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. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.
Todd VanDerWerff: The more I read pieces around this great internet of ours about the final half-season of Mad Men, the more I sense a slowly building panic. Next week is the halfway point of this set of seven episodes, and we really have no idea what the final story of the series is going to be.
At least the first half of the season was united by Don's desperation to get his job back. This season is, so far, about pretty much nothing at all. The episodes have mostly been united by a slowly growing existential malaise and ennui, a sense that this is all there is.
I would caution those who are terrified that this is a pretty common strategy for Mad Men to employ. There have been so many times that the series pulled some plot rabbit out of a character-driven hat, and I've been quietly knocked back on my heels by what the show had been building to all along. The most famous example of this might be season six, which seemed like a meandering series of stories about how Don could never change, until the tremendous final two episodes, in which that quality became a noose around his neck.
So I think there's every chance that Matt Weiner and company are building something profound that we just don't see yet. But I'm also starting to wonder if the series finale of Mad Men was actually the midseason finale, "Waterloo," in which Don got everything he wanted, only to realize how little any of it meant. That episode is, in most ways, the end of the story of these characters. There are so few loose ends left to tie up, and it even concludes with a big song-and-dance number.
Now, ending your show with seven episodes left in your run is the sort of thing that doesn't seem likely to ingratiate yourself to audiences. And if, indeed, that's what Weiner is up to, even I, a man who never met an audience-alienating story gambit he couldn't force himself to like, would find that more satisfying intellectually and conceptually than emotionally. Deep down, I want closure. But I also know that's not how life, or this show, operates.
Think of how many times in your life you've come to some sort of climactic moment or triumph, only to wake up the next morning and realize that life goes on. We tend to use that phrase in times of grief or mourning, reminding ourselves that the world keeps turning even if it seems to have stopped for us. But the same is just as true of when we accomplish something major. We might graduate from school or finish a major project or lose a lot of weight, but we're still us. We can never really escape that simple fact.
In their own way, I wonder if these episodes of Mad Men aren't trying to capture that feeling. The audience wants a feeling of finality, but what we're getting is the feeling that comes after finality, the cold dawn of the morning after when you realize that what you were chasing was a phantom that could never bring true happiness. These characters are hoping for something to break, for revelation to crest and break over them in a torrent. But they're realizing that no matter what they do, they're still stuck with themselves.
That would be an incredibly grim way to end a show that's been, all things considered, a mostly joyful experience. And if you asked me to put money on it, I'd still bet on scenario A — that Weiner and pals are building toward something we just can't see yet. (If that's the case, then they may find themselves running out of runway very soon.)
But I still think there's the chance that this is a quieter, more muted ending, the story of everything that comes after the big moment. Bert Cooper's final song has ended, Don Draper's job is safe, and Peggy Olson is on her way to greatness. But they're still themselves, still hobbled by the same insecurities and capable of the same tiny moments of grace.
Is that all there is?
What do you guys think? And are you as jazzed about the latest episode, "The Forecast," as I am?
Read the recap, and come back later today for more thoughts.