Going into this final season of ‘Mad Men,’ the only question remaining about this stellar program was whether or not creator Matthew Weiner would stick the landing and maintain its’ status as one of the best shows of all time. Overall, throughout its’ history, this show has been near perfect, but the last mini-season 7 faltered a bit due to inconsistencies in the Don Draper story arc – was he really getting out of the ad business, coming to grips with his faults as a husband and father, sobering up and finding redemption? While the previous season 6 finale hinted at these intriguing concepts, the following season had Don fishing around and stalling, to mixed narrative results.
This final season (7.5) came out swinging, taking the main and side characters to their surprising, but in hindsight, inevitable and true, next phases in their lives. Even the strange storyline of Don’s fixation with a sullen and mysterious diner waitress came to represent his failed attempts at getting redemption through saving others (also explored in the extended revisit with ‘niece’ Stephanie in CA in the finale). This season continued the note perfect performance by Kiernan Shipka as Sally Draper, in the stand-out episode where she gives up on her parents and their inability to inspire stability and maturity before taking a trip to Europe – she also gets a bonus for anchoring what could have been a treacly storyline of a terminal Betty Draper (January Jones, doing wonders with tricky material in a polarizing role). Christina Hendricks and Elizabeth Moss, as Joan Harris and Peggy Olson respectively, shone in this final season, getting satisfying storylines revolving around not settling – Joan in her rejection of an easy life at the reins of various men, both personally and professionally, and Peggy in her steadfast decision to make her mark in a man’s world and finding love in an unlikely place (at least in her mind – the audience has realized this connection for years). Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) finds himself riding a wave of success and appears to have found internal understanding / acceptance of his grating personality, turning it into an advantage, even winning back his ex-wife Trudie (Allison Brie) with a convincing speech that almost wins over the audience (but really these are two peas in a superficial pod – that’s why they belong together). Roger (John Slattery) goes down in true Roger-style, closing out the firm with vermouth binge and making another obvious, but entertaining mistake in choosing yet another bride (Marie Calvet, the fiery French mother of Megan played by guest star Julia Ormond, yet another example of this assured show attracting top film talent in minor roles).
As usual, it is Jon Hamm, as Don Draper / Dick Whitman, who gets the most unpredictably maddening arc, until it is revealed in the final moments of the series finale, what his journey has been about. Don Draper, the cypher, the stand-in for the adaptable, immoral, but occasionally ethical and always resilient American soul, morphs again into what no one (including the audience) realizes is needed for this always evolving adman profession. After the tumultuous changes of the 60’s bearing down into the mainstream of the 70’s, Don re-invents himself through a meandering walkabout of the US landscape after abandoning a creative meeting at new ownership, the behemoth corporate entity McCann, that is anything but creative. Not willing to be pinned down (Jim Hobart, head of McCann-Erickson refers to him as his ‘white whale’ that he would get him eventually), Don sheds all of his belongings and corporate ties – he first seeks out the diner waitress, his bid for redemption, assuming she has returned to Michigan, and fails miserably, getting berated from her ex-husband who is starting a new life; then he gets stuck in a motel in the heartland, connecting with some denizens (even drunkenly confessing his misdeeds at a Veteran function, to which the reply is basically, we all did what we had to do to survive), but ultimately is punished for his good deeds here as well – finally he gives away the last vestige of his material self, his car, to the very betrayer who showed him that no one can really be trusted. On a final drunken spiral he pushes the limits by testing a souped-up car in the white sand deserts of Utah, but breaks down and ends his journey where it began, with the niece of Anna Draper, who only knows him as Dick. She takes him to an unlikely finish – a therapeutic retreat for the lost and lonely – at first he completely resists what he judges as communal nonsense, but eventually breaks down, complete with a desperate, suicidal-feeling call to the one person that knows him better than all, Peggy. She inadvertently puts him on the path to what is assumed by the ambiguous ending of the series – that Don embraces the touchy-feely, world-as-one, hippie-vibe that would overtake American culture in the 70’s, as an anchor to the next wave of advertising and something he had been searching for since the series debut and hinted at throughout the series run – how to connect to that all important 18-34 demographic that now reigns supreme in advertising – a seismic cultural shift for corporate America appeal. Brilliant stuff . . .