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What Mad Men's final season learned from the end of The Mary Tyler Moore Show

There was a lot of Joan in this episode. All hail Joan!
There was a lot of Joan in this episode. All hail Joan!
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 education reporter Libby Nelson and political writer Dylan Matthews. Keep checking in all week long for new entries.

Todd VanDerWerff: Episodes like "Time & Life" are why I watch Mad Men. I don't want to suggest the episode was perfect or the best thing the show has ever done or anything like that. But there's something so satisfying in that moment when a bunch of disparate story strands come together and reveal where everything has been headed all along.

But even more important, "Time & Life" revealed that we haven't just been making stuff up in these chats every week. Everything we've been talking about was here: the apocalyptic sense of doom, the growing sense that the world has completely changed, and the intense focus on the shifting fortunes of the show's women. It was an episode in which Don was driving much of the action, but he wasn't the sole person doing so, which is all I can ask for out of an hour of the show.

What was best about it, though, was the way it brought everybody back together. For a while, the episode fooled me into thinking that the level of connection we saw among the core five at Sterling Cooper & Partners (with Peggy and, later, Stan also knowing what was coming) might trickle out to the rest of the staff. Yes, this was a worst-case scenario for all involved, even if Jim Hobart pitched it as "advertising heaven." But, hey, at least they had the Time & Life building.

But no. As that last shot makes clear, nobody is going to be thrilled by this news, even when Don tries to fake excitement over what's coming. It's a shitty deal, and shitty deals don't lead to people feeling excited about what's coming down the pike. They lead to everybody looking for whatever's next.

Unfortunately for a lot of these characters, "whatever's next" is something like McCann. Yeah, Peggy should really only be somewhere like that for three years, tops, but it's an important line to have on her resume. And the partners in the firm are all going to get everything they ever dreamed of, just not the autonomy they actually crave. Meanwhile, only Lou Avery gets what he wants, leaving to create a cartoon series with the studio that made Speed Racer.

The prominence of Lou's lucky break and everybody else being squeezed into a corporate world they want nothing to do with made me ping on something else entirely — the series finale of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In many ways, the final season of MTM established the template for how a series should end. The season featured all sorts of "only in a final season!" storytelling gambits, like bumbling Ted Baxter having a brief moment of clarity after a heart attack, Mary going on a date with her boss, Lou, and a big guest appearance from none other than Johnny Carson. The series finale, then, actually dared to suggest an ending to a story nobody realized the show had been telling, by closing down the TV station everybody worked at and scattering the characters to the winds. (Only Ted, like Lou Avery, got what he really wanted.)

Now, of course, the "final season" of a show is supposed to hint at finality in every. Single. Episode. There's really no way a show like Mad Men could have worked like that, but the audience's knowledge of the impending end creates a tension with what's happening on screen. What if this is the last time Roger and Joan hug? What if this is the last time Peggy and Pete ever share a conversation? What if this is the last time we see Trudy? What then?

The beauty of what Mad Men has been doing right under our noses, then, has been in playing both of these approaches off of each other. By playing around with the MTM template, it's been suggesting the contour of what these endings could look like, without actually committing to one. And by using our knowledge of the show's impending end against us, it's caused us to become impatient for some sort of final story about this ad hoc workplace family.

And now, of course, we know that family is going to be ripped apart and tossed aside, just like Mary Richards and her friends. But we get three whole episodes to watch it happen. I can't wait.

Read the recap, and come back later today for more thoughts.

Previous episode's discussion

Next: Dylan on why this episode wasn't big enough.

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