For as long as Mad Men has been the topic of obsessive culture-wide scrutiny — which is to say, since its second season at the very latest — viewers and critics have been speculating on how it will end. Will Don Draper go out the window, reenacting the show’s Saul Bass-like title sequence? Will he die some other way? Does he, as the Internet’s enthusiastic conspiracy hobbyists suggest, have late-stage syphilis or (sigh) turn out to be DB Cooper? I love Mad Men enough to pick it apart each week, but I have to confess that I’m not too worried about any of these outcomes. Of course, I’m curious about how Matthew Weiner will leave Don and Joan and Roger and particularly Peggy (Pete’s and poor Betty’s stories seem to have wrapped up in the penultimate episode). But I can’t see anything happening that will change the meaning of the show that much.
For certain heavily serialized dramas, finales are of the utmost importance. They have to surprise us or provide clear “answers” or get in one last epic mind-fuck. But Mad Men isn’t Lost, whose addictive sci-fi storyline made the series’ entire meaning dependent on its (thoroughly oversold and largely unsatisfying) resolution. And as Jason Bailey wrote last month, lamenting our never-ending quest to figure out what “really happened” when the lights went out on The Sopranos, our requirement that TV finales tie up every loose end of plot is awful for shows that do more than just tell a story. It reduced True Detective to a Reddit scavenger hunt, with fans declaring the series a failure and a waste of time when the Season 1 finale emphasized philosophical conclusions over painstaking plot reveals. Many viewers seemed to take Breaking Bad’s (more popular) ending as the one true verdict on Walter White’s life, rather than the inevitable coda to five seasons of nuanced portraiture that peaked two episodes before the finale.
Mad Men tends to be less dependent on individual plot twists than any of these shows. Its most traditionally shocking moments — Ida Blankenship’s sudden death, for instance, or that bloody incident with the riding mower in Season 3 — usually have minimal long-term effect on the central characters. Outside of serving the theme of any given episode, they seem intended mostly as reminders that life is full of random tragedy. It’s large-scale corporate machinations and hyper-specific internal conflicts that push the characters forward — or, as the case more often is, propel them through whatever vicious cycle will come to define their whole lives. Even the heavily foreshadowed deaths of Lane Pryce and Bert Cooper are more important for what they symbolize than for what they change in any practical sense. (Compare them to the gory demise of Gus Fring, which made the entire final season of Breaking Bad possible.)
Unlike almost everything else on TV (or in any other narrative medium, really), Mad Men is about the impossibility of personal growth, even amid historically unprecedented social and political upheaval. Even when they gain self-knowledge, even when they begin to understand the emptiness of the work that consumes their lives, the characters can’t claw their way out of the traps they’ve set for themselves. Ken Cosgrove, once a high-minded young writer with a day job in accounts, couldn’t even escape the pettiness of the ad industry after he was forcibly ejected from it.
This stasis, despite constant self-deceptive attempts at change, means that Mad Men‘s major revelations are cumulative ones, the culminations of all the seasons of story and character development that precede them. The tragedy of Don’s separation from Megan was immeasurably deepened by the failure of his previous marriage, not to mention years of restlessness and adultery. Pete’s circle, from Trudy to free-fall and back to Trudy again, is notable (and notably different from the other characters’ trajectories) because it enabled us to watch him slowly gain the knowledge that he wasn’t built for the kind of boozy, womanizing life he saw everyone around him chasing. We had to see Joan rise higher than she ever thought she’d get in order to feel just how disappointing it was for her to end up just another pretty face again (albeit one who will never, ever have to worry about money).
None of these outcomes have been shocking; on the contrary, they resonate precisely because we spent so long watching, powerless, as the characters met the only fates their personalities would allow them. I expect to have plenty of strong reactions to Sunday’s finale, but, well, I won’t be surprised if surprise isn’t one of them.
Betty’s prognosis struck such a false note last week because it departed so drastically from this style. Rather than expanding on everything we already knew about the character, it felt like a slapdash attempt to drum up some random sympathy for her after several seasons’ worth of unflattering storylines. It’s been several years since Mad Men knew what to do with Betty, so it’s easy to see why it fumbled her ending. And the good news is, she’s the show’s only real failure of character development; getting her story wrapped up an episode early might make it possible to avoid similar missteps this week. (I suppose there’s also still a chance we’ll get a Betty Draper death scene on Sunday, but I sincerely hope we don’t.)
After 91 episodes of Mad Men, we should know enough about the show to hope for a finale that neither shocks nor awes, but merely deepens our understanding. A finale that overloads us with twists the way the last two minutes of a fireworks show overwhelms us with pyrotechnics would be a huge disappointment — DB Cooper, boom! Peggy becomes the world’s first creative director/superhero, ooh! Roger endows an institute for the study of psychedelics, ahh! And I don’t think it’s the finale we’re going to get, because it would be the finale of a different show entirely.