A Long Time Coming – The Mad Men Review

It feels like I’ve been invested in this show for eons. Or at least a decade. But it turns out to only be five or six years. And after nearly eight years on the air, Mad Men concluded last night–and I hesitate to say it was wrapped up, because it was anything but wrapped up–and in its wake it’s left a lot of questions about what it was and what it was trying to say. I’ve talked about the show briefly in a post years ago after I started watching, but I’ll give a full-on series review here and now. So here’s your warning: while I’ll try to steer clear of spoilers, I can’t promise anything.

The quick synopsis of the show, for those of you out there who didn’t watch it and haven’t even heard what it’s about: Don Draper is a brilliant creative director for an advertising agency in New York. Through nearly an entire decade, we watch Don, the firm, competitors, and his coworkers and family grow, struggle, drift apart and change as the American society of the ’60s fades into that of the ’70s.

I’ve said for a long time that the show isn’t so much a story as it is a character study of a group of advertising people struggling with their lives as the whole world seems to dissolve around them. And if I stick to that as the premise for the show, the seven season arc seems to work. But the problem is that there are story lines that push the show along and give the viewers reasons to become invested in the characters, and some of those story lines just didn’t make sense.

But let’s look at what worked first. Most of the characters end up exactly (or very near) where you thought they’d be when the show ended. Joan knew how to get what she wanted from her life and had the ambition to do whatever she need to do. So her end point makes sense: she created her new role and will be happy with it for a while. Roger finally finds a woman who is his perfect match: kind of shallow, judgemental, argumentative, and happy just living a leisurely life. Peggy has always been ambitious with her career, but expected romance to find her somehow. And after a few pitfalls along the way, she finally found what she wanted…Or actually, it found her. Pete gets his family back and gets away from the city that always seemed to cause him trouble. Ken is finally respected in business. And Ted can just work and not worry about having his name above the door.

And even some of the bad stuff makes sense: Megan is at least in position to do what she wanted to do, so she’s on the path she wanted. And while it’s difficult, Betty and her kids have come together through tragedy, all the while keeping Don at arm’s length because he’s never really been engaged as a husband or father.

But it’s Don’s story that probably just kicks us all the hardest. Sure, he’s always been deeply troubled, and we learn along the way the many reasons why he’s so messed up. But he’s brilliant, and can read people (at least professionally–reading them in his personal life seems to be something he struggles with), but he frequently seems clueless as to why the world just won’t work the way he thinks it should. Nevertheless, he’s quite literally a self-made man: from his name to his persona to the career he has built purely through hard work and saying the right things. So the ending is weird because I think everyone can see Don heading into his future going one of at least two different directions. And that’s what doesn’t make us happy.

I’ve thought about this a lot since last night, and that’s really my only problem: We know where everyone else is headed, it pretty much makes sense, and we can easily guess why. But Don just will not be solved. And after seven seasons, we’ve desperately wanted him to be solved. We’ve watched him build himself up, knock himself down, rebuild himself, and fall again, only to repeat the cycle. And we’re certain he’ll do it again, which leads us to think the last scene means he’s repaired and refreshed and heading back into the world. But one thing keeps sticking in my craw (SPOILER!): of all the people he could have called, why did he call Peggy from the commune? What compelled him to call her when he finally realized that everything he’d built had finally and irreversibly collapsed? Is it because he respects her? Sees her as his equal? Or is it because she’s the only person in his life who he’s not vulnerable to and has the balls to actually tell him to pull himself together?

Everything in his life is gone except his money: his job, his family, his friends, his possessions, and even his home. And standing at the absolute edge of the country, on the opposite end of the continent from where his life went so very wrong, he’s basically faced with two choices: keep running, or take Peggy’s advice and go “home.” Which does he do?

I don’t have an answer to that. I have a suspicion that he goes home because that’s the only part of his life he can still hold on to. But because I don’t have an answer, I’m not positive what Don does with his life. But for now, I can be a little content to just imagine things going either way and know that each of those makes some sense. In context.

So here’s the review part: For those of you out there who haven’t jumped in to watch the show, do so if you want to watch people grow and change over ten years. Do it if you like watching characters do smart things, stupid things, and either help themselves or sabotage themselves. But be prepared for the last couple of seasons to just become a squishy mess of apparent nonsense. The last few episodes help solve the noise of those last two seasons. Though they don’t answer everything. But it’s an interesting and engaging show, fun for the fashions and history of the era that it reflects, and is worth watching at least for that. But prepared to be frustrated and confused at times as the writers seem to enjoy engaging in some strange and offbeat antics once in a while.