Here’s a trick: Find a person you love and offer them something no one has ever seen, that no one will ever see again. Admire their astonishment. Then, produce a peanut. It could be anything in a shell—an oyster, say, but that’s messier to share. Crack it open, and each eat one of the nuts. Now you have a secret, a little conspiracy locked forever between the two of you.
Lies make secrets too. And every secret doubles the world. Something shared, something hidden. It works the same even when you are alone. Just crack the peanut and keep it for yourself. No matter if that lie is horrid, helpful, harmless, or forgotten. Something told, something held back. Large features of our lives, fantasies and shames and unbidden memories, remain secret only because no one ever asked. In that case what gets doubled is loneliness turned on itself. But spoken or held all alone, a lie becomes a twin, an image of truth, or a shadow, like a ghost. A phantom.
We last left Mad Men with Bert Cooper’s apparition in one closing song and dance, a taste of unreality paired with the realness of death. Where there is nostalgia, so is regret; Man Men is all about secrets and lies, of course, but there comes a possibility as the series approaches the end—the first of seven concluding episodes aired last night—to view it as a show also about mortality. After all, Don Draper is already a dead man. Dick Whitman just happens to dwell in that dead man’s life.
This is a spoiler, obviously, but not really. That plot point gets revealed in Season 1, and knowing about it hardly ruins the show. Indeed it enriches it. This ongoing essay, continued in installments after each remaining episode, won’t recap the new broadcasts and won’t mention any new developments. Still, I’m going to talk about a lot of things that happen earlier on the series. Hopefully it can be interesting even if you have never seen the show. (But if you haven’t watched and that sort of thing bothers you, just go stream it all on Netflix right now. See you in a few weeks.)
And so Cooper is dead, too, now, after Too Much Fun watching the Moon Landing. But yet there he was before the show paused, eulogizer of secretaries, early adopter of tentacle porn, Keeper of Secrets and rampant Randian capitalist, a ghost visitation outside Don Draper’s office, singing, “The Moon belongs to everyone/The best things in life are free….” Don has just signed away, to a firm he has always resisted and ridiculed, all the facets of his work he spent the early seasons of the show accumulating and protecting—his independence from a contract, creative control, the agency he built, even aspirations for a grander life beyond advertising—in a petty scramble to save his job from the crisis his own cracked persona generated, and it’s rather hard not to think of this particular double vision as Mad Men in a nutshell: a little morsel offered up by Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator and guide, something private to share and swallow, just between us.
Weiner could end the series right here and that would be enough, however abrupt.
It’s one thing to believe this at the current limit of what’s aired, but such moments have also happened before. Mad Men has that quality that every so often it seems like what you’re watching contains the epitome of the show, like anything afterward would be superfluous, and yet it ferries on.
The fact that this happens again and again, especially after Season 3 when the first prime narrative of Don’s deception within his marriage to Betty finished, has something to do with the exigencies of TV combined with the general resourcefulness of the show. It is likely that Weiner entered into writing nearly every season without knowing if it would be his last chance to tell the story. So every year he may have wanted to embed somewhere a kind-of completion in case Mad Men didn’t get renewed—never seen again—while keeping the thread available for new scenarios each time it did.
For example, I remember noticing this in Season 5, when Don tries to dissuade his new wife Megan from deserting her start as a copywriter for another career as an actor. Of course in his characteristic way he’s stating the opposite, encouraging her talents. “What you did with Heinz?” he says. “It took me years to be able to think that way.” In a sense, he’s suggesting that here condensed in Megan is the Don Draper origin story we’ve all been searching for, finding her ability to think on her feet and improvise strategy on the fly. By this time in the series, we’ve gotten used to a notion that everyday life is much like the advertising world represented, everybody lying and selling and performing for the bounty. Maybe Don’s secrets are more unusual than others’, but not his efforts to present himself as he wishes. Now Don’s juxtaposing the two jobs “inadvertently” draws a link between the ad business and show business artistry. Megan can come up with copy and pitch ideas because she can embody imagined multiples of people and execute good timing, the same virtues that suit her acting. Only instead of reminding me that all these characters are already actors, and the whole thing an artifice, it makes me think of each of us living fiction in our behavior.
It’s like the show becoming self-aware and revealing itself. Indeed the following day at the office Pete Campbell complains to Harry Crane about a woman problem. “Why do they give you a glimmer of hope in the midst of rejection? A little thread to hang onto. A misplaced word, suggestion of the future.” The woman has told Pete his blue eyes look like the then-new photos of the Earth from outer space, so we’re thinking not just of women but of overarching perspectives. “Why do they get to decide what’s going to happen?” Pete could be talking about the writers of the show plotting his character, or even network executives deciding whether to finance the series. (This episode, “Lady Lazarus,” was specifically written by Weiner.) Harry says, “They just do.”
A false ending might be signified by some telepathic clue telling your mind it’s the real ending. In the very next scene, Don walks Megan to the elevator to say goodbye before her last-day lunch. She parts with tears in her eyes (the following episode begins with Megan showing Sally how to fake-cry for a role) and the doors close. Don calls the elevator again because he’s going to lunch too, except not with her. A nearby door opens with a bell. He walks over, but it’s not a car arriving. It’s just an empty shaft that Don looks down.
And there are artistic reasons, beyond the transient uncertainties of the television hustle, why a storyteller could choose to insert a false ending, or build past a true ending to what Douglas Hofstadter calls a post-ending ending. Hofstadter explains in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, his larking magnum opus on recursion, musical fugues, completeness theory and holism:
You’ve undoubtedly noticed how some authors go to so much trouble to build up great tension a few pages before the end of their stories—but a reader who is holding the book physically in his hands can FEEL that the story is about to end. Hence, he has some extra information which acts as an advance warning, in a way. The tension is a bit spoiled by the physicality of the book. It would be so much better if, for instance, there were a lot of padding at the end of novels.
Hofstadter says his idea requires not just extra blank pages but the kind of “padding” resembling the story preceding it, so you wouldn’t be able to notice by flipping idly through a book. It becomes an exercise for a clever observer to spot the right clue, turning reading into something like living with the awareness of death; you know the end is coming, but never when, which makes the experience more exciting and hopeful for as long as it renews. This paradox now applies also to digital content packets like YouTube videos and iPod tracks and DVR recordings, with their horizontal progress bars—or even Netflix queues. In whatever medium, a false ending saves creators from finishing a work with a grand culmination that’s readily expected.
Weiner knows at least something about that dramatic difficulty. As a writer on The Sopranos, he was in on a project that famously placed the endpoint of the story somewhere after the actual series ending, so we never got to see it. A pre-ending ending, or an anti-ending—although that was a post-ending ending for Weiner who had in fact departed to develop his own series by then and claims he did not have a hand in crafting the Sopranos finale.
Mad Men changed nearly all its established settings in the gap between Season 3 and Season 4, when Don Draper gets divorced and the recombined renegade version of Sterling Cooper absconds to updated offices. By charging itself with chronicling a decade in as much transition as the 1960s, the series committed to fucking also with its recurring characters’ wardrobes, manners, even vocabularies, in a way bound to disturb the audience (what else is a TV character if not these presented attributes plus their actor’s makeup?). After a fashion, Hofstadter’s solution provides a sly answer to the common viewer complaint (of all shows) that the series isn’t the same as it used to be, doesn’t have the same feel anymore, hasn’t been good in years, since so-and-so did that unrecognizable thing, whatever: Joke’s on you. Of course it’s not the same, it’s not even the series anymore; you missed the changeover.
But a contrary aspect crops up as the show unspools with recombinant people and scenarios that inevitably start to repeat themselves slightly. The same actors bump into each other in the same hallways, make the same sighs and grim faces, until even notably infrequent pairings grant the aura of familiar sitcom ploy. What used to come every time fresh and unorthodox lends itself in longevity to resemble routine—even the routinely unorthodox. And so Mad Men appears to begin breaking its own rules, but because it’s Mad Men these happenings can be perceived as a calculated unreality.
Here’s another scene in Season 5, while the firm courts the Jaguar account, when Don Draper and Joan Holloway take one of those racy cars out for a test drive. They stop afterward for a drink at a bar, but these two, Man Men’s own discovered bombshells Christina Hendricks and Jon Hamm as Joan and Don, have seldom shared screen time, never a private moment outside the office. Indeed, Joan laments, after she misses Don’s birthday party earlier that season, “I can’t even imagine how handsome that man must be blushing.” This time they talk frankly, rather intimately, until the subject turns to desire; Joan wants to dance to the jukebox. Don cocks his hat and leans in seductively, half-sarcastically, to ask her. Joan admits, “You’re irresistible!” but if for no better reason than they’re in Midtown where business associates might spy them, nothing happens. Don ends up working wingman to help Joan find a companion for the night. The exchange serves the season’s arc by projecting toward another gentlemanly gesture the following episode but for now the total security of these two in their sexual influence seems momentous, and feels at once like a mirror expressing the total security of the show’s performance. Like it’s the show now showing off: We’ve already finished what we came here to do, how about we watch these beautiful actors play?
To talk of true and false endings is to suggest that there are parts of the series that don’t count, as if the show is lying to us some of the time, even aside from its being fiction. I don’t know if it’s actually meaningful to think in that way, send all the fans searching to set apart their own private canon like the two halves of Don Quixote. I don’t really believe some truer ending has already passed. I’ve got no reason to believe Matthew Wiener ever read Douglas Hofstadter, although Betty Draper’s maiden name is Hofstadt and that is just the kind of hidden Easter Egg Weiner might deploy. If an ongoing part of this TV show all about dishonesty and secrets was itself secretly construed as a grand deception, that would be some ingenious metaphysics for sure.
What I’m really talking about is how to redirect attention from judging the contents of the ending, when it comes, as a way to resolve the total series.
How should Mad Men end? Do you think Don Draper, I mean Dick Whitman as Don Draper, is going to die? There have been a variety of memorable deaths on Mad Men, as any story spanning nearly 10 years should have. But where the recent dramatic series it’s often grouped with, The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, all were in their special ways deeply fixed in murder and violence, I don’t think there’s any reason to anticipate a violent ending to Mad Men.
Is it even clear yet if Mad Men is tragedy or comedy? What might a happy ending look like on Mad Men? Peggy and Don get together? Good grief. So what’s going to happen at last? Don gets finally and seriously exposed? Don goes to jail? Don goes back on the run? When will Don Draper try cocaine? What will Bob Benson do next?
What historical events will tie in? ARPANET? Richard Oakes and the American Indian Movement seize Alcatraz? The opening of the first Gap? The first ATM? The Manson murders? Woodstock? The PHCSA? Maybe it will end, like Inglourious Basterds, with a made-up event such as nuclear catastrophe?
I don’t really care about these questions. Not at all.
What if you’ve already died? I mean you, reader, have died and you never knew it. And hell is just that you’re here stuck living the rest of your life, your post-ending ending? How could you tell? Does it make a difference?
What Mad Men does is double the world. More specifically, it explores the way layers of life double around splits in personality, truth and falsehood, shifting frameworks. Time is always making these splits, the mirror parabolas of past and future bending away from the diamond suture of the present. And yet the show also operates by unifying these prized-open gaps. Few shows with chronological storylines let as much time lapse between consecutive episodes as Mad Men, when often several weeks or months go by rather than picking up the previous episode’s hanging twist. Episode to episode, Mad Men ferries across these intervals. Even in real life when you learn something that makes you think twice about reality, when you learn a secret, for example, you notice this doubling. These moments seem like sort-of endings, the ending of one set of understandings overtaken by another—the new pairing of before with after. We like to say this changes everything.
But Mad Men shows how consciousness smooths over these shifts. Pete Campbell’s father dies in an airplane crash at the beginning of Season 2. Pete is beside himself, but he also hates his father and at the same time wants to appear resolute and sturdy at work. Don says, “Go home and be with your family.” Pete asks, “Why?”
“Because that’s what people do.”
“Is that what you would do?”
Pete’s face reflects the audience’s shared skepticism in these layers of advice. He knows what we know, that Don is hiding behind a mask dividing what he might do from what he suggests an ordinary person would do. Don doesn’t have any family in the way that Pete does, a family to be with, grieve with, a family of shared history. Don doesn’t even let his children go to funerals. Then Pete starts to take a step to go but hesitates, like he’s already recognized he’s jumped into another frame—meaning not just the phase of post-parental death which shifts some of the primary parameters of the world, the first information you learn (unless you’re Dick Whitman): your parents are here—but the frame of inhabiting this false presentation like Don’s, this fictional stage. And he says, almost aghast at his adaption, “Everything’s exactly the same.”
Later in the same season, Betty searches for something she can use to reject Don, some evidence for her distrust. Her housemaid, Carla, finds Betty in Don’s home office trying to pick his desk lock. “I haven’t been sleeping well,” Betty says. “You know what helps?” Carla says. “Slap some cold water on your face. Go outside. You’ll see things are right where you left them.”
We hear this echoed yet again in Season 6, when an old friend of Joan’s visits the city on business from Mary Kay cosmetics. The pair of ladies share a night of late-’60s scandal on the town, but the next day Joan’s friend, who is married, falls to pieces with regret and shame. Joan chirps, “Go back home. You’ll find everything is right where it belongs.”
Then again, as Don Draper says in Season 4, “My Uncle Mack had a suitcase that was always packed. He said a man has to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Jesus, maybe it’s a metaphor.”
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.