Mad Men 's Emmy Finale, and History

After its very satisfying series finale, it looked like Mad Men might just end up with another near perfect finale, this time at the Emmy Awards in the form of a record-breaking fifth Emmy as Best Dramatic Series. But, with the Emmy voting changed -- something that would have been very good to be mentioned in the pre-Emmy entertainment news reports -- it didn't work out that way.

So I'm left feeling both disappointed and relieved. Disappointed because I would like to have seen Mad Men's excellent closing out properly rewarded. But relieved because I'm not sure the show is the best television drama of all time, which it would have seemed had it broken the record.

Mad Men's great opening titles, a series of metaphors for what is to come.

As it was, the change in the Emmy voting -- with many more voting, HBO with the largest bloc, and no requirement to watch submitted episodes -- almost certainly, in retrospect, gave the edge for Best Drama to HBO's Game of Thrones. Even some TV critics who've championed the sword-and-sandals epic say this season was among the weakest. But HBO got the show, rather slavishly based on a series of best-selling novels, to amp up the violence and sex and sexual violence. That fed the buzz, and the buzz got the Emmy.

Fortunately, that didn't get in the way of Jon Hamm finally winning the Best Dramatic Actor award, on his eighth nomination for playing ad executive Don Draper. It had gotten ridiculous, like Martin Sheen never winning for The West Wing. Actually, it was worse. Because even though Sheen's Jed Bartlett was the president most may have wanted us to have, Don Draper is even more central to Mad Men.

Mad Men, certainly the most elegant of the great television dramas, with a punctilious sense of style and scene-setting, may also be the most cerebral of the shows. You have to pay attention. With very few action beats, it's a slow burn of a show, with events finally turning like the correct sequence in a combination lock. When things finally click into place, you understand the drama that has just ensued. Perhaps the result was there all along.

Jon Hamm's performance as Don Draper doesn't have the showy trappings of calling up air strikes like Jed Bartlett. Draper is not a bitter blown-his-mega-chance high school chem teacher-turned-megalomaniacal meth lord like Breaking Bad's Walter White, not a big Jersey Mafia boss like Tony Soprano.

There are no fantasy shoot-outs in which he wipes out his enemies before going out in a bittersweet blaze of glory. Nor is there a weird finale fade sitting in a diner, in which he is either shot to death or your cable has just gone out.

Mad Men clearly had the best ending of the great dramas. The less said about The Sopranos' (a two-time Best Drama winner) sudden fake-out of an ending following a limping final season, the better. It was nearly as bad as Lost's notorious cheat finale. (Which didn't really bother me because, while I enjoyed Lost, I didn't take it seriously.)

The West Wing (tied with Mad Men at four Best Drama Emmys) has a very nice ending, but it's more like a beautiful plane coming in for a smooth landing than anything spectacular.

Speaking of which, I absolutely love the ending of Breaking Bad, a two-time Best Drama winner, along with every episode in its final season. But if you think about it for, oh, a couple of seconds, it really only works if that dear old psychopathic mass murderer Walter White is secretly getting help from, say, The Avengers or the Mission: Impossible team.

Mad Men's finale is actually more realistic -- not to mention more hopeful, even than West Wing's -- than any of them.

Don Draper, and each of the other main characters, really, does go on a characterological journey through the '60s. Surrounded as he and they are in heyday Manhattan by the best of materialist American life which they've chose to sell to the world, they have endless distractions but end up evolving nonetheless.

Don Draper is the same man at the end that he was in the brilliant series premiere, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. (Oh, how I savor the moment watching that pilot when I realized that our heroes in this stylish new show about the early '60s were the bad guys.) But he's a different version of the man he was, much more Zen-inflected.

If you listen to what he says in the series premiere and the series finale, you see that Draper still has much the same underlying philosophy. He's a rather cynical existentialist. But he's evolved into a more humanistic, less insecure version of the Draper we first met.

All of our characters have changed, largely for the better. Yet most have also remained fundamentally what they were.

Peggy Olsen, for example, whom many imagined the show was really about, is still the business drone we met in the beginning. But she's a much improved and more open version.

Roger Sterling is still, well, Roger Sterling, a good-looking, witty, entitled guy out for a good time. But the '60s have opened him up and, while still fundamentally conservative, he's seen the face of the reactionary view and avoided sliding into it.

If anything, the ones who've changed the most are the ones who seemed most set in stereotypical ways in the beginning.

Joan Holloway, the beautiful sex bomb queen bee secretary, achieves her dream relationship with a really rich nice guy, only to give it up in favor of becoming her own entrepreneur and something of a feminist besides.

Jon Hamm finally wins the Emmy for Best Dramatic Actor. He has 16 Emmy nominations, half for playing Don Draper, the other half as a Mad Men producer and guest actor in comedy series.

Different. And yet ... She always had a tremendous, seemingly natural, knack for the ad business. And she must have had many opportunities to be a trophy wife, had that been what she really wanted.

Then there's Pete Campbell. The jerk we all loved to hate early on. And yet ... If Trudy, who I really wanted to see a lot more of, liked him, there had to be something more there. And he always did have excellent ideas.

Of course, he bought that notorious rifle, launching a thousand theories of doom among the multitudes that surrounded the show.

After seeing how literally many took the iconic opening titles, a metaphor for Draper's (and the audience's) journey through the '60s in which a figure drifts downward in an urban canyon, passing a plethora of high-end consumerist images of desire before at last coming to a contemplative pose on a sofa, I suspect that creator Matt Weiner decided to toy a lot with elements of the audience and some critics.

He created a corollary to the "Chekhov's gun" thesis that I call "Pete Campbell's rifle." A gun, once introduced in the play, must go off. Unless it does not.

Most of the firearms which the more soap opera-conditioned viewers of the show expected to be fired never were. So much the better for the show.

Homeland, which I though deservedly broke Mad Men's best drama win streak at four with as near perfect a first season as I have ever seen, shows what can happen when a great show gives in to the temptations of soap opera.

Of the great shows, I would say that Mad Men is the most realistic. For juicy melodrama, I would go with The Sopranos (hard to top a Jersey Mafia boss who's in analysis). For a wild-eyed and very smart action-drama, Breaking Bad is the pick. If I had only one to show to watch on a trip to Mars, it would be The West Wing. Because it is smart, hopeful, and uplifting. And because I like the characters best.

That's probably a big reason why The West Wing, with the preposterous exception of Martin Sheen, won so many acting Emmys.

On Sunday night, when Jon Hamm at last won his first Best Actor Emmy, Allison Janney won an astounding seventh acting Emmy, as best supporting actress in a comedy. Her first four Emmys -- two for best supporting actress and two for best lead actress -- were all for playing West Wing's wonderful C.J. Cregg, the at first awkward press secretary-turned-White House chief of staff.

A host of other West Wingers won acting Emmys ... Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, Stockard Channing, and Alan Alda. It was that kind of ensemble show.

Strikingly, Hamm is the first and only from the Mad Men crew to win, despite many Emmy nominees: Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Robert Morse, January Jones, Cara Buono, Randee Heller, Jared Harris, Ben Feldman, Julia Ormond, Harry Hamlin, and Linda Cardellini.

It's not as if the Mad Men characters are not as interesting, well-conceived, well-written, and well-performed as the others. But, though I will miss them, they are generally less likable, spikier, more austere.

They're more realistic, too. I've been in and around politics for a long time and, though there are politicians, staffers, consultants, and advisors who all have their moments, they are not generally anywhere near as terrific as the cast of The West Wing. (Though I may have some vignettes down the line, exceptions which prove the rule.)

With the ongoing devolution of our politics, The West Wing looks even more like a fantasy than it did when it premiered 16 years ago.

In contrast to it and the other great show contenders, Mad Men feels more real, more attuned to who and what we are, despite its period setting.

Mad Men set a standard for sustained excellence, garnering eight Best Drama Emmy nominations, the most of any great show contender. The West Wing, with the same number of wins as Mad Men, had seven Best Drama nominations along with The Sopranos. Only Law & Order, a consistent police procedural though hardly a great show, earned more Best Drama nominations with 11 (and one win).

We'll be seeing and hearing more of our Mad Men crew. Several recently popped up in summer blockbusters. Jon Hamm had a leading voice role in Minions. Linda Cardellini, Emmy-nominated as perhaps the most consequential Draper mistress, scored in a lovely Avengers 2 interlude as the surprising Mrs. Hawkeye. And John Slattery, fully channeling Roger Sterling, again played the crucial Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark, in Ant-Man.

And the show of course will live on. In this digital age, it's available at the touch of an icon, a never-ending well of period elegance and timeless triumph and travail and all that lies between, with a touch of wisdom.

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