They are a-changin’: Thoughts on the “Mad Men” finale

In many ways Matthew Weiner’s swan song for “Mad Men” on Sunday was a paradox. In what was both a characteristic and a complete departure from the tone it had set up to this point. To each character Weiner gave a mixed goodie bag: They got what they’d been seeking, in one respect or another, but they lost something as well.

Some of those changes, like Joan’s total 180 from her pilot advice to Peggy that she aim to marry rich so she doesn’t have to work another day in her life to her giving up just that to build a business of her own. In some readings of Don’s last days on the small screen, his changes and restlessness felt earned as well; the theme of achieving your dreams and then what permeating from many of the final (half) season’s arcs.

Others, like Betty and Pete’s sudden clarity felt more abrupt, no matter how many changes had been simmering in the background. Similarly though the love between Stan and Peggy had been evident for a while, their sudden reunion was both in and out of character; feeling abrupt and rom-com-y from a show that has never indulged in such fanfare.

Which is probably indicative of how I felt about the finale as a whole: mixed. Articles could (and probably will be) written for years about the meaning of Don’s final smile, or the three women who he calls in his life, but I’m not too concerned with it. Half the fun of “Mad Men” to me has always stayed in between the lines: the solemn but telling looks the characters exchange, the symbolism woven into the fabric of the show, that shot (that shot) when the SCDP partners step into their new floor for the first time.

“Mad Men” has never been too concerned with the expectations of the audience, and that paid off to one of the best dramas with some of the most systematic pacing around. Its introduction set the stage and the tone for a “new golden age of television,” established a network’s flavor and opened the door for many more muted and engaging dramas. Its introduction set the stage and the tone for a “new golden age of television,” established a network’s flavor and opened the door for many more muted and engaging dramas.

Finality never suited “Mad Men” the same way the sleek look of the 60s did. Don’s drive to keep moving forward—and the meditations on whether he and the rest of the cast could—often drove the show, and it’s the distinct neat packaging that made the finale feel so foreign. For all everyone’s talk of how Joan’s business could fail, and Pete will screw up his family life again, and whether Don’s vision of the infamous Coke ad is a sign of cynicism or optimism, the finale hour—hell, the final back half of season seven seemed dedicated to wrapping up loose ends (Rachel’s return, the answer to whether Glenn and Betty still have the same wooden chemistry now that he’s all grown up) and it all felt entirely too tidy; a borderline-sloppy look for such a composed show.

This is not to say that these past seven weeks were bad; I’m far too close to it right now to make such a grandiose statement as that. But the distinct air of “end game” that hung over each character’s actions made for a sometimes uneven dance as “Mad Men” fell into its final days.

In my experience “Mad Men” was best when it was gazing out to something I couldn’t see, and I’ll miss that on my TV screen most of all.

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