Ok, I take it back. When I suggested that viewers simply sit back and enjoy the final fourteen episodes of AMC’s Mad Men, I expected it to actually be enjoyable. Instead, season seven part two has been bizarre and included what might have been the worst episode of the entire series (New Business). It doesn’t feel like Mad Men anymore, although maybe that’s the point.
As it turns out, Roger’s gambit to save the company after they failed to go public backfired. McCann Erickson don’t like paying the lease on a separate building and so, have assimilated SC&P. For as long as we’ve known Don Draper and friends, they’ve worked at Sterling Cooper or some variant there of. When Putnam, Powell and Lowe tried to sell the company to McCann previously, they staged a daring coup to keep the company and strike out on their own. When they try to keep some shred of their identity this time around, that dream is quickly dismissed by McCann’s top brass.
Maybe that’s why the show doesn’t feel like Mad Men anymore. Sterling Cooper, the constant throughout the decades, is gone; another name in a list of companies absorbed by McCann. And McCann is a faceless, corporate juggernaut. Whereas every account was a victory for Sterling Cooper, McCann treat accounts as something they’re entitled to. Airlines, pharmaceuticals, Coca Cola; those businesses are bandied about as treats to entice their new employees. One feels that they could go as quickly as they came and McCann would hardly flinch.
Without a company to care for, the viewers and the characters stop really caring. Joan tries to continue taking pride in her accounts but feels so stifled and mistreated, that she ends up quitting. Pete appears to have done well for himself, fitting in well at McCann but even he finds that what he wants is something that McCann can’t offer. Don should be happiest. He’s getting to work with Coca Cola and has finally won the attention of Conrad Hilton. Instead, he finds himself bored and just drives away. The only person to actually benefit from this merger is Peggy.
That’s why ‘The Milk and Honey Route’ is perhaps the best episode of the last batch. It feels comfortingly classic. McCann features minimally, with most of focus being on Don in a strange place, afraid people will see him for who he really is. It is a pity that Don is still obsessed with his identity after the progress he made coming back from the breakdown at the end of season six. However, it does make sense. Without Sterling Cooper, Dick Whitman doesn’t really need to be Don Draper anymore. There’s a sense of him shedding his skin as he leaves his old life, old friends and even his car behind. It’s nice that he’s staying in touch with the kids though, because he is connected to Sally and the boys regardless of whether he calls himself Don Draper or Dick Whitman.
Theories of Don’s death are still prevalent among fans. However, it looks like Betty will be one to pass away. Betty has always been one of the more compelling characters of the show, outside of the advertising business. It’s interesting that both Betty and Anna Draper, arguably the only two characters who really knew Don, are dying of cancer. But this pretty much squashes any chance of Don dying in the finale. Mad Men can be utterly depressing at times but I can’t see Matthew Weiner orphaning three children in the last ever episode.
So what will happen in the final episode? Are we any wiser now than we were when the season began? Sort of. The theme of the future and happiness has been significant throughout these last seven episodes. A very obvious example is ‘The Forecast’ where Don is forced to write a statement on SC&P’s future. A pointless exercise given that in the next episode, we learn that McCann are moving them inhouse, however, it does provide ample opportunity for Don to ask others what they want from their future. Their future, and their happiness, is based on their accomplishments, to which Don remarks ‘what’s next?’
Don understands their desire but he also understands that it doesn’t bring happiness. It’s a clear sign of foreshadowing. Only a couple episodes later, Don’s dissatisfaction leads him to leave advertising and hit the road. This theme is seen elsewhere too, although less ostentatiously. Diane struggles to see a future where she can be happy and accepting of her past mistakes. Glenn, in an attempt to please his step father, enlists. Pete, content at McCann but not happy, reconciles with Trudy and plans to move to Wichita. The central message being that the future they think they want often isn’t the one that will make them happy.
Is there a future that will make Don happy? Don has sought happiness in work, in alcohol and, most famously, in women. None of those brought him any lasting joy. As the imaginary Bert Cooper recently said of Don, “you like to play the stranger.” For a man like Don, familiarity does not bring happiness. That’s not very telling of how the series will end though. Don could take up a new name and a new identity. Or he might fade into obscurity, becoming no one. In fact, would he feel able to do that, give his responsibility to his children? Just like Don, Mad Men revels in being mysterious and unpredictable. I would say sit back and enjoy but, honestly, I’m dreading the end.