Mad Men's final season: the bittersweet joy of saying goodbye
The excitement of the final seven episodes arriving on screen is matched by the emotional heartbreak that comes with letting go of Don, Betty and Peggy
Wednesday 1 April 2015 14.55 BST
As the final half of the final series of Mad Men nears, you have to ask yourself how you’re going to feel when it’s over. I wonder, indeed, whether this wasn’t part of the point of the show’s lengthy mid-season break – to elongate this period of imminent loss so that, as we watch these final episodes, we have already been incubating the sadness for some time.
Is it a spoiler, to report a rumour? No, sod it – if you care, then you will have already heard that someone will die. While I am on tenterhooks as to the cause of his or her mortality, the fact of their death – if it turns out to be one – is less important. When the series ends, they all die. Their universe dies. The near-limitless permutations of the happenings ahead of them become none.
|This could be the last time ... Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), Betty Francis (January Jones), |
Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) . Photograph: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Losing a boxset puts you somewhere between bereft (restless, hungry) and bereaved (panicky, disbelieving, blank). I first experienced it at the end of The Wire. Sure, Buffy was a blow, but I never felt that by staring at the credits, I could bring her back to life – perhaps because she had already been resurrected in series six, which turned out to be a big mistake. Books prepare you for their ending with the changing balance of their weight in your hand; television does not (and nor will an e-reader, which is why they are doomed in the long term). It’s the difference between losing someone to cancer and losing them in a car crash.
Before the rise of long-term series, I’d probably watched one film in my life that I missed like a person when it ended (I can’t say what it was because its quality is hotly contested; oh, OK, it was Breaking the Waves). Now it happens every six months. With Mad Men, more than any other show, I feel sheepish about how much I’ll miss it because I’d never really realised how much of its attraction was down to its visual sumptuousness.
In a piece for the New York Review of Books, the outrageously insightful cultural theorist Daniel Mendelsohn called the enthusiasm for Mad Men “impossible to justify”, implying that its popularity was a kind of perverted, hyper-consumerism dressed up as the appreciation of art. “Most intriguingly, to my mind, Brooks Brothers has partnered with the series’ costume designer to produce a limited edition Mad Men suit – which is, in turn, based on a Brooks Brothers design of the 1960s,” he wrote. I knew then that I was sunk.
I took Betty’s fat-suit episodes as a personal affront. It wasn’t that I minded obesity as a look, it was the interruption of her sense of her own perfection. It was so much the engine of her behaviour – guarding and maintaining that exquisiteness, worrying that it would evaporate but also that nobody could see beyond it – that accepting her as a physically different person was like accepting that a friend had a new girlfriend.
But even if Mendelsohn is right, Don, Betty, Peggy, Joan, Pete, even Trudy, are part of my life now, and … well, that’s exactly the point; I am not part of theirs. If friends are people who can make you feel guilty even when you know they’re doing it deliberately, long-running series give you the fascination of friendship without the ball ache. After the washing machine, Netflix: a device for the saving of emotional energy. But you can’t expect not to miss them when they’re gone.
The bittersweet loss will be Elisabeth Moss, who has walked out on us once before, when The West Wing ended (her Zoey Bartlet was bit too “spirited” in my opinion, but I got used to her). I hope to hell that Peggy isn’t the pinnacle of Moss’s career; I can still feel sorrow about the whacked-out fog of her maternal loss in series two, and I worry that nobody will ever write a part like that for her, or anybody else, again. Although of course they will; more telly always comes along.
Jon Hamm, in theory, should have compromised Don by appearing quite plausibly in other things while it’s been going on. The film Bridesmaids, in which he plays a rather run-of-the-mill jerk, was particularly hard to square with the anguish of Draper, the layers of thought and suppression that have made it OK to admire him, and nothing at all to do with erotic charge of a person who is constantly drinking and (almost) never drunk. But the slow, heavy-footed, directionless strings on Mad Men’s opening credits always hypnotise me, and blot everything else out.
Breaking Bad, I missed for its subtlety, its politics and its ingenuity. Game of Thrones, I’ll miss for the relentlessness of the plotting; five minutes of that show would have taken Wolf Hall three weeks (I never missed Wolf Hall; to work its way into your life, a show really needs to trash your evenings, repeatedly, leaving you slightly sleep deprived and your mind whirring at weird times). Mad Men, I’ll miss for the dialogue, its obliqueness, the hovering consequences that never quite arrived. Above all, these people were my friends, goddammit. My unfriendship friends. They were all give and no take.
Mad Men returns on AMC on April 5 and Sky Atlantic on April 9