I started watching Mad Men because I wanted to see the aesthetic I remembered fondly from such TV shows as Bewitched and The Dick Van Dyke Show. Who could forget Larry Tate’s mustache (not to mention Doctor Bombay’s)? Or Dick tripping over the hassock? Mad Men through a haze of UHF nostalgia. I was born too late to watch these programs live, but their syndication colored my childhood.
Mad Men was a great show, but not a great great show, like The Prisoner or the first few seasons of Lost. It was a little too self-conscious, a little pretentious in its attempt to be art. Occasionally it dipped too deeply into absurdity, like when the English guy got his foot eaten up by the riding mower or the fistfight between Pete Campbell and Lane Pryce. And, of course, it had to insert itself into 2010-era presidential politics with an unnecessary dig at Mitt Romney’s father, which took you out of the show and reminded you who was making it. But it held my interest over seven seasons with excellent performances and some genuinely good writing.
I don’t have strong feelings either way about the finale. It could have been any other episode, which makes sense: it’s its own fully realized world, and will continue to turn when we’ve stopped watching it. Don may have made the Coke advert at the end, or he may not have. With evidence for both, the question becomes an exercise in mental masturbation. The inevitable comparisons to the ambiguous finale of The Sopranos are tedious insofar as that show’s long gone, too, and we’ll never know.
As the finale lacked any semblance of a plot or organizing theme, I’ll take it character by character.
- Don: A somewhat expected series of events: he goes to the hippie retreat and contemns it as expected, but later experiences an epiphany that opens him up to what it has to offer. His last phone call with Betty was brutal and ugly, leavened only by the “Birdy” at the end. Don’s connection to the man at the encounter group who finds himself invisible is, by its nature, a very transitory thing. Don is only invisible now because he’s gone, and he’s only unneeded because his dying ex-wife told him so. Don fills up a room: you can’t ignore him. He can’t be a nobody: he’s just too big. Om.
- Peggy: I wasn’t terribly entranced by the declarations of love between her and Stan because it meant that their extraordinary, charming, platonic friendship would end. They’re both great, extremely likable characters, and it’s a shame that their dynamic will now change. At least I won’t have to watch it disintegrate.
- Pete: They didn’t give him much to do. I liked the symbolism of Pete giving Peggy a cactus, and her holding it between them during their brief good-bye. The issue of their baby is indeed a prickly matter. Trudy Campbell will probably hate it in Kansas. She’s also the voice of Unikitty.
- Betty: Dying has not changed her essentially toxic, self-absorbed nature, and I feel terrible for her kids. It’s awful that Bobby’s close to setting the kitchen on fire in an attempt to make dinner because his sick mother won’t tell him or his father that she’s dying. Bobby and Gene are adrift. If there’s a villain in this season, it’s Betty. It doesn’t reflect well on Don that he let her talk him out of going back to New York immediately. Just an awful situation across the board, making an unlikable character even less likable.
- Joan: A very odd, compressed relationship with the Bruce Greenwood character that needed to have been teased earlier to make sense at the end. Her story’s conclusion lacked punch, or even interest. Will she be successful? Do we care? Should we?
Nice to see that Roger’s having a good time in Paris, but he’s always having a good time, except when he isn’t. Ken’s still missing an eye. I wish he’d return to writing. Harry’s still a slimeball: yay! Megan was thought of, but not missed. Same with Henry.
I was hoping for a last-minute return of Sal. Didn’t happen.