How Will ‘Mad Men’ End?

The final episode airs tonight. How will Matt Weiner will wrap it up?

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The final episode of AMC’s “Mad Men” airs tonight. Naturally, this has spawned something of a cottage industry of predictions about how Matt Weiner will wrap it up.

Writing for Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz doesn’t predict anything, exactly, but expounds on “How the Mad Men Pilot Predicted the Final Episodes of the Series.”

Mad Men has always been a show about how individuals and nations move through time, acting and being acted upon, fighting against their conditioning or embracing it, taking two steps forward and one and a half steps back, often not realizing that they’ve made a different version of the same mistake again until they’ve settled into it and can’t undo it without trauma. Every character that has passed before the series’ empathetic but coolheaded lens has tried to write his or her own story, and discovered at one point or another that a large part of that story was already written in childhood; that it’s easier to amend or slightly revise than to rewrite from top to bottom. Even the seeming exceptions to this principle, such as the identity thief and smoke-and-mirrors master Don Draper, are not immune.

If you go back and revisit “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from season one, the haze dissipates and you can see it all clearly. Almost every recent, climactic development was in some sense predicted there, as was every significant plot point throughout all seven seasons, for every major character

Likewise, Dustin Rowles of Uproxx believes “Matthew Weiner Has Been Telling Us How ‘Mad Men’ Will End For Years.” After an elaborate setup, he concludes,

We know Don will die in the finale, but we don’t know if that will be a physical death or simply the death and the rebirth Dick Whitman. I still feel that it’s the latter: He gets rid of the suit. He gets rid of Don’s job (it appears that he’s already left McCann Erickson, and I doubt we’ll see him there again). He’s homeless (next week’s episode is called “The Milk and Honey Route,” a reference to a Nels Anderson handbook for hobos); he’s divorced Megan. He said goodbye to Betty (“Bye Birdie”). He’s a free man, headed west, like Kerouac in On the Road: “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”

He’s done with New York. He’s done with advertising. He’s done with Satan (Jim Hobart). He’s done with Don Draper. But while Don Draper drowns, Dick Whitman survives. “We’re not just selling a place,” Don says of “Paradise” back in the sixth season. “You are different… the soul can go in and out of the body, but it usually leaves from the leeward point, into the ocean.”

“The copy is all about the Hawaiian legend,” Don continues. “‘Aloha’ means hello (Dick Whitman)and goodbye (Don Draper).'”

How do you get to heaven?” he adds. “Something terrible has to happen.” That “terrible” thing was Sterling Cooper being dissolved by Satan/McCann. And now, Don is going to heaven.

“A picture of a hotel, even yours, is easy to ignore,” Don told his Sheraton clients, and Matthew Weiner may as well have been speaking to the viewers at home about his finale. “This (a man walking into the ocean), or some version of this, demands your attention.” Weiner was warming us up for a finale that sees Don, on the beach, walking into the ocean. Or maybe just his footprints headed into the water.

Does he die, like James Mason at the end of A Star is Born? “No, that’s not what this means.”

Alex Garofalo sounds a similar theme in “‘Mad Men’ Series Finale: 6 Questions Before The Show’s Last Episode; Will Don Die?” for IBT.

Ever since Season 1, people have been speculating the show’s ominous opening credits sequence — featuring a Don Draper silhouette falling from the window of an office building — meant the series would end with the ad man’s suicide, or at least his death. However, that solution seems to be a bit simple for a show that has made its bones by subtly defying fan expectation.

In fact, “Mad Men” seemed to poke fun at that fan theory in episode 12, “Lost Horizon,” when Don, disillusioned with his new position at McCann Erickson, tests the windows in his office to see if they open. They did not and the scene almost felt like a wink to viewers that the end of Don’s story would not be so obvious.

However, Don has always had a fascination with death and disappearing — his Season 6 pitch to Sheraton essentially mimicked Norman Maine’s (James Mason) suicide in the 1954 movie “A Star is Born” — so the possibility is not off the table.

Vox‘s Todd VanDerWerff says, “I think I know how Mad Men is going to end.”

I think Don is going to go back to New York. I think Don is going to go back to McCann. I think he is going to win back his job with a brilliant pitch for a McCann client. I think we’re going to think we’re on the verge of the Don Draper pitch to end all Don Draper pitches.

Picture it, if you will.

Don walks into the room with the client. Everything is on the line. His career. His family. His future. Everyone leans forward (including us). He smiles, launching into his pitch with something like “I’d like to talk to you about family,” and then either the door to the room closes (shutting us out) or the screen fades to black.

And out of the blackness, we begin to hear perhaps the most famous ad of the 1970s.

It explains the season’s obsession with Coca-Cola (which turns up even in this episode, in the form of the broken Coke machine). It explains the season’s obsession with connection. And it explains the long, long wait we’ve had for a vintage Don Draper pitch. (By my count, we haven’t gotten one since the sixth-season finale, which was the Hershey’s pitch that lost Don his job.) Why shouldn’t the last Don Draper pitch ever be one that gives us a famous ad that feels like it came out of a Don Draper pitch?

What I also love about Eileen’s idea is that it has a baked-in, awful cynicism to it, laced with a childlike sweetness. That’s an ad about world peace and people coming together in harmony — and it’s being used to sell soda. It’s the ultimate in commodification of powerful ideas by the wheels of commerce, and it’s the ultimate in America’s blithe belief that if it could just shut out the bad parts — or share a Coke — with the world, everything would be a little bit better.

Esquire’s Jen Chaney proclaims “This Is How Mad Men Will End.”

Given Betty’s prognosis, which gives her nine months to a year to live, it seems likely that we will see her funeral take place, probably in late 1971. (I am basing this in part, also, on something that Aaron Staton/Ken Cosgrove said when I interviewed him at the beginning of season seven, part two: that the final shot of the series was “more like a funeral.”) Either during the service or at some point beforehand, I imagine that Don and, possibly, his kids will watch slides of Betty on a Kodak carousel, some of which will be the same slides Don used in his original Kodak presentation. (Note: I am already crying just thinking about the possibility of this.) In the closing moment of season one’s last episode, Don came home to find his house empty, his kids and Betty having left to spend Thanksgiving with Betty’s parents. In the final moment of the show’s final episode, Don will be alone again—I know, that’s a real stretch—possibly outside the house he and Betty once shared in Ossining, New York. He’ll sit, looking at it while the final Mad Men closing song starts to play. And what will that final song be?

Well, in this week’s episode, the last tune was “Everyday” by Buddy Holly, a hit for the bespectacled singer in 1957, two years before he died in a plane crash along with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. Naturally, then, the last song we hear on Mad Men has to be a song that first charted near the end of 1971, roughly a year before Richard Nixon was re-elected president*; a song that summarized everything that got lost in the 1960s; and a song that explicitly references the death of Buddy Holly: Don McLean’s “American Pie.” What more fitting way is there to say goodbye to Betty, and the ideals that fell just short of her and Don’s grasps, than by singing “Bye bye, Miss American Pie”?

There are a lot of other theories out there, including Lindsay Green‘s “Where Don Draper ends, D.B. Cooper begins” concept that’s been circulating since she advanced it in Medium two years ago.

In 1971 one of the most bizarre and fascinating cases of air piracy in American aviation history — and currently the only unsolved one — was carried out by a man with an alias, wearing a perfectly pressed dark suit and dark sunglasses, with a cigarette in one hand and a bourbon and soda in the other. No one was killed. No one was hurt. No chaos or terror was caused. It was a hijacking conducted without a known motive, by a wellspoken man who then disappeared and was never identified, found, or heard from again. It was as though he never happened.

There’s always been something in the air with Mad Men, quite literally. From Mohawk to American, North American Aviation, and Ted’s own little two seater, airlines and aviation are about as prevalent on the show as aliases and fake identities. Even when Joan was upset after being served divorce papers from Dr. Harris, it was a model airplane she grabbed and threw at the unassuming receptionist as Don stood in the doorway. Mad Men has been telling us how the story ends from the very beginning. It ends on an airplane.

Feel free to add your own speculation and reflections below.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ron Beasley says:

    I am probably one of the few people around here who has never watched a single episode of Mad Men but then I haven’t watched a network sitcom/drama since the final episode of Mash.

  2. Scott says:

    I’ve been watching Mad Men since the beginning. I grew up in suburban New York in the 60s and knew a lot of these people including my parents who were born Mid Westerners and entered that culture. It has been kind of fascinating and nostagic at the same time.

    As for the end, with Betty dying, I can’t see Don just disappearing. He is not a uncaring negligent parent so I think any resolution will have to deal with that.

    I am just as interested in what is going to happen to the rest of the gang also.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    People are seeing more than is there. There is no great master plan, Weiner’s plotting is an unholy mess.

  4. MBunge says:

    @michael reynolds: People are seeing more than is there.

    *DingDingDing* We have a winner!

    I won’t deny that “Mad Men” is a well made piece of work in a lot of respects and I can get why a relatively small audience has fallen in love with it, but I am almost laughing out loud at how Weiner has spent the last few episodes turning Don Draper into the star of a 1980s TV show by Stephen J. Cannell…AND NO ONE NOTICES.

    Thankfully for “Mad Men”, “Girls” exists, making it impossible for it to claim the title of “Most Nothing Show People Tried To Make Into Something in History.”

    Mike

  5. michael reynolds says:

    @MBunge:

    People see what they are conditioned to see. Mad Men is beautifully produced, well-acted, and Weiner writes good dialog. But pretending that he’s got some great master plan is just ridiculous. It reminds me of Lost, which people spent billions of pixels analyzing when it was obvious about a third of the way through Season 1 that the showrunners were just tossing in everything they could think of and had no great plan.

    Game of Thrones is another example. There is no overall vision because George Martin blew his last two books and the series is off the rails. But the fan boys refuse to admit it.

    It’s very, very hard to manage these long arcs especially when in the early going you have no idea whether you’re looking at 13 episodes and out or whether you’re looking at 100 episodes. Sopranos and The Wire both pulled it off though the latter lost its way a bit in the final season. The Good Wife has a great balance of flexibility and control, a wonderfully written show.

    Some people just insist on creating coherence where none really exists. They buy in – Twin Peaks comes to mind – and are prepared to assume the storyteller has control when that’s often not the case.

  6. Grewgills says:

    I didn’t realize it was still going. It is beautifully produced and the banter was semi regularly funny, but there was no one to like, at least in the first few seasons.

  7. Tillman says:

    My hope is the series ends on an episode that doesn’t feel like an ending.

    That was probably the greatest thing about War and Peace, a novel a lot of people claim is a good one: it began abruptly and it ended abruptly. The way it began was a little shocking since it didn’t bother explaining who these people were to you except through their titles, associations, manners, etc. (Excellent example of showing, not telling.) The way it ended was infuriating because it took characters you’d come to love and pitted them against each other in a coming revolution that, surprise, the novel ends before getting to! It doesn’t tie up loose ends, you never learn the fates of some characters, there’s still a conflict that has evolved over the course of the story; the reader could not imagine the book ending, it just had to because it was a thing occupying physical space.

    Then again I stopped watching Mad Men near the end of season 3, so I don’t have a horse in this race. I just like pontificating. 🙂

  8. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Game of Thrones is another example. There is no overall vision because George Martin blew his last two books and the series is off the rails. But the fan boys refuse to admit it.

    GRRM doesn’t have a master plan?
    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO ( bangs head against wall)

    Ok, Mike, I’ll forgive you this sacrilege, but never question The Master again!

    (takes off fan boy hat)
    OK, GRRM ( as he’ll admit) lost at the plot after SoS. Do think he has tried to get things back on track , but if you are taking 5 years to write every book, it’s pretty clear you are struggling. I am guardedly hopeful for BOOK 6,but think he had a great concept that just got away from him.
    Oh well, we’ll always have the beauty for the the first 3 books. Even if GRRM had not written another words, he would still be recognized as a great fantasy writer.

    As to MM, all you guys are sourpusses. It’s great TV entertainment. It doesn’t have to be frickin’ Ana Karenina.

  9. Gustopher says:

    Jump straight to 2020. Don Draper is now a warlord in post-apocalyptic Vermont, where he happened to be vacationing when the apocalypse happened. He’s old, he’s lost everything, but he’s found a new purpose in life, protecting the people in his care. He has an eyepatch, and carries a rifle.

    Final scene: the camera moves through his office, pausing briefly on a map where they have marked off all of the radiation zones near them and the areas controlled by other warlords, and then settling on a meticulously maintained mid-century couch.

  10. Tillman says:

    @stonetools: Yeah, that’s more Breaking Bad‘s thing, isn’t it? 🙂 I haven’t seen any of it yet, but it’s right there after Luther and The Wire. (Recently been on an Idris Elba kick.) And it’s not like GRRM’s influence isn’t felt on the TV series, where he wrote all the big episodes in the past four seasons.

  11. @michael reynolds:

    Game of Thrones is another example. There is no overall vision because George Martin blew his last two books and the series is off the rails. But the fan boys refuse to admit it.

    I think I smell professional jealousy.

  12. @stonetools:

    OK, GRRM ( as he’ll admit) lost at the plot after SoS. Do think he has tried to get things back on track , but if you are taking 5 years to write every book, it’s pretty clear you are struggling. I am guardedly hopeful for BOOK 6,but think he had a great concept that just got away from him.
    Oh well, we’ll always have the beauty for the the first 3 books. Even if GRRM had not written another words, he would still be recognized as a great fantasy writer.

    I’m still undecided about GRRM’s last two books. I don’t think they can really be judged until we see how the story ends, because until then it’s hard to judge how important any of the bits in them are to the overall narrative. It could just be him dicking around as Michael suspects, or it could be actual important narrative. Without knowing where things are going it’s impossible to say yet.

    I will say that I recently went back and re-read the whole series and I found I enjoyed the last two books much better than I did on first read. Without the five years gaps, I found that I could better see how they fit with each other and with the first three novels.

    I now think his big mistake was not anything in either book, but the decision to break up the story geographically rather than chronologically because it created situations where part of the context for things happening in the one book are provided in the other book and vice versa.

  13. michael reynolds says:

    @stonetools: @Stormy Dragon:

    Stormy, truer than you know re: jealousy. I was in discussions with Dan Weiss to adapt one of my book series. But he had this other project he thought HBO might reject so he couldn’t commit. Turned out they went with this risky other series: GoT.

    GRRM can’t rescue the book series with a sixth book, the missteps have piled up and he’s left with a cast of characters no one really gives much of a damn about. Book 4 was bad, book 5 was atrocious. Book 6 can’t save it. GRRM is learning just how hard it is to run an ongoing arc-heavy series. (Says the man who did just that, 6 books, 3000 pages, every book delivered on time, and with the final book getting ecstatic reviews from fans.)

    That’s not to say the showrunners can’t make it happen for HBO, maybe they can, but I was listening to Howard Stern ranting that he now has no idea what’s happening on the show, and he’s right.

    I’m not knocking GRRM – the first three books were brilliant and original and he is a great writer. Nothing at all wrong with the man’s imagination, but series writing is fundamentally different than writing single titles. It’s a different skill set. GRRM let too many branches grow and when he pruned them he did it badly and lost his best characters. He tried to compensate for the loss by making his plot ever more convoluted. I saw the collapse coming IIRC early in book three, but I did not envision the degree of collapse. If you spend your life doing series you can feel it going wrong. You see the flailing before it becomes apparent to the public. It did not make me happy. When I talked to Weiss and asked him what his other project was and he said GoT I was genuinely torn. Obviously I wanted him to do mine, but as a fan I also wanted to see GoT.

  14. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Part of Martin’s difficulty in maintaining the narrative is telling an epic series through first person narrative. But the other is the definite explosion in first person narratives that seemed to occur after all the cut branches in Book 3.

    So I’ll hazard his mistakes in book 3/4/5:

    Dany staying in Mereen.
    Lady Stoneheart.
    Killing the Hound.
    Killing Tywin.
    Reek’s arc.
    Brienne’s arc.
    Greyjoy arc.
    Martell arcs.
    Targaryan zaniness.
    Most of Tyrion’s arc in book 5.
    Most of Arya’s arc.

    I mean, we get it GRRM. There are no heroes, there are no romantic fantasies, and characters who act nobly tend to get crapped on in medieval societies. We get that medieval torture is brutal, how they treat women is brutal, and you have a bunch of brutal people trying to out brutalize each other. Ok fine, you showed it with this character. And…you’re showing it with his son. Ok, I guess that makes sense…ok, you’re showing it with another character who’s on the other side. I guess that’s interesting…and you’re showing it again with a character who we kinda know is doomed to fail on this quest, but whatever….ok, now you’re showing it again with some third rate noble from House We’ve-Never-Heard-Of-Before and his friends….aaaaand now you’re showing it with some mutilated noble who’s gone crazy. We get it. We get the theme. Get on with the plot!

    Killing Tywin was the big one I think though. It’s like killing the Emperor in the middle of Empire Strikes Back, Sauron dying off-page before the Ring is destroyed, Voldemort’s resurrection being botched by an incompetent servant, or the White Witch tripping and falling on an icicle. You’re writing a epic narrative and you just killed off the Big Bad, leaving a huge power vacuum. Now instead of writing just about the Big Bad, you feel like you have to write about all the little Bads and Not-so-Bads and Kinda-Good-but-Sometime-Bads jockeying for power. And they all have to have their first person POV about getting this news and reacting accordingly. It’s like he can’t…stop…world-building and character-introducing. For every character killed, 10 more we don’t care about spring up. All with their own POV and back history and internal monologue…

  15. stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    GRRM can’t rescue the book series with a sixth book, the missteps have piled up and he’s left with a cast of characters no one really gives much of a damn about.

    I agree he got himself in a tangle but don’t agree its hopeless. I still care what happens to Danys, Jon Snow, Arya, Sam, Davos, and Jaime.You can still make a great series out of this tangle. But he has got to prune, and prune ruthlessly. AS far as I’m concerned, he would be fine if he didn’t write another word about Greyjoy, the Iron Islands (apart from Victorian), the Martells and about anything Dorne, and if we just hear of Cersei being beheaded.By the end of WINDS, Danys better be in Westeros and the Others better be coming over the Wall.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @Lit3Bolt:

    I think we all will tend to write what is easiest for us and for GRRM that’s world-building, politics, and the invention (though not so much the maintenance) of unique characters. The usual knocks on me are that I pay very little attention to description, none at all to metaphor, and have no interest in pretty prose but I’m strong on action, character and philosophy. The knock on my wife is that she can’t really plot, but she handles character and language beautifully. No one does everything well.

    Take a writer like Lee Child. He’s amazing at detail, great at maintaining his central character, an amazing plotter, but very uneven with really great books followed by kind of crappy ones. Or Ken Bruen who is so great at atmosphere and character and cannot plot worth a damn. Or various Scandinavians like Jo Nesbo who is a good plotter, and writes nuanced male characters and cardboard women. No one does it all.

  17. MBunge says:

    SPOILER

    So, will people try to pretend that Don Draper joining a commune is the fitting culmination of an epic journey or admit it’s something Weiner pulled out of his butt?

    Mike

  18. @MBunge:

    SPOILER

    I don’t think he did join the commune permanently, he just hit rock bottom there. I think the *ding* followed by a smile at the end was him getting inspiration. He went back to McCann Erickson to create the “I want to buy the world a coke” ad.

    What makes that ad different from every other ad Don’s made in the show? The rest have all been based on nostalgia and how the product will make the consumer feel better. The coke ad is based on hope for the future and how the consumer can use the product to make other people feel better.

    He was, in his way, like the guy in the group therapy session. His whole approach to life has been passive: if he waits in the refrigerator long enough, someone will come pick him and he’ll finally be loved. But ultimately, love is an active thing. People love you because of what you do for them.

    In a strange way, people are like products in need of advertising. No one picks a person just because they’re there. If you want to be picked, you have to go out and convince them that you’re worth picking.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Lit3Bolt: It’s quite fascinating when you run into writers who are great at piling up the mystery and adding on more and more complications but then can’t back out of the rat’s nest they have created. And then put them next to writers who are horrible at writing the first halves of novels but great at endings.

    It does seem that for some writers they can’t really plot out an entire story at the beginning without losing the wild charm that attracts others in their writings. I’d love to know exactly how much of her books Dorothy L. Sayers plotted out before she started writing. Her last book (Thrones, Dominations–finished by Barbara Pym) we KNOW she plotted it out in full and it’s a complete snooze.

  20. MBunge says:

    @Stormy Dragon: You know, there’s something to what you’re saying thematically. But let’s consider this.

    Joan – Great man dropped into her life so she can ditch him for a great job dropped into her life.

    Pete – Great job dropped in his life, without which he couldn’t complete the reconciliation they’ve been building to with Trudy.

    Roger – Gets married…why?

    Peggy and Stan – They finally figure out they love each other…why?

    Betty- Gets cancer just in time for the show to end.

    Don – Can call Peggy from the commune but can’t call a taxi?

    Mike

  21. aFloridian says:

    I thought the ending worked. Certainly appreciated how open-ended it was, which is true to the show. Certainly better than a bizarre turn as D.B. Cooper (although that would have been awesome and strange) or a scramble out the window of a skyscraper.

    And yeah, I think the interpretation that Don returns to his old life as Don Draper, ad man extraordinaire, but better for his walkabout and with a new understanding of himself and his world, is correct, and even Jon Hamm agrees.

    That said, I found an aggregator of recaps, and I read the “best of” of all of them, and I have to say the critics has probably made Matt Weiner out to be more of a genius than he is. Awesome show, and he definitely laid down some foreshadowing of various resolutions, but I still don’t feel it’s the psychological, philosophical masterwork many critics are making it out to be with their zany interpretations.

  22. @aFloridian:

    I have to say the critics has probably made Matt Weiner out to be more of a genius than he is.

    I’m a “Death of the author” guy. Meaning is not intrinsic, so what the final episode means to me doesn’t depend on what Matt Weiner intended it to mean. The mark of great art is that it is open to multiple legitimate interpretations.

  23. MBunge says:

    On the other hand, “Mad Men” had way, way, waaaaaaaay fewer rapes than “Game of Thrones”.

    Point, Weiner.

    Mike