The End Of Mad Men

20 05 2015

The 7 seasons of Mad Men came to a close recently with the episode Person To Person. It wrapped up a show that started at the end of 1959, and brought us through the 1960’s into 1970. It was brilliant, and it rarely hit a sour note. Should it keep going? Were there more stories to tell?

Warning: In this piece I discuss events in the show that may give away important plot points. Read at your own risk.

Riding The Wave

It can be tempting for a TV series to try to milk the audience for as long as it can. We have seen many long-running TV shows over the years: Bonanza, M*A*S*H, and The Simpsons are among some of the longest. In some cases, while the audience is still willing to watch, the producers will continue to churn out the episodes.

And “churn” might be the right word. For some TV series, the later years are often not viewed as positively as the early seasons. Some TV shows lose their way. Others meander along, and repeat story lines from time to time when no new material is available. But some resort to all manner of “stunts” to continue to keep the show fresh. Wacky new characters. Special guest stars. A change in venue. “Big Event” episodes. They can help a show limp along until well past its sell-by date, but in some cases they simply put off the inevitable.

Built-in Expiry

Some shows have a built-in expiry. At some point, the castaways have to get off the island. The 5-year mission will be completed. But in some cases, the plot has an obvious “ending”: at some point the rag-tag fleet trailing along with Galactica will need to find a home. They can’t live on those ships forever. Sure, there are still more stories, but not ones that need to be told in the context of that particular show.

In some ways, Mad Men was destined to end in the early 1970’s. The show itself may have centred on the advertising business, but it wasn’t about the advertising business directly. It did show how, in part, advertising was both influential in, and influenced by, the changes in the US in the 1960’s. It revealed some of the darker social elements that were present in the 1950’s (and that are usually ignored or glossed over by those that hold 1950’s America as some kind of moral ideal).

Could Have Ended Too Soon?

There was a real risk that Mad Men would have been a single-season show, because one plot element was an important part of the show, specifically that Don Draper was actually Dick Whitman. The risk for the show was that, once this was revealed, one of the core storylines would be done (and, along with it, Don’s career, marriage and everything else). The show could have ended when Don Draper is killed metaphorically (after having been killed in reality back in Korea).

However, Matthew Weiner was able to navigate those waters fairly deftly, and made sure that the Don/Dick mystery wasn’t the only storyline the audience would care about. Don is in advertising. There is already a degree of falsehood and deception in what they do. So what that Don is really Dick? It doesn’t make him any less skilled at what he does.

History Never Neat And Clean

Real history is never as neat and clean as the somewhat-simplified view of it we get in most popular media or at school, nor as we tend to remember it. Mad Men did a commendable job of showing both the good and bad that people faced in the turmoil of the 1960’s. Political change, social change and technological change were all contributors.

It is good that Mad Men ended after covering just over a decade of US history. We see the tail end of 1959 in the opening episodes, and it is late 1970 when things wrap up. The series finale made it clear that things go on. It isn’t “they lived happily ever after”. It was “they went on with their lives”.

You could view the 7 seasons of Mad Men as a “slice of life” type story, one that didn’t have a concrete beginning and no truly final ending. Sterling Cooper was already an established firm when we first encounter it, with a second-generation manager in a key role. The show didn’t include an origin story that the audience can build from. We pick up the story in the middle. When it ended, we didn’t have a discrete “event”. They didn’t blow up the Death Star. They didn’t solve the mystery. We gained a bit of closure on some things, tied up a few loose ends, but watched as more threads were spun out even as the show cut to the credits.

New Stories Need A New Vehicle

Were there more stories to tell? No doubt there are. Will Joan’s production company thrive? Will Peggy eventually become a creative director, maybe for her own boutique firm? Does Don eventually realize that California is really the right place for him? Maybe. But any new stories would no longer be about “Mad Men”. It wouldn’t be about “Mad Women” either. Any new stories would be set in a world rather different than the one we first saw at the start of the series.

But watching the folks at Sterling Cooper (SCDP, SC&P) navigate the cultural and political waters as they impacted both their lives and their business through the 1960’s was enough. It starts at the end of a mythical “Golden Age” and ends with one of the most iconic commercials for a consumer product ever made. It was a well-crafted story that had a “beginning” and an “end” without starting from nothing and ending with finality.

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