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Here's why Mad Men's ultimate ending is going to satisfy viewers — probably

Don confronts his empty apartment, a symbol of his slowly dissolving life.
Don confronts his empty apartment, a symbol of his slowly dissolving life.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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.

Todd VanDerWerff: I find it astute, Dylan, that you bring up The Sopranos, not because I want Mad Men to emulate that show's finale, but because I want it to emulate its final season in another way — I want it to bring Don to the point of self-realization, then have him hastily walk it back.

Don't get me wrong. If Matthew Weiner and company can earn the moment when Don realizes who he is, in the truest, deepest, darkest sense, I will be very impressed. But you're right to be concerned that such a thing would ultimately be a little disappointing, because the series has turned this question into such a big one that it's attained its own gravity. It is a story black hole, sucking everything into its maw.

For instance: I am generally a fan of Mad Men, season six, but the flashbacks to Don's childhood in that season struggled precisely because they tried to explain some things that we mostly knew already.

So that said, where do I think and hope this is going? For that, we have to look at the Sopranos episode "Kennedy and Heidi," which aired three episodes before the series finale and was, perhaps not coincidentally, co-written by Weiner. In it, a rather major character is unexpectedly killed — and not because of a mob hit or anything, but because of Tony's cold-blooded expediency.

The episode famously ends with Tony sitting in the desert outside of Las Vegas, stoned out of his mind, crowing, "I get it!" to the heavens after having some sort of revelation that the audience is not privy to. In the next episode, he's back to business as usual, and the exact meaning of "I get it" has been much debated by fans of the show. What realization did Tony have about himself or the universe? Does it matter, if he immediately goes back to the same old, same old?

Like The Sopranos, Mad Men is a series about the possibility or impossibility of change. It's slightly more optimistic on the matter — in that lots of characters in its universe have evolved into better or at least truer versions of themselves — but it still hinges on the question of whether change is possible. And Don is at the center of that conundrum.

At several points throughout the series, Don has seemed on the cusp of understanding that in trying to constantly run away from himself, he's only run away from the perfect image of the American male he longs to project. I think, in particular, of the moment in the season-six drug trip episode "The Crash," when he digs through a drawer full of advertising ideas for a maternal image he can take to heart, or of the scene in that season's finale when he finally reveals his true self to his coworkers and is rejected for it. Don is always on the cusp of "getting it," then finds himself forcing the realization deep down into himself until he can't see it any more.

And that, I think, is what I hope for from the final season — and why I'm pretty sure it's going to be a smashing ending, even if this episode didn't quite work. Diana, I believe, is a conduit for Don to finally, truly see himself, because it will force him to confront the part where he believes he stopped being Dick Whitman and became Don — only to mostly continue to be his old self.

I don't think it's a coincidence that we haven't seen Sally in these episodes, or that Don and Peggy have spent essentially no time together. They're the two people who most tether him to the truth of himself. But first, he has to face down his ghosts, and Diana represents every single one of them. In embracing her, he might "get it." Or he might finally chase himself off and slip into self-created fantasy.

The thing is, the question of who Don is just isn't all that mysterious to me anymore. The audience has enough information about him to establish a working psychology of the man — just as we did with Tony. Now we just wait to see if he, too, will figure it out, or if he'll be washed away by desert winds.

Libby, do you think Don is capable of such self-reflection?

Read the recap.

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Next: Libby talks about how everything ends.

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