Everyone knows Mad Men is a great show. Everyone knows it’s one of the greatest shows. But no one says it’s the greatest show of all time. It could be any number of factors that influence this but when the listmakers make their lists, Mad Men is always on it, it’s often high on it, but it’s never on the top of the list. And that, is just damn wrong, because it should be a contender for the top spot. The recent series finale wrapped up the show such that now, in total, I could, and will, argue that Mad Men is the greatest show of all time.
The favorites for greatest TV show of all time are typically The Wire or Breaking Bad. Others that consistently appear on the top of the list are The Sopranos, Seinfeld, or maybe The Simpsons or Arrested Development on occasion. These are all great shows, no doubt. You might also notice that although TV has been around for a hundred years most of the shows considered the best are recent ones. We are living in what critics call the Golden Age of Television.
Now those are all fine shows, the best shows. I don’t see how they’re clearly better than Mad Men however. Mad Men is the greatest show of all time for the following reasons which I will expand on. It meant something, it impacted the culture, it took the hard road, it impacted television, it had great characters, and the finale.
- It Meant Something
There are lots of great shows that are entertaining, or just entertaining. Take Friends for example, even Breaking Bad. A show doesn’t have to have a message about the world to be the greatest show. It can exist solely to expound on the characters themselves and their particular situation. There is not really a need to explore a real life situation to be great. In fact, you may be worse off due to the urge to heavy handedly beat people over the head with lessons or parody.
It’s simply a choice in what kind of story you would like to tell. Mad Men however did mean something about something. It was about the 60s, a period in American and western culture that will live on forever. A tumultuous time where America grew and shrank, burst and imploded, looked inward and raged outward. It was a time of chaos, voluntary madness that still influences our culture. The movies, television, and music of the time still resonate today. The era that began in the 60s is the era we still find ourselves in, from the 2 minute single to microwave oven.
Mad Men is the story of the 60s. Just look at Don. He hit the ground running. An explosion of confidence, with his fedora and his black suit and slicked back hair. Every thought was right. Every action worked out. It was however, false. It hid deep issues, both conscious and unconscious. As the decade proceeded, both America and Don come to confront a lot of those issues they could no longer ignore.
As they confront these issues both past and present, as well as worry about the future, America and Don reaches highs and lows, sometimes over the same issues. In America’s case Martin Luther King was a high point in American history, the man’s very existence. His assassination and what he fought against are certainly low points. Don breaking down about his past while pitching candy bars was a low, but then revealing his past to his children was a tremendous moment. In the end, America and Don were able to take the lessons and the tumult and press on. Some lessons were taken better than others, but in the end America and Don were both the same and different, but they made it.
Many other issues were dealt with in the show that were present in that decade. Women in the work place and at home is the obvious one. Betty, Joan, and Peggy were amazing characters that had amazing arcs. I doubt any woman of their age range couldn’t identify with at least one of them, assuming they didn’t go full commitment into the hippy thing. Every character had some tragedy or triumph that related to the bigger picture but was also just theirs as well.
- Cultural Impact
I’m not a fashion expert. I’ve never claimed to be. Mad Men has however had an impact on today’s fashion. From hipsters to businessmen, even if you don’t realize it Mad Men has probably had an influence on the way you dress. Here’s a couple of examples.
Consider men’s hair styles. Among hipsters and businessmen alike that slicked back or parted hair has really come roaring back. Guys all over are buzzing up the side and pushing the top back or to the side. In other ways too. Skinny ties came back with a vengeance, something we can all be grateful for. I myself bought a slim gray three piece suit because Roger Sterling looks awesome.
I would argue the recent appreciation for “Dad-bod” is influenced by all the dad-bods that populate Mad Men. Particularly Don is the great ambassador of Dad-bod. If you took a poll among avid TV watchers who were attracted to males, I have no doubt Don Draper would be the most attractive. And he did it without abs, and with body hair. He’s truly an inspiration to males everywhere who hate going to the gym.
Regarding women it’s also influenced the way they dress. Floral patterns are back. Shorts that come up to their belly buttons. The days of thongs sticking out of low-riders are over. Bathing suits have become very 50s/60s lately as well.
Forgive me, I’m even less knowledgeable on women’s fashion than men’s but I see the Mad Men influence all around. From floppy hats to slim one piece dresses. Like the men, plaid is back. A renewed emphasis on legs too, pencil skirts and short skirts and all that.
For both men and women you can see horn rimmed glasses all over. Ray bans have taken back the spot as the top sunglasses from aviators.
- It Took the Hard Road
Google greatest TV shows of all time. Find a list, any list. Look through that list. How many of the shows on that list involve comedy or violence? The answer is most likely all of them but Mad Men. There might be a couple others like Six Feet Under, and even that involves death, but generally, the assurance of laughter or the threat of violence is a large part of all TV shows, the good, the bad, and the best.
This is not to say shows that utilize humor or violence are taking an easy route or cheating. It’s very hard to write good humor or good violence. Both are very useful methods of telling a compelling story, particularly on TV. You can get away with a movie that doesn’t use violence or humor. That’s just an hour and a half though. It’s easier to do that. People, and not even all people, can have the patience to sit through a movie like that and explore those characters and learn that lesson. It’s much harder to have them come back week after week and year after year without those physical feelings that come from laughter or threat.
Now, humor is fantastic. I love humor. Despite the occasional appearance of Seinfeld and Arrested Development I actually think humor is underappreciated on the lists. Critics are not usually funny. This is not to demean critics or their opinions in any way. I myself am a huge Roger Ebert fan. My parents bought a Roger Ebert Guide to the Movies 1994 book that I’ve probably read cover to cover. I do value the opinion of critics. I will check Rotten Tomatoes before I see a movie. Unless that movie is a comedy.
Comedy is great because it transcends your brain, even when it engages it. It can reveal things that no amount of saying it or analyzing it can. Mad Men can be funny. It made me laugh on multiple occasions. But there are many episodes without a laugh and it therefore cannot be called a comedy.
Violence is also great as a narrative device. Violence is a useful tool because it raises the stakes. It heightens everything involved. It’s like shooting caffeine into the plot. Life, love, regret, despair, integrity, respect, hatred, and everything else goes up a notch when there’s the threat of a violent death. It all becomes more important, more urgent when you can die.
Violence can be cheap too. Breaking Bad used violence terrifically. It was a slow burn. It was about the threat, not the violence itself. It made everything more urgent and important. His relationship with his family, the dealing of drugs, even Walter’s pride, violence amplifies all the issues around it. Then when it came to a head it was sudden, chaotic, and intense. Consider Low Winter Sun, which once followed Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad had some of the most horribly violent and darkest scenes ever put on TV. It was not the violence itself though, but it was Jane and Jesse’s love, it was Walter protecting Jesse, it was our old buddy Mike disappearing in a plastic barrel, which made us feel. Low Winter Sun took the wrong lessons. Low Winter Sun had violence for its own sake, and it did not work. But used correctly, violence is very useful and a great narrative tool.
Sure, Mad Men had the infamous lawn mower scene, Roger and Joan got robbed once, poor Ken lost an eye, but generally there was never an immediate threat of violence or death for any of the characters. They worked in an office, not even an office that remotely dealt with death. I can’t over emphasize how hard or rare it is to have a great show where you almost never see a gun or blood. Mad Men did that, and may be the only one who has.
- It Impacted Television
The Golden Age of Television. That’s what the critics call it. In my opinion, that’s what it is. I didn’t used to watch television really. If you asked me what TV shows I liked in the late 90s or early 2000s, even to the mid-2000s, I would not have had many answers. Those answers would have been Chappelle’s Show, Saturday Night Live, and David Letterman. But none of them would have been dramas or sitcoms. None were primetime shows. If I wanted real drama, I would watch movies. I loved movies. TV was just something to have for background noise as I went to sleep.
That all changed. The Golden Age, not unlike rock and roll or the birth of Jesus has several different theories as to where it really began. Some trace it as far back as Twin Peaks in the early 90s. That was more a precursor. Like the Stooges to punk rock. The Sopranos really started it off. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, The Wire, The Larry Sanders Show, Weeds, Dexter, and so forth were available and great. What do those shows have in common though? You had to pay for them. They were all on HBO or maybe Showtime.
NBC dabbled in Golden Age comedy with The Office. I loved The Office. I loved how it confused old people who couldn’t deal with not having a laugh track that told them when to laugh. But that was an anomaly on network TV. It was safe since it was based on an extraordinarily successful British version.
But then, AMC, a network primarily known to the world as the channel that had endless reruns of John Wayne films and was primarily known to me as one of the three channels I’d skip through when going from VH1 to Cartoon Network, gave a shot to original programming. They started making an odd show from a former Sopranos writer based on advertising folks in the 60s. This was the beginning of the Golden Age of Television, the real beginning.
If great TV is punk rock, and if Twin Peaks was the Stooges, then The Sopranos and The Wire were The Ramones and The Clash, and Mad Men was Nirvana. Or maybe Breaking Bad was Nirvana and Mad Men was R.E.M. By that I mean, now it belonged to the masses. Now it was on the radio. You didn’t have to read about it in a hip magazine and then pay for the album. The Golden Age of Television was now available to the masses.
It’s ironic that a show about elitist millionaire douchebags making taglines in Manhattan was responsible for bringing the Golden Age to the masses, but it was. Mad Men was such a risk. It was a risky show on a risky network on risky basic cable. Mad Men was important because it demonstrated that you can make good TV and people will watch it. It demonstrated that regular people who don’t have pay TV can be patient enough to sit through a slow character-driven story without wall to wall jokes and laugh tracks or a corpse or gun in every episode. With or without jokes or violence, if you tell a good story you’ll get an audience.
What followed was an explosion of amazing TV on basic cable. AMC followed up with Breaking Bad, and then the Walking Dead. FX has countless shows that follow that Golden Age, long arc, format. There’s Sons of Anarchy, Justified, Fargo, and many more.
It’s not isolated to drama either. Comedy Central and Cartoon Network have made some extremely adventurous programming. Comedy Central used to be the Daily Show, South Park, and crappy 80s comedies. Then it started making really solid or interesting original comedies from Workaholics to Chappelle’s Show, and Broad City to Inside Amy Schumer. Cartoon Network had shows like Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Children’s Hospital, The Venture Bros., and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Mad Men, I would argue, really ushered in this respect of the normal basic cable viewer. Trusting the viewer to follow story arcs that last for a season or multiple seasons or the whole series, to be patient enough to not bash them over the head with the point of the whole thing, to understand and deal with characters that aren’t good or bad but all of it and at varying degrees of each at different times, this is what Mad Men started.
Mad Men started cable TV as an experiment. It went from a place with so little money that all you could do was buy reruns to a place with so little money that who cares? Just try stuff, if it fails then you don’t lose that much money, if it turns into Mad Men then you make a lot of return. That model, that revelation is what then led to internet exclusive TV shows on Netflix, Hulu, Yahoo, Amazon, and even YouTube. Shows win Emmys that aren’t even on TV!
The Golden Age of Television existed before Mad Men, but it existed for those who could afford, it existed for critics and tastemakers and intellectuals. Mad Men gave it to the people. Mad Men put the hole in the dam, and we got a taste of what was beyond that wall, and now we’re all drowning in amazing television. It’s because of Mad Men, it’s because this show, the cerebral, intellectual, slow moving show about squares with too much money whose job was manipulating regular people, who rarely made you laugh and never fired guns, this show ironically gave the Golden Age to the masses, and through that made it the Golden Age.
- Great Characters
Sure I could rant and rave as I have been about how the characters are great. But if you’re reading this you probably know why they’re great, you’ve probably seen the show, and if you’ve seen the show you know the characters are great. That’s what the show is, it’s not the 60s, it’s the characters in the 60s. So for this section I’m going to run down my favorite moments of each character and hopefully it’ll jog your memory as to why they’re so great. Let’s consider the big ones: Don, Betty, Peggy, Roger, Pete, Joan, Ken, Harry, Bert, and Sally.
Keep in mind, this was extremely difficult to narrow down. Feel free to disagree.
Best moment: It’s the real thing – The final moment of the final episode, this is what it was all leading up to. That Coke commercial was everything Don and the 60s were leading toward. More on this later, but it’s what all the soul searching and failing was leading up to. He and America, figured it out and got their shit together, sort of…
Runner Up: The House – This is when Don came clean. He accepted who he was and who he is. Fuck the consequences. I’m Don, I’m Dick, I’m me. He really blew it with his mid-meeting break down. But he doubled down. I’m me now. For all his calculating earlier on, his horror when Pete or Betty found out his identity, he just said fuck it. Hey kids, I grew up here, this is me and I love you.
Honorable Mention: It’s toasted – This is classic Don at the dawn of Don, the swagger. This is the original thing that brought people to Mad Men. The generic description early on was swaggin ass advertising guy can change your world view with a good pitch. We lost this Don later on, until the very end, but selling the same product like it was brand new based on a stupid tag line, only Don could sell that.
Best moment: Shooting Birds – Good God. This was my favorite moment of the first season. This is the moment that actually hooked me. For all the guff Betty got, from her fat foray to her occasionally poor parenting, this moment made me realize there was something underneath this show. There was something boiling beneath the surface, of the characters and of the 60s. Smoking a cigarette, shooting at your neighbors birds. No one ever looked cooler on TV.
Runner Up: Stoic Birdie – She handled her diagnosis with such dignity and stoicism. She was so strong and powerful, as she always was. It made you rethink everything you knew about Betty. It reframed her whole character. She wasn’t a drag, she was a rock. She did everything right. She did everything she was supposed to do. And when it came time to go, she went with great posture and cigarette. When Don said Birdie, tell me you didn’t choke up.
Honorable Mention: Hand’s falling asleep – This moment really made me appreciate Betty and what she was going through. She seemed cold, bored, boring, distant, stuck up, and all those words you would associate with a generic 50s housewife type. Her mystery hand falling asleep car crash thing made me realize that she is living in hell. She never let it break her. RIP Betty.
Best moment: The Strut – As far as I’m concerned, fuck Steggy, this is where Peggy’s storyline ended. Peggy held out for her office when going to McCann. She got drunk at the old office with Roger. She was scared, was this new environment too big for her? Nope. She struts in hungover, smoking a cigarette, wearing sunglasses carrying a box of her things and a portrait of an octopus pleasuring a Japanese woman. FTW.
Runner Up: The adoption – As a Catholic myself I appreciate how hard this was for Peggy. I also appreciate how early Peggy storylines involved her navigating the world and being Catholic. This is the moment where Peggy showed she was brave, and could take risks, and was fully committed to turning this world upside down in a professional capacity. It was also heartbreaking and the guilt would never leave her.
Honorable Mention: Peggy gets high – “I’m Peggy Olson and I want to smoke some marijuana.” This is just a wonderful moment that shows why Peggy is really endearing to me. She’ll take a risk and she’ll walk on the wild side. She’s a modern woman and she’s down to party. But she does it on her own terms, and always has this dignified vibe about her. She’s fearless.
Best moment: Roger takes acid – Roger on acid was a hilarious moment for me. Roger didn’t really change, he just amplified. He popped a cork and heard music. He didn’t freak out; he raised an eyebrow and chuckled. He responded to a quote of mystic horseshit with “okey-dokey.” Later on he got a divorce and imagined he was at a baseball game. This was Roger, everything was mildly amusing, and nothing really mattered. In the end, I think he spent his whole life wanting to be a kid and watch a ball game.
Runner Up: Why we drink speech – This is another moment that sums up Roger. It also summed up his generation’s inability to understand Don’s or later generations’ difficulty with accepting the America they built for them. The WWII generation did so much, enjoy what we built for you, this world. While later generations wondered how could we live up to that? Don professes to be trying to enjoy his drink. Roger responds, “You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.”
Honorable Mention: Roger misses Bert – Roger would occasionally have feelings. His Seinfeldian stasis would occasionally be broken when his conscience wouldn’t let him not help someone, or he did enough emotional damage to another or another to him that he felt he should acknowledge it, as if just to remain human. But Bert’s death got inside him. It made him really wonder what he’s been doing with his whole dumb privileged life. He ended up selling the firm, saving Don, beating Jim Cutler, and being a leader, finally.
Best moment: The shrug – Pete is the villain we loved to hate. I loved his character. In a slow moving office drama, Pete was a wrecking ball. A privileged slimy douchebag who said what he thought and never backed down. In this moment, Pete leverages his own child to get accounts from his father in law. His father in law, stunned, realizes what just happened and calls Pete a son of a bitch. Pete’s pouring a drink, looks back over his shoulder, shrugs, and finishes the pour. Pete doesn’t act like a douche, he is a douche, and thank god for that. Gotta work with what you got. Runner Up: The dance – Another reason Pete makes me laugh. As seemingly evil and conniving as Pete was at times there were other moments when he was just a doofus. This moment during his wedding when he and Trudy do that stupid dance. As Machiavellian as Pete was, he was adorable too. And as much drama as he and Trudy went through, they really were made for eachother.
Honorable Mention: No one ever said it to me –It was really difficult not to put Pete falling down the stairs. But this moment really showed how Pete had matured. All his douchiness was just a lot of insecurity. He grew, he messed up, he matured, and he gained self-awareness and cared about another person. He told Peggy at their last goodbye, “Someday people will brag that they worked with you.” Peggy replies, “What am I supposed to say to that?” Pete answers with a grin, “I don’t know, no one’s ever said it to me.” Look at you Pete, all grown up. Joan Harris/Holloway
Best moment: Winner – I don’t know if it was a moment as much as her coming to terms with how capable she was. Not just capable of controlling men, not just capable of controlling an office, and not just capable of meeting expectations, but of controlling her own life and transcending expectations. Where young Peggy was ready to take the world by the balls from the start. Joan was ready to do what was expected of her, but she was too smart and too damn good for that. For all that she had to endure, it was nice to see Joan realize she only needed herself. The world was hers if she wanted it, and between quitting McCann, dumping her boyfriend, and starting her own company, she was ready want it.
Runner Up: Smash – Poor Joan. Of all the Mad Men characters perhaps she had to endure the most horrors during the series. Between that creep from Jaguar to that asshole husband of hers, she endured some really shitty men. This was the moment on the way to the moment. She eventually decided she didn’t need a man at all, but this is where she decided she didn’t need this one. During an argument with Greg, the awful husband who’d rather be at war than with his family, she smashed a vase on his head. Good work Joan.
Honorable Mention: That red dress – This was an early moment in the series. As iconic as Donny Swagger was in the early days of the show there was also Joan. The curves, the red hair, the tight dress. This woman was, when she wanted to be, pure sex. I remember seeing ads and stuff for Mad Men and thinking who the hell is that? Is that even real? If Joan wanted all eyes on her, they were. She was smart, and she was gorgeous, and she knew how to utilize both. The scene I’m referring to is her bending over in front of that mirror and all the men on the other side trying not to bump their heads on the glass and their jaws on the floor.
Best moment: Tap Dancing – One time, one beautiful moment, Ken Cosgrove got really high on some sort of speed/Ritalin and tap danced his misery away. This was a metaphor for Ken’s whole experience at the show. He was a wonderful creative soul trapped in a corporate hell hole with no way out. Ken never figured out how to get out, or maybe never got the courage, but on rare occasions the real Ken showed his face and it never got better than this.
Runner Up: The Writer – This moment was kind of sad. For a moment this seemed to foreshadow a creative awakening to come, which never came. Ken published a story in the Atlantic, not an easy feat. The partners persuaded him to drop it because clients might find it too weird. His function in life from here on was to take fat businessmen to dinners and prostitutes. Sadly, he did what he was told.
Honorable Mention: The eye – Poor Ken. Sure he was kind a sexist jerk when the series first started, before his writing came to light, but he was a kid. He didn’t grow up the way his one-time rival Pete did. He grew up, but differently. Ken didn’t find peace like Pete did. He just accepted what his lot was. Letting assholes shoot him in the eye, chained by golden handcuffs. Here’s to hoping he’s been writing novels under a fake name this whole time.
Best moment: Harry the Gossip- Why not Megan? Why not Jim Cutler? Why not Lane Pryce? Sweet wonderful Lane. RIP. Well, Harry was there from the start. Gotta be objective. The most important thing Harry ever did in the show’s narrative. He told Don they were going to fire him to get Phillip-Morris. Don briefly snapped out of his late seasons boozy self-pity soul-searching and Donned all over the room. Harry’s whole life led up to this moment. “Guys like us”
Runner Up: Bold moves – Harry may not have been that important to the narrative, but he was extremely valuable to the company. He may have been a square and a bit of a jerk, but he brought it when it came to the TV game, he owned it and found his niche. He followed up again with ushering in computers.
Honorable Mention: Harry and his secretary – Oh how quickly we forget. How quickly he made us forget. But once upon a time Harry had a brief affair with his secretary. It didn’t work out. It was sweet, and sad. It couldn’t last, for Harry was a married man, and was still a decent guy at this point. Sweet, nerdy, New York Harry, horned rimmed glasses and short sleeve dress shirts, red bow ties and red blood from a foot thrown by a lawnmower all over him. Little did we know he’d take Pete’s place as the office A-hole.
Best moment: The best things in life –Technically this was some bizarre grief induced day dream of Don’s or a Felliniesque surreal symbolic tangent, or maybe just an excuse to make Robert Morse dance and sing. Whatever it was, it was god damn beautiful. Bert was so constant, so together, with these kids, talented as they may have been, running around, we didn’t even realize how much we loved him. It was tough to know what motivated Bert, what was really underneath. But he was a complicated man who loved simple things. Yes, he wanted the money and he wanted the power, but the moon belongs to everyone, and the best things in life are free.
Runner Up: Who Cares? – This really summed up Bert’s role in the whole company. He was a leader. He didn’t care for the drama, or the excitement. He just wanted to run a great company. Pete comes rushing in to reveal Don’s secret, Don is panicked, Roger’s surprised. Bert asks, “Who cares?” To Bert, this is not a damn soap opera, it’s a business. It summed up his role. He was the dad.
Honorable Mention: She was an astronaut – This is another lovely summation of Bert. He didn’t speak much, but when he did, every word mattered and every word meant so much more than you realized it could. Everything he said was profound. When older secretary, Ida, died in the office it freaked out some and saddened others. Bert gave a three sentence eulogy. “She was born in 1898 in a barn. She died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She was an astronaut.” What more is there to say?
Best moment: The Look- I knew Sally was kind of funny. I knew she was kind of a rebel. Something in how she looked at Don when he showed her that house though was amazing. In that look, that young actress expressed so much. She was surprised, in awe, confused, disgusted, and impressed. Despite her rebelliousness and what she’d been through. Something about this look made me realize Sally Draper is going to be alright. She was a fully formed, multi-dimensional character. For the latter third of the series, Sally Draper was perhaps the best character in the whole show.
Runner Up: Taking Control – The way that Sally handled her mother’s situation was really the follow through on that feeling I got from the look and the maturity she displayed through season 6. She ran the show. Her mother was just trying to live a normal life for what was left of it. Henry was freaking out. Don was drunk in god knows where. Sally handled everything. She rose to the occasion. Somehow she became a damn fine person and it was fun watching her get there. Honorable Mention: Shut up – When one of Don’s side gals tried to be Sally’s mother, explaining sometimes we have to do things we don’t want, Sally responded with her trademark eye roll, “Shut up.” Sally could cut a mofo down. “Are you going to make yourself cry?” “Bye” “No”. Simple words and phrases she could use to slice right through the world of bullshit the older people around her carefully built up all their lives and she had no patience for. Sassy Sally, she never lost that quality, she just added other qualities to it.
- The Finale
The greatest series finale I’ve ever seen. The entire show led up to that finale, to that final moment. Of all the classic golden age shows I can’t think of one other finale that even competes. The large majority of series finales are an afterthought. This doesn’t detract from the shows necessarily. However, in my opinion, the greatest show is some stiff competition, the greatest finale is a no brainer.
There are a lot of factors that make it hard to make a good finale. Really, it’s so much easier to make a bad or mediocre one than a good one. So much so that you can’t even blame a series for making a bad or mediocre finale. That does however make it even more impressive when they make a great one.
It’s easy to give a movie a good ending. You have the end and the beginning all within sight. You can see the whole thing. It’s finished as soon as you hand it in. A TV show on the other hand is different. You write a pilot. One episode. Then you have to keep these characters going for years. Breaking Bad was 62 episodes. That means that when they started, they only knew how 1.61% of the story went. The Sopranos had 86 episodes. They started with only 1.16% of the story. Mad Men had 92 episodes, meaning they began only certain of 1.08% of the story. There are multiple writers, actors bring their own vibe, trying to map out a whole series is a fool’s errand.
A great movie is typically in 3 acts, there’s a structure. TV has no structure like that. You hope for a new season and then you get 10, 12, 16, 24 more, that’s up to the network as well. It’s not about telling a story beginning, middle, and end. It’s about making characters that people want to see and for an indefinite amount of time keeping those same characters interesting. Then a finale is you abruptly ending this machine meant to never end. A movie is built to end, a TV show is built to go. Then you have to stop it. It’s hard to just slam on the breaks. The characters, all of them, rarely all die in a show. The show goes on, without you, their lives don’t stop because you stop watching, the story continues to unfold forever, but somewhere in the middle of the lives of these characters you have to be yanked out of your god-like omnipresence over them and somehow feel satisfied with a contrived quasi-conclusion to the stories which in their fictional world are not concluded.
Plots end, characters don’t. To build a great TV show you have to be driven by the characters, to end a great TV show you have to end the characters. You can end a plot, but you can’t end a character. This is the real root cause of all our dissatisfaction with almost all series finales, a series isn’t meant to end. Sure there is some sort of natural ending time wise but it’s hard to find. You can end to early, or too late. Even if you do end at the right time you have to present it well. What stories need resolution? What characters do people care about? What strings can be left to dangle? Happy? Sad? Violent? Funny? Let it fade away or come to a point? You have to dig through the mountain of episode, multi-episode, season, multi-season, and series long story arcs for all the characters and then figure out where it was all going.
That’s hard. I forgive a series with a bad finale. In TV, as in life, the end is given a lot of attention but is probably the least important part in a lot of cases.
Many series finales disappoint fans. Lost was confusing and borderline ridiculous. A friend of mine thought it was ok, until I explained that it was a purgatory situation where they had to find eachother to go to heaven or whatever. They couldn’t believe it. There was a series of “what about”s, as if they didn’t want to believe that. And then there was a look of bemused disappointment on their face and not a word from their mouth. Regarding Sopranos, I didn’t think it was that bad. It was a non-ending, but as I said, endings aren’t important. It worked for me, but like I said, most people want a resolution, need it, until they get it and they hate it. Some shows like Deadwood don’t get to have an ending. Some shows like The Office end a couple seasons after they should have, and there’s nothing that could really do it justice at that point. Some shows accomplish an ending that isn’t terrible but slightly forced, but is not nearly as good as the show itself, like Boardwalk Empire. Some shows play it safe and run out the clock, like Breaking Bad. Some shows end like a clip show or a walk down memory lane like Seinfeld. Some shows end like those speeches or lectures where the last line is “well that’s it”, like The Wire. Some shows struggle on to a new ending like Arrested Development. But for all those shows, cut out the last ten minutes, last half hour, last episode, and you still get it.
Finales before Mad Men either made a show worse, or didn’t make a show worse. I can’t think of one golden age finale that made everything before it add up to that moment in not just a plot way, where “The End” flashes across the screen, but in a real narrative way.
This is not a review of the finale, and I don’t want to spoil it. But suffice it to say, the whole journey through the 60s with Captain Don Draper at the helm led to that final scene. As much as people talk about Matthew Weiner’s ego, he did what none of the great golden age writers could do. Not David Simon, not Vince Gilligan, not even his mentor David Chase. He made a great finale.
Mad Men required patience. I gave it. Even when it was slow, I trusted it. The characters kept me in. Even the assholes like Pete, I loved. As much as Mad Men was accused of meandering during it’s run, and occasionally did, in the end it was maybe the one show where everything mattered, everything had a point, mostly. It was always going somewhere. It wasn’t just a fun scenario or pitch to roll through until the it got cancelled or the showrunner had enough. Mad Men was about a group of people living through changing times, around them and within them. It was about having homeostasis, it enduring stress, breaking, spinning through the ensuing chaos, and finding that new normal, making sense of this new environment. In Mad Men and in America during the 60s, they find the peace they’d lost by making peace with having lost it, and by losing the impossible desire for that peace, finding that peace, just with a handle bar mustache and a plaid jacket this time.
That rush you feel during that last scene of Mad Men, when everything that’s happened comes careening back through your memory like a rubber band that’s been stretched and suddenly released, it’s like experiencing the whole show all over again. That’s what this was! It was everything. It was, I submit to you, the greatest TV show of all time. It was Mad Men, and it’s the real thing.
by Zack Goncz
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