The much anticipated finale of Mad Men, Matt Weiner’s critically acclaimed series, had its moments of humor and drama. But, with perhaps one or two exceptions, the ending was not just a disappointment; it was a betrayal of the very dramatic strengths of the series, its sense of how illusory happiness is and its sobering skepticism about the prospects for character change. It’s as if Weiner became a fanboy of his own characters, someone who gets so attached to them that he can’t help but want them to be happy, even if very little in their lives to that point would warrant such endings.
Created by Weiner, whose credits include writing for The Sopranos, Mad Men premiered in July of 2007 and became the first basic cable series to claim the Emmy for outstanding drama series, winning in each of its first four seasons. After those first compelling seasons, which focused on the mystery of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the series was never consistently strong.
Popular cable shows have ended in very different ways. Compare the uncertainty and ambiguity of the final scene in The Sopranos, where Mad Men creator Matt Weiner worked as a writer, with the wrap-it-all-up ending of Breaking Bad. The final episode of Mad Men, with its attempt to give a sense of new and happy beginnings to almost all of the main characters, resembled the latter but with much less credibility.
The note of optimism for the finale was hinted at in the song chosen for the final episode’s trailer, Paul Anka’s sentimental “The Times of Your Life.” Accompanying the songs were images from Draper’s life — mostly happy images with a few maudlin moments along the way. The song and images completely purge Draper and the series of its abiding and artistically compelling existential darkness. This is, after all, a series whose opening credits each week featured a Draper-like figure plummeting from a skyscraper. If the Paul Anka promo were all there were to his life, Draper would never have been a mad man and Weiner would quickly have been looking for work elsewhere.
The ending Weiner assigns to Don simply cancels out everything that has preceded it. That’s a way out, a way of ending — but it’s one that makes us think either the ending or everything that has gone before is sheer pabulum. During the second-to-last scene in which we see Don, in an encounter session in which he tearfully hugs another man after his confession of a life in which no one has paid attention to him, I couldn’t help thinking of the satire of self-help meetings in the film Fight Club.
Early on in the finale, Weiner seemed to be toying with audience speculation about Don’s imminent death, speculation that Weiner’s own work had fueled. Death and darkness only seemed to be everywhere in the finale, where characters try cocaine for the first time, Don pushes the limits in a race car, and Roger, after sex with Don’s former wife’s mother, exclaims, “Are you trying to kill me?” There was even a nod to the rampant online rumor-mongering about Megan — Don’s second wife, who moved to LA — as a stand-in for Sharon Tate, victim of the Manson murders. At one point, when Don wants to leave the coastal California retreat where he is involved in encounter sessions and meditation, a worker tells him, “You could hitch, but you’d be out there for hours. You can thank Charlie Manson for that.” These were the humorous moments.
The only really compelling happy ending concerned Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and her sudden discovery that she was in love with a co-worker. This one worked because it was not about change of character — something about which Mad Men has been soberly skeptical throughout — but rather the realization of something that had been present for some time. When her longtime co-worker, Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), whom the audience had seen in late night conversations with Peggy for some time, suddenly professes his love for her, Peggy, only half paying attention, nearly lets it pass and then says, “Wait, what?” She becomes flush and stutters. When she finds the words, she realizes that Stan has always been there and has always meant a great deal to her. Their mutual profession of love was by far the most genuine moment in the episode.
The second most genuine moment was Don’s call to his first ex-wife Betty (January Jones), after their daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka, who never hit a false note through seven seasons) told Don about Betty’s advanced lung cancer. This was vintage Mad Men, with Don Draper desperately wanting to do what he cannot quite achieve and be what he has not and will never be: the husband and father that Betty and his children once needed him to be. Their nearly inarticulate, tearful goodbye was a fitting end to their star-crossed marriage. Betty’s stoic resilience in the face of her death, her unwillingness to try futile treatments, and her concern that she cause minimal disturbance to those around her — especially her children — is a noble ending to what seemed to most viewers to be a fairly meaningless life. To borrow a line from Shakespeare: Nothing in her life became her like the leaving of it.
The finale completely abandoned the series’ dominant view of human happiness. When asked “What is happiness?” Don at one point answers: “It is a moment before you want more happiness.” Draper is the paradigmatic example of what every character on the show represents — what Alexis de Tocqueville identified as Americans’ “strange melancholy in the midst of abundance.” About our desire for happiness, he wrote:
It perpetually retires from before them, yet without hiding itself from their sight, and in retiring draws them on. At every moment they think they are about to grasp it; it escapes at every moment from their hold. They are near enough to see its charms, but too far off to enjoy them; and before they have fully tasted the delights, they die.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) gives the darkest articulation of this worldview in an episode in which he visits a medical institution to see a married neighbor with whom he’s had an affair and whose husband has sent her for shock therapy as a way of treating her depression. Quickly realizing she has no memory of him, he proceeds to tell her his view of family life, one of the chief American means of pursuing happiness: “It’s a temporary bandage on a permanent wound.”
That sounds like what Weiner tried in the finale, a set of temporary bandages on permanent wounds. The real Don Draper knows better.
— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press.