'Mad Men' Series Finale: What Should Happen, What Could Happen

"The Doorway"

Season 6, Episode 1

Another two-hour season premiere, this superior episode, which found Roger Sterling in therapy and Don continuing to realize Megan wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, was rich with images of and references to death (starting with Don reading Dante’s Inferno on the beach and continuing with his suicide-tinged pitch for Royal Hawaiian Hotel).

There are a lot of theories floating around about what will happen in Mad Men and to its main character, Don Draper. None of them are likely to be identical to what series creator Matt Weiner has dreamed up. That’s what I was hinting at in my deconstruction of the penultimate episode; it’s Weiner’s baby, and he can do whatever pleases him. And viewers should respect the stories of storytellers, particularly ones who have put together seven mostly masterful seasons.

It doesn’t mean viewers can’t be unhappy or disappointed about the choices — what happened, how it happened, who was left out, etc. But I’m a firm believer that whatever Weiner will come up with for the last hour (and change) will be something I’ll appreciate.

I’ve written about Mad Men for seven seasons and talked numerous times with Weiner, from the very first Mad Men party when almost nobody outside of the room that night had seen a single frame of the show to live on stage in front of hundreds of people who were fanatical enough about the show to pay to hear Weiner talk about it. So, yes, I have my own theories and guesses about how it ends, what Don might do, and what I’d like the finale to cover.

But with the last ever episode of Mad Men looming on Sunday, there are still some real issues to deal with and guess at based on how the penultimate episode ended.

Physically, Don is at a bus stop in Oklahoma, having gone deeper into his shedding of the past and possessions by giving a young kid he met in the last episode the keys to the Caddy. Is Don trying to save this kid like he tried to save Diana, the enigmatic waitress? Sure, in some way. Mostly, in this instance, he’s using his own life experience to warn the kid away from mistake that Dick Whitman/Don Draper would have made. And with that gesture, he’s not only more free than he was five minutes prior, but he’s actually slowed down his gloriously impulsive road trip away from the shackles of McCann-Erickson and what’s not left in his old life anymore. He’s just sitting. Alone. In the middle of nowhere. And he’s smiling.

As part of a story, sitting at that bus stop does create some problems. While I fully expect some kind of time-jump in this episode (most of the episodes this season take place one month apart), and that time-jump certinaly could bring him back to New York, I still think Weiner will finish up this road trip theme in some way. Like I said previously, Don is heading West as all people who have no hopes or dreams in the East anymore do — or those whose problems put them on the road to outrun them.

I think we’ll get Don in California in the finale; the question is whether he’s there when we first see him or if he’s on a bus. But with last week’s revelation that Betty has cancer and has between nine months and a year to live, there is a bit of a ticking clock on the series that effects both how Don makes his decisions and how Weiner chooses to do his time jump (and remember, there could be more than one).

I doubt we’ll get an initial time-jump to Betty’s funeral. It would certainly be convenient, but likely robs Weiner or his ability to tell at least part of a West Coast narrative for Don.

And though some fans believe that since Betty is sick, Don must return to New York to get the kids from Henry, the salient point here is that she just got diagnosed and is alive if not well. Weiner has up to a year to play with and I wouldn’t bet too much on a funeral scene. As I’ve stated previously, Mad Men is unlikely to wrap up cleanly. Weiner, who learned much of his craft from David Chase, creator of The Sopranos where Weiner worked as a writer, doesn’t need an exclamation point to this series. He can write it in a way in which life will be going on for the characters who viewers have come to love. So when the camera gets turned off, Don may still be out there doing something — perhaps still repeating mistakes. Betty could still be alive. Peggy could be breaking down walls at McCann-Erickson, etc. There’s no mandate for a definitive explanation of what happens to the likes of Roger and Joan, etc. The series is ending, but the characters in the series continue their fictional lives. It’s part of how Chase wrote (and ended) the Sopranos, so I’d expect the Mad Men ending to lean that way but certainly have its own flourishes.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we might have witnessed Don in the last scenes with our favorite characters and how that jarring conclusion didn’t arrive for most viewers until well after he had left. And it has held true. Don’s on the road, ostensibly going to California, and he’s had sufficiently satisfying endings with almost all of the characters except Peggy (who snapped at him and stormed off in their final scenes) and daughter Sally (who snapped at him and then got some fatherly advice from Don before walking onto a bus where Don couldn’t see her again). Now, I believe that whatever time-jump occurs will involve Don having one more final scene with each of those women. It doesn’t have to happen, but it’s likely — not only because it will provide a tidier bit of closure than the one given, but also because Don’s relationship to them is so essential.

He mentored Peggy and helped guide her successful career path. Even though her triumphant cigarette-and-sunglasses entry into McCann-Erickson (with Bert Cooper’s famous painting of the female-pleasuring octopus) would make a perfectly fine last scene, I still think Weiner has some kind of wonderful, dialog-heavy scene planned for those two.

As for Sally, as the eldest child she’s been the glue for Don. Say what you will about the journey Don’s taken since we met him in season one — and he’s certainly done a lot of unpleasant and morally deficient things — but he’s always loved and been close to his kids precisely because of his own clearly awful childhood.

And being a good father, or the best Don could be at the time, has been something that Weiner has used to salve how poorly Betty was at being a mother. Countless scenes, starting in season one, have revolved around Don patching up something with the kids that Betty smashed with her words and deeds. And Don getting caught by Sally, in season six, sleeping around was the catalyst for Don to make changes and come clean about his past — ground zero for the more redemptive Don we’ve seen since then. So, yes, I believe a scene with him and Sally will happen in the finale.

The beauty of this being Weiner’s call, of course, is that nothing anyone else says matters. Maybe Don just continues his On the Road journey to California, detailed in some way that’s personal to his development but not contingent on knowing what’s going on back in New York. That kind of storytelling solidifies the notion that life goes on — that he can deal with Betty and the kids at some later date that we don’t have to see. We just know that he will.

That’s the real beauty of ambiguity. If you trust a character, your mind will complete an act that we don’t have to see acted out. And so we know Don will take care of his family (and it’s pretty clear by the Betty story that Don’s not going to die). By assuming that Weiner’s window on this world is closing only our view into it — not the world that will still exists on the other side — he can choose not to waste time with very distinct character closure. That doesn’t mean we can’t all guess — and debunk.

For example, I don’t think we necessarily need to see more of the Pete and Trudy reconciliation (was happy to call that one a few weeks ago). The Joan storyline can also be ended where it is (though it’s also an option to show her moving to California as well, since her new man is from there). We already know Roger is happy with Marie and jadedly accepting of his new non-role at M-E, where he seems content to ride it out for the money as he has no real ambitions beyond day-to-day pleasure. But yes, more of Roger would be welcome, although my guess is that if we see more of his story, there’s probably a tragic turn to it.

Peggy, Roger, Joan, Sally and Pete: those are the headliners. There could be more Betty of course. But so much is wrapped nicely among these characters. If you believe that Weiner will leave us with a sense that beyond the curtain that has closed for us, these characters will go on living, all we need to see is a snippet of, say, Stan making some kind of gesture with Peggy that might hint about their future; either nothing or something brief with Harry, etc. I’m not sure Weiner will start going down the roster and getting into the secretaries and the remaining M-E employees or even Ted. (I’d be fine with the wonderful way the series has positioned Ted as happy to let others drive the bus. Two episodes ago, his face told viewers all they needed to know about how much he appreciates Don; Don’s decision to break free of M-E made Ted smile with knowing respect at what a Don thing it was to do).

Given all that, the thing I most want in the finale is something prolonged about why we are leaving Don now, at this moment. Recent episodes have cleverly and deftly shown his evolution — a certain maturation. In this last batch of seven episodes kicking of 1970, we got Don freely regaling three women and Roger about his upbringing in a whorehouse. He used to hide and guard that secret part of his life; now it’s just part of a flippant story. Also in these finale 14 episodes, Don came clean totally about his upbringing, and even though it cost him an account and a job (for a bit), it finally allowed him to tell his kids the truth about his past. Last episode, he admitted — to other veterans — that he was responsible for killing his commanding officer in Korea. That was a huge, public, albatross-lifting (and penance enduring) scene. He’s shedding the Dick Whitman secrets and the Don Draper secrets as well. He didn’t need to tell those strangers and vets that he had stolen an identity in Korea — that story line has already been covered with others, primarily and most thoroughly with Pete.

I think the Don we met in the second half of this season was a guy pretty happy with his lot in 1970. He was seeing numerous women — the Megan divorce was in motion and they were separated, with her living in California. The firm hadn’t been “absorbed” by M-E just yet. But at that precise time, life was good. He was happy both professionally and personally.

The elements that kick-started the change to where we find him now — at a bus stop in Oklahoma — came with Rachel’s death, and, in the wake of it, his draw towards Diana. The death really rocked Don, and Diana represented some kind of transference, and with it, a need to save her because she was so lost, as he has been, too. All of this was happening while Don was realizing that he wasn’t really needed by anyone in his personal life. And when his professional world changes, it’s clear a similar pattern is in play at M-E (despite the fact that it's sold to him as advertising heaven). Don realizes there’s nothing left.

There is no purpose, no meaning. A door is opening.

So he decides he’s going to adopt some kind of season one “Hobo Code” and go On the Road. I’ve imagined a kind of scene once he gets to California, that will come close to the beauty of the second season episode, “The Mountain King,” where Don walks into the Pacific Ocean for a baptismal that erases Dick Whitman forever (one of the greatest shots ever in Mad Men).

There’s an allure to California that I think Don will find when he’s not hanging around Megan and the entertainment industry. If he gets to California — no guarantees there — he can kind of live out a sunny second half of his life. Or, as some people assume, he reconnects with Joan to start another agency (though I’m not sure Don is done with advertising or, more specifically, work, I don’t see the Joan thing happening).

The questions for Sunday’s finale will be whether he gets to California at all; where he settles; what he does when he’s there; does he move his kids out there (likely) and, finally, when in the episode does he go back to New York? Of course, maybe he doesn’t; maybe the time jump we get is the one I’m the least convinced will happen but won’t rule out, which is some kind of picture of an older Don. A bigger time leap. (Again, if this happens, it might just focus on Don, not switch over and document everyone else’s advanced years. That seems very un-Weiner to me.)

Mostly, I’m going to be patient and thankful as I mentioned above. I’ve trusted Weiner on this journey and, while he didn’t always get everything perfect, I’m nearly as intrigued by the choices he’ll make as I am excited to see if it ends the way I want. Just enjoying and appreciating is currently the goal. Those are all mostly happy scenarios because, as I noted, with Betty’s situation Weiner is unlikely to kill Don.

But what can’t be ruled out is some kind of alcohol-related storyline. Betty smoked constantly and we saw how that turned out. Season seven opened with “Time Zones,” a beautiful episode that featured Don meeting a woman on a plane (Neve Campbell) whose husband died from drinking. She says: “He was thirsty. He died of thirst...The doctor told me he’d be dead in a year. All of them would be.”

An allusion to Don’s future? Maybe not dead, but maybe scared straight somehow? Who knows. I just think whatever happens to Don in the finale has to (and will likely) cling to the existential themes that have been the backbone of the series since its premiere. I want more — hell you can give it to me while he’s walking on the beach — of Don trying to understand if what he has is enough. Is that all there is? And if so, is it enough to make him happy? Or happy enough. I think the show has successfully dealt now with Don’s identity issues — who he is in the world. The purpose and meaning part, where he must take the measure of his life and see if it satisfies? That’s what he’s been doing all along. Season seven has recently suggested to viewers that Don is finally understanding that he has enough, that it was good and that he’s happy. Or some gradation of happy.

I want that because Mad Men has always been a series about one man’s existential crises. Not much happens in Mad Men — a mower accident and a suicide being the most “action” we’ve had in seven seasons. This show is a character study, period. And though some viewers are frustrated at what they perceive to be a slow pace in these last seven episodes of the series, I think that’s missing the obvious: All episodes of Mad Men are slow, for the most part. Just because it’s coming to an end, just because we’re about to never see these characters again, doesn’t mean Weiner needs to race frantically toward closure. That’s just not the show. It’s why the penultimate episode had Don sitting in a room, reading. And waiting. It’s why it had him fixing a typewriter and thinking about what books to read and had him being asked to fix a Coke machine. There was no urgency to that episode because a character study doesn’t need urgency; it needs details. And often those are small details. They inform the whole.

That’s something to consider when you watch the finale. Think of how slow the last minutes of The Sopranos were. The glances. The small talk. The waiting. Meadow parking and re-parking. It wasn’t going to end with all of Tony’s enemies bursting into the diner and killing his whole family with a final cut from above watching all their dead faces.

Unoriginal shows do that. Or, if you must, shows that want to shut the door and turn the lock. Shows that don’t like ambiguity.

I don’t think Mad Men, that fictional world we’ve loved for seven seasons, is going to shut down or end. We’re just not getting to glimpse it any longer after Sunday night.

What I don’t expect are some of the more dubious theories to come true. Don is not D.B. Cooper — easily the dumbest theory in Mad Men history. I don’t believe he’ll never look back and abandon his family and the world. I don’t think he’ll try to join up and go to Vietnam. I don’t think he’ll go back to work for McCann-Erickson. And I really don’t think he’ll fall out of a window — and I hope no other character does either. And, like the Russian in the woods on The Sopranos, I don’t think Sal is coming back.

We could certainly have a death in the finale. (If so, I’m going with Roger.) But it’s also important to remember that we might get a whole lot of what some people will undoubtedly call “nothing.” Betty, alive, back in New York, staring out of a window. And Peggy, at work, staring into space as she dreams up something creative. And Don, on a beach, a book in hand, staring out at the California waves.

And credits.

I’m preparing for everything. I’m hoping for greatness. I’m ready for the end. Even in a way that I may not have imagined or even wanted. That’s how it goes with stories.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine