I think of Mad Men as two shows. The first few seasons covered a lot of ground and much of it was new for television. Eventually it fell into the inevitable rut pock marked by tropes and under developed supporting characters. But the narrative matured eventually, with latter seasons each ending with a payoff that landed well enough to justify the digressions and meandering episodes.
The turning point was season five. That was the season that Don was newly married to Meghan and committed to trying out monogamy, which of course threw off the pulse of the show. The writers took this device to its ultimate absurdity by having Don tag along to a whore house only to spend the night bullshitting with bartender. This felt like watching Batman whistle Dixie while watching the Joker rob a bank. But then the season finale redeemed it all by having Sterling Cooper relaunched as a new agency and by having a blonde approach Don for a light and ask him if he's alone. Don looks back at her. Without saying a word, we know: Gotham can rest easy. The Caped Crusader is back.
Season six ended with another great one-two punch of Don telling the Hershey executives about his tawdry childhood, and then being put on a leave of absence by his partners. This is Don's lowest point. But rather than run off and hide, Don, for once, does something brave. He drives his kids to a sketchy neighborhood and shows them the dilapidated remnants of the brothel where he spent his adolescence. It is the most honest thing that Don has ever done; it is the closest Sally Draper has ever gotten to meeting Dick Whitman.
The first half of season seven ended with man landing on the moon and a recently departed Bert Coooper returning to wish Don happiness via a memorable song and dance number. Speculation ran rampant that the final seven episodes would take place after a considerable time jump. But the story resumed eight months after Don watched Bert's soft shoe routine. We have stuck our toes in the 70s, technically. But decades end in zeroes, not nines. The second half of season seven has been on familiar if not comfortable territory so far.
What does Matt Weiner have in store for us tomorrow night?
Weiner has given us several hints of varying clarity. One is that he has known what the final shot would be since before the pilot was filmed. He has also said that he just hopes no one gets this shot first, which implies that it's something iconic Another was that the teaser trailer for the final half-season contained Diana Ross' "Love Hangover", which came out in 1976. This suggests the time jump may come after all. The third hint is a little less direct. But we know that Mad Men was not guaranteed a second season, so he wrote season one well aware that he might have to tell the whole story in just 13 episodes. For what it's worth, that episode includes Don's brilliant presentation to Kodak for the Carousel, and his progressive decision to promote Peggy out of the secretarial pool, although he was probably more motivated by a desire to tweak Pet Campbell than to help Peggy. The final shot is of Don sitting alone on the stairs, having just missed his chance to join Betty and the kids on a Thanksgiving with Betty's family.
Don mentions happiness in his pitch to Lucky Strikes in the pilot. ("Happiness is...a billboard on the side of the road that screams, the reassurance that whatever you're doing, is okay. You're ok.") If Matthew Weiner wants his characters to have a happy ending, then this episode will assure us that hey are okay. What constitutes a happy ending for Don Draper probably depends on your perception of him as a man. I have long believed that Don Draper is a bad man. This idea was best explained by Mary MacNamara in 2010 when she wrote an article for the L.A. Time putting forth the idea that Don Draper is a well-dressed, handsome devil whose evil deeds get glossed over because of his charm and looks:
While everyone has been sidetracked by tortured-soul vampires and loveable werewolves, Don has been quietly taking over the world, one manipulative half-truth at a time. Think about it. In the three years we've known him, has Don Draper done one single thing that wasn't driven by rabid self-interest? Sure he kept quiet about Sal ( Bryan Batt) being gay, but did Don step up and demand that Sal not be fired? And yeah, he didn't condemn Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) when he figured out she had had a baby, but how did he help her exactly? By telling her to nail down those emotions, keep her painful secrets secret and get back to work. So he could continue to profit by her underpaid creativity.
So maybe Don doesn't deserve a happy ending. But I think this show isn't about justice or growth. It's about how we really are. And I expect Don to land on his feet, not because he deserves to, but because he's talented and because people like him, even when they shouldn't. In that season one finale, Don's brilliance and bliss are mirrored by Peggy having her promotion out of the secretarial pool by a trip to the hospital that ends in the maternity ward.
My most in-depth writing on this blog has been about the Walking Dead, an entertaining but infuriating show. I feel comfortable making predictions about that show, because the plot leads to predictable places, and it often feels like it is written for 11 year olds. Mad Men is several cuts above that, and Matthew Weiner's artistic vision is way more ambitious than any show based on a comic book about zombies ever could be. So I gladly admit that I don't know what will happen tomorrow night. But I would like to put forth three broad categories of endings we might see.
1. A Soprano.
Weiner wrote for the Sopraons, the show with the most discussed ending in television history. Last week's episode contained a moment where Don's motel television conks out on him, right before a Red Foxx punchline, an obvious call back to that moment when millions of people thought their TV died at the worst possible time. Much of the debate around that show has focused on what happens after that infamous cut to black. Did Tony live or die? I actually think that's irrelevant. The very first shot of the Soprano's Pilot is of Tony, sitting in Doctor Melfi's waiting area, staring up at the Romanesque statue of a nude woman. When we last see him, he is facing the front door of that diner, presumably looking at Meadow. Tony ends right where he begins, just like Sisyphus. Just like a Kodak carousel.
Naturally, we first met Don in a smoke filled Manhattan bar. After a swirling establishment shot of the boozy, well-dressed crowd, we find Don at a table by himself scribbling ideas on a napkin. Moments later he strikes up a conversation with a black busboy, about cigarette brands. The conversation culminates with them sharing a laugh about how women are silly because they like to read magazines. I would love an ending where Don is told by a waiter or bartender that he's in the no smoking section, so he gets up to walk to the other end of the bar, and we get a final shot of a smoking crowd, wearing slightly less elegant clothing than he. Society has moved on, but Don has not. However, I think we'll get something a little more dramatic.
2. A Monolith.
Last week's episode was brilliantly constructed to show Don tramping around the country, while we know the terrible truth of his future. Betty Hofstead-Draper-Francis is about to die. And while Henry Francis is a heck of a nice guy, he's not going to assume the parenting of another man's children. Don's wondering is about to be replaced by a large dose of single parenthood. I expect the finale to take place after Betty has passed away. I don't think we're going to see Don's live reaction to the news of her diagnosis or her passing. It will probably start sometime early in 1971.
The economics of his new plight, recently aggravated by walking away from two million dollars of McCann money, making Meghan a millionaire to spite her and giving a Cadillac to a grifter that reminds him of himself, might cause Don to crawl back to McCann. Especially if the ink is not dry on his buyout. McCann will probably want him back, especially if he's slightly humbled and measurably desperate. And Weiner might just want to torture Don by putting him back in those hallways, but this time he has to be there.
One great internet rumor is that Don will go back and get put on the Coca-Cola account, just as he was promised in the meeting where McCann tells them they are going to pull the plug on Sterling Cooper partners. In 1971, McCann created the first "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercial for them. It's an incredibly iconic ad and it would be great for Don to go out with the pitch for that meeting. Weiner could do a really great comedic musical number where the commercial rolls, with all the women Don has bedded in seven seasons singing on that hill. But that's a bit much.
3. A Downer.
I suspect the show will end where the first season ended. Don will land on his feet at work, whether at McCann or in a less prestigious setting. But what about his kids? I know he loves Sally and he's more than capable of providing for all of them, even with his reputation flawed. So I don't think we'll see him shaft them or run back to Iowa to be Dick Whitman again. But that shot of him on the stairs of an empty house is probably close to the emotional tone of the finale. I don't think we'll get the "Happily Ever After" vibe, however it ends.
4. A China Beach.
Kevin Rahm, the actor who plays Ted Chaough, confirmed that only five actors know how the show really ends. The other filmed what they thought was an ending, but those five were brought back later for additional scenes. He described these 5 as "the originals". By my count that would be Don, Peggy, Roger, Joan and Pete. (Betty would have been a 6th original, but she doesn't work at the agency and for obvious reasons is unlikely to be involved in extra shoots.) So maybe Mad Men will end, as China Beach did, with an update of where our heroes land, well after the show's story lines conclude. This could ruin the period mystique of the show. But it might be satisfying to the audience in all the ways that the Sopranos finale left some people (mostly dullards) aggravated.
So what might the future hold for our heroes?
JOAN: I think Joan will get a happily ever after vibe, because she is in many ways the most admirable character of the core cast. Not just because she's been through a lot, but because she has genuinely grown as a person through those experience. Re-watching early episodes, it is remarkable how shallow and snippy she is. She never became a nice person, but she matured into someone who deserves to be happy.
ROGER: I hope that Roger's ending won't require him to change at all. Times do change, but men like Roger Sterling are still doing perfectly well in this world, and Roger is to clever to be felled by any of the traps that might undo a less calculating man of his generation. If this was fan faction, I'd show him drunk as a skunk on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
PETE: I think Pete is a wonderful plot device. He is exactly as shallow and petulant as Don, but he doesn't get away with it because he lacks Don's looks and charms. One of the great disappointments of this season was when they has some other underling spell this out to Don. Great television is about showing without telling. Mad Men rarely gives into the impulse for the latter option. I'm a little surprised that things appear to be turning out so well for Pete, but I guess his destiny was determined when he was born to the right blood lines of Dutchmen and English aristocrats.
PEGGY: I want Peggy to be happy, but I hope they don't over do it. She should get married but I think her professional life is more important to her than having a family. I don't want them to slap a romance with Stan Rizzo. She deserves to be a success without any cliches.
DON: If there is a China Beach conclusion, I expect that the last shot will be of Don, sometime in the future, perhaps with kids played by adult actors. (Kiernan Shipka has proven to be a great young actress but she is 15 years old. I don't think Weiner would use her to play a 22 or 30 year old Sally.) I think he'll be smoking and I think he'll be lonely, whether or not he's alone. I think something in the closing moments will remind us of how far we have come in race relations or (more likely) gender roles. I just hope it's not too on the nose.
The China Beach Scenario opens up to a lot of possibilities for the last shot. The one that Weiner fretted about having someone else get to first. I don't have a strong feeling about any of these, and I'm hoping to be surprised but let's consider a few possibilities.
a. The Twin Towers, under construction. The towers opened in 1973, but were construction was well underway by the time we're up to. (1970 photograph here.) It's a little obvious but it hasn't really been done since 2001. And it would bring the story into the "present" in a sharp way. (And the shot of a plane flying past the Empire state building seemed ominous.)
b. Nixon's resignation. The Pilot contains a joke where Roger Sterling tries to get Don enthused about doing work for a 1960 Presidential candiate. "He's young, he's handsome, he's a navy vet. Shouldn't be hard to convince America that Dick Nixon is the man for them." This requires a jump of more than three years but it's as good a symbol for the end of that era as any other. But Watergate as a symbol for the end of that era has been done, countless times. So I'm expecting more.
c. The Bicentennial. Well, the Donna Summer song is from 1976. If that's authentic period music, we might see something about the bicentennial. I have nothing else for that year.
d. The aforementioned Coke commercial.
e. Some other iconic ad, like Mean Joe Greene's Coke ad.
f. Don Draper's suicide from a tall building. The original Mad Men conspiracy theory. I don't buy it.
g. Where the fuck is Sal?