I never watched Mad Men.
I realize that admitting such a transgression probably makes me unfit to be an entertainment journalist. Worse, I might have to turn in my citizenship to the 21st century.
It was, like so many things, a phenomenon that simply passed me by. After a while, the train was moving a little too fast to catch and, eventually, I took a certain pride in having that wind in my hair. “No, I don’t watch Mad Men, but I’m glad it means so much to you.”
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the received wisdom that one gleans by simply being a guy with a working internet connection — especially when it comes to Mad Men and people of color — turned me off a little. While I understand that the New York City creator Matt Weiner was recreating was one in which White Men were at the top of every pyramid, the masters of the universe; it doesn’t mean I have to relish the idea of watching it.
But still, it was easy to see that something special was both coming and, this year, going.
I decided to conduct a bit of an experiment: Could one watch the pilot for a show like Mad Men, then the finale, and draw any sorts of conclusions? What is it like to have the Alpha and the Omega and none of the rest of the alphabet in-between?
The pilot episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” remains a masterpiece of tone and brevity. Every stroke is crucial, every layer adds something to what came before. Jon Hamm’s Don Draper is a venal, prideful scoundrel who is nevertheless the best there is at his job — and he’s also a man who hides everything from everyone, including himself.
And all of the supporting players — Elizabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson, Vincent Kartheiser’s Pete Campbell, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling, January Jones’ Betty Draper and Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris — are impeccably drawn. There is a reason why this show is beloved, and it’s the same reason why it’s won a boatload of Emmys (even if, mysteriously, never one for Hamm): Because it’s really, really good.
So, here are the things that struck me watching how a really, really good television show said goodbye.
1. That first shot of Don Draper behind the wheel, screaming across the Bonneville Salt Flats got me thinking about the opening of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns comic book: old Bruce Wayne, behind the wheel of a race car, pushing it past its limits, edging up the catastrophe, thinking to himself, “This would be a good death.”
2. I have heard some rumors about Donald Sterling’s mustache and it is everything everyone’s said: There is a silverback caterpillar crawling across that man’s lip and it is glorious.
3. I guess Don Draper has been missing for a while. Hiding in Utah. I don’t know from what — hard to tell.
4. Peggy is straight-up running shit now that it’s the 70s. Or, at least, not taking any shit. I have seen the GIFs of her “walk” from a previous episode. I guess this is what that “walk” got her. A chance to be more.
5. “I feel like someone just gave me some very good news”: Joan on trying cocaine for the first time. As good a way of describing a drug experience as I’ve ever heard.
6. All this sun is freaking me out. The palette was so dark in the pilot, so much like the lighting in a wood-paneled prison, that so much warmth is almost funereal. Fitting, I suppose, for a finale.
7. What the hell happened to Pete Campbell’s hair? Oh, right: Time. Peggy’s story seems to be the most dramatic. She was, after all, the “new blood” in the pilot. It was her first day at Sterling Cooper. It was through her eyes that we first met Don Draper. And now she has her own office, baring her claws to get what she wants, even in the possession of Pete’s respect, admiration and cactus.
8. An aside: I’ve got a friend who worked for AMC and had a hand in its development and, later, production. Let’s call him The Mad Ukranian. I was visiting Los Angeles from NYC a few years back and he invited me to a party that AMC was throwing at the Chateau Marmont, a sort of awards’ season soiree in honor of Mad Men. I asked him if Christina Hendricks would be there. The Mad Ukranian responded in the affirmative. I then politely declined. When he asked why, I said, “I don’t think I can trust the words that will come out of my mouth should I ever find myself in her presence.” Watching Joan walk into the bar to meet that one-eyed man reminded me of that.
9. Oh, hey: It’s Black Canary (Caity Lotz). God, I am such a geek.
10. I don’t know a lot about Don Draper, but I know that “hippie commune” isn’t a suit he wears well.
11. Don claims to know how people work but, you know, I don’t think he does. I think he knows how people should work if they’re going to fit into his life. But the thing he never knew was how, exactly, he worked. Because he didn’t have a life to fit into.
12. I would not have guessed, judging from the pilot, that anyone one this show would get a happy ending. Or even a moment of the kind of happiness that Peggy experienced with Stan. (I would also like Matt Weiner to write my life, Truman Show-style.)
13. “I had a dream I was on the shelf, in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then, they open the door. And you see them smiling. And they’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you. And maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.” Sweet Jesus…this poor fuck’s refrigerator analogy is the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard.
14. Once more around the horn, for old time’s sake. Not that I can share in those old times, but still. Pete and his bad hair on a fancy jet. Joan launching her business out of her kitchen, without Peggy as her partner. Roger and the French lady in some brasserie somewhere, cute as buttons. Betty Draper continuing to smoke herself to death. Peggy realizing that she can, actually, have it all so long as Stan is by her side. And Don realizing how to turn commune life into money by teaching the world to sing.
Reading the first chapter of a book and then the last chapter is no way to read a book. All it can do, really, is make you long for the experience of having read the whole thing all the way through.
And yet…the Mad Men finale made sense to me. I understood what was happening and, most of the time, why. It didn’t leave me isolated, drifting in that wind that I relished — it was a moving, engrossing bit of drama. Sort of like a fantastic track of an album you haven’t heard before — a snapshot of excellence.
It’s enough to make you pick up the needle and place it back at the start.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com.