“Mad Men” ends forever May 17, and there are some things it’d be lovely to get from it before it goes.
Now, let’s just acknowledge at the outset that we all know it’s never a good idea to put any demands on Don Draper. Tell that man what to do and there’s a good chance that he’ll walk out the door and wander off somewhere for days, hours or even weeks. Like Don, creator Matthew Weiner no doubt would laugh at the idea of “what the people want” and I’d never question his right to make exactly the show he wants to make. You don’t tell Don Draper what to do, and you don’t ask an auteur to care about your laundry list of scenes you'd like to see.
So, to be clear, I’m not issuing demands to “Mad Men,” nor have I fallen down a mythology rabbit hole that has me convinced that the AMC drama will provide us with “answers.” Hahaha, answers! The very idea is adorable. Nothing is more hilarious to me than “Mad Men” conspiracy theories. The show has never serviced a giant story structure that needs to be finished off or concluded in a tidy fashion. D.B. Cooper and Charles Manson are not going to come swooping in to supply a few final plot twists. Though it’s certainly smartly structured at times, often formally experimental and has provided dozens of great surprises, "Mad Men" has always been more about states of mind than plot-driven twists or tidy conclusions.
“Mad Men” has reveled in shades of grey and ambiguity for seven seasons, and the chances of that changing now are almost nil. I expect the last two episodes to be as symbolically complex and narratively knotty as the rest of the show. It’ll probably make us laugh and I hope it’ll make us cry; there might be some forms of catharsis before we go, but resolution? Nah. Nothing about the lives of Don, Peggy, Pete, Joan and Roger has ever been neat and tidy, which is partly why the show is one of the greats.
All that being said, there are signposts that I hope “Mad Men” hits before it checks out for good. Like Don Draper, I’m just throwing out some pitches -- here’s what I think might be entertaining or engrossing, and here are also a few things that I hope the show avoids.
Things that should happen, if the gods (i.e., Weiner and his creative team) are kind to us.
1. Don and Sally. My fondest wish before the series ends is to see that Don is in a reasonably good place with his daughter, Sally (and also with Peggy Olson). Sally finding out who her dad really is -- a penniless orphan who was raised in a brothel, an adulterer and a sometimes irresponsible parent -- has been a difficult process, to put it mildly. But as Don has shed the carefully cultivated facade he showed the world in Season 1, he has also become more vulnerable and more able to connect with others, especially his smart, perceptive daughter. I don’t think the show has to end with Don holding down a cushy, cool job or cementing a new romantic attachment. Don tends to move through jobs and wives with restless dissatisfaction; that’s kind of his thing. I don’t care if, at the end, Don is living in a shabby studio apartment and eating off a hot plate, as long as we get some scenes in which Jon Hamm and Kieran Shipka impress us yet again by effortlessly conveying the complex layers of love, affection and irritation that are the hallmarks the relationship between Don and Sally.
2. Don and Peggy. Don has never done well with the ladies. I mean, he has scored a lot of chicks, obviously, but as Faye Miller accurately noted a few years ago, “He only likes the beginnings of things.” Given all the interlocking hangups he has when it comes to sex, his mother, death, abandonment and sustained intimacy in general, Don’s marriages have tended to flame out, and I expect him to burn through a few more marriages before he dies. Long story short: He’s not so great with girlfriends, mistresses and actual wives, but his relationship with his work wife, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) has always been one of the best parts of “Mad Men.” For seven seasons, it has been fantastic to watch. They’ve challenged each other, they’ve been there for each other at bad times, they’ve hated each other and during the course of the series, their relationship progressed from mentor-mentee to peers to that deliciously awkward era in which Peggy was Don’s boss. Through it all, Don and Peggy have recognized a kinship in each other: They both love what they do and they are addicted to the creative process, and they’re both better at their jobs when they’re goading, challenging or encouraging each other. By this point, Peggy no longer needs Don’s help in her career, but I hope the last two episodes provide us with a few more glimpses of one of the most compelling bonds on TV. Their relationship didn’t just provide us with one of the best TV episodes of all time -- “The Suitcase” -- but it’s also served as a reminder that sometimes the most profound relationships have nothing to do with sex, attraction or marriage.
3. Roger dies. To be clear, I don’t want Roger to die -- he’s so much fun! I just think there’s no way he doesn’t keel over some time in the next two episodes, right? After his serious heart trouble in Season 1, the man has been living on borrowed time and has continued abusing his liver and every other internal organ with typical abandon. If nothing else, his funeral would be a great time to bring past and present cast members for an event that would allow them to share a lot of stories and imbibe a lot of alcohol. Roger’s been one of the most enjoyable characters on “Mad Men,” and the show’s writing staff and John Slattery have always made him much more than just the comic relief, but come on. It’s time for the author of "Sterling's Gold" to pay the piper. Let’s just hope he fires off a few more classic one-liners before he heads off to the Pearly Gates to drink highballs with God.
4. Peggy and Stan. Does Peggy Olson need a man in order to continue to continue kicking ass in life? Please consult this for your answer. Short answer: Hellllll no. We all know Peggy will continue to tenaciously conquer New York’s advertising world regardless of whether she is flying solo, in a relationship or attended to by a posse of eager young McCann flunkies. That said, “Mad Men” has been advertising the insane chemistry between Peggy and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) for several seasons now, and if they don’t get together, I will explode into 10 million tiny pieces. It’s not just that the two actors have great chemistry, the characters just complement each other so well. He likes the fact that she can be tough and demanding and he also loves that she’s sly and witty; she likes the fact that he gives as good as he gets, but underneath it all, he’s a kind and caring teddy bear (or, based on his current look, perhaps a Sasquatch?). Anyway, these two have been circling each other for years, and maybe the impediment has been that they don’t want to ruin their friendship or their work relationship by getting together romantically. But fortune favors the bold, and neither lacks backbone. Go for it, Stan and Peggy! The results will be worth the risk, or I’ll eat a full box of Secor Laxatives.
5. A Californian idyll. Last time we saw Don, he was headed west in his big American car, and I’d be shocked if California were not his destination. California has always represented renewal, rebirth and escape to Don, and it was the home of Anna Draper, one of the few women with whom he had a functional and surprisingly inspirational relationship. Could he be heading out there to rescue Anna’s niece, Stephanie? (Don’s always searching for a woman to rescue.) Will his hobo act include a visit to L.A. to check on his ex-wife Megan or to punch Lou Avery in the face? (Please no to the former, please yes to the latter.) I have no idea, but the most recent episode of the show also dropped another clue: Don is once again in possession of Anna Draper’s wedding ring, a highly symbolic accessory that indicates he may be paying homage to the memory of this crucial character with a visit to her home state. Let’s just hope Don doesn’t get engaged to the first attractive bikini-clad brunette he meets out there (but let’s face it, he might).
6. Digressions and diversions. Wait a minute, that would actually be a good title for a “Mad Men” episode. But I’m actually talking about the show’s penchant for zigging when we expect it to zag, for wandering down paths that we hardly expected it to explore. Sometimes those tangents are tedious, but sometimes they turn out to be divinely strange or wonderfully engrossing. In any case, it’s deeply ingrained in the show’s DNA to diverge from whatever we want or expect from it, which is a considerable part of its charm. By now, I expect “Mad Men” to confound me, as it already did with a couple of inexplicable plots this season (Glen? Betty? Glen and Betty? What? Why?) Shaking my head or grinning at the show's more far-flung narrative excursions is part of the experience, and its ability to frustrate me is exceeded only by its abilities to surprise and delight me. So go ahead, “Mad Men”: Two hours before you wrap up for good, give us a story line about strange occurrences on Meredith’s commute to work, or a highly symbolic narrative about Duck Phillips’ dog Chauncey, or a meditation on a spelling bee at Gene Draper’s primary school. I expect no less.
7. Gif-able moments and indelible images. How did we live before we had “Mad Men” memes and gifs? Not well, clearly. Peggy peeking over the transom, Pete cradling a rifle, Ken Cosgrove dancing, the lawnmower incident, the immortal “Not great, Bob!” moment and of course Peggy’s epic swagger. If we get a few more classic moments like that before the show checks out for good -- and I really hope we do -- we should count ourselves very lucky. (Wait, I forgot one: Pete falling down the stairs was only one of Season 6's many iconic gifs.)
Things that will probably happen, whether we want them to or not.
8. More Betty. The show’s continuing fascination with Betty has never made sense to me: If it’s about keeping Don connected to his kids, we can get our Sally fix any number of ways (boarding school, weekend visits, etc.). But more than that, the biggest problem is that Betty is often an extremely passive, reactive character who never really wanted anything or had goals worth paying attention to. It’s any show’s job to make me want to hang around its characters; I don’t need to like them, I just should to want to spend time with them. But Betty was just so often unpleasant or passive that her scenes have quite often been a chore. And to preclude your angry email/comment, ideally for the last time: I don’t hate Betty or January Jones, and I think, within a few narrow ranges, Jones is an effective actress. But for several seasons now, the writing for this character been among the show’s weakest elements, and yet because Weiner has a blind spot where the character is concerned, she keeps coming back. Sigh. I expect more Betty before the end, because the pattern of shoving this dull woman in our face won’t end just because I want it to.
For the love of God, please, no.
9. Don flashbacks. The scenes from the whorehouse where Don grew up were painfully bad. I can never erase that unfortunate bowl haircut from my mind. Let us never again see or speak of the Young Dick Whitman Chronicles.
10. The Calvet family. I hope Roger’s relationship with Marie Calvet is going well, but mon Dieu, I don’t ever want to see those squabbling French-Canadian ladies again.
11. Death brunettes. Can we be done with these characters, pretty pretty please?
12. Glen Bishop. NOPE.
Things that would be awesome (but let’s not hold our breath while we’re waiting for them to happen).
13. Joan crushes it as a businesswoman. As I said in one of my weekly "Mad Men" reviews, I would love to see Joan -- supported and admired by her hot silver fox, Richard -- start her own business. Perhaps drawing on her Avon experience, she could create her own line of cosmetics or beauty products. Joan would likely do well as an entrepreneur, given that she’s so smart and so driven, and let’s face it, corporate America has treated her like crap for far too long now. She’s got some cash (though less than she deserves); go out there and do your own thing, Joanie. In the “Mad Men” fan fiction I will write someday, Joan the business titan will set up a series of meetings with every ad guy who ever disrespected her -- all of whom now want to work with her mega-successful company. She will make all of them pitch her their ideas, then reject them, crush them spiritually and then sweep out of the room wearing a couture cocktail gown. Get it, Joan. I believe in you.
14. Sal! For several seasons now, I’ve fostered the fond hope that someone from “Mad Men” would run into Sal Romano. Advertising in New York isn’t exactly a tiny industry, but working in the industry is akin to living in a small town -- the odds are high that someone from Don’s crew would run into Sal (Bryan Batt), who was so great in the show's early seasons. And yet, they haven’t. Sadface. Is “Mad Men” going to re-introduce one of its most beloved characters at this late date? The realist in me says, probably not. Related: The unrealistic dreamer in me just shot my internal realist a very angry look.
15. Bob Benson. How many great moments did this character give us? He was only on the show for a short time, but some reference or shout-out to the man who gave us Manolo, “Not great, Bob!” and those amazing short shorts would be a kick.
16. Greg Harris. Before the show ends, I’d like to hear that Joan’s rapist husband had stepped on a land mine in Vietnam.
Something that won’t happen (probably).
17. The falling man. I don’t think a man will fall out of the window of a skyscraper, which is something we’ve seen for seven seasons in the opening credits. On the rare chance that scenario does play out, I certainly don’t think the faller will be Don or any of the show’s lead characters. Don's life is flying apart, but I think the echoes of the opening credits have more to do with emotional walls falling down and characters no longer being able to cling to the familiar and often limiting ways of life that sustained them for the last decade. All that said, if the entire management of McCann Erickson just happened to go flying out a window that Joan happened to be standing next to, well, you know. That would be, uh, tragic.
Finally, this is not so much a prediction as a few thoughts on my hopes for the ending of "Mad Men."
All along, I’ve wanted a hopeful ending from “Mad Men,” and I'll explain what I mean by the use of that word.
I don’t care if Don’s employed or rich or even married: If he’s learned something about himself and learned to make a better class of mistakes, and if he’s able to find some joy in his work and sustain real connections with those who know him best, that will be a fitting and fine ending.
Like a true copy writer, I’m going to steal someone else’s idea: Tom and Lorenzo, who’ve written about the show perceptively for years, have long floated the idea that “Mad Men” is not about Don resolving his issues and coming to a place of finality or closure. It’s about Don and other characters finally coming to terms with who they are and understanding themselves and their flaws well enough to avoid some of the pitfalls in their paths.
That’s really how life works, ideally: The older you get, the more self-knowledge you acquire, and your life doesn’t necessarily progress in a linear fashion toward better things, but the joy, when it comes, is deeper and the connections, ideally, are more meaningful. You still have to work through the hard stuff and fight for yourself and for what you believe in, but in the end, one of the main uses of that hard-won self-awareness is that it allows you to find ways to be more compassionate to yourself and others.
As a child, Don was abandoned, abused and orphaned, and for years, he has made two classic mistakes as he's tried to heal those wounds. He reinvented his outer persona and acquired the trappings that were supposed to make him happy: It didn't work. His other big stumbling block: Attempting to find the perfect person who would make him feel better. Sometimes that worked for a while, but ultimately it never really panned out because nobody is perfect, and that expectation -- that a woman should be the healer/lover/mother/friend/sexpot -- weighed down every intimate relationship with far too many unrealistic desires. We find what we want to find in every great work of art, and here's what resonated for me as I watched this show for the past eight years: The idea that the only path to true healing lies in self-acceptance, self-love, curiosity, altruism and compassion.
If the finale reflects the idea that Don is more able to feel love and to love others, it will leave me well satisfied.
But it'll be an ambiguous ending; I have few doubts about that.
After the final frame of the show fades to black -- and though I've come to accept what "The Sopranos" did, I'm not hoping for a smash-cut to black -- I will assume that life will go on for Don and all the other characters. They will continue to get in their own ways and screw up on a regular basis. They'll have some wins and get better in certain areas of their lives. Like us, they’re human beings, and if their delightful, unpredictable complexity didn’t extend beyond the finale, well then, what was then point?
“Mad Men” is a show that is ultimately about sentiment, and I mean that as a compliment. The show won’t acquire greater meaning or import if it wraps up story threads in an efficient way. It’s never been about that. These characters share deep and sentimental bonds, and I feel nostalgic already about their passing from our lives. I want things to end well for them.
I want them to keep on experiencing some joy amid the darkness, I want them to keep on serving as each other’s friends, drinking chums, goads and lifelines. They will still feel the pain of old wounds, but let’s hope the wheel of life brings them back into each other’s orbits, so they can laugh, drink and come up with one last pitch.
CORRECTION: Pete actually owns a .22 rifle, not a shotgun as previously stated.