Last Sunday, the Mad Men series finale was met with divisive discourse. Go figure. In a recent interview with Matthew Weiner, Mad Men’s creator, he said ending a television show is “unnatural.” That a show we come back to every week, engaged in ongoing character developments and storylines, would just up and leave is nothing short of abandonment – something Don Draper knows a bit about.
Series finales are routinely met with frictional reactions because 1) nothing can live up to our misplaced expectations, and 2) ending a television show is unnatural – knowing where the story stops is antithetical to the medium. The whole idea of a show coming to a halt houses quite a few issues that were visible upon the airing of Mad Men’s swan song, “Person to Person.”
Why do we care so much about a series finale? I would estimate that most of our unreasonable expectations comes from our aforementioned feeling of abandonment. When we watch an episode we know is to be the last, it’s only natural to process it differently from almost every other episode of TV we have ever watched. If we are never to see these characters again, there is some irrational conviction that this last hour of television must be able to sustain us for a lifetime. Obviously, this is an inconceivable achievement.
Although I empathize with not wanting to let go of a cultural staple, whether it’s a band that’s breaking apart or a show like Mad Men, I have learned to take solace knowing there are hours and hours of great moments to revisit. If the Mad Men finale was Don on a Falling Down-esque killing spree for no discernible reason, or if AMC turned it into a segue for The Walking Dead spin-off, Mad Men would not be ruined. There are 91 other episodes that are nearly spotless and filled with emotional resonance regardless of the show’s dénouement. How you feel about a finale does not have to reflect how you have felt about an entire series.
Before watching Mad Men’s finale, I actually felt Weiner and company kind of made a perfect finale in the show’s penultimate episode. Don’s last vision quest was meaningful yet ambiguous, we had a pretty good idea of Joan and Peggy’s trajectories, and no one thought Pete’s emotional realization was long lasting. “The Milk and Honey Route” was sort of a de facto finale. It would have been a great (yet plenty controversial) gimmick, and even satisfactory to this fan, if the last episode was cancelled. Or, if the last episode was somehow not a canonical episode of Mad Men – such as a lame tribute show we could just ignore. Weiner would have made, for those who have kept up week-to-week, a wonderful finale (in “The Milk and Honey Route”) while circumventing the expectations of a finale. Of course, now having seen “Person to Person,” there’s no way I would want to take away all of its wonderfully poignant and heartbreaking moments.
For so many, taking TV viewing seriously is a recent thing. Certainly not the only reason, but one that particularly interests me is how the prestige drama zeitgeist has legitimated a medium for many a snobbish cinephile. As a result, there’s a multitude of yesteryear’s acclaimed TV shows that converts are consuming in order to build their vocabulary, or just to experience what they missed on HBO over the last decade because they/we were too busy rewatching L’Avventura. For those looking to check off another series from the canon, knowing a show has an end might be of comfort - silly comfort, but nonetheless comfort. Because to have something watched, to accrue cultural capital via a property viewed in its entirety is a powerful thing in the cinephile community. If there’s one thing about films, it’s that they have a known ending.
More specific than just the final episode of a TV show, there is an odd fixation on final moments. You can find a multitude of clickbait articles that claim a show’s final moments encapsulate the meaning of an entire series – as if there is one meaning to be “had.” David Chase is still trying to influence viewers by stating he has the knowledge about what the last moments of The Sopranos means, and how it changes how we view the series. I’m not exactly sure how or why this belief exists, but having once resided in the cinephile camp, and having gotten a film studies degree, I can relay that the field of film studies teaches viewers to put an imbalanced amount of attention on a film’s end, you know, if it’s a “serious” film. (Whether or not you believe this, or care about this at all is much more about preference than “rules” to watch films by. I personally might place more importance on a film’s beginning to establish world building, exposition, etc.) It’s a common conviction of many film instructors, students, and makers that a film’s end relays motivations and meanings that are necessary in order to make a thorough reading of a film.
While the end of a TV show is the most antithetical part of the medium, the end is the most characteristically intrinsic aspect of a film. When you go see a film, you leave when it’s over. Ninety-nine percent of the time we watch a TV program, it doesn’t lead to an ultimate end. As a result, maybe we don’t quite know how to digest the end of a TV program so we revert to how we have been taught to read film endings. Whatever the reasons may be, I hope we can stop putting so much weight into the end of TV shows. As Weiner noted, the end is the most anti-TV moment of the program.