‘Mad Men’ ends with whimper, not bang

Final seasons of American television, as ordered by no one and yet repeated ad nauseam, tend to feature the same cinematic tropes: parades of misplaced pathos, the tiresome retreat of old characters or plot lines and an overestimation of what audiences “want to see.”

What’s worse—it’s generally brought forth with maximum joylessness by the shows’ creators. When showrunners are deciding how to conclude their series, the focus on fan-service and the strange audience/art relationship of a long-running program becomes glaring. Even series that captivate me for all of their airtime, like Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad,” aren’t significant for their closing curtain moments.

The Gilligan show felt entirely too neat upon its conclusion, exhibiting the common problem of feeling too much like a self-conscious bow-wrapping. A far more preferable structural tactic would be for a series of television that I like to continue doing what it does well until it doesn’t anymore, rather than using its commemorative occasion to be something that it isn’t; the 2013 finale for “30 Rock” immediately comes to mind, which as it aired felt nothing like the tone or temperament of the (admittedly inconsistent) program I followed (intermittently).

The firmness of control Matthew Weiner, the creator and eight-year showrunner of “Mad Men,” demonstrates on his show is hardly different than Gilligan’s was with “Breaking Bad,” so I worried the ending of the latter will befall the same, all too scrupulous narrative ability.

The last seven episodes of “Mad Men” are being unveiled week by week throughout April and May in a truncated Part 2 of its seventh season—as of now, five have aired and two are still awaiting deployment. The show is less narratively-propelled than “Breaking Bad”—a lean genre masterpiece at its heart—and as such its final strands of story can feel a little aimless.

As characters despair and question their worth on a continuum of life and death, it hasn’t become clear in which direction Weiner will finally guide ‘60s advertising creative director Don Draper (Jon Hamm), his caddish firm partner Roger Sterling (John Slattery), his progressive, headstrong protégé Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) or any other of the heavily metaphorical program’s ensemble and their ambitions in a culturally shifting American landscape.

This critic has seen the first four episodes of Season 7: Part 2: “Severance,” “New Business,” “The Forecast,” and “Time & Life,” as well as every episode of the show preceding them. This latest run of episodes has been very strong, except perhaps aspects of “Severance” and “New Business;” the feeling of necessity in regurgitating old characters and themes  is present to a degree in the latest efforts of the show.

However, as many critics have noted, the motif is fully in accordance with “Mad Men’s” fascination with the past and its sneaky reappearances throughout the present, as well as its prevailing influence in the lives of the show’s characters.

Ghostly brushes with fragments of personal history are memorably evoked twice in the new season. First, in “Severance,” the half-season premiere, Don is enticed by two women he sees and thinks he knows: the spitting image of a past lover, Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) in front of his office mirror, and a waitress named Diana (Elizabeth Reaser). The latter is actually dead and the former was an instance of mistaken recognition, both of which provide for suitably haunting, gloomy, existential mini-crises for our protagonist.

Weiner and episode director Scott Hornbacher’s ghostly masterstroke, however, comes in the first scene of Season 7, Episode 9. The episode opens with the classically, eerily (if you’re familiar with the show’s lineage) domestic image of Don preparing food in a kitchen with Betty (January Jones), now his ex-wife, and his children.

The immediacy and lack of context for the moment catches us off-guard, prompting us to wonder whether this is a flashback to happier days in this broken family unit or if this is a brief moment of timeless bliss amidst the wreckage. Betty’s current husband, Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley), enters the room midway through the scene and the latter option crystallizes as the former shatters. It’s a beautifully orchestrated reveal that makes privy the audience to the characters’ inability to filter the past from bleeding onto their current states of mind.

In the penultimate-of-airing, quite wry episode, “Time & Life,” Weiner takes pleasure wallowing in the chaos of the disenchanted. The final shot of the episode pulls back with melancholy until its characters are ants scurrying around in its petri dish of a frame—the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce employees, and the world at large, indifferent to the ostensible leaders lined at the background of the composition despite their heralding of supposedly good news.

This moment ensures that “Mad Men” is largely about the inevitable creep of irrelevance and ordinariness in one’s life and that Weiner and co. are unafraid to dabble in reservoirs of negativity and futile fatalism.

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