Tonight is the first airing of the final episode of AMC’s drama series Mad Men, which has become over the years my favorite television show of all time. Possibly many of you will be watching it as this blog goes live. I will not be–due to my personal schedule I’ll be watching the show tomorrow night–and I may even stay off social media this evening to avoid seeing any spoilers. As you may guess from the number of Mad Men related posts I’ve done on this blog, the end of this series is a sad event for me. I thought it was worth some ruminations on the end of the show, but not just on the show itself. Tonight I’m thinking back to the final episode of what was previously my favorite TV show of all time, Star Trek: The Next Generation, which first aired 21 years ago this week, on May 22, 1994. The world certainly has changed a lot since then–as have I–but there are some common threads there, and they’re worth talking about.
Mad Men, of course, is Matthew Weiner’s brilliant series about advertising executives in the 1960s. Five core characters have carried the show through its seven seasons: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a needy, hard-drinking narcissist who can’t empathize with women; Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), a former secretary who’s been riding the wave of 1960s gender change to corporate executive power; Roger Sterling (John Slattery), an old-time ad man who seems generally checked out; Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), who’s journey through the sexist minefield of the ’60s has been very different than Peggy’s; and Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a corporate striver desperately trying to find his moral and personal center. From the first episode of the show in 2007, which took place in 1960, to tonight’s, which takes place in 1970, these five characters and their various associates have given us a uniquely personal and human look at the social tumult of America in the 1960s, and have left us with a great deal to think about.
This AMC-made trailer promotes the final episodes of Mad Men with selected visions from the show’s 8-year run.
I’m not going to speculate on how the show is going to end. If you follow the show, you’ve heard all the rumors: Don will get killed–possibly by jumping out a window, thus validating the cryptic cartoon of Mad Men‘s opening credits–or he’ll change his identity, or something. I don’t know. One of the strengths of Mad Men is the complexity of its characters, and I suspect Don, the most complex of all, will defy a pat resolution one way or another. Part of me even wonders if the show will attempt a metafictional “Tommy Westphal’s snow globe” type ending, like the famous 1988 conclusion of St. Elsewhere (you had to be a child of the ’80s to know what that is). Actually I don’t care. What I care about more is that, although the show is ending, we’ve got seven years of back episodes to re-watch and rediscover, loaded with so much nuance and meaning that those of us who are now lifelong Mad Men fans will probably spend the next 25 years still poring over them. This is the magic of a great series which technology, like streaming video-on-demand, can bring us. Mad Men will have no new episodes after tonight, but the show will never leave us.
Star Trek is like that too. I remember watching the final episode of Next Generation, which aired May 22, 1994. It was a two-hour special called “All Good Things,” and deliberately wrapped around to the series’ 1987 premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint.” After the show was over I remember sitting in my empty living room, the TV off, my almost-drained beer bottle in hand, and thinking, “Wow. Star Trek has now passed on into another form.” There would, of course, be the movies (Generations, which also came out in 1994, being the first), and endless reruns on VHS tape, DVD and eventually Netflix streaming. All the great highlights of the show–the Borg, Tasha Yar, Spock and Scotty coming back, Romulan intrigues, Picard’s haunted past, etc.–would still be there, but after that final episode Star Trek: The Next Generation passed from the custody of its creators into the care of its viewers and fans. It now belonged to us to interpret, reinterpret, parse, divine and analyze in our own way, for years if we liked, and the creators of the show, talented though they were, had nothing more to say to us about it. The creative and thoughtful energy that buzzed around Star Trek was now ours. That was an exciting time.
“The sky’s the limit!” This is the final scene of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which first aired May 22, 1994.
So it is true with Mad Men. There are actually a lot of similarities between Mad Men and Star Trek: The Next Generation. Both ran for seven seasons (Mad Men’s took eight years because the final season was split into two), and Mad Men premiered in 2007, exactly 20 years after Next Generation. Both featured an ensemble cast of actors, some well-established before the show started, some relative newcomers, whose careers have since come to be defined by the characters they played on the show. In an oblique way both are rooted in the 1960s. Mad Men obviously takes place in that decade, whereas Next Generation was an attempt to duplicate and import 1960s science fiction tropes into a 1980s-1990s cultural and fictional context. Mad Men throws a spotlight on the inherent sexism of the 1960s. Next Generation had its own complicated gender politics: the outrageous costumes from season 1, for instance (miniskirts and go-go boots, some on men!), contrasted with more nuanced gender portrayals from season 7. And in both cases, as the shows age we’re more likely to learn a lot more from both of them about the times in which they were created: the difficult transition, in Next Generation’s case, from the conservative 1980s to the Clinton-era 90s, and our own tumultuous history, in Mad Men’s, from the angsty late 2000s to the culturally and politically bewildering mid-2010s. These are the narratives we’re going to see in Mad Men in years to come, even more than we may see new aspects on the stories or characters.
Tonight will be a bittersweet evening for Mad Men fans like me. I’m sad there won’t be any more episodes, but I’m also excited to see the show all over again at my own pace and with my own thoughts. Mad Men is dead–but long live Mad Men. Mr. Draper is out and won’t be coming back, but that doesn’t mean I have to stop calling.