In all likelihood, 121 million Americans will never again tune in at the same moment for the final episode of a TV series, as they did for “MASH” in February of 1983. When “Mad Men” drops the curtain Sunday night, concluding the affairs of Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris, Pete Campbell, Stan Rizzo and dozens of other characters whose stories have been twisted and jostled by the upheavals of the 1960s, its creators will be delighted if 5 million are watching at that moment.
Besides the fact that Americans don’t bowl together like they did 30 years ago and rarely gather in massive numbers to witness anything other than a football game, “Mad Men’s” cultural status has always had a footprint far larger than its actual audience size. In its best days, it drew half the crowd of “The Walking Dead,” its talky, zombiefest basic cable sister series.
In strict advertising terms (terms that the crew at Sterling Cooper would completely understand), “Mad Men” — lacking the kind of gratuitous violence, nudity and profanity that juiced up “The Sopranos” and makes “Game of Thrones” irresistible — was always designed and executed to be a prestige product, produced with a fairly particular demographic in mind. (The show has succeeded financially largely because of its upscale audience.)
That demographic has been on display in abundance the past few weeks in the form of a torrent of pieces speculating on the show’s resolution, its summary statements on the progress of women in the office and as companions/accessories for men suffering from various forms of misanthropic entitlement. The show has been, and for good reason, catnip for the literate, cultural critic class, professional and otherwise. And all are now assessing its place in the pantheon of American screen fictions.
Has it been a drama that has the cultural resonance of “The Wire,” “The Sopranos,” or “Breaking Bad,” to name three recent examples?
The answer is: Most definitely, yes. Certainly more than “The Sopranos,” which “Mad Men” creator, Matthew Weiner, cut his teeth on.
“The Sopranos” brilliant conceit was that a mob boss was a middle class family man with enough of the usual harried everyman problems and enough of a conscience that he felt compelled to unburden himself to a psychiatrist for existential relief. But after that, sawing off gangsters’ heads in the bathtub and other assorted tribal whackings took the storyline into the realm of pure escapism. “Breaking Bad,” still the most skillfully plotted and cinematic of the recent classics, turned heavily on the sense of diminishment and irrelevance felt by a middle-aged, middle class male who, facing his rather too immediate demise, strikes out to provide a secure future for his family … and then becomes a captive of his inflamed ego. “The Wire” remains by far the most vivid and unsparing depiction of the wages paid by the lower rungs of the country’s institutionalized class structure.
But “Mad Men’s” legacy is built not merely on the superb, almost fetishitic level of period detail Weiner and his team put into sets, props, costuming, grooming and music, but on the simple fact that it was a show in which many viewers, and certainly the cultural critics, saw themselves and the experiences of their lives. The office milieu. The illusory satisfactions of our consumer society. The promise of “new” and “better” in other women and other men. The implicit demands to be someone other than who you are, assuming you ever knew in the first place. Few Americans have survived into adulthood without asking who they are, what it is they really want and without making constant compromises with common sense and/or ethics. It’s the stuff of our lives, American life in particular. “Mad Men’s” tangible characters and culture cue storytelling brought unusually specific emotional relevance to mass market escapism, a canny feat if you can pull it off.
Obviously, these aren’t the kinds of questions you build into entertainment designed for massive, blockbuster audiences. Most people, maybe for the better, prefer not to wade into questions they can’t answer.
Much of the chatter of the past weeks has been over the denouement of Don Draper, Jon Hamm’s deeply conflicted, fatally complicated advertising savant, a guy with a supernatural intuition for the dreams of others but almost no comprehension of his own. One intriguing theory has Draper, last seen sitting on a bus stop bench somewhere in Oklahoma — a nod to Cary Grant’s ad man, Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest” (Weiner is a big Hitchcock fan) — paraphrasing the saga of D.B. Cooper. Cooper being the suave, polite man-with-another man’s-name who hijacked a Northwest Airlines flight in 1971, bailed out (i.e. fell from a great height, not unlike “Mad Men’s” opening credit sequence), in the middle of the night and was never seen again.
Others imagine Don and cast reuniting for the funeral of either first wife Betty, or Roger, the latter finally done in by decades of midmorning/noon/midafternoon bourbon, scorned women, LSD and ridiculous moustaches.
In an interview with the New York Times, Weiner talked about ending a series as long-running and as closely examined as “Mad Men.” Some people felt the blackout ending of “The Sopranos” was too cute and enigmatic, and left far too many tantalizing sub plots hanging. As in: “What happened to the damned Russian!?” “The Wire’s” final episode had about six endings. And let’s not even get started on the copout mess that was the closing chapter of “Lost.” Only “Breaking Bad,” superbly calibrated to the very end, delivered the Nadia Comaneci-like landing that has become the gold standard for top-tier series.
Said Weiner: “Hey, if we’re talking about the ‘Mad Men’ finale 10 years from now, I did a great job. I consider that a success. You know how many finales there have been? If you do your ending right, it is a great ending. It is not a reflection on the entire TV show, but it is a great ending. Sometimes I want to sit next to you and tell you what it is, but I’m really hoping that it is an experience for people that they don’t need decoded. I hope they want to talk to each other about it. I don’t really need them to talk to me.”
There’s no question we, or at least some of us, will be talking about “Mad Men” 10 years from now and longer. A serious-minded commitment to basic storytelling, an obsession with verisimilitude and an informed interest in the ephemeral dreams of a turbulent culture don’t necessarily guarantee showbiz success. But in this case they made the sale.