’s pain in the moment, wept and broke. 

But does Weiner intend for Don to find spiritual bliss and inner peace through the somewhat pat naivety of the hippie movement? Does Don shatter and reconstruct into a yogi transcendent, yet another identity construct? When we see him in the final scene, he’s in uncharacteristic informal white garb, full lotus position, tanned, whole and healthy, looking like he was sitting at the ledge of some kind of paradise or nirvana, resurrected. A bell goes off to signify the end of meditation, and Don opens his eyes with a palpable clarity and smiles. The return of the enigmatic Don Draper smile suggests that Don may have shed the rigid establishment formality that he associated with success (and that was keeping him from moving forward--a recurring mantra in the series and finale), and he’s simply calculated another way to reconcile two disparities. 

The final scene was the quintessential study of what we’ve been learning about Don all along—that he is the consummate survivor and pragmatist. At the retreat, he moved from his past into the here and now, finally feeling “the real thing” (this begs for a Lacanian analysis, but I’ll save it) in his gift for tapping into how illusion makes reality more palatable. Cue the iconic 1970s Coca-Cola ad, with what seems like the participants from Don’s very retreat singing about how the world is most harmonious when celebrating the “real thing,” whatever that may actually be. The ad just suggests what it might look like, how you might feel good, at this moment. Don isn’t a guru, though. Weiner crafted his character, at least to some degree, to peek up the skirts of nostalgia. Can there be a reconciliation between idealism, self-realization, ambition and consumerism? In the Don Draper brilliance of appropriated, branded-yet-earnest reality there can! The world is constantly shifting, moving forward as Don keeps telling others, we have to move with it. It’s what he told Peggy in the hospital early in the series, and what he wanted so desperately to impart to Diana toward the end. We’re of different colors, genders, ages, backgrounds, carrying our singular baggage, but we can still hold hands and sing while enjoying that thing you sold us that makes us feel part of something, together. Hurray, existential angst is universal! 

Whether Don actually feeds the idea to Peggy, or pitches it to Joan or McCann himself, whether he stayed in California or returned to New York, it seems that Don’s trajectory was to achieve his own brand of transcendence, conceiving one of the most famous ads of all time—one that fuses anti-culture with consumer/pop-culture. I have to wonder if Weiner didn’t create the whole series with the irony of this ad as the destination for Don Draper’s journey. 

As a side note, it’s difficult in our sound-byte, nano-second, hypertexting info channel world, to understand the cult status that a Coca-Cola ad could have. When this ad was released, the predominant culture was being thoroughly interrogated and rejected. This was a world in which there were three major networks and no fast-forward buttons, period. We collectively sat down in awe to watch men land on the moon, or horror to see the National Guard shooting students at Kent State. In the midst of this societal chaos, there was this ad fusing together two entirely disparate impulses into an image of harmonious coexistence. Back then a jingle could reverberate in the national psyche for years—and that ad was one of the most popular of all. We sang along with that jingle back then like it truly meant something.

Donald McCarthy: Putting Don’s journey aside for a moment, it’s a surprise just how happy the resolutions are for the other characters. At a talk with AM Homes at the New York Public Library, Weiner said he had to be talked into the Stan and Peggy relationship, but was eventually enthusiastic about the result. The scene plays like something out of a romantic comedy, but, for me, it still ended up working. The characters have been working together for so long, have completed so many projects together, have discussed personal issues (like Peggy’s baby!), and have always had a flirtatious bent to their relationship that the two of them becoming a couple feels right. I have no doubt that they won’t be a perfect couple, but I do think they’ll be a long lasting one. For Peggy, she’ll finally have a loved one who respects her and the work she does. For Stan, he’ll have someone who is his equal and not afraid to go toe to toe with him. 

Roger’s ending surprised me the most. Todd VanDerWerff made mention that if Roger appeared again in the finale then it would probably signal a tragic story. I felt the same way, feeling that Roger’s story was likely wrapped up. Weiner instead gave us four great scenes with Roger (“She’s old enough to be her mother. As a matter of fact, she is her mother.”), all of which feature Roger’s wit at its best and lead to a touching moment between Marie and him in a cafe. Roger does not usually get his own plots in Mad Men so I’m glad the finale touched on how he’s grown just as everyone else has. Marie makes mention of Roger going after his secretary in the past and Roger gives a rare look: one of hurt. He’s a changed man and not the man-child he was in the past, at least not entirely.

Even Pete doesn’t end up going down in flames. I doubt he’s going to love Kansas, but his final scene with Peggy shows a maturity he’s not shown in the past. Telling her she will be someone people will brag about having worked with is not only a compliment, it’s probably something Peggy needs to hear as she puts up with the new people at McCann who are not as eager to work with her. Pete being generous without another motive? Perish the thought. 

When you compare this to the ending of the last show Weiner worked on, The Sopranos, Mad Men’s endings are practically celebrations of life.

I am sure there are some viewers who wanted a more cynical ending, but I think the happiness Weiner gave the characters is just the perfect amount. Peggy and Joan working together would’ve been too much; they’ve never really gotten along in the past so to send them off together would be dishonest. Roger still has a slew of ex-wives and his daughter is still off in a cult, but he’s found happiness with Marie. Betty is going to die, but she has at least formed a bond with Sally. Joan lost her new lover, but is also her own boss. 

None of the endings are completely happy nor are they the result of some last minute saves. They’re natural ones, ones that allow the characters to be more content than when we opened on them back in 1960. There’s a sense that the journeys they went through brought them a little more enlightenment (some more than others) and that it was one worth taking. 

What did everyone think of the endings for Peggy, Betty, Joan, Roger, etc? 

Matthew Guerruckey: Mad Men has always abruptly dropped characters and storylines, and dodged narrative payoffs under the guise of “well, that’s just how life is”. That’s been frustrating to me, as a viewer, since the very beginning. Watching portions of AMC’s marathon leading up to the finale really drove this home. After Season Five, the wheels really come off, and by the time we get to “Person to Person”, we’re left with a cast of characters who feel like strangers. 

Roger Sterling, who for the first three seasons was the most dynamic character on the series, is reduced to a bad pig latin joke and shtupping Megan Draper’s mother (Megan herself, for all of the needless attention she’s received over the past three seasons, doesn’t even appear in the episode). It’s not that I wanted a tragic ending for Roger anymore than I did for Don, but I wanted an ending, and this doesn't feel like one.

Pete Campbell, the slimiest boy-king this side of Westeros, has a very effective goodbye scene with Peggy, and then hops a Learjet to Wichita, with Trudy, his own personal Jackie O, in tow. And that’s it. Pete began this series as the primary antagonist for Don, and one of the strongest continuing narratives in the series was their growing mutual admiration. Is Witchita a happy ending for Pete? For Trudy? Is it true to what we’ve come to know or expect of these characters, and how they’ve grown? It feels, again, like a non-ending. Like shuffling pieces across the board, rather than resolving plot lines. 

But the finale’s treatment of Peggy Olson is especially unsatisfying. It’s not that the Peggy and Stan scene was unwelcome--not at all. Their relationship has been one of the strongest aspects of these last few underwhelming seasons of the series, and both actors, especially Elisabeth Moss, are phenomenal in the scene itself. And I liked that they showed that this relationship will not define Peggy’s career or knock her off her track to become the first female creative director by 1980, because in the final montage, she’s still working away, with her loving wookie man right behind her. But after all that Peggy has been through, having her last full scene play out as a romantic comedy feels weak. But at least it’s an ending, a complete story with a payoff. I don’t feel like we got that with most of the other characters, arguably even Don.

Ryan Roach: I mostly liked everyone’s endings. I didn’t particularly “ship” Peggy and Stan, but if they make each other happy, that works for me. I prefer the Peggy ending we got a couple episodes back, where she strode into McCann Erickson like a boss, octopus-fucking picture in tow, ready to take over. But if the shippers want a coda where she gets the job and the man? I have no objections, your honor. And Roger...unlike in prior relationships, he’s going into this clear-eyed, but still with an open heart. It might not last forever--Marie says as much--but for now, it’s enough. That’s great. That’s a real growth from his marriage to Jane. And Joan went from just wanting nothing more than finding a man to take care of her, to being completely self-sufficient and content. I don’t blame Richard’s choice, either. They were both adults about it, and wanted different things. Joan can get herself a trophy husband in another decade or two.

At the Francis/Draper household, things also seemed to end somewhat peacefully. Betty will get to live out her final days with an equanimity that only an ice-queen can muster. How fitting that what was once her biggest weakness is now her greatest strength. And Sally will step nicely into the mother role to hold this family together. Even Bobby got the opportunity to show some maturity. I get the feeling everyone’s going to be okay over there. And as for Pete...well, when Trudy kissed him in the penultimate episode, I recoiled in horror. And despite his lecture to his brother about the emptiness of infidelity and despite his very sweet final scene with Peggy, I still don’t really buy that Pete has changed, but I guess that for the individual viewer to decide for themselves.

All in all, the endings left me very satisfied.

Allan Ferguson: I agree with a lot of what y'all other Monkeys are saying about character outcomes in the finale, so instead of following the plough I will just address: Is it good for Peggy? Yes, but it could have been better. Having wisely declined Joan's offer to partner up — we've seen those two at cross purposes too often — her advertising career is now set on a realistic path with a boringly sensible goal (breezily predicted by predictable Pete) of becoming a creative director by the time she's 40. Staying at a big-stuff firm like McCann Erickson for a while will help her résumé, but there are challenges that go beyond what Peggy was used to at Sterling Cooper & etc: institutional piggishness, bureaucracy, superfluous layers of management — and we've already seen that her path might be blocked by other women.

She'll prevail, we assume, and that's all very fine I'm sure, but I am beguiled by a vision of the finale awarding the Coke triumph to Peggy, not to Don — who could have been sent off on an ice floe for all the good he's doing any of the other characters. I even thought perhaps Don's sudden road trip was a way to clear the decks for Peggy to make a bigger splash. (We reserve the right to refuse fan service to anyone.)

Oh, but that other finish line! After five years of teasing, Peggy and Stan finally come at nearly the same time! While I was watching it tickled my Peggy-bone but also I wished it had been handled more subtly. True, they've already had a quiet buildup to this development earlier in this half season, even while torturing us with a stunt-casted blind date (this stunt visible only to fans of really good '90s television, alas), so I understand they'd want to bring it to a boil. But I could see the puppet strings, and boiling puppets is never the right way to get your point across.

Pamela Langley: When it comes to post-Season Five Mad Men, and particularly the finale, responses seem to be polarized. One either finds the episode artfully nuanced with a satisfying measure of hope, or, as Matthew cleverly argues, a mess of abandoned projects, chair dancing, and manipulative red-herrings (Diana perhaps the most obvious). While the way Weiner developed then dumped characters (Don’s half brother Adam, Sal, Bob Benson, Ginsberg, Duck’s Irish Setter) throughout the series often left me clawing at the lack, for the most part I’m in the former camp: satiated, and in fact, happy about where the plug was pulled. 

Still, of every narrative that Weiner left dangling, the one I most wanted to see referenced in the final season or finale, and to its detriment was not, was the suicide of Adam. That Weiner could craft Don as a person in this world who is ostensibly not a sociopath, and never have him revisit this event, or express the impact of that storyline was a small failure in the series ending for me. 

I was comfortable with Megan walking out of the series as she did earlier in the season, taking more than she should have (or wanted), but appearing to have lost the nurturing sweetness and uncultivated, smart man’s sex appeal that conferred upon her a singularity in the parade of Don Draper romps. In fact she’d had enough of Don after he tried to buy off their failure with an over-inflated check that she seemed to accept as a you-know-nothing-about-me gesture

Betty’s storyline ended flawlessly, in my opinion. Every short word, long pause and exhaled breath in the phone call with Don felt authentic and enough. She will die, but her enduring, terrible sadness isn’t much amplified by this truth—it’s as if she knew it all along, so why stop smoking to gain a little extra time with her children? Everything should continue as normal, including Don’s general absence which she may have convinced him to maintain. He was only ever a slightly better parent than her. The final scene with Betty, her ennui so palpable in that dungeon of a Francis home kitchen, but with Sally re-engaging, felt right. There was something familiar about this family preparing for a tragedy—wasn’t there one in all of our pasts? 

Although Peggy and Stan seemed inevitable, consummating their chemistry was a conundrum. I wasn’t wholly comfortable with the execution, but I did find Peggy’s monologue refreshing, “I don’t even think about you. I mean, I do, all the time, because you’re there. And you’re here (touches her heart) and you make everything OK. You always do.” As one writer noted, it feels like a new iconography for a modern woman stepping out of her career focus just enough to accept love as an integral aspect of a happiness balancing act. 

Maybe Weiner did just change around the chessboard at the end, but he still made some bold moves. It seems that all the characters were trying to enact something better than what they’d been doing before. But nothing is concrete: Kansas is hardly nirvana, even if you arrive there in a Lear Jet, Peggy and Stan have to make it past that first blush, Joan will still need to reconcile her own success, Roger and Marie might end up with restraining orders, and Don may still bed the actresses who audition for the Coke commercial—we can’t be sure. 

But after a while, our lives tends to look this way, woefully non-linear and often only resolved in minor, sometimes residual ways: Our histories often a reshuffling and hopefully smarter contextualization of our flawed natures. 

Donald McCarthy: I often find myself comparing Mad Men to The Sopranos, both because Weiner came from there and because the two shows have a lot of the same themes in common. I love the ending to both dramas, although The Sopranos conclusion remains my favorite. When I look over the shows, The Sopranos did something Mad Men never quite did for me: the characters of The Sopranos felt like real people whose psychology I completely understood in every scene. That’s a rare feat in television, even with other shows that I adore. Mad Men very much wanted to hit that, and many critics felt it did, but I always found there was a barrier between me and the characters. As much as I wanted to form a deep connection with the cast, I usually found them interesting only in how they related to Don. The main exceptions to that are Betty, especially in the first few seasons, and Sally. 

Yet this last half season made me care about them a lot more. I’ve never been fond of Joan plots, Hendricks didn’t entirely work for me, but I was very invested in her complications at McCann and what she would do afterwards. The scenes between Peggy and Roger are up there with the best of Mad Men. There was a certain sense of freedom to the final seven episodes, a sense that Weiner was breaking free of some constraints he’d put around himself. The characters taking two steps forward and one step back has long been a theme of the show, but one could do that without feeling repetitive or, frankly, dull. Mad Men fell into those traps a couple of times, especially during the first half of season six, a string of episodes that was a grave misstep for the show, one that was saved by the phenomenal sixth season finale, “In Care Of.”

I don’t want to sound down on Mad Men, because it’s a great show, but I do think it’s reputation as the height of television drama is a little overstated. It certainly brought a lot of literary elements to television and I really enjoyed the almost short story format it would bring into its seasons, especially seasons three and five, and then wrap it all together in ways you’d never guess. Yet, there was also a certain distance and disengagement I felt. Every season would have an episode or two that came across as either plodding or half-baked; this last season’s episode like this was undoubtedly the Megan Draper episode, which was a stunning failure in an otherwise great last run. Mad Men felt almost perfect to me, but a nagging sense of distance between me and its characters prevented me from fully embracing all of the show’s elements. The last season, which I thought was a great success, fixed a lot of this, but there are still a number of plots from previous seasons that I could do without revisiting. 

I sound like such a Debbie downer, don’t I? I love Mad Men, I do! I just found there was a frustrating element to the show, at times, and it was one that prevented me from considering it the best show on television.

Now that it’s over, what did you make of Mad Men overall? Did the final season change your viewpoint at all? 

The cast of Season One today (Image © AMC/Lionsgate). 

The cast of Season One today (Image © AMC/Lionsgate). 

Matthew Guerruckey: I started watching Mad Men in its second season. I found it to be a curious mixture of engaging and plodding, of meditative and just plain boring. In that sense, Mad Men stayed consistent, from its pilot to its finale, in a way that very few series ever have. Mad Men rarely veered from its lane, rarely took true risks. Often, it was a show where not very much happened. There is character growth on Mad Men, but it’s gradual. Don Draper doesn’t change in a chemical flash, as Walter White does. Don’s transformation is more like glaciers moving slowly across the plains--his emotional landscape was changed, but it took a long damn time, and it was pretty cold.

But, also, Don doesn’t negate that change, as Tony Soprano does. Don really is a different guy, and you suspect that the differences will be just enough to make him a better man, a better father, a better ad man. And that is surprising, because Weiner seemed to hate so much of what these guys stood for in the pilot episode. There the point is made explicit that these guys are frauds, they’re death merchants, they’re racists and liars. But over the course of the series Weiner seemed to soften toward them. By the time Don reveals his childhood home to his children at the end of Season Six, it’s clear that he’s not heading for the disastrous collision with cultural change that we might have expected from that first season.

That was part of the fun of Mad Men--we often knew what was coming, but the characters themselves had no idea. So when Roger’s daughter plans her wedding for November 23rd, 1963, we all knew that the country would be a little distracted that day. Guessing where the characters would end up during the broad cultural changes of the 1960’s became half of the fun of theorizing about the show, but, as we now see, so many things that felt like foreshadowing were merely symbolic. The prime example of this is Don staring down into the empty elevator shaft. That moment is only about the existential void of Don’s life, and not foreshadowing any actual “fall”. The opening credits, long theorized as the end game of the series, turn out to have been merely symbolic all along, as well. Encoding a series with that level of symbolism is admirable, but when a series shirks narrative payoffs in the way that Mad Men did, it holds itself at a distance from its audience. It exists for itself, on its own terms. I love that sense of artistic purity in film or literature, but I wonder if it’s not quite how television is supposed to work.

For me, the finale confirmed what I’d been suspecting about Mad Men for the past few seasons--that, as well-made as it was, I just didn’t care what happened to any of these characters. They felt like people I had worked with at a temp job. It was fun to meet every once in awhile and catch up, but I had no curiosity about what their lives were when I wasn’t around. Mad Men was a great show, but it might be the most inconsequential great show there’s ever been.

Ryan Roach: The final season (including--sigh--the first part of the “final season”, which played a year ago) was a pretty great creative renaissance as far as I’m concerned. It was by far the most invested I’d been in the show since season three. (Like all right-thinking people, I of course agree that the first three were the Golden Years. “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”--holy shit, what great television).

Which is by no means to say that it ever got unwatchable, or boring. Season Six was perhaps the weakest season of all, and it was still compelling TV. I was always invested from start to finish, but I’m glad the last season ended so strongly. I think it belongs in the conversation as one of the Top 50 shows of all time, for sure.

Allan Ferguson: The golden age of Mad Men was the first three seasons, when the elements were in an elegant balance: the ferocious commitment to period authenticity, the painterly framing and color-coding, David Carbonara's exquisite music, the improbably thrilling office politics, a wry and dry sense of humor, canny casting choices in roles large and small. Mad Men's world-rebuilding felt more consequential than most television efforts at period drama because I think that was one of the goals of the whole enterprise: to recreate our recent past sincerely but honor it with skepticism. (As Donald points out, Weiner's explicitly stated template for the series was John Cheever short stories.)

Something failed to click for me in the fourth season, but there were widely praised high points like the Don/Peggy setpiece “The Suitcase” (and my single favorite image of the entire series: Peggy riding a Honda scooter in circles around an empty stage).

During the fifth season I recapped Mad Men for Drunk Monkeys in the site's infancy (after Rockin' Ryan Roach fielded the first few!) and I remember hoping I hadn't outlived my enthusiasm for the show. But I was buoyed by a steady run of excellent episodes so I'm on record, deep in the Drunk Monkeys archives, as being optimistic about the Mad Men endgame.

But I was so unimpressed with the early sixth season that I bailed on Matthew's offer to renew my recapping for DM. I've continued to watch every episode but I've been in a conflicted relationship with Mad Men ever since. Of course if I hadn't been so in love with its delicate beauties early on I wouldn't have been bothered by my disappointment. Three or four episodes in the final batch might count as a return to form, but what good's that? A deathbed confession. 

Since the start Season Seven last year I've been viewing Mad Men via the AMC website on my iMac — it's got a large monitor and I can put my feet up on my desk. I'd watched the earlier seasons on DVDs, DVR recordings — even torrents — so I'd always been able to avoid commercials, even if I had to fast-forward past them. And for a while the ad-blocking software on both the browsers I use fended off AMC's attempts to feed me advertising on my computer. Then this year, between one episode of Better Call Saul and the next, the ad blockers stopped working, or more precisely AMC just refused to deliver video content if they detected ad blocking. 

So when Mad Men began the final run, each episode had an opening ad, sometimes two short ones, and then a minimum of four ad breaks, each of which contained seven ads of varying lengths. And then one week, instead of seven different ads, there was the same ad four or five times in a row, then a different one, then the same one again a couple of times. I thought that was just an error, but then this kept happening all the way through the end of the season. (And on one horrific occasion, it was Matthew McConaughey's loathsome Lincoln commercial repeated six times. Every ad break.

Returning to Don or Peggy or Roger after one of these Madison Avenue jackhammers, I felt like yelling “this is your fault” but I think they would also be repelled by AMC's crude assaults. On the other hand, they'd probably envy the way Google and Facebook are able to get every living human who has any money at all to roll over and have their bellies rubbed by an algorithm. (Jon Hamm’s John Ham is now available as a Mercedes-Benz C-Class 4Matic.) 

Pamela Langley: As more of us watch feature films curled up with a blanket, our personal poison, and the luxury of pause/FF/RW buttons at home, more of us are also craving quality screenwriting on series TV. Matthew Weiner and Mad Men continually delivered this. I came to Mad Men late, starting Season 1 right before Season 3 debuted. After watching three episodes I wrote a blog post about how much I loathed the enigmatic Don Draper, and the trivial aspects of the show that the audience was fetishizing. But by episode six I was eating my words. I had come to better understand what Weiner was creating, how meticulous and profound it was. 

I have, through the seasons, experienced that vague disconnect from characters that Donald describes. I’ve been grappling with what it is about the writing or character development that might have created that distance. Maybe it was Weiner’s willingness to dangle and then unceremoniously abandon intriguing supporting characters, so we became wary of investing. Maybe it was the self-contained literary short story sensation one had at the close of each episode. Maybe it was the disconcerting speed at which time passed in the series, Weiner cannon-balling through the compelling time period in which Mad Men began and moving his characters’ quickly in and out of pivotal events. We were barely oriented to Peggy being pregnant before she was back at the office, her child adopted and gone and little else said about him for seven more seasons! Whatever the reason, it seemed at times we were asked to invest more in themes, reactions and the narrative arc than an individual character’s reverberating emotions.

Overall I felt the series was a notable achievement, one that will be remembered, studied, deconstructed for some time to come. The whisper quiet climaxes and screaming loud denouements were not like anything I’d seen previously. Mad Men elevated this to an art form. The actors geniusly interpreted the nuanced spaces between Weiner’s dialogue, and consistently delivered memorable scenes. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Matt Weiner talks about what he thinks contributed to the vast popularity in Mad Men. He noted that the audience relished what he called cinematic moments that characterized his episodes. These were moments that lingered after a conversation, conflict, tension, or epiphany had passed and the character sat in their “private moment” of realization. Those moments of subtlety, of loaded pauses, sighs, gulps and welling eyes, or a lip licked uncomfortably, characterized and elevated Mad Men.

Whenever I re-watched an episode I discovered something in the dialogue or set decorating that I’d missed the first time around. Like when Betty, sensing that Don feels the impending loss of her, pauses, grimaces, then softens and calls him, “Don, honey …”—I missed that until I re-watched the episode today.

I enjoyed each season for the singular ride on which it took me. Weiner hooked us with an original premise set in a landscape of nostalgia for many of us. But he didn’t wallow in the cult status his show easily attained, he experimented, took chances. He forced his characters to shift from the formal, staid elegance of the early 60’s into the psycho-social chaos of the end of that decade and the early 70’s. He continually surprised and unnerved his characters, and along with them, us. Sometimes his devices worked, a few times they rang hollow, and occasionally they altogether tanked, but I’d agree with Ryan that Mad Men deserves a spot in top series of all time lists in the future.


Thank you to everyone who participated in this discussion, and to Karly Little, who recapped Mad Men for Drunk Monkeys at the beginning of the final season, in 2014.

What did you think of Mad Men, or of that divisive finale? Let us know in the comments below!