Given everything we know about Mad Men — that its final season is about to start, that its main
characters have been in a constant state of emotional torture lately — it’s no
surprise that by the end of Sunday’s new episode one character is in a puddle
of tears on the floor and another sits in lonely isolation staring into the
night sky. Because Mad Men spoilers have
achieved a status close to the bubonic plague, I won’t even say which coast
that sky covers.
But there is a darker-than-ever tone hovering over this season
precisely because we know it’s the last. (It’s beyond annoying that the season is
cut into two, with seven episodes starting now and seven more arriving next
year). That isn’t a hint, because I don’t know what’s coming, but a simple rule
of television: the options are wider and the stakes higher for any series about
to wrap things up.
For starters, anyone can die. It may seem that shows are bumping
people off left and right — a Matthew Crawley here, a Will Gardner there —
but in a final season, truly no one is safe. And think about where Mad Men finished last year, at the end
of 1968, heading into the (yikes!) Nixon years. It’s cheap and easy hindsight
to say there’s no reason to think this will end well. That doesn’t mean Don will die, as so many people have predicted (Slate has even created a tongue-in-cheek Don Draper Doomsday Clock ); there are other dismal fates.
There were plenty of questions hanging at the end of last
season, and only some are answered in the next episode. Don was forced to take
a leave from his job, and reneged on a promise to Megan that they’d move to Los
Angeles. He had taken his children to see a house he’d lived in as a boy, startling
them (especially precocious Sally) with a glimpse at his true past.
The new episode, like so much of Mad Men, is a tease as well as a step ahead. Don meets a woman on a
plane, so we instantly wonder where this might lead. Pete introduces him to a woman
who looks remarkably like Betty in her early-season blonde guise. Will this new
woman circle back, or is she a false lead? You can approach Mad Men like a code-breaker, but I
prefer to let the show engage us with its ever-evolving characters.
Over the last six seasons almost everything has changed. As creator
Matthew Weiner has often said, the series reflects changes in the country
itself, as it headed through the 60’s into the Civil Rights era and feminism, a
more thoughtful and more fraught era. The Sinatra-esque booze and playboy
appeal of the show’s early seasons has given way to a deeper, more reflective approach.
More superficially, Peggy wears some astonishingly awful clothes, including a
knit hat that was never a good idea on anyone ever. That doesn’t speak well for
the future either.
But the show is, after all, mostly about Don. The series
has moved on from the secret of his stolen, hidden identity to a question of
who he is now and who he will be — how much do people change, how much can this
one change even if he wants to? Mad Men
engages with American culture and questions of identity much the way F. Scott
Fitzgerald did, using tragically flawed and endlessly appealing heroes. The early
seasons gave us a counterpart to the glittery world of Gatsby, but that has slowly been replaced by the darkly romantic
emotional wreckage of Tender is the Night.
On the upside (spoiler alert) there is California sun.