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The Mad Men series finale is a Rorschach test for the show's viewers

Pete Campbell gets the happy ending he always wanted: moving to Wichita.
Pete Campbell gets the happy ending he always wanted: moving to Wichita.
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.

To discuss the series finale of Mad Men , culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by several of Vox's other writers. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here.

Todd VanDerWerff: I had two thoughts upon immediately concluding "Person to Person," the series finale of Mad Men. The first was, Whoa, Eileen really nailed that prediction. The second was, That was hugely satisfying, but never in a way that pushed for too much closure.

How much closure to provide is the big question all finales (especially drama finales) must wrestle with. Provide too little, and you risk angering the audience, which wants some sense of what happens to everybody. But provide too much, and you close off viewers' ability to imagine other possibilities for what comes next.

There's no right answer to this question, either. Providing almost no closure whatsoever was the right call for The Sopranos, while providing almost total closure was the right call for Breaking Bad. In general, however, I like when my TV shows feel like living documents, never set in stone the way a film or novel might be. It's part of what makes the medium so fascinating to me — the idea that these stories continue, even though we're not privy to them. I want, in short, an ending, but not the ending.

And on that score, "Person to Person" was an absolute marvel. I wrote at length in my recap about the way the episode's structure gave all of the characters brief curtain calls, but I also appreciated how it served as an effective encapsulation of so many of the series' most potent themes and motifs. There was California as a place for renewal and rebirth. There was the slow, triumphant rise of feminism. And there was Don Draper's aching, horrible need for connection, above all else.

In particular, "Person to Person" works beautifully as a Rorschach test as to how you feel about the show and maybe even life in general. Its ending can be read sincerely or cynically, and essentially every character comes to a place that can be seen as a happy ending or an unhappy one.

Is Pete really going to be all that thrilled to be living in Wichita, when push comes to shove? Probably not, but for now it feels like a thrilling start of something new. Betty is literally dying of a horrible disease, but she's finally taken control of her own life and seized hold of her agency. Is that a happy ending or an unhappy one? It really depends on who you are.

If you asked me to describe Mad Men's overall tone, I might call it "deeply cynical but essentially hopeful." And to that degree, "Person to Person" delivered. Everything that happens in it is tinged with the sense that these characters have had a breakthrough, have gotten closer to finding their essential selves and finding contentment. But there's also ample opportunity to believe that they've learned basically nothing and will always be trapped by the same weaknesses they've had from the very beginning.

It's not quite "choose your own adventure," but it's close. And Matthew Weiner underlines, at all turns, just how open-ended this ending is. What's that document Peggy writes? Did Don really return to McCann and pitch "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke"? How will Joan's company do?

The answer to all of those questions is, "We won't ever quite know." I'm more than fine with that. Mad Men has always been a show that's as much about what the audience thinks of it as about what's on screen. It's why, I think, so many viewers got sucked into sharing so many crazy theories about the show and the characters. All that ambiguity essentially invited speculation.

But the show has always been about the way life doesn't like being pinned down. Another way you might describe the show's tone is the old John Lennon quote: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." As Libby Nelson pointed out so beautifully, the biggest effect of watching Mad Men was to become aware of the passage of time yourself. And, of course, our lives don't come with handy, compact endings. They come with lots of half-starts and brief pauses, until the ultimate, final ending that comes for us all.

"Person to Person" doesn't end with every question answered, but if it had, that would have been artificial. It wouldn't have felt real. No, it needed to end like so many of our own stories do — with a gradual stop and then the first hints of a new day on the horizon.

What did you guys think? And as the week wears on, please feel free to share your favorite moments, quotes, episodes, and characters from throughout the series' run.

Read the recap, and come back later today for thoughts from other writers.

Previous episode's discussion

Next: Libby on Peggy's big moment