Standing Athwart the Mad Men Fifth Season Finale

Modern TV writers must envy their golden age counterparts. They never knew the pressures of a season finale. In their days, the last episode of a season was just that. Nothing to wrap up, nothing to leave dangling. Mission: Impossible didn’t end with Cinnamon in peril; Hawaii Five-0 didn’t have McGarrett driving off a cliff, frozen in mid-air while the credits played. Shows ended. Everything was self-contained. Now popular shows have to Do Something, and the pressure must be enormous.

Mad Men usually ends with ambiguity, if I recall the previous years. Season 3’s conclusion had some zing; the founding of the agency and the midnight relocation of the customer files felt like a little caper film. But most of Mad Men’s season finales have been let-downs, and I’m waiting for someone to say that’s what makes them so good! They’re playing with our expectations. The climax of the story arc is usually in the penultimate episodes, don’t you see? Why, they’re redefining the genre of the season finale.

Perhaps. I just don’t think they know how to end it, which might explain why the end of this year’s run felt underwhelming. It was a brilliant season, short-stories in an anthology that has the heft and scale of a novel, but apparently the writers really ached to do a bad Twilight Zone episode mashed up with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Can a Mad Men Season End with Relief?

Reviews of Mad Men’s fifth season have a constant theme: This has been so dark. Really? Remember Don Draper living in an apartment that looked like it was painted with fryer grease, where he paid hookers to slap him? Granted, Season 5 had a hanging in the workplace, with poor Lane auto-garroting after he failed to auto-asphyxiate -- literally -- but the scene where Don chokes Maddy from Twin Peaks was a dream, and it had a happy ending. There’s nothing like waking up and realizing you didn’t kill someone and put them under the bed. The relief is enormous.

But can the season end with relief? We’re trained nowadays for hard landings, cliffhangers, shocks and deaths. Judging from the message boards where people obsess over every detail of the show, half the audience thought Pete would shoot himself this season. Really? Over what? He’s unhappy, yes. He chafes and seethes and aches; he had a brief affair with a pick-up artist who worked the kiss-and-ride lot. He got decked by a Limey and punched by a cuckolded husband.

Well, that’s life; that’s what they say. The idea he’ll paint the kitchen with his brains in the last episode because he was shown cradling a shotgun in a previous season would be understandable if Mad Men was regular TV, but it’s not. Now and then there’s a break: Joan gives Dr. Rapist his discharge; Peggy uses the Magical Escape Elevator that’s denied to Don Draper. But mostly the show is like life: one damned thing after the other. It’s most telling when it says little: they spent a quarter-million dollars to show how Don Draper has a hard time getting into the Beatles, because it’s late at night and he’s middle-aged, and what is this stuff, anyway.

This is why it’s silly to expect much from the season finale. Everything just goes on, with a few minor adjustments. People get along until they don’t.