While it’s a long-standing tradition (if not human instinct) to guess the ending of a film, television series or any long-running story, all tales are not created equal. More to the point, all TV shows don’t benefit from anticipating what’s next. “Mad Men” is one of these shows.
Since its debut eight all-too-short years ago, critics, columnists, fans and detractors have all tried to tell us what will happen next on Matthew Weiner’s purposefully mysterious series — and no one has ever been right. Certainly there are exceptions: I’m sure someone figured out Peggy was pregnant or what Dick did to become Don. But more often than not, carefully-calculated conspiracy theories are built around select scenes (or “clues”) to construct arguments supporting a specific prediction…that doesn’t pan out. For example:
• Megan Draper is not Sharon Tate. Matthew Weiner himself has called it “flimsy and thin.”
• Don Draper is not D.B. Cooper. A third identity? A bomb threat? Come on.
• Don is not going to reenact the title sequence and commit suicide from a Manhattan skyscraper. He’s not even in Manhattan anymore (and he may never go back).
• Don did not help Richard Nixon fake the moon landing.
• Bob Benson is not insane or a spy.
• Pete will probably not be eaten by a bear (but honestly, this is one theory I can support).
• Megan Draper is not a ghost. Do we really have to explain that one?
Setting aside for a moment the idea these theories were nothing more than entertaining, click-baiting discussion topics for passive viewers — which could be true for some people, but not most — it’s important to note why even then the guesses were a waste of time. What if, God forbid, one of these theories turned out to be true? What joy would that bring an audience, to know what they thought was going to happen actually did come to pass? “Mad Men” isn’t a series that’s asked us to wait seven-plus seasons for a specific event to occur — it’s not “Friends,” promising that someday Ross and Rachel will get together. It’s not “Breaking Bad,” either, a series clearly moving toward a big denouement.
“Mad Men” is a meditative take on life’s intricacies. It places equal value on moments big and small, weighing Don’s skyward gaze at a passing airplane against Pete revealing Don’s true identity to Bert Cooper. Neither is more important than the other. They’re all just part of these messy lives we lead. More to the point of the series, though, they’re all building up to Don’s final state of mind: happy or unhappy.
Whether that’s what everyone wants is up for debate, and how a viewer perceives a show comes into play in a big way when it’s time for the finale. Some fans undoubtedly are hooked on these extreme conspiracy theories because they want “Mad Men” — a series held in such high regard within the industry and by critics — to shock and awe them in the end (because that’s what great series do). Many fans were disappointed by the matter-of-fact “Sopranos” finale. Others were upset “True Detective” didn’t have a last-minute twist up its sleeve. But “The Sopranos” ending is still being broken down to this day and “True Detective” was never about the surprises. Fans may have wanted something that wasn’t there, but each series shouldn’t be lampooned for staying true to itself.
What’s important to realize about these finales is also another reason not to engage with the guessing game. If all you think about when watching the series is the ending, then you’re missing what’s happening in the moment. Many “Mad Men” fans freaked out when Don spilled red wine on his white carpet while bedding a flight attendant, thinking it was a symbol of bloodshed to come. Matthew Weiner has said it was only meant to show how little Don cared about his apartment (and, in turn, his wealth). Even more people jumped to analyze the meaning of Don pressing on his new office window, noting the air escaping through a small crack. Was that Matthew Weiner foreshadowing Don’s own escape through that window?
At best, maybe. But in the episode it was clearly meant to illustrate how trapped Don felt at McCann. The moment matched up nicely with the aforementioned shot of Don staring out a window, admiring an airplane flying overhead. Together with many other subtle notes in the episode, it told us why Don was going to quit, take to the road and kiss his career goodbye. If all you thought about was what it could mean for the finale, then you missed out on the meaning within the episode itself.
Of course, some fans aren’t interested in such things. Don has become redundant to them and the machinations of his late ’60s/early ’70s world have lost their luster after eight years. They’re only sticking it out to see what happens in the end. But given there’s considerable numbers on both sides — the deeply invested and the lulled loyalists — is it even possible for “Mad Men” to have an ending that satisfies us all? I, for one, would be incredibly upset if Don Draper turned out to be D.B Cooper, but there’s at least one other person who can only be pleased with that outcome. Even without those extremes, a traditional “Mad Men” ending (similar to its season finales) would likely upset anyone with high expectations.
And that right there is the problem with guessing the ending. Fun, goofy theories or hypotheses among friends are fine. They’re part of the communal joy associated with a landmark series finale. But the seriousness given to predictions, the lengthy discussions and debates, the wild theories lent credence by minute, misjudged moments — it only sets audiences up for disappointment. Anything could happen come Sunday, and that’s as much as we should say.