Serialized television is often a journey first and a destination second, but when a show is as influential and acclaimed as Mad Men, the destination becomes that much more important. Will the finale justify the build-up and bolster the show’s legacy, or damage it, making us wonder what all the fuss was about? Happily, Mad Men lands in the former camp, bringing satisfying closure to a unique and ground-breaking show.
Season seven is in fact two seven-episode seasons: the first revels in the world the show has created, while the second gradually says goodbye to it. As ever, Mad Men’s complex, nuanced advertising world is full of well drawn and performed characters, but down the home stretch the series zeroes in on Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), the opposing gender emblems of the series. As the credit sequence suggests, Draper’s baffled strivings trend ever downward, while Peggy continues clawing her way up in search of fulfillment. The final season’s most powerful moments tend to be when their separate journeys intersect, their complex friendship creating a powerful magic; one senses that Don is constantly failing to realize that he needs Peggy, while Peggy is constantly failing to realize that she doesn’t need Don. One finds similarly emblematic journeys for Joan (Christina Hendricks) and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), who provide a kind of secondary counterpoint to Don and Peggy. Where all these characters land in the series’ final moments speaks to the show’s subtle sociopolitical agenda, emphasizing the incremental, glacially slow progress that’s been made over the series’ decade-plus timeframe.
Mad Men could sometimes lose me with its digressional subplots and stilted performances, but in the main it’s an uncommonly engrossing show, thanks to its engaging characters, intelligent scripts, sharp humor, and most of all its immersive world-building. The message is nuanced and not necessarily spelled out, but ultimately the final season does what all good endings need to do: provides a sense of fulfilling emotional closure. A remarkable series.