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Here's why Mad Men's ending is probably going to frustrate many viewers

Can you imagine Don (Jon Hamm) performing household tasks while Betty (January Jones) looked on back in season one?
Can you imagine Don (Jon Hamm) performing household tasks while Betty (January Jones) looked on back in season one?
AMC

Every week, Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by two of Vox's other writers to discuss the previous episode of Mad Men over the course of that week. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here. This week, Todd is joined by political writer Dylan Matthews and education reporter Libby Nelson. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Dylan Matthews: I'm so glad you brought up Betty getting her master's degree, Libby. It wasn't a particularly subtle callback to the series' beginnings, when Betty's psychiatrist was regularly feeding reports on her sessions back to Don, but it was powerful all the same. In 1960, therapy was a means of controlling Betty. In 1970, it's a way for her to regain control over her life.

That she informed Don while he was performing a domestic task — try to imagine season one Betty standing idly by while Don prepared food — is just gravy. The show's portrayal of her marriage to Henry Francis has been uneven at times, but he's unfailingly portrayed as understanding and supportive of her interests, so her move toward a career of her own feels natural and earned. I wouldn't hire someone who once jokingly encouraged her husband to rape a teenage girl as my shrink, but maybe there's some patient who'd benefit from Betty's particular brand of derangement.

There's something of a parallel to Betty's arc in the Peggy-Pima scene. As Libby notes, Pima was trying to use sex to extract professional favors from Peggy, a weird win for gender equity in sexual transactions, and a stark contrast from the Peggy who made a pass at Don and took up with Pete and Duck. Early Peggy was somehow even more powerless than someone trying to use sex as a bargaining tool. She wasn't that conscious or savvy about it; she just felt it was expected of her, as a woman in the office. Years later, the tables have turned, and even she feels startled by the reversal.

Betty and Peggy have, the show makes clear, grown. They've become more confident, more competent, more comfortable with who they are as people. And then there's Don. The inclusion of the Betty and Peggy plots is a great way to illustrate exactly how little Don has changed — or, in some ways, how much he's regressed.

Season one Don had a fiercely independent but troubled brunette mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt's Midge) but also a stable home life and a marriage that more or less worked; season seven Don has the fling but nothing else. Season one Don was passionate about his work; season seven Don shows up to the office late enough that his secretary has grown concerned. He's no closer to knowing what's missing from his life, no closer to knowing what he actually wanted from his litany of failed relationships.

That contrast works well as a historical metaphor. The 1960s were the moment when white male privilege started to erode, however slowly and unpredictably, when women like Betty and Peggy finally got a chance to move forward and people like Don felt threatened and left behind. It also suggests that the show's central question — can Don fix what's wrong with him? — will go unanswered, perhaps because it must. Don has spent the whole show looking for something (someone, usually) that could fix him, and there's no conceivable way Matthew Weiner could present an actual fix, or an actual diagnosis of Don's core problem, of sufficient gravity to work.

It's like ending Lost or Twin Peaks in a way; when a mythology grows too large, there's no way to solve the core mystery without the final answer feeling too light, not weighty enough for the role it has to play. There was no answer to "who killed Laura Palmer" that could have felt good enough; there is no answer to "what is wrong with Don Draper" that can work either.

Weiner cut his teeth writing for The Sopranos, which felt no need to give a final answer as to what drove Tony, or what kind of life could ultimately make him happy. He just muddled through, and then the show ended. There's something bold about that, about rejecting the audience's need for an explanation or closure and accepting that the problems that plagued the central character for the show's whole run are just part of who he is, and will never go away.

I would put my money on a similar ending for Don, and I have to admit I find it disappointing. The mystery may be impossible to conclude satisfactorily, but even after seven seasons, I don't know what's ultimately driving Don's never-ending cycle of seduction and neglect and estrangement. He's never been any other way, which makes it all but impossible to explain why he's this way. An ending where Don is still the cipher he was in the pilot would be deeply frustrating.

Am I being unreasonable? What do you guys want out of the conclusion?

Read the recap.

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Next: Todd thinks almost the opposite of Dylan.