Trying to predict what happens on Mad Men is a fool’s game. That’s because the show’s creator/head writer/executive producer/genius, Matthew Weiner (I didn’t think I could ever worship a small-screen auteur the way I used to worship Scorsese when I was in college — but Weiner wins that level of awe in me), learned a lesson well from his former capo David Chase, and that is to keep the lid of omertà clamped tight over everything that happens. When you’ve got a genuinely great television series, leak and reveal…nothing. Maintain the sacredness of silence.
The other reason that forecasting Mad Men is a fool’s game is that the weekly parlor sport of trying to guess what’s going to happen on the next episode always ends up pulling the rug out from under itself. We ask questions like: Will Don stay faithful to Megan? Will Sterling Cooper land the Jaguar account? And while the answers, of course, do matter, we always realize too late that we’ve been asking the wrong (i.e., the dumb, obvious, traditional-TV) questions. Don, for instance, never did stray this season (he was about the only man in the office who didn’t), yet he strayed in a different way. His real mistress was his old-fashioned imperial ego — no matter what Megan asked for, he could barely give an inch. He wasn’t adulterous, but he wasn’t truly, completely faithful either.
Watching Mad Men, you never have any idea what’s going to happen in the next episode, or the next five minutes, and that’s part of the show’s electric novelistic glory. So to try to guess how the show is going to end — I don’t mean one season of it, but the whole damn series, which will be seven seasons old when the sun finally sets on Weiner’s hypnotic saga of the hidden 1960s — is just about the most foolish thing that I could possibly attempt. Yet I’m now compelled to do it, only because in last Sunday’s sensational fifth-season capper, I think we saw something more than the usual heady soap opera of resolutions and arrows pointing tentatively into the future. (Will Megan, hoisted by a commercial, become some sort of actress-star? Will Pete leave his marriage? Did Don tell those babes in the bar that he was alone? Stay tuned for the resolution to these and other questions that will prove boringly irrelevant the moment we have the answers.) In addition to all that, we glimpsed, at long last, the greater arc of Where It’s All Heading.
The one (invisible) clue that Matthew Weiner has provided, in interviews over the years, is that he’s repeatedly said he knows how the series is going to end. He has an image in mind, an idea, a situational essence. (I don’t know that David Chase did, which may be one reason why the controversial ending of the last episode of The Sopranos — which I adored — was almost druggy in its audacity. I’m not sure that’s the kind of thing you plot out for six years.) Whenever Weiner has talked about this, I’ve always conjured up the same vague image in my mind — one of Don Draper, now 45 years old, maybe a touch jowly, standing in an overly conservative suit (or perhaps an early version of Johnny Carson ’70s plaid) in some sun-drenched parking lot as he’s about to climb into his 1971 hearse-black Chrysler Imperial, squinting at some scraggly biker-hippie and thinking, “What the f—?” A man now permanently out of time. A Mad Man in a world gone mad.
What’s off about my image, apart from the sheer literal-minded triteness of it, is that Mad Men is a far more personal show than that. It’s a series that drinks in the society at large (on so many levels that its weave between the corporate/suburban world of the ’60s and our world is nearly metaphysical), yet it never does so at the expense of calibrating its own characters’ subtly shifting heartbeats. So the end of Mad Men, as I see it, must involve more than just Don and his aging existential James Bond of Madison Avenue inner roilings. And it’s now clearer, perhaps, who the other player in that grand resolution will be. It will be Peggy. The secretary who Don hoisted into the boys’ club, and mentored as a copy writer, and still treated as a secretary, and supported and tormented and fought with and believed in — until he didn’t, because he didn’t understand what believing in Peggy’s talent really meant. It’s a measure of how Peggy, played by Elizabeth Moss as a mouse of steel, fits into the series that when she finally ankled Sterling Cooper and went for a big job on her own, I actually wondered how much she would figure into the action after that. Maybe she’d be like Betty, another exile from Don’s orbit, still present yet doomed to the periphery.
But that just shows you how Mad Men tweaks you sometimes by seducing you into thinking just like Don. In the last episode, when Don ran into Peggy as they both played hooky at a mostly empty matinee (kicking off with a preview for Casino Royale! — I’d know those 1967 Burt Bacharach trumpets anywhere), he was all grace and chivalry and cozy smiles, genuinely sweet to his former protégé. Yet what he basically confessed is that he still couldn’t really imagine what it would look like for her to find success without him. She mentioned a new account she’d been handed — an as-yet-unnamed cigarette for ladies — and, of course, what we knew, and what neither Don nor Peggy (at least, not yet) did, is that the cigarette was going to turn out to be Virginia Slims, and that Peggy (assigned to name the product), putting into practice everything that Don taught her, and giving it a feminine spin, was going to come up with that iconic consumer brand, as well as the jingle that launched a thousand swingy-tacky “feminist” TV commercials (“You’ve come a long way, baby! To get where you got to today!”). The symbolism could hardly be more organic: Peggy, like all those “gals” the Virginia Slims ads are going to woo, has come a long way, baby. And now she’s going to be big — not just bigger than Don ever thought she could be, or bigger than she thought ever she could be, but bigger than we ever thought she could be. And that, apart from Don’s booze-and-sex-and-office-politics-fueled film noir interior journey, is really the grand second half of the story that Mad Men is telling.
I encounter a lot of brilliant TV criticism about Mad Men, and one of the only persistent quarrels I have with any of it is that even some of the finest analysts of this show have a way of putting a moral distance between themselves and Don. Often, it’s the show that’s described as somehow acerbically detached — as if Don, in his five-o’clock-shadow charisma and all his contradictions, his ruthlessness and gentleness, his hauntedness and jungle hunger, were somehow less a character to identify with than an objectified force, a kind of walking “text” to be experienced from the outside in. He doesn’t even know himself, the reasoning goes. So how could we claim to know him?
I think this is basically a pseudo-academic posture camouflaging a politically correct response to what Mad Men is truly about. The reality, as I see it, is that a great many viewers, especially men, identify with the amazing Jon Hamm in this role as powerfully as people used to identify with Pacino or De Niro in the ’70s or, before that, the great handsome mind-force actor-gods of the studio era (like Robert Mitchum or Henry Fonda). And the key to that identification is the very thing that some critics get a little squeamish about and need to maintain their moral distance from: the license that Don Draper enjoys, and his etched-in-cool ability to conceal it. It was especially heightened in the early seasons, of course, when he literally lived a double life (“You Only Live Twice”), his appetites eating away at his suburban cocoon. But even since then, the way that Don cruises through a day on the pleasure principle — or tries to, with increasing befuddlement, as his brand of pleasure takes a back seat to the culture that’s exploding around him — makes him a hero who is always, one way or another, trying to get away with something, and the heart of the show is that it keeps inviting us into collusion with him.
Of course, it’s not as if he does get away with everything. Like any film noir hero, Don is a seeker of pleasure who must get his comeuppance. He got it during his marriage to Betty, he got it when he was divorced and drank too much, and this season he got it when he kept trying to control his gorgeous and tender lioness of a wife, and she kept biting back at him, justified in every instance. “Keep on doing whatever the hell you want!” he shouted at Megan as she wandered off, after talking about auditioning for a show whose rehearsals might keep her away for several months. But, of course, doing whatever the hell you want has been Don Draper’s credo. He just can’t imagine a woman doing it. Let alone an entire world in which women do it.
So welcome to Don Draper’s ultimate comeuppance. In a sense, we saw the early glimpses of it this season — like, say, Jessica Paré’s celebrated living-room ye-ye performance, a projection of the new ’60s woman in all her swingingly styled erotic brilliance. (It made the private Don so…uncomfortable.) We saw it in the way that Peggy finally exploded in anger at Don (during their botched commercial audition in the whipped-topping laboratory). We saw it in Joan’s almost shocking embrace of the power of her new role as partner, instantly erasing (or, at least, burying) the memory of the degradation that was required to get it. And we will doubtlessly be seeing much, much more of it in the next — that is, final — two seasons.
But that brings me to the end. The ultimate end. The very end. Which needs to be, for Don, not just a comeuppance but a revelation. For if a woman leaves him, he will find another. If he loses his job…he will survive. (He’s a jungle cat.) But what if he has to go to work for the last person on earth he ever thought he would go to work for? There you have the perfect poetic ending of Mad Men: Don, who saw Peggy Olson off from Sterling Cooper with a courtly kiss of her hand, now kneeling to kiss the ring of his new boss…Peggy Olson. Who is going to come a long way, baby. She’s going to rise and rise and rise. For that, of course, is the story that Mad Men has been telling all along. The slow vertigo fall of Don Draper, as foretold in the opening credits, is really the decline of the world of men as brought about by the rise of the world of women. Don may just have to wait until the final note of the series to wake up and realize it.
So now it’s your turn. How do you think Mad Men will end?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman