There was a lot of crying. That’s all we know about the end of Mad Men right now. That Jon Hamm was in the very last shot, and that the entire cast and crew was watching, and that the whole damn enterprise was caught under a swell of unintelligible emotion. They blubbered like babies.
And how else could it possibly have gone?
After all, on screen, Mad Men was always all about crying. Last season — or maybe it was technically this season, given AMC’s penchant for splitting finales— we saw a lot of it. Don Draper at home, teary-eyed and alone. Don Draper at the office, tie slightly askew, bawling. But this time around, well, it’s not scripted. Mad Men is ending, and we’re all just going to have to deal with that.
TV shows end all the time, of course. This spring alone we’re saying goodbye to Justified, Boardwalk Empire and Parks and Recreation. Hell, David Letterman’s leaving television next month. But Mad Men feels, somehow, different. When it comes to the end of its seventh and final season a few weeks from now, it’ll leave a remarkably large hole in the pop culture landscape. Think about it: this is the show that almost single-handedly revived the three-piece suit and the side-part. It re-popularized the Old Fashioned. It made Jon Hamm a star—and Elisabeth Moss, and Christina Hendricks, and John Slattery and Jessica Pare.
Here’s why we’ll miss Mad Men: because it was a show about letting go.
And the show’s creator and show runner, Matthew Weiner, is rightly feeling the loss. “Part of it is almost like graduating from college,” he told us. “That group of people will never be together again in that form.”
More than the famous faces and the unflinchingly great style, here’s why we’ll miss Mad Men. Because it was a show about letting go—and a forum for it, too. With its plodding plot points and reserved, regressed, angst-ridden characters, it was the television equivalent of a steam valve—a seven-season balloon that slowly and methodically emptied itself of hot air, breathlessly asking essential questions about manhood and faintly hissing an attempt at a response. It was a study in real and subtle crises, the kind that we all—generation in and generation out—find ourselves struggling with. It was an exercise in waiting for the shoe to drop.
“I was 35 years old when I wrote the pilot, finally” said Weiner, “and it was a chance to say: ‘What is your problem? Life’s good and you’re not happy. How did that happen?’ I felt guilty about it, about the two questions that I heard everybody asking who was my age: ‘Is this it?’ And: ‘What’s wrong with me?’ And that’s what the show was about.”
And thus, the crying. In some ways, the entire series was a long, slow buildup to that elemental release. For seven long years, before Netflix and binge watching and the cult of instant gratification, we waited for this finale. And that whole time, we were mostly just waiting to see a grown man—this last decade’s most starched, most stoic grown man—lose his ever-loving shit. We exhaled when it happened because we were just thankful it wasn’t happening to us. The genius of Mad Men was just how mundane that seven-season arc really was. Not just mundane, but real. We’re all Don Draper a little bit—we’re just all hoping like hell we don’t show it.
Which is sad, yes, but also a little bit funny. And well, as Joni Mitchell said: laughing and crying, it’s the same release.
“On set, the line that was most often quoted for a laugh is this,” said Weiner, “When Don has written the tobacco letter and they go to a funeral, and it’s very sad because this guy has left behind a wife and a baby but they’re going there to get clients. They’re ambulance chasing. Don comes back to the office and Meaghan says, ‘How was the funeral?’ And Don says, ‘We’ll see.’”
The point, I guess, is that life (er, TV anyway) after Mad Men is going to look very different. More passive. Less expectant. Less cathartic. How will we cope? We’ll see, indeed.