After several days of meditation in a Left Coast commune, I’m finally ready to face the truth: Mad Men, which ended its long run on AMC last Sunday and which I watched faithfully through all 92 episodes, was a setup for the world’s longest shaggy-dog drama. We poor saps in the grandstands naively assumed that Mad Men was the consummate soap opera for sophisticates, a steamy excursion through the 1960s and 1970s, a forbidden peek at the dark heart of Madison Avenue advertising—the seven deadly sins in seven seasons.
For the most part, Mad Men was an enjoyable trip to the New York City of decades past. It was fun to see dial phones, antique business attire, and analog office machines, and to revisit an era where the only fonts available were pica and elite. Executive producer Matthew Weiner worked hard to furnish his sets with chronologically correct art and décor, though he was less successful at vetting the dialogue. Anachronistic language (“No problem,” “I am!”, “I will!”, and the ubiquitous “Fine!”) kept creeping into the scripts. He needed a senior writer in more ways than one.
Nevertheless, we wanted the lurid cabaret to last forever. But as the juicy series drew to a close, the long-awaited finale had everyone wondering. How would Weiner wrap it all up? The endless travails of at least a dozen characters had to be resolved. Weiner wasn’t giving any clues. Worse, he had told his breathless groupies that the Mad Men ending had been set from the start. We could only guess.
My favorite theory: someone would jump from a corner office and land in the middle of Madison Avenue. But that was everyone’s favorite theory. Animation behind the opening credits showed a dark figure falling past office-tower windows while the show’s haunting theme song plays. Weiner spiked the suicide theory early on, though. No final leap, he promised. But I suspected a trick. How else could Don Draper, maddest of the Mad Men, find peace, not to mention justice?
A millionaire advertising genius played to soapy perfection by Jon Hamm, Don was clearly due for a comeuppance. He had seduced so many women and wrecked so many lives, including his own—real and secret—that someone would have to pay. Sure enough, in the last two episodes, Don seemed to be tumbling down, heading for that chalk outline on the pavement. His ex-wife Betty was dying of lung cancer, a victim of Madison Avenue tobacco ads created by her husband. Now it was Don’s turn to face the theme music. His ad agency was bought and digested by McCann Erickson, and Don finds himself seated at a table with 20 other faceless advertising gurus, the kind of meeting he has long avoided. He gets up, leaves the room, and drives west, leaving behind a $6 million bonus and a chance to enter advertising paradise—writing copy for Coca-Cola.
On the road to California, Don finds nothing but the retribution he seems to crave. After a squalid encounter in Kansas, he gives away his Cadillac and eventually ends up in a New Age/Zen/Yoga/therapeutic cliffside cult. Bursting into long overdue tears, Don confesses his many sins, which include his young daughter catching him in bed with his neighbor’s wife. There seems to be no way out for Don except to leap into the Pacific. But maybe, as he sits in the lotus position and chants Om, he will find true enlightenment.
Fade to Weiner’s ending. Don’s peaceful visage gives way to the famous 1971 love and harmony Coca-Cola ad, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” And suddenly the soap opera is over, ending not with a bang but a guffaw. As the scenery collapses, the wires and pulleys backstage are revealed for all to see. On one hand, the denouement was brilliantly funny. On the other, it undercut everything that came before and turned the series into a joke. The last laugh was on us. All that sex, betrayal, greed, deception, ambition, and redemption had only been to set the stage for Don’s return to Madison Avenue. In the end, Mad Men was really about the creation of a more perfect ad man and a more enlightened way to sell soda.
Still, my hat’s off to Weiner. It takes talent to undo the work of seven years in seven seconds. His ending reminded me of the penultimate episode of The Sopranos, another series to which Weiner applied his creative gifts. After six seasons of watching Tony Soprano struggle through angry sessions with his shrink, we learn that psychotherapy only turns criminals into more effective criminals. Bada-bing!
Though I was disappointed with the finale, I am grateful to Weiner for making it unnecessary to watch Mad Men reruns. Fool me once. I don’t need to hear Mad Men’s final joke—or to see its seven-year setup—again.