In tackling the latter half of the 1960s, it turns out, "Mad Men" bit off a little bit more than the series can comfortably chew.
Series creator Matthew Weiner always sounds a trifle exasperated, as he did in a Los Angeles Times interview, when people nitpick and endlessly analyze his Emmy-winning show. Of course, one suspects he'd be even unhappier if they didn't care enough to bother.
Yes, those were the good ol' days, "Mad Men" made clear, if you were one of the white ruling Masters of the Universe; not so much if you were a woman or near-invisible minority. Or as I wrote six years ago, "before sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, there was sexual harassment, free-flowing cocktails and bluesy ballads, invariably sung by white guys."
By this season, however, the narrative has reached 1968, a period where political and cultural tides were so overwhelming that they risk blotting out or at least casting a shadow over the fictionalized drama. Small wonder many of those aforementioned nitpickers reacted negatively when an episode filtered Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination through the reactions of the privileged white characters -- just as the Vietnam War hasn't fit very neatly into this season's storyline.
At its core, like all good serials, "Mad Men" is about its particular players, and there had been some splendid moments in that regard, especially in probing the flawed figure of Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who became even more awash in booze and perilous sexual trysts. Yet there is a valid case to be made that not enough happened through most of this sixth season, even as the world seemingly went mad all around them. Facial hair and sideburns only go so far.
That's a rather long prologue, frankly, for a well-deserved round of applause for Sunday night's season finale, which Weiner co-wrote and directed. (And if you haven't watched, SPOILERS AHEAD.)
Unexpectedly, Weiner managed to take several of the strands left dangling during the season -- flashing back to Don's seedy youth, the flirtation between Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and her married boss (Kevin Rahm), Don's gradual distance from his young wife (Jessica Pare) and estrangement from his teenage daughter (Kiernan Shipka) -- and weave most of them together. Not only did the episode set up myriad possibilities for the final run, but in terms of bracing moments, it again featured a wonderfully uncomfortable pitch meeting, in this case Don admitting he grew up in a whorehouse to shell-shocked execs from Hershey's.
Sometimes taken for granted, Hamm has done some of his finest work this season, conveying how Don was slowly falling apart with the finesse of those modest shakes he exhibited upon trying to give up booze cold turkey. Indeed, the fact he hasn't personally shared in the show's glittering Emmy run is a testament to the strength of the lead drama actor category over the last half-decade.
Most significantly, after a stretch where watching the show began to feel like a slog, the finale refocused the material squarely on its distinguishing strengths. Yes, sure, Nixon's in the White House. Now can we get back to what's going to happen with Don and Roger and Peggy?
Not to provide Weiner with an alibi in advance, but it's very possible "Mad Men" is one of those shows that's more about the journey (a word used far too often in connection with reality shows, and maybe not enough in dramas) than the destination. Viewed from that perspective, it doesn't really matter where Don and Sally wind up -- although arguably, given its Baby Boomer resonance, the series has become as much her story as his -- so much as experiencing how they got there. After all, this isn't "Breaking Bad," where the prospect of a cosmic comeuppance is organic to the situations.
Looking ahead, it's possible the best thing "Mad Men" could do would be to simply quit somewhere in the middle, without overreaching for a profound "Here's what it all meant" moment. Because to the extent the '60s have provided the show's narrative backbone, well, all you have to do is watch Fox News and MSNBC to realize they never really ended.