Los Angeles Review of Books

This Week on Dear Television:

¤
 

“The Waste Land”
By Phil Maciak
May 21, 2015

Dear television,

I’VE SPENT A WHILE with this final episode of Mad Men, and, like Lili, I’m of two minds. (Though perhaps a little less literally so.) On the one hand, I actually feel pretty satisfied by this — the reunions and the check-ins and the irony and the reveal and the peace and the love and the understanding. On the other hand, I’m skeptical and distrustful of that satisfaction. This is by no means a sour show, and many writers have pointed out that Matthew Weiner is far more of an optimist than his old man David Chase, especially when it comes to endings. But there’s a reading of this ending that’s fuzzy and a reading that’s cynical, and, as ever, I worry that where I fall on that spectrum is counter to the show’s true self or at least counter to my own responsibility as an ethical thinking person.

I liked this as a finale but didn’t like it as an episode. I’m glad of the particular way this series ends on Don, but, as the many thousands of words I’ve written on this subject ought to testify, I’m a little disappointed that it ended on Don at all. Plus, as Lili says, there’s this pickle of trying to write an episodic review of an episode that stands in, to some extent or another, for eight years of serial television. This episode is everything, and it’s nothing. It’s the statement of purpose and it’s the punctuation mark at the end of a much longer, more complicated statement of purpose. It’s just a stupid episode of television, Phil, pull yourself together, stop crying!

So here’s my thing: I can’t talk about this ending yet. I have things to say, lots of them, but I don’t know what they are. This is a television series that I’ve experienced — and re-experienced several times in its entirety — as a fluid, living thing over the past eight years, and all of a sudden it’s ground to a halt, the weight of seven seasons of detail has spilled out all over the place, there’s lawnmowers and chip-and-dips and Mark Rothko paintings everywhere. As the man says, “A lot has happened.”

(Can we take a minute to appreciate the number of times this phrase and its variants have been uttered on this show? “A lot has happened.”; “Everything happened.”; “This never happened.”; “You don’t know what happens.” Someday, somebody’s going to write a think piece about this show’s relationship to time and call it “The Happening.” It’s probably going to be me. I’m never going to stop writing about this show.)

But speaking of Mark Rothko, let’s talk about aesthetics, commerce, and interpretation. Back in season two, the late Bert Cooper bought a crazily expensive Mark Rothko painting and hung it in his office. The word on the street was that he’s calling junior executives into his lair one by one and asking them what they think. It’s a litmus test of some sort — Cooper was always the most mysterious bundle of farts on this show — and the Youngs all decide, one night, to break into the office to get a look at the thing. To prepare themselves. Ken Cosgrove, the artist, is the only one who seems to be affected by it. He says, “It’s like looking into something very deep. You could fall in.” THIS GUY GETS IT.

But the joke is that he doesn’t. Harry — the least mysterious bundle of farts on this show — eventually gets the call, and, by way of deflection, asks Bert what he thinks. Cooper then tells Harry two important things. First, he tells him, “Don’t concern yourself with aesthetics, you’ll get a headache.” Then, he tells Harry that he bought it because it’s going to double in value by Christmas. Ken’s right about Rothko, but he’s wrong about Cooper.

It strikes me that what we’ve got here is a Mark Rothko painting that nobody knows what to do with. Is it art or is it shit? Is it a complex expression of the soul or is it just the toe jam in between Jon Hamm-narrated Mercedes commercials? And, moreover, should we be approaching it like Cosgrove or Cooper? In the end, what’s going to happen to us if we concern ourselves with aesthetics? I mean, this is already a headache.

My thesis is that it’s possible for this thing to be both a trick to fall for and a depth to fall into. Lili, I hope you take it as high praise when I say that I think your reading of this last episode is a little Cooperesque. For you, the revelation at the end is that the show itself was a can of Coke this whole time, a commodity just like everything else. Fizzy, commercial, addictive, but only temporarily satisfying. The jealously guarded secret recipe’s secret is that it’s just high fructose corn syrup and lots of it. Happiness is a moment before you need more happiness. And there’s nothing wrong with that. To some extent, then, the problem is false advertising, or perhaps mass delusion. Your piece brilliantly expressed a version of one of the most long-lived — and strongest — critiques of Mad Men, especially for those of us who intermittently believe in it. Like Jon Hamm’s character on 30 Rock, Mad Men is a handsome idiot that we’ve all collectively decided to call a genius. Our disappointment is our own fault.

I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to say that there’s a lot of fizz on this show that can get mistaken for depth, and I have been disappointed in this show before — this past Sunday included — but I want to be a bit more Cosgrovian in my analysis. Or, if not fully so, I’d like to imagine that what this is is a thoroughgoing piece of commercial art. In fact, I want to counter your argument that the show is pretentious by saying the opposite. This show is unembarrassed to cater to the people who just want a Coke, but it’s also unembarrassed to cater to the people who want a Pousse Café. Mad Men wants to have it both ways, and it succeeds. I wrote two weeks ago about how we structure this show according to our own priorities, how Peggy can be my protagonist but not yours. We can be Cosgroves and we can be Coopers. This show can be flat or it can be fizzy.

So, instead of trying to write a grand unified theory and defense of Mad Men here, what I want to do is focus on the actual ending. And by that I mean one shot, one push-in, one sound bridge, one cut, and one piece of archival footage. The ending. The last things we see before Matthew Weiner greets us at the Pearly Gates.

In brief, we see Don centered in the frame, legs crossed, in a white button-up, flanked by two men in the same pose in the background. Because of the cliff and the horizon, the man on our left looks like he’s floating. As Don closes his eyes and says, “Om,” the camera pushes in on his face, settling in on a medium close-up so we can see his crow’s feet and the corners of his lips curl into a smile. On that shot, we hear, “I’d like to buy the world a home…” CUT. The line continues, “…and furnish it with love,” as we see a close-up of a woman in the “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial. The grain of the film is different, the aspect ratio is different. It reminded me, actually, of two films: Sally Potter’s Orlando and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, both of which have these kind of jarring, alienation effect endings in which the film cuts to video, so our last moments feel like they’re in a different medium and thus a different time and part of a different reality. (Okay, so the show’s not pretentious, but I am sometimes.) This shudder-shift is what I’m interested in here.


The critical consensus at this point seems to be that the ending described above implies that Don comes up with the most famous Coke jingle of all time, leaves Esalen, and rejoins McCann. That seems right — it’s a little neat and a little self-satisfied and it erases history in some really problematic ways, but, yeah, sure, it seems right. (For what it’s worth, Matthew Weiner recently confirmed this reading.) And I want to think about that ending, but I also want to think about the possibility that that isn’t what’s happened. Or, rather, I want to think about what we have in front of us and the way that that cut, that gap, requires our input to become meaningful. Regardless of what Weiner meant, the text itself gives us space to move around, so let’s!

Don only comes up with that jingle because the way we understand film editing leads us to conjure that chain of events. But because it was edited the way it was edited — without a montage showing us that process, without a more direct correlation than Don’s “light bulb” moment, without a diegetic version of that non-diegetic film — we’re allowed to imagine other reasons that cut happened. This isn’t projecting, and it isn’t massaging the image into what we want it to be. What we have here is a juxtaposition of images that can only ever be telling us whatever story we want. It’s elliptical! And that story could be the one in which Don lunges out of the space of a fictional TV show to become the author of one of the 20th-century’s most ubiquitous ad campaigns, in which this great character of fiction steps off the screen and becomes an actor in our history, but it could be something else.

There’s a not insubstantial history of epic works of literature ending with some invocation of peace. It’s a literalization of narrative closure, it’s a blessing and a benediction. “What the Thunder Said,” the last section of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” ends with “Shantih shantih shantih,” translated from Sanskrit as “The peace which passeth understanding.” Don DeLillo’s epic novel of the Cold War, Underworld, ends with the one-word sentence, “Peace.” It’s even how the Catholic Mass ends. And so too now, it’s how Mad Men ends. Well, not exactly. The word “peace” is never invoked, but we know it’s what Don’s been searching for. In season six, Sylvia tells Don that her wish for him is “for you to find peace,” and given the degree to which his dalliance with her set all of this into motion, peace certainly seems to be the arc. Plus, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” is all about “perfect harmony” and global unity and, well, utopia. None of this seems like a stretch.

So, one way to read that commercial we see at the end is as a kind of campy, pop art invocation of whatever peace means for Don Draper. “Hilltop” is Matthew Weiner’s own weird, shocking, appropriative, culturally imperialist “Shantih shantih shantih.” And why not? You want peace? This is what that looks like to somebody. T.S. Eliot wrote his out in Sanskrit — this is a different language. I wrote, on the subject of “Waterloo” — the half-season finale — that Mad Men seemed headed for a reckoning with its subject: advertising. We cheer for Peggy and are moved by her pitch, but, at the end of the day, she’s just selling hamburgers. Likewise, we’ve spent seven seasons climbing in and out of hell with Don Draper behind the scenes of the advertising world, searching for transcendence, finding it finally. And then with that cut, we see the other side. It’s great, but it’s just a fucking ad.

The cut, then, is cutting. To some extent, I think I was right about this season’s willingness to step outside the roseate glow of SC&P to reveal what this business really is. It’s true with the scumbags at McCann, with Joan’s treatment at their hands, and with Don’s ultimate frustration about being a part of this sausage factory. SC&P was art, it was family, it was the utopian dream of freedom and creativity; McCann is advertising. And ultimately, that’s what these people do, and that’s what we’ve been watching them do this whole time. Sell cigarettes and napalm and shitty stockings. So we see Don achieve peace, and then we see that peace expressed as a jingle. The jarring shift in aspect ratio is a wake-up call for us. You can love this man, but you ought to remember what it is that he does. Lili points out how disappointing it is that we finish this series with Don in the center of the frame, the structuring important consciousness. For all of the things Lili and I disagree about regarding this show, I am really with her on this. But I think we can also read Don’s centrality in this frame as a kind of bullseye. (If there’s ever a film made about the model for the target practice silhouette, Jon Hamm is a shoe-in for the lead.) Don’s in the center because he’s about to get that smug grin smacked off his face. That’s what we deserve. That’s what Don deserves. It’s the real thing.

Or maybe not. The other way I think we can read this is less about the jarring disjuncture than it is about the surprising continuity and harmony between the images. It’s easy, yes, to see Don’s setting reflected in “Hilltop” as a confirmation that what we’re seeing is a work of creative inspiration. But, even if we don’t, that aesthetic continuity can do different work. I’ve argued that this show is about Peggy, and I’ve argued it’s about Sally. We’ve spent three years here at Dear TV just hoping it wasn’t really about Don. I think there are good arguments in a couple of different directions, but, cataloguing self-references this season the way we’ve been doing, repetitions and reenactments, I’m more convinced than ever that the protagonist of Mad Men is Mad Men, the television series. This is unequivocally a show about itself.

So if we don’t care what happens to Don, if our primary concern about the final image is not what it says about him but what it says about the show, well, what does it say? Television is a weird medium. It costs a lot of money to print novels to make movies to put up plays. Most every work of art we encounter is the result of at least some money that comes from advertising. But for novels, films, plays, it’s easy for us to forget that. We sit through 45 minutes of trailers and commercials before we see Mad Max: Fury Road at the theater, but for the two hours after, nobody reminds us.

Television’s different. As a medium, it’s more visibly in thrall to commerce than any other medium through which we regularly engage with something we think of as “art.” Mad Men, for instance, has commercial breaks. And even once the full run of the series is ensconced in the bosom of Netflix, those beats will still remain structurally, like phantom limbs, the #PainFromAnOldWound. This is part of the reason why it’s taken so long for critics and viewers to begin to consider television as a legitimate art form. It’s stained with the rot of commerce in a way that can’t easily be scrubbed.

The new golden age of 21st-century television — of which Mad Men is the crowned prince — is built around the rhetoric of television’s artistry, its rightful place in the pantheon of the lively arts. And with that comes a kind of cryptic notion that all of this good TV is somehow not TV anymore. The reception of the medium has changed so much and so swiftly that the medium itself is presumed to have changed as well. It’s not TV, it’s HBO. But, as television scholars like to point out, all of the formal moves that have converged in this era of complex TV already existed in far less valued genres like the soap opera. TV hasn’t fundamentally changed so much as the way we talk about it has.

I think Mad Men’s final juxtaposition is a rejoinder to this in some way. Maybe it’s a smart-alecky twist about Don writing a new jingle, maybe it’s a lacerating dig at the piety of these flawed people, but maybe also it’s a bold reassertion of television’s identity. Maybe it’s an argument that this type of TV didn’t develop in spite of the parts of the medium we find crass, downmarket, and base but because of and in collaboration with them.

Maybe Mad Men isn’t just having it both ways, but all of television is. Some of it’s about exploring deep issues of self and identity; some of it’s about making sure viewers stick around after the commercial break. Some of it’s about pushing the boundaries of narrative complexity and serial storytelling; some of it’s about keeping us gleefully entertained. It’s maybe the best piece of long-form narrative art I’ve experienced in my lifetime, and it’s also about selling cars.

The ending conflates all of these aspects, shifting, across the cut, from a commercial television show about commercials to an actual commercial. The bell that signals this shift is the zen bell of the sun salutation. It’s a sound of peace and contemplation. We assume the sound is asynchronous, simply occurring offscreen. But because we don’t see its source, it could be from anywhere. What else does it sound like? It sounds a little bit like the bell on Peggy’s typewriter, the symbolic tool of creative artistry within this show. (Mad Men has always been interested in having characters — especially Peggy — talk about why what they do is art, even though it doesn’t seem like it. She even stabs Abe for disagreeing.) And it sounds a little like a cash register. Transcendence, creativity, cash money. No matter how much we try to separate them out or look the other way or assume HBO and Showtime are charitable organizations, we can’t get any one of these without the others. This is how the television gets made. The idea that commercial art is constitutively bankrupt is an idea only, not a lived reality. And that Mark Rothko painting can be two things at once.

And that’s okay! This is television, and it’s a beautiful, compromised, important medium. It can be shallow and deep, dull and sharp, a Coke and something else. Regardless of how we read this ending, it’s bizarre, and it’s surprising, and it was a totally gripping moment of television. I won’t forget watching it the morning after on my laptop on the floor with my shaking dog who’s afraid of thunderstorms. We all thought a lot of things might happen in Mad Men’s final moments — Don might die, Sally might take control of the narrative, Megan might get slaughtered by the Mansons. We were, all of us, ready for something to happen. We’d looked so deep we’d fallen in. We got resolution, or maybe we got comeuppance. But at the end of it all, Mad Men gave us Don Draper and a television commercial, and it was not ashamed.

What happens to people when they believe in things,

Phil.

¤
 

Irritating Conversation with Self After Watching the Mad Men Finale
By Lili Loofbourow
May 18, 2015

Q. We are here to discuss the Mad Men finale.

A. SO GREAT. PEGGY AND STAN! GOOSEBUMPS. Betty in her little slippers. Don in jeans!

Q. Well, the hair was great. Did you know Paradise Lost was originally called Adam Unparadiz’d? Mad Men should have been called Don UnBrilliantined.

A. Yes! God his hair looked good. He looked SO GOOD.

Q. Yeah, okay. Shall we officially commence?

A. We shall.

Q. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the social bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the agencies of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Television and of Television’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of viewers requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. In other words, STAN SAYING WORK ISN’T EVERYTHING IS NOT A GOOD REASON FOR PEGGY NOT TO JOIN JOAN.

A: Well, but she would have seen Stan less if she worked with Joan.

Q: So? At Joan’s she could have been genuinely creative in the ways she’s always wanted to be! It’s a production company! She could see Stan at night.

A: But their love is new. She knows she loves him now! She needs to be with him all the time.

Q: But the whole point of their relationship is that it mostly happened over the phone. She could talk to Stan on the phone from Joan’s too.

A: Yeah, but that they talked on the phone was the whole problem. They only talked on the phone so love had literally never occurred to Peggy.

Q: Is that a thing that actually happens, ever? That suddenly realizing you’re deeply in love with someone?

A: Have you ever thought to yourself, wow, Coke is a really excellent beverage?

Q: Yes, I just gave it up and it’s killing me. I still don’t think the Love Epiphany is believable.

A: Okay maybe but it’s about the birth of that particular romantic comedy trope.

Q: But His Girl Friday did that a long time ago. This is right around when Love Story came out so really Peggy should have died too for it to truly belong to the zeitgeist. 

A: Well then it’s a sendup of the happy ending.

Q: But they seem genuinely, nonironically happy.

A: Well then it’s a sendup of the happy beginning. It’s about how we fail to recognize the value of what’s right in front of us until someone sells it to us via a really good and moving pitch.

Q: Oh, it’s kind of a kill-the-kitten thing? A way to create stakes where there weren’t any by introducing the possibility of loss?

A: Sure!

Q: So Peggy threatening to leave spurs Stan to admit he loves her?

A: Exactly.

Q: So it’s kind of like what they did with Betty. Kill the kitten, kill the Betty. Hey presto: STAKES.

A: Or maybe it’s about how Joan and Peggy were never actually a great fit. They wouldn’t have gotten along well ultimately. “Just because they’re women” isn’t a good reason for them to partner up. That’s sexist in its own way.

Q: So Peggy’s better off with the company that doesn’t want to give her an office and the woman who doesn’t want to give her accounts?

A: I’m sorry, did you MISS the part with Stan? It was adorable!

Q: I love Peggy and Stan! But that they only got together in the finale shows that Mad Men, like Don, only likes the beginnings of things. It pandered in exactly the ways Mad Men likes to advertise it doesn’t — the show resisted and withheld catharsis from us for years in order to end with a nice sugary fizz.

A: Coke?

Q: OH GOD THE BUBBLES. THEY’RE SOUR AND ALSO SOMEHOW SWEET, LIKE THE WORLD, LIKE LIFE.

[INTERMISSION WITH BOB DYLAN PLAYING “BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND”]

Q: No justice, no peace. No Shirley, no Dawn.

A: I mean, yes. Okay. I liked them too. But… at least they’re not dead?

Q: WHY WOULD THEY BE DEAD.

A: Because they’re minor characters and death was Mad Men’s main recurring theme? I dunno.

Q: THAT IS EXACTLY MY PROBLEM. Death was just a red herring. All the portents that haunted Mad Men, from the opening credit of the falling man onward, every bit — the Inferno-reading, the heart attack sequence, Diana’s ominous disappearance — it was all a MacGuffin. None of the gravitas that awesome opening sequence conjured — none of the visions of death, none of the wars, none of the people who actually died because of Don — Don’s brother, Lane, Rachel, or Don Draper himself, blown up by his subordinate’s shaking hands — mattered! Doesn’t that bother you? Doesn’t it matter that in an ensemble show, all that death stuff was in the service of delving further into Don’s feelings about himself? That he’s a symbol-hog? That Mad Men used death the way Game of Thrones last night used rape — to show us the exquisite pain on a sad man’s face?

A: Oh, come on.

Q: Death was the giant gun on the mantel of almost every scene and it NEVER WENT OFF.

A: What about Betty? Betty’s dying!

Q: Yes, it is nice that the only person who will experience death non-metaphorically is Betty, who got reduced to a walking metaphor anyway, what with her shaking hands and fat and other bodily manifestations of Problems That Have No Name but deserved a lot more screentime than they got.

A: Granted, she did get reduced to her body a lot, but she’s grown so much! She’s studying psychology.

Q: True. Her dream isn’t dead at least. (Unlike Sally’s.)

A: Aren’t you distorting the show just a little? Betty’s gotten some really interesting storylines. The bird-shooting! Remember?

Q: Betty’s arc was amazing up to the point where she confronted Don. Then it became incomprehensible, partly because it got so little time. She got a fainting couch, divorced Don, got fat, made jokes about Henry raping Sally’s friend, went for a walk, got thin, slept with Don, snapped at Bobby, and decided to study psychology. What’s not totally clear about any of that?

A: For a woman who cared as much about her appearance as Betty did, that disordered eating stuff was a big deal, and an interesting arc.

Q: No, it wasn’t. It could have been, but it wasn’t. The show could have cut literally everything involving Ted Chaough and Jim Cutler and Lou Avery with no discernible losses, given how the show ended. They were completely irrelevant: they affected nothing. Some of that time could have gone to the Betty or Trudy stuff, but it didn’t.

A: I thought Trudy was treated pretty well this season.

Q: I mean, sure. Trudy explains everything about that generation of women to me, and it was good in that sense. She “got” to reunite with her admittedly lovable rapist and serial cheater of a husband who has at least one love-child (with a co-worker!) he hasn’t told her about. He promises things will be different now. He’s gotten excited about a new start, and this show has taught us how well advertising executives who are good at convincing people about fake visions of happiness always follow through on their promises. People can change!

A: But she loves him. And he loves her.

Q: Sure. She loves him, probably. Also she decided getting back together with him was better than being sexually propositioned by all the men she dealt with and shunned by the women in her neighborhood because they were afraid their husbands would stray. Look at her getting on that plane! She’s delighted! Surely, when she said “I remember things as they were,” she didn’t mean it. Those were just words that could be magically erased by the promise of WICHITA, BITCHITA. Trudy needs a Get-a-Grip friend.

A: Well, their reconciliation felt genuine to me. Listen, the show did actually recognize how shitty things were for women.

Q: True. Like when Pete’s mother was apparently murdered while struggling with Alzheimer’s. That didn’t get played for laughs at all. Or resolved in any way.

A: Why are you being so negative? This WAS a bad time for women. Look at Beth’s electroshock therapy. Should it have been portrayed as a feminist utopia?

Q: Oh god I am so weary of the way history is used to justify absent narrative investments in this show. Look: given how this ended — with no losses to the male characters of any kind — the opening credits should have been a woman falling instead of a man. Of course, the thing about that era is you couldn’t show a lady falling off that building because her cupcake dress would flow upward and reveal her undies.

A: It’s just an opening credit and a really beautiful one. No one said there was truth in advertising.

Q: Ha.

A: Counterpoint: JOAN MARRIES HERSELF. BOOYAH. HOLLOWAY-HARRIS.

Q: Yeah, that was cool. Maybe a little fan-servicey. But cool.

A: You’re being unfair to a show that has a lot of really gorgeous moments.

Q: Well, Mad Men has taught me that television, like life, and stealing someone else’s identity, is really just what you make of it.

A: Oh, stop. You got to see Don suffer. Isn’t that what you wanted?

Q: The whole show has been us watching Don suffer.

A: This was different.

Q: Maybe a little. It was gratifying to watch him lose his whole family in a way that he was forced to accept rather than escape. But then he escaped again, so I didn’t really get the catharsis I wanted. He’s such a Houdini, that Don.

A: Did you want him to die?

Q: Not really. I just wanted him to lose centrality, because that — for the show’s universe, which is too enamored of Don — would be the greater tragedy. It would fulfill the promise of that opening sequence in ways death never could.

A. I like that he gets more and more quiet, though — that he’s hardly able to move by the end of his breakdown.

Q. I mean, sure. And he gets a Being-A-Decent-Person cookie for giving that sobbing man a hug. But he gets a lot of cookies! Does it bother you that Billy Davis, a black ad exec, was largely responsible for that Coke jingle and Don Draper gets the credit? Or is this going to be explained as just another way the show is brilliantly commenting on The Way We Lived Then as The Way We Live Now?

A: I see what you mean, but nothing actually suggests Don wrote that ad. We last see him saying “Om” in California and smiling.

Q: Yeah, but the ad features lots of stuff he sees while On the Road, which implies it’s a product of his life experience and artistic vision. It’s possible that ad just means Don is once again tuned into the zeitgeist — and experiencing the world as advertisers need to see it, tapping into the national subconscious in ways Don hasn’t been able to in a long, long time. It could mean he’s recovered his particular investment in the American Dream and regained his capacity to live it in the present. (In other words, he’s left the Coca-Cola ad of the ’50s that Betty starred in and embraced the Coca-Cola of the ’70s, at long last. Maybe Mad Men was about Don struggling to channel Coke’s vision of the ’60s.) I’m happier with that interpretation. But there’s a more likely reading that sees that ending as indicating Don’s triumphal return to McCann, where he came up with the famous Coke jingle. Here’s what I wish: I wish it meant that McCann Erickson reacted to Don’s disappearing act by hiring Billy Davis instead — I’d love to think this was a tribute to the way the world of advertising got on just fine without Don.

A: I like that reading.

Q: Me too, because it decenters Don. But it feels wishful, like a feminist reading of a Renaissance text that argues a woman committing suicide after her rape proves her agency because she chooses to die. It’s a stretch. I mean, maybe the opening credits showed a man as a black silhouette because — white men being, metaphorical type O, universal donors of subjectivity — Don COULD have been a black ad exec. Easily! In many ways he IS a black ad exec. Perhaps he and Billy Davis are one and the same? What is race, even? Wasn’t Clinton the first black president? Remember how Mad Men started out with him talking to a black man about cigarettes? (Also OMG CIGARETTES. LUNG CANCER. DON KILLED BETTY WITH HIS ADS.)

A: Uh, wow.

Q: I just think there’s always a little less to Mad Men than meets the eye. I think it’s TV’s equivalent of hot yoga: easy to strain a muscle flexing the show into something deeper than it is. And that’s fine. It’s fun, and it’s only partly the show’s fault that it inspires those contortions. I do think it’s very much to the show’s credit that it ends with an ad — showing how monumentally frivolous its guiding vision has been all along. I appreciate that. I do. It’s even a certain kind of brilliant. It’s just not something I, personally, can love.

A: I can.

Q: I get that, and I hesitated to write this because I hate it when people write negatively about something I really love. And the show gave me a lot of what I wanted: Peggy and Stan had the intense conversation I wished they’d have, Sally and Betty got some scenes together, Don sort of realized just how completely he’s lost his children. But for me, there’s no getting away from the fact that the finale ends with Don literally at the center of the frame. That was the ultimate test of the show’s intentions, and it did just what I hoped it wouldn’t.

It’s hard to critique a serial drama, because any critical assessment of a work of art is definitively shaped by its ending. The interpretations of Mad Men I’ve loved most are those that argued that the show’s point of view was drifting elsewhere: to Sally, or to Peggy, or to Dawn. But my appreciation for Mad Men was contingent on it outgrowing Don’s centrality, and it never lived up to those generous readings. I didn’t really expect it to. Perhaps my issue is that it was never anything more than a Coke — and if I’d been invited to see it as just that, frivolity and entertainment, without the pretensions to greatness, I would have judged it a lot more gently. I’m a sucker for a fizzy drink.

(Speaking of Coke, remember when Betty tried out for the Coke commercial and got it back in season one, but Don vetoed her participation because the offer to Betty was really all about him? Now he has Coke and he doesn’t even want it. Betty’s dying, and he’s teaching the world to sing. It’s practically an O. Henry story.)

A: Okay. Fine. Was there anything about the finale you actually liked?

Q: Yes! I actually liked so much of it! It was my favorite episode of Mad Men in years! Ken and Joan plotting against McCann! Peggy and Joan! Joan starting her company! Peggy and Stan! My mom’s reaction was “I want to see more!” and that was mine too. What I loved about the finale was that it wasn’t a series finale, it was a season finale. It should have been last year’s season finale, with no Diana and at least six episodes dedicated to showing us all these exciting new developments being worked out. Ending at what amounts to the most exciting beginning the show’s ever had felt a little easy. But I did learn some things.

A: Okay. Go ahead.

Q: It would be dispiriting to be trapped in a refrigerator.

A: Mm-hmm.

Q: Little boys don’t register damage or show any behavioral problems despite the neglect and emotional abuse they’ve been subject to over the years. Even though that’s what messed up their dads the most. 

A: Mm-hmmmm.

Q: No one seems to miss Glen very much.

A: Well, have they even had time? He just left for the war.

Q: What war?

A: I hate talking to you.

Q: THIS COKE IS DELICIOUS, THANK YOU. COULDN’T YOU HAVE OFFERED ME ONE EARLIER?

¤

Subscribe to our newsletter for a weekly round-up of reviews, essays, & interviews.

Not a member? LARB is reader supported. Join today and get LARB in print.