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One of the inevitable elements of a series unspooling its final episodes is that viewers begin to panic about the end, about what stories will be tied up and how tidily, about loose ends and what they deem the appropriate final goodbye will be concerning characters they’ve grown to love. More than anything, viewers have learned, through both good and bad experiences, to fret about the final episode — the literal series finale.
But so much is happening in these last moments when we might not be paying as close of attention as we think. And much of this goes back to how a series creator and his or her writers structure the final episodes. In the case of Mad Men, the final seventh season being split into two seven-episode breaks is problematic in that this last batch is going by more quickly than seems possible.
There are two episodes left, ever, of what may ultimately be considered one of the two or three great dramas of all time.
And Sunday’s episode, “Lost Horizon,” essentially created a conundrum that might not be able to be resolved without a time jump. Backed by David Bowie’s Space Oddity, Don has fled Manhattan and driven his Cadillac to Racine, Wisconsin, in a fruitless effort to “save” enigmatic waitress Diana. Then, after that fails, he ultimately agrees all too willingly to take a hippie hitchhiker to St. Paul.
He’s going West, people. And at this point, he’s not coming back.
Now, that sets up some interesting decisions that series creator Matt Weiner has made. One of them could be that we’ll never see Don Draper interact face-to-face ever again with any other character on Mad Men.
Give that a thought for a second.
But before we dive into the ramifications, there are two very important storytelling decisions to consider. First is the nature of ambiguity. History tells us that most viewers don’t like it — they want closure, a la Six Feet Under and a few other tidily ended series. But Weiner is a disciple of David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, who hired Weiner to work on that series. You might recall how that show ended — a debate about that is still going on eight years later.
With only two hours left, some fans of Mad Men may be wondering how Weiner will seek closure for all the characters they love. The answer could be that he’s already given viewers a lot, and they just haven’t noticed. And next week might be the ideal week to do just that — as Don continues his westward march toward happiness or something acceptably similar.
A penultimate episode that wraps up many non-Don-related stories makes sense and is also very Chaseian, if you will. It would allow the final episode to be heavily Don-focused, and, let’s not kid ourselves here, Don Draper is the series — end of discussion.
This is the likely outcome if you consider that the next episode will almost assuredly be Don on this epic road trip. He may get back to New York in the finale — a likely occurrence — but probably not in the next episode. If that holds, it would be very difficult for Weiner to put him in a situation where he’s one-on-one with Peggy, Roger, Joan or Pete — the main players in the series. Megan is probably never to be heard from again (with her check for a million dollars), but if he’s in California during the finale, who knows?
But this much is true — Don has had almost ideal closure with Betty (last episode) and Roger (two episodes ago), with arguably satisfactory closure (meaning, in my definition — realistic if not perfect encounters) in his dealing with Joan (last episode), Pete (two episodes ago) and Sally (two episodes ago).
The second storytelling decision, after ambiguity, is the notion that the lives of characters we love go on without us witnessing them. I certainly believe that’s true in the case of Tony Soprano. And Mad Men could end with Don in California, but with everyone knowing that he recently got a new apartment in New York and could conceivably move back there (or fly back and sell it) without viewers having to see it. That is, even though Don drank warmly with Pete (and Roger, Ted and Joan) at the bar following the failed pitch two episodes ago to convince McCann-Erickson to let there be a Sterling Cooper West, it doesn’t mean he’ll never see Pete again. It only means that was enough. That’s all Weiner needed to show us.
That night of drinking led to a wonderful moment between Roger and Don that needs no other interaction. And, if you believe in realism, there was something very warm and sincere about Don and Joan in the elevator making lunch plans in the last episode. She clearly missed him. He volunteered to once again come to her defense if she needed it. Joan said she could handle the bumpy times herself. Don said he had no doubt she could. “Let’s make a date for lunch,” Joan says. “Soon,” Don says, warmly, and the smile on her face was so bright you almost thought Christina Hendricks knew that was their last scene.
And if it was, the emotions were real. There was a connection. Weiner doesn’t need to make a grandiose gesture about how much those two characters love and appreciate each other. That was clear.
And though I fully expect there to be at the very least a phone call between Don and Sally — she has always been his touchstone in the series — his pointed conversation with her by the bus two episodes ago, when she said her wish was to get on that bus and leave both Don and Betty behind and never be like them, was in its own way perfect. Because Don grabbed her arm and gave her the stern father talk: Whether you like it or not, you’re just like your mother and me. You’re a beautiful girl — it’s up to you to be more than that.
I will take that as a finale encounter any day (though I’m confident something far more uplifting and emotional awaits viewers).
Perhaps no character interaction has been as rewarding as last week’s Don-Betty scene, filled with warmth, nostalgia for the past, and a not too bleak underlining of how things have changed for Don. Then, as he talks to her about Sally and the boys, her life and her new adventure in returning to college, he says, “Knock ‘em dead, Birdie.”
It was note-perfect — no schmaltz, no unnecessary final disagreement between the two. And it put an exclamation point on something people might have missed in this last batch of shows — Don is uncommonly kind and polite to virtually everyone he meets. Weiner hasn’t hammered that home, but it’s a clear sign that Don has found at least something more important than work or banging the neighbor. He seems very in touch with other people — which perhaps kicked off with Rachel’s death and his need to “save” Diana.
And yet, if we’re going to discuss the possibilities of Don being out west and thus having had his last interactions with the other characters, two things stand out that suggest that won’t hold up.
First, Don’s last face-to-face with Peggy, arguably the character he’s most open and thus close with, was two episodes ago, and it didn’t go well. In an episode that underscored how Don was looking for something more in life — the “Is that all there is?” motif — Peggy demands to be reviewed for her work during the year (which is so Peggy of her), and Don takes the review well beyond dreams into a philosophical discussion about what’s important in life — and to him, it’s not advertising.
Peggy: “Why don’t you write down all of your dreams so I can shit on them?”
Yeah, that’s probably not the last interaction between those two.
If you factor in no Don-Peggy face-to-face moments for two episodes and the missed ride he was going to give Sally in the last episode, you’d have to surmise that two of the most important women in his life will have to have some kind of direct connection with him soon, not only to be honest with the story but to give viewers that last chance to see them interact. But that’s unlikely to happen until the finale.
And that might mean a time jump. Which is plausible — the episodes in this last batch of seven have discreetly been taking place roughly one month apart from each other. So that means Sunday’s episode could be Don still on his road trip or Don in California, with the finale being a month forward and him back in New York closing up shop/loose ends. That’s conceivable. And if he’s back in New York, he could also interact with other characters.
But the hard truth is that nothing is guaranteed. There is precious little time left in Mad Men. And scenes we might want to see? We might have already seen them. They might be over and gone now.
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