We make so much of TV series finales, as if one episode of a beloved show can somehow tie together several years of stellar storytelling. But our obsession actually makes sense with Mad Men. From the final shots of the pilot episode, which combined the punch of a John Cheever short story with a mastery of lighting worthy of Caravaggio, this show has had a way with endings.
Sunday's series finale wasn't perfect, because no TV episode ever has been. But it did pull off a nifty balance worthy of the seven preceding years. The big goodbye stayed true to the show's mission of always telling a strong freestanding story without gimmicks. And it gracefully, economically tied up the loose ends of all the characters we care about. That's a wrap.
I've had a recurring set of responses as I've watched the last few seasons of Mad Men (and these last two awkwardly split half-seasons). The first two episodes always leave me scratching my head as I wonder what the odd tangents and new characters have to do with anything. Soon I realize I'm being impatient with a show that demands patience above all. By the last few episodes of the season - and, in this case, the series - I'm getting that old tingly feeling I got after watching that very first episode (over and over again. Episode One, Season One remains my Platonic ideal of a television pilot).
I said the finale tied up loose ends, which is only partly true. Mad Men savored a little of its customary ambiguity to the end, as Don sits meditating on a grassy California hillside, a smile of serenity passing over his lips. Does he go on to create that iconic "I'd like to teach the world to sing" Coke ad that closes out the series? Is the ad an imaginative projection of what an enlightened Don Draper might conjure? (Side note: For some inside dope on the actual ad, check out Jeff Chang's book Who We Be, which posits the spot as a turning point for the marketing of multiculturalism. For those keeping score, it premiered in 1971). Tangy questions linger: Is Don redeemed? Does he go on to be a cult leader in '70s California? Does he get to finish his onion rings?
The Sopranos, of course, set the standard for perturbing viewers who need a series finale to answer all the questions. Mad Men mastermind Matt Weiner was part of that kerfuffle, as a veteran Sopranos writer/producer; he doesn't fear open-endedness. But that little montage near the end of Mad Men makes for a satisfying valedictory lap. It lets us catch a final glimpse of Peggy and Stan, Pete and Trudy, Roger and Marie, and the indomitable Joan. It allows us the fantasy that their lives will continue after the show is over.
There was a time I thought Mad Men had overstayed its welcome, that Don's flights of alcoholic nihilism had nowhere else to go. Now they truly don't, and I'm a little sad about it. Perhaps we can get a Roger Sterling prequel to help ease the withdrawal.