If there’s anything Matthew Weiner learned from his apprentice years on The Sopranos, it’s this: Keep the Russians in the woods. One of the countless ways The Sopranos changed the world was how David Chase left plot threads dangling everywhere, refusing to play by the rules and wrap things up. So we never did find out what happened to the Russian hit man hiding out in the woods after he ate Paulie Walnuts’ shoe for dinner. And as Mad Men heads into the final stretch — one last seven-chapter- miniseason — Don Draper’s head is like the Pine Barrens, full of dangerous types we can’t be sure we won’t see again.
So nobody knows how Mad Men will end — all we know is it won’t be enough. Mad Men has given fans seven seasons’ worth of seduction and suffering and Scotch and Sinatra, more than any finale could ever possibly resolve, and whatever happens, we’ll crave more of it. That’s the way it should be. Epics aren’t supposed to have satisfying endings. That’s what makes them epics — The Iliad ends with the Trojan War still raging, The Aeneid ends before Aeneas founds Rome, and Mad Men is guaranteed to end before Don Draper finds happiness.
Last season, Don made it to the edge of the Sixties — the 1969 moon landing. After groveling his way back into a job at Sterling Cooper, he had to humble himself even more to turn back into a force in the ad world. The season ended with the fantastic dream sequence where his just-departed mentor Bert Cooper serenades him with “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” But more crucially, Don got to tell Peggy the only three words that will ever satisfy him: “Back to work.” For Don, work is what alcohol is for Homer Simpson: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
The excellent premiere episode of the final run has that same punchline: “Back to work!” But Don has spent the Sixties leaving a trail of emotional wreckage behind him, and it’s no consolation that so many of the people he’s used up and discarded are dead. It’s usually the dead ones who give him the most trouble, showing up in his guilt-ridden hallucinations. Like Bob Dylan, another Sixties antihero Don resembles in so many ways, he needs a steam shovel to keep away the dead.
Part of the Mad Men mystique is how characters fade out for years at a time, only to jump back into the story. Remember the schoolteacher’s epileptic brother, the one Don told to give him a call if he needed help? Still out there. Remember how Dr. Faye casually mentioned her mobbed-up dad? Pete and Peggy’s baby? Roger’s hippie daughter? Sal? So many Russians in the woods. Don’s philosophy has always been to move forward as if the past never happened — as he told Peggy, “It will shock you how much it never happened.” But at this point, even he realizes that’s a fantasy he can’t sell anymore, not even to himself.
How are we going to live without this guy? Or the rest of these glorious, damaged souls; no other drama has offered such a host of characters who are sheer narcotic pleasure to spend an hour with, even at their most morally depraved. How will we survive without Roger and his lubricated taunts? Joan’s sneers? Peggy’s rants? Pete’s hissy fits? Mad Men has been loaded with so many toxic delights that we’ll miss bitterly. Saying goodbye will be an agonizing experience of historic proportions.