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Mad Men reminds us that sometimes people leave, and they're gone forever

Megan is gone, and she might not ever come back.
Megan is gone, and she might not ever come back.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

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.

Libby Nelson: Todd, like you, I’m confident Matthew Weiner will be able to give Mad Men a satisfying ending. But I disagree that that ending needs to revolve around Don, who hasn’t been the most interesting character in his own story for some time.

It sure seems like Don is on the verge of some kind of realization, and whether he gets that realization certainly matters to Don. But it doesn’t really matter anymore to the audience.

Dylan, I disagree that Don is still some kind of complicated cipher who needs to be solved. After seven seasons, we know who Don Draper is. I don’t agree with the show’s creators that his Depression-era childhood explains everything about the man he is today, but that’s clearly the message we’re supposed to take away.

A few weeks ago, I said that all I wanted from the Mad Men finale was for all the characters I like to live happily ever after, and for all the characters I don’t like to change. (Failing that, I would settle for Pete Campbell being eaten by a bear.) But really, it’s too late for Don or Pete to change in a way that feels organic and earned. They’re older now, and they’ve tried to change, while eventually becoming just slightly different versions of themselves. That makes it easier to end their stories, but less easy to do so in a way that’s emotionally honest.

But I’ll be honest: Don’s arc could have ended here, with him alone in his apartment, surrounded by his lack of furniture, and I’d be fine with that. If I watched Mad Men to find out what happened to Don Draper, I would have quit watching around season five.

The question of how the show can end in a way that feels both earned and satisfying, though, is much bigger than Don. For all of Mad Men’s melodrama, it’s a show that commits to a kind of realism — something Matthew Weiner summed up recently by saying that in other shows, if a girl gives a boy her number, and he loses her coat, she’ll magically turn up again; in Mad Men, she’s gone for good.

Sal is gone. Ginsberg is gone. Peggy’s baby is gone.

Sometimes choices are irrevocable. Sometimes people leave and they’re gone forever. Mad Men has been adamant that it does not owe us closure — just like life. And although it’s sometimes frustrating, that restraint is part of what makes Mad Men different from everything else on TV.

Sal is gone. Ginsberg is gone. Peggy's baby is gone.

I want the ending to lean into that. I want it to put the characters on the cusp of something we’re not going to see all the way through to its end. Maybe I’m wrong, and the series will flash forward 30 years, showing us Sally in her middle age and Don in his dotage, and I’ll love it. But I’d be equally happy with a less conclusive ending that makes us reflect on how the characters and their world have changed — and perhaps on how we have, as well. By now, we know who these people are, and we have to accept that we’re not going to know everything that will happen to them.

Barring something beautiful and unexpected in the next few weeks, for me, the most perfect moment of the end of Mad Men will be Don and Peggy dancing in the office to "My Way," near the end of the first half of this season. That scene said so much about how far the characters — and their world — have come, about how much they and their world have and have not changed. It gave no closure, answered no questions, and yet was deeply satisfying. If Weiner can do that once, I’m confident he can do it again.

Read the recap, and come back next week for discussion of another episode.

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