Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men Finale is The Real Thing

When The Sopranos finale ended, I immediately hated it and everyone involved with it. It felt out of place and pretentious and a slap in the face. Over the next few months, and after catching a few random episodes on re-runs, I came to love that ending. I think I had gotten too caught up in the plot of the show and forgot that it was working a more subtle game of character development that really did make sense to end in a more open way. Yeah, there were many fan theories about whether or not Tony got whacked, but that's all nonsense. That sort of thing misses the point entirely. Having now seen the Mad Men finale, it makes perfect sense that Matthew Weiner worked on the last two seasons of The Sopranos, even if he didn't have a direct hand on the finale.

don draper omm
The Donlightenment?
I don't hate the finale of Mad Men. This ambiguity doesn't feel like it comes from left field. I even hoped it would end ambiguously and at one point, during the last episode I had a sense of what the last thing would be and I'm not even sure why. And really, it may not even be that ambiguous. It's good I never realized until today that there were all these fan theories floating around about who the falling man in the credits was and whether Don would turn out to be D.B. Cooper and whatever else. That's exactly the type of thing that means you wasted your time on this show. It's exactly what Lost did wrong by playing up that whole angle throughout the series, building the entire show on it, only to later tell us all we were being stupid. Fuck Lost. But I digress.

father and daughter
Good times were rare.
No, Mad Men has been about characters from the very first second and I've already talked about it being the most literary thing every put on TV. This ending does have multiple interpretations, but unlike the ending to Lost (fuck that show) the interpretations really are about character. Did Don create that ad? Did Peggy create it? Did Don just dream it in that moment? And what does it mean for Don's arc if he did eventually go back and create that ad? Did he learn anything at all? Is he doomed to be stuck selling false fulfillment? Or is that ad a marked difference in how he sees things? Maybe, the fact that instead of selling something to people, the ad is about buying them something, giving a gift, means something? I don't know. It's one of those things that I think merits discussion and thought and that alone is a sign that it's the right ending. 

Don shrugs
Who the fuck knows?
Regardless, Don had a catharsis and came to terms with himself. Whether that ends up being someone we like or not, is completely irrelevant. And the more I think about it, I think I agree with Ryan in that Don essentially just ends up being comfortable with who has been all along, rather than changing into some enlightened hippie. So, yeah, he does just end up using this catharsis as and advertising ploy, selling us more crap, no matter how good that classic ad may make us feel. Too often, I think, audiences believe stories are only successful if you feel good about the characters. The whole criticism of The Wolf of Wall Street as glamorizing the horrendous behavior of the protagonists I think came from the false idea that "protagonist" means the same as "hero." It's a confusion of content and context. And I see a little bit of that in this week's controversy over the latest episode of Game of Thrones, too (I tried to write in depth about this, but it really is too much of a hot button and I do see the other side's points). But, again, I digress, which is a direct result of the thought this finale sparks.

Mother and daughter mirror
Loaded image, Sally sees all.
But what about the other characters? With Betty dying, Sally has stepped up to take care of her brothers and dying mother. Somehow, though, I don't think this ends there for her. I think Sally has more self awareness than Don can ever hope to find. As for Betty, she at least gets to die on her own terms, even if she apparently never learned anything. Her whole concern with how she will look at the end is who she was brought up to be. Her resignation to her fate just as she had started to go back to school is like she's stared into the abyss and said fuck it. She's unmoved because she sees her prison and how fate just keeps her in it. While this is certainly a sad note to end on for them, I think Sally has more story ahead of her and as much as I hate the idea of spin offs and not letting things end, she is the one character that it would make sense to catch up with again in a few years. 

Mad Men Organ Roller Skating
Roger would have played on the Titanic.
Joan and Roger's scene discussing the future of their "rich bastard" was perfection. Roger was always Roger, though he did seem to find some kind of comfort with his own mortality, which was always his biggest fear. Joan went from being the bombshell not seen for anything else to being the most adamantly feminist, empowered character on the show. That's how you do it. Pete wanted to be Don more than anything and early on found out Don wasn't Don. Little by little, he learned nothing was anything until it all fell apart and he found some kind of redemption, after a time where I was sure he'd blow his brains out. In a way, his ending is frustrating because he's the rich boy that got to destroy lives and then gets his life put back together, but as bad as the things he did along the way were, the thing about Pete is he always had a good heart. He was as much a victim of expectations as anyone and now he's decided to hell with the expectations. So I do think he deserves some happiness, even if he never fully makes amends for his wrongs, but again, that's the tension and complexity of these things. Ultimately, whether he deserves it or not, he's getting something that is likely more complex than he realizes. That's life.

mad men dance
This is how I'll always remember them.
Then there's Peggy. Her ending could be seen as cheesy and that's because it is in a way. But let's think about this. She turns down Joan's offer to go be badass female producers, running their own business. That's not her thing. If Joan is the most adamantly feminist character, Peggy is the most adamantly human. Peggy wants to succeed in her way, not because she is a woman and wants to defy expectations and show them what she is made of. She wants it because it's what she wants. There's no agenda for her beyond wanting to create. And I don't say that to diminish Joan's agenda either. But there is a very big difference in motivation between these two awesome women. Peggy's talent has never really been in question and because she wasn't the bombshell, she was able to overcome societies views of her gender and sexuality in a way that Joan never could. But if we're being honest, Joan's looks did provide an advantage for her to a point, where Peggy never had that. She had the luck to come across Don and have him give her a chance, but other than that, she worked for what she has and was never afraid of it. And if her ending includes a cheesy romantic revelation, seemingly out of the blue, what better character to have that happen to? And, by the way, if you look back at this series moment by moment, I'm willing to bet you'll realize Elisabeth Moss is a HIGHLY underrated actress with a range that boggles the mind. Everyone on the show was great, but to me, she stands out. And that's saying something when you consider the caliber of the entire cast.

Mad men ladies
Mad Women. 
Anyway, I don't know what I'll think of this show after a re-watch. I'm sure I'll uncover things I missed and I look forward to it, soon. To answer the question, yes. This is definitely now in my top 5 shows of all time. I'm still not sure where I place this ending, but then I'm not sure this is the type of thing where you can single out the ending that way. It's not Six Feet Under or even Breaking Bad. It's not even The Sopranos, really. This was a much more subdued and subtle finale and that's OK. 

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