Mad Men has been on quite the journey since 2007. Sure, it isn’t the suspense driven wish fulfillment that Breaking Bad was and it doesn’t have the stimulating tits and gore action that Game of Thrones provides, but it engages with viewers in a way that few other shows do. Whether it’s about fashion, historical events or how Don Draper is sabotaging himself this time, people talk about Mad Men. Which is strange because Mad Men has rarely peaked above three million viewers according to ratings. But impressive ratings do not make a show great. A lot of people could watch a terrible show just to watch it fail. What makes a show great is its ability to draw an audience time and time again, and time and time again Don Draper and partners have attracted consistent viewers.
When we last left Don Draper he was on the verge of being fired until Roger Sterling made a deal with advertising juggernaut, McCann Errickson to become an independent subsidiary. Part of that deal was a 5 year contract for Don, securing his position at the company for the foreseeable future. If the name McCann Erickson sounds familiar it’s because the company already tried to purchase Sterling Cooper, along with Putnam, Powell and Lowe, back in season three. At the time, Don, along with Bert Cooper, Roger Sterling and Lane Pryce conspired to sever their contracts and start their own agency.
So is Mad Men just retreading old ground? It might sound like Matthew Weiner has run out of ideas but the climate and the characters are very different three and a half seasons later. It was 1963 when Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce opened its doors. Six years have pasted in the story since then and a lot has happened since. Don has married and divorced again, had a break down, numerous affairs and almost been fired. The company merged with Cutler, Gleason and Chaough in season 6, bringing in Jim Cutler and Ted Chaough, the latter of the two then proceeding to have an affair with Peggy Olson. Guilty, he joins Pete in setting up an office in California to handle the Sunkist account. Pete Campbell had a kid and got separated, Roger took LSD and got divorced, Lane Pryce committed suicide and Bert Cooper died while watching the moon landing.
In the words of Roger Sterling, “a lot’s happened in between. Most of it good, but some of it very bad.” But it’s the attitude of Don that has changed the most. Back in season three, when faced with the buy out, Don challenged the partners, stating a desire to build something of his own. In the interim years, Don has built Sterling Cooper & Partners. It’s not all down to his work, Peggy, Pete and Joan have been influential in the company’s growth but Don has been a catalyst for that growth more times than not. Now in season seven, Don’s desires have changed. He’s very much focused on getting back to work and the McCann deal allows him to do just that.
It’s a sentiment that he shares with Ted Chaough, who seemed suicidal at the thought of working in advertising any longer. And yet, Don convinces him to sign a five year contract. After seven seasons, its easy to forget just how persuasive Don can be when he’s on his game. Part of that, I believe, is the challenge. Season four displays some of the hardest work that Don has ever done on the show, aside for perhaps the first part of season seven when he writes tags and copy and feeds Freddy Rumsen lines. Don needs to feel that he is working for or towards something. When he becomes content or complacent, his work and home life suffers.
The big question hanging over season seven part two is how will it end for Don Draper. Over the years, the most prevalent theory has been that Don will commit suicide, overwhelmed by the effect of his actions of his co-workers and lovers, and unable to live with his self-loathing and unable to accept that he really is Dick Whitman. While I might have believed that to be a possibility a few years ago, the character has made many strides in repairing relationships, especially with Sally, and accepting his past. His breakdown at the end of season six may have hurt his career but revealing his true origins did ease his distress.
Others have suggested that Bert’s musical number at the end of ‘Waterloo’ was signs of a brain tumor that will eventually kill Don. While the notion is interesting, I think that is reading too much into what was just a farewell for the character. Robert Morse was best known for his Broadway acting and singing before his role in Mad Men, and as such a musical number was a fitting tribute to both the actor and the character. This isn’t Better Call Saul where every little thing can be scrutinised as a sign of Breaking Bad things to come. In Mad Men, a musical number is just a musical number.
So how will it end? Honestly, I have no idea, Maybe Don will die or maybe he’ll walk off into the sunset. He could get back with Betty or Megan or meet someone new or rekindle an old romance with one of many paramours. Perhaps Roger will die. Peggy and Pete could finally get together. Harry Crane might finally make partner. There’s no telling how things will go because Weiner has consistently and constantly surprised audiences with the twists and turns that the show has made. Who could have predicted the merging of SCDP and CGC or the McCann Erickson would return to acquire the company? It’s a testament to the skill and talent of Weiner that even after seven season he can still surprise his audience.
The only thing left to do, if we can’t predict the end, is to sit back and enjoy the end of an era. Before Mad Men there was nothing like it. Now we have a number of period dramas about brilliant people or professions, such as Masters of Sex or The Hour. Some are better than others but none are the gem that Mad Men has become. The show could continue for years, twisting and turning, but its better not to run it into the ground and run the risk of becoming predictable. I’ll be sad to see the end but I’ll be happy to see it end on its own terms and end well.