Reflecting on Mad Men, S7E14, “Person to Person” — the series finale

I don’t have any clever synthesis of this show that I’ve enjoyed for 7 years (I binged season 1 before season 2 started). I don’t have a theme under which I can unify the show’s 7 seasons. I don’t even see it as a show about the 1960s. I just see it as the best show I’ve ever seen on television. And I’m going to miss it.

I’ve avoided a lot of analyses of the show. Lately, I’ve become annoyed with the desire of writers (including my own) to make this show about something other than human relationships. As I’ve reflected on the last episodes and my own feelings about the show what stands out to me is the show’s honesty. Mad Men has endured (and will continue to) as my favorite television show of all time because of the completely honest way the characters were written–their reactions and their personal arcs.

In the finale, as in every episode, I watched in awe as Mad Men didn’t fantasize about where the characters should go but simply portrayed where they would honestly go. Don’s breakdown after hanging up the phone with Peggy: I’ve been there. Peggy and Stan’s difficult expression of their feelings: I’ve watched that happen. Joan’s ambition versus her lover’s (whatever his name is): I get it.

This brutal honesty was apparent in the early seasons. It was difficult to watch Don be affectionate to his lovers, cruel to his wife, and compassionate to his children but that is honest. He was a complicated character but more so because he had to be portrayed through the writing and acting as understandably complicated. As much as Mad Men has been about him reinventing himself, it has never been unbelievable.

The show never stooped to manipulative emotion even as it portrayed births, deaths, illness, violence, and rape. When it was funny (which was often), it was the humor we observe among our friends. No one owned a monkey. Each instance of humor, grief, joy, and pain was more powerful for its resistance to sentimentality. As Norm MacDonald observed in his farewell to David Letterman last week, “If something is true, it is not sentimental.” And Mad Men was true always.

While the Madison Avenue advertising world of the 1960s served as the backdrop to its portrayal of these characters and their stories, this show wasn’t about the 1960s. Those details gave the stories a hook and helped us reflect on our own experience versus the recent past but the truth of the show is that it could have been any time and any business. In fact, one of the most salient elements of the show to me was how often I identified exactly with a moment in the business. “I’ve witnessed that.” “That’s exactly what a client would say.”

Not to belabor the point but that is because of Mad Men‘s honesty.

Writers, directors, actors, and everyone else involved in telling a story have to make all sorts of decisions on how to tell that story. One of the hardest things to do is remain faithful to the tone. Mad Men could have gone anywhere–as many shows do after a few years. But it didn’t. As much as I wanted Don to leave it all behind and work on race cars in the Bonneville Salt Flats, that wouldn’t have been honest. I value that the show didn’t turn into fantasy or allegory. It just stayed true.

Everything about it was perfect. Farewell, Mad Men.

Now that I’ve said all that, go read Victoria Marsden’s thoughts.