Short version: nicely done. The obligatory animated gif is at the end of this piece.
Long version follows.
1. Pretentious Observations Written Before Watching the Exciting Conclusion
The season began with the face of a doctor looking down with concern, a lobby light fixture behind his head like a great cold modernist spider.
Some thought Don Draper had a heart attack — not inconceivable, since numberless Lucky Strikes and rivers of liquor and the incessant stress of the office no doubt made his ticker thrum like the wings of a hummingbird. Everyone expected something bad for the show’s wretched hero; it’s been a bad patch for Don, and he isn’t looking good. Why, he’s sweaty. He barfed at a funeral. His position at the office is changing. True, but hardly different: recall the season where he threw up at the office, lost an account, left his suburban house, lived in an apartment that had one light bulb, furnishings from the Barton Fink collection, coupled with a hooker he paid to slap him, and had a really bad hallway.
That last item matters. Hallways. Don’t you see the importance of hallways in this show? People have business conversations in hallways; Don stops in the hallway of his swank pad and cannot go in to the house because . . . well, I forget why, but there were drinks and sadness and the wife-thing and the mistress. Oh! He used the back hallway to wait for his mistress. The Mammy Burglar came in through the back hallway. Sally tries to retrieve an embarrassing letter . . . by using the back hallway.
What is series creator Matthew Weiner trying to say with all these hallways? Could it be, perhaps, that he sees the sixties as a corridor through which his characters pass, unsure what waits behind the door at the end? After all, when Don goes to California for a wild party and dies for a while and sees dead people, it’s in a modern house with no hallways in the traditional sense.
California, and the sixties, represent the future of America. You’re free to chose your path; you’re not limited to the doors that line the hallways. There’s no binary state in this world, where you’re outside the room or inside. This, of course, raises the other theme of Mad Men: the public face vs. the private face, another binary concept. Bob Benson is two people. Megan is two people — a boring wife and a boring soap star. Pete Campbell is two people — a fellow full of prissy fury in private, and a fellow who expresses smaller amounts of prissy fury in public. And so on. Don’t you see what this show is about? Identity. And Hallways.
If I may step back a bit: all that is nonsense. I don’t believe a word of it.
This is not a show about any of that stuff. There’s no theme, no message, no moral, no point to Mad Men. This is an exceptionally well-written, well-acted, well-directed story about talented people in a creative industry with a dress code and a need to conjure fables to generate money. Before seeing the finale, I can say with assurance that no one dies, shoots himself, has a heart attack, asks for a divorce, or any other soap opera trick. Everything will just go on for better and for worse, like life.
Remember the end of last season? Megan is getting successful! Don leaves the set and there’s James Bond music, “You Only Live Twice.” And then he’s in a bar and a girl asks him if he’s alone. Don — Draper — Is — Back. Uh huh. Well. What’d we get? An affair. Been there done that. A few brilliant ad pitches, because he’s good at that: been there done that. Betty complications: been there done her, and while the sequence added to the story of those two and called back to the early days, A) it didn’t mean anything, and B) the scene where Betty and Don enjoyed their son’s happiness at their mutual presence reminded you of early scenes of domestic happiness, which also didn’t mean anything in the end. Don Draper’s life consists of powerful emotional interludes that do not add up to anything except retrospective remorse.
He’s making it up as he’s going along. Perhaps the writers are, too. Mad Men observes its characters with affectionate contempt and selective indulgence. It lets the viewers find meaning and symbolism and recurring motifs in the banal elements of daily life — say, hallways — and this makes viewers construct plots and arcs where none exist. It’s a Rorschach blot. It’s not a soap. It’s not Dallas. It’s not a novel. It’s a series of connected short stories, each with its own tone.