I'm not going to sit here and pretend like I know what "Mad Men" is all about. In fact, like my very good friend Jon Snow, I know nothing.
But I consider myself a qualified entertainment junkie and a proud couch potato; I consume TV like Roger Sterling downs vermouth. I've always thought of myself as someone who sees the deeper meanings and intended messages of all these auteur's visions.
But apparently I'm more clueless than Pete Campbell behind the wheel of a car.
"Mad Men" is hailed as one of the greatest dramas in television history. There's no denying that the acting and dialogue is top notch. I won't argue that the show's setting is more than just a year on the calendar; to quote Don Draper himself, "it's a time machine." "Mad Men" has always utilized the backdrop of history as an actual character. It's something tangible that impacts each character's life in significant ways and somehow reflects modern times. JFK, Martin Luther King, the Moon landing. All have been woven into the rich and enthralling story to make statements both big and small about ourselves.
But, I have to be honest; I've never been a huge fan of the show. I've kept up with it, watching the weekly episodes and reading the weekly recaps. But as we come to the series finale this Sunday, I find myself feeling not nostalgic, but trapped on The Carousel that Don described so eloquently back in season one. We've been going around and around in a circle for years and I can't help but feel sick.
In seven seasons, "Mad Men" has dazzled and enamored without ever actually evolving to me. Maybe I'm not smart enough to get it (distinct possibility), but these last seven episodes have felt almost identical to the first seven. Existential crises, the struggle to find individual happiness, the nature of identity, changing social landscapes, love disguised as sex and sex disguised as love. These are all powerful themes that pack more of a punch than an Old Fashioned. But they are also all motifs that have been explored repeatedly during the show's run. "Mad Men" as a whole has sometimes felt to me as if it was stuck in a formulaic holding pattern where repetition was substituted for storytelling.
Stop me if any of this sounds familiar: Don is happy until he's not. Don tries the straight and narrow before he falls off the wagon. Peggy takes pride in her professional life until she blames it for ruining her personal one. Peggy and Joan struggle with being women in a misogynistic, chauvinistic and sexist world. Roger reflects on his self-wroth and value. Betty does...Betty things. After all this time, we've come to realize that it isn't the champagne glasses or cigarette packs that are empty, it is the characters themselves.
These are all fantastic story arcs that have made "Mad Men" what it is today. But it's disappointing that we're still dealing with the same exact problems we were back in season one; they've just been spun into newer circumstances.
Unless they haven't.
This final season has shown Don suffering through the same old internal struggle, but it's also leaving him with a new chance for redemption. In years past, he would have enjoyed this spiritual walkabout/booze bender but not actually changed as a person by the end of it. This time, it really feels as if he is shedding his Don Draper persona (good bye high-paying NYC advertising job! Hey kid, take my fancy car!) and finally settling back into Dick Whitman. Materialism pales in comparison to the sense of freedom.
Now, Betty's terminal diagnosis affords Don the opportunity to embrace who he really is and who he might have always been: a good man.
Throughout the show's run, Don is one of the few characters who actually struggles with his morality instead of outright disregarding it. He has shown himself to be volatile, destructive and selfish but he has also revealed surprising moments of vulnerability, compassion and understanding. With Betty's life tragically coming to an end soon, Don can become the father he was always meant to be yet never fully embraced.
Perhaps it's because of his own dysfunctional upbringing (on second thought, it's definitely because of his own dysfunctional upbringing), but Don has always tried to fill the hole in his heart with women, alcohol and money instead of loved ones. We've seen it destroy two marriages and threaten every one of his close relationships. But he can redeem himself for all of that by stepping up and taking care of his children once Betty passes. He can become a loving father and not just a detached father figure.
I want this not because I'm some sap who yearns for happy endings; give me the everyone-is-dead of "LOST" over the happily-ever-after of "Friends" any day. I want this because it would mean that the show isn't coming full circle; that showrunner Matthew Weiner isn't copping out to some message about the cyclical nature of life. Give us something you've spent seven seasons building up as an impossibility, don't give us exactly what we expect. Don may not deserve character development at this point, but the audience does.
The here-and-back again plot points and way-too-subtle symbolism of "Mad Men" has always bothered me, especially in contrast to the ever changing chessboard of "Game of Thrones." But this ending seems simple and fittingly un-"Mad Men" like. Let Don finally learn his lesson. Seven years of running in place is long enough. I don't need to go to a place I've already been, I need to go to sompleace new.
Or, you know, give him another bottle and call it a day. Your call.