In Defense of the Season Finale of "Mad Men"


According to the always-reliable Internet, many people were unhappy with this season’s finale of Mad Men. Most of the criticism seems to be either one of two things: first, that it was just too nonsensical, too fast: the sudden engagement, Don’s off-putting happiness, or just the general tenor of LA and its aftermath. The second complaint seems to be that “nothing really happened.” (There’s a third complaint, from “Lost” creator Damon Lindelof, that it wasn’t made clear that the whole cast has been dead through the entire show, but he was pretty much the only one to raise that objection.) Well let’s get the first, and seemingly the most ridiculous, out of the way.

People are freaked out that, in the course of three days: 1. Don gets the engagement ring of his now-dead closest friend, 2. goes to Disneyland, and then 3. proposes to his secretary (to be fair, people don’t seem so freaked out by the Disneyland thing, but it was still important). What seems to be lost in how people react to the episode, though, is that ten weeks have passed since Don bought his ad in the New York Times. That means as many as 14 weeks have gone by (more than three months!) since Megan and Don first had sex-and don’t forget, even weeks before that, he was pining for her since the G-men/identity crisis episode, when we caught him staring longingly out the door.

Now, this doesn’t necessarily make the engagement any less jarring or weird, but it does make it a little more sensible that Don, who’s been alongside this girl he’s been pining after on some level for months and months every single day, would propose after she proves herself as both charming (diamond cut-out cleavage dress) and trustworthy (very good with the children). Again, it’s still crazy, and if your friend told you he had proposed to his secretary the way Don did, you would think, “Wow, that’s crazy!” a la Roger Sterling. But it’s important to remember that crazy is very in line with who Don has been this season (see: getting very blackout-drunk a lot, stealing ideas from short guys who were previously on “Gilmore Girls,” yelling at Peggy, that sort of thing).

So, complaint number two: the finale, along with the season as a whole, was a bit of a disappointment, and nothing really happened, or at least nothing of real significance. This is a problem of expectation in the age of event television.

The expectations that people have of the season finales of serialized television boil down to two things. We want a culmination of everything a season has worked towards, if not a resolution, and we also want something to look forward to for the next season. Some more recent successful executions of this have been: the first season of “Friends” where Ross has to choose Rachel and the Chinese girl, the first season of “Lost,” with the revelation of the hatch, and “Friday Night Lights” and its third season finale-I won’t mention what happens because it’s so good and should be watched by everyone and appreciated in its entirety.

There are the rare occasions when a neatly tied bow is enough of a conclusion to satisfy its audience, like the first three seasons of “The Wire,” for example, but those instances are few and far between. More and more, season finales have become great, grasping reaching things. (See: “True Blood.”) Everything has to blow up, or fall apart, or wildly open a new chapter.

And sure, with “Mad Men,” we had high expectations-particularly given the precedent, with the end of the previous season and the founding of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. That was a very traditional season finale, and a very traditionally satisfying one: there was conflict, there was stress and there was the promise of something to anticipate.

And this season finale-it was unsettling. It promised something for next season, for sure. Just maybe not something you wanted.

Let’s take a step back. There’s also a trend now with commentary on the Internet-not exclusive to it but definitely part and parcel-to always expect to have the best and the most of everything. That’s not to say that wanting nice things or having high expectations is something that’s unique to now. But people expect anything that they’re presented with be the best that it could ever be. This makes sense though when you consider what the internet is: a place where you can get almost any tangible intellectual property of the last however many years for free. Any TV show, movie, song, book, whatever can be found if you dig long enough. So there’s more options that exist now than ever before. A product isn’t just competing with its recent contemporaries, but also with everything that’s ever come before to which it’s even remotely similar.

Previously, memories provided the context for our comparisons-most often with nostalgia winning out-but it’s even harder to watch and enjoy an episode of “SNL” on Hulu when, right after that skit is finished, the videoplayer gives you three suggestions with the most popular “SNL” skits of all time as related content.

All of this is all to say that the finale for “Mad Men” never had a chance of meeting people’s expectations to receive favorable reviews. The Internet wouldn’t have been happy unless there was a office threeway between Peggy and the nice lesbian and that model. (Then everyone probably would have said the show’s writers went too far anyway.)

Yes, even with context, the Draper-secretary engagement was still a little crazy, and the whole season was even more unclear than previous ones regarding the pacing and passing of time between weeks, making it a little jarring for the viewer. But the episode as whole was still pretty awesome. Each of the characters’ reactions to the engagement was spot on, as was the reveal of Joan’s non-abortion (and I mean, “Yes, they’re bigger,” COME ON), and the development of Peggy coming into her own, going in hard and nabbing her own client. Not to mention Betty’s unraveling with Henry (and Henry finally, finally yelling at Betty). Don’t you think all of these stories have serious implications for the next season? That’s how good television is supposed to work.