Last month marked the beginning of the end for Mad Men. Just in case you weren’t already aware of this via the countless articles and general anticipation, its seventh season has been renamed Mad Men, The Last Season on iTunes and assorted marketing ephemera.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) will have left us for good by 2015 and, like intuiting the demise of a real-life relationship, the words ‘Final Season’ loom heavily over each episode. In the case of Mad Men, the beats, character development, plot and – importantly in this period drama – narrative and historical chronology are all viewed through the finale framework. As the show builds towards a climax and, perhaps, resolution, fans are both retrospective and prophetic in their viewership.
Fixating with a demented passion only rivalled by creator Matthew Weiner’s deliberately enigmatic and uncompromising attention to detail, it’s likely that all viewers (myself included) will be left disappointed husks, continuing to pick over the corpse for clues long after Mad Men concludes.
That’s my obnoxious prediction anyway – I want to be proven wrong. I’d love for Mad Men to finish with a universally praised final episode and join the ranks of Six Feet Under in the lonely ‘greatest finale’ canon. However the more TV literate we become – forever grasping at hints, info, and titbits on forums or Twitter, reading recaps, interviews and combing back through a show’s mythology – the higher the stakes.
When a program ends, and a creator pens that final note for viewers before taking the show out to buy cigarettes, we irrationally expect them to distil the very essence of the preceding seasons into a singular half hour/hour/two-hour special finale. Most of the time, what they provide never quite lives up to expectation in ways that can easily be rationalised, however, due to the heightened emotion of watching The Final Season. Often, the verdict is stamped across the tombstone as the final credits roll: ‘Here lies a pretty great show,’ it reads. ‘It lived a good life but it ended badly/controversially/insipidly.’
Six Feet Under’s final episode powerfully evoked the show’s themes and, by jumping briefly into the characters’ futures, provided closure for its fans.But are satisfying finales even about closure and resolution anymore? Forget spoilers – are we just being spoilt brats because we can’t always get what we want?
Take How I Met Your Mother for instance. After nine seasons, the sitcom aired its final episode in March to a chorus of displeasure. While many believed the show undercut its central titular premise, I wasn’t surprised because HIMYM was innovative in its temporal narrative shifts. Furthermore, Ted (Josh Radnor) was a flawed and relatively unreliable narrator from the outset and this joke more or less came full-circle.
Breaking Bad also wound up in a circular fashion, its explosive antepenultimate episode, ‘Ozymandias’, had critics and fans foaming at the mouth in delight. Accordingly, it was hardly surprising that the very last episode – primarily focused on tying up loose ends and driven by a sense of finality – disappointed many.
While the closure surrounding Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) downfall in Breaking Bad’s final episode is criticised (and still questioned), other endings deliberately play on this tension between resolution, completion and continuity. There is no better example of this than The Sopranos ambiguous finale which, seven years on, still inspires heated debate among fans and detractors alike (including 20,000 word musings that verge on academic fan fiction).
Regardless, there’s still a little while until Mad Men wraps up and I’m interested to see how it goes. In the meantime, I’ll spiral down the speculative rabbit hole like the silhouette from the credits, clutching at signs and symbols as I fall. Apparently Weiner hasn’t even started penning the break-up letter yet: ‘I’m writing Episode 12 right now. I actually haven’t written the last two,’ he recently stated. Make of that what you will.
Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele.