The past seven days has been a week of endings, and that’s rare in a culture uncomfortable with finality. Surely there will always be another sequel, or a reboot, or a One-Time-Only Reunion Special — or two! They’re making a new “Star Wars,” and they always will be.
Yet we said goodbye to “Mad Men” on Sunday, and we said goodbye to David Letterman on Wednesday, and I doubt they’ll be coming back. We also, on May 14, bid farewell to blues titan B.B. King, who died at his Las Vegas home at the age of 89. These are different kinds of losses, obviously, and the way we organize our thoughts and emotions around them says a lot about pop culture commodities and the people behind those commodities. There are paradoxes here as well. We cry for a TV series we’ll no longer watch, we celebrate a late-night talk show host who will no longer be part of our screen lives, and we mourn a musician who leaves a massive and magisterial body of work behind him.
These feelings can be monetized, obviously. That’s why AMC orchestrated the final act of “Mad Men” so assiduously, spreading the final 14 episodes over two seasons, and offering a binge of the entire series before letting us gather around the electronic campfire one last time. The social-media hornet’s nest has only intensified the pack mentality — the sense that if you missed this one show, you were stepping off the zeitgeist train. Who wants to be the one person at the dinner party who can’t join the conversation?
We were just lucky that the show’s creator Matt Weiner cared as much about endings as we did. The final episode of “Mad Men” wrapped up each character’s story in different ways, almost different genres — farcical rom-com for Peggy and Stan, tragedy for Betty, happy endings for Joan, stoic drama for Sally. All audiences were served; most liked what was on the plate.
Yet the long story arc of Don Draper, which had come to seem so wayward as he tumbled helplessly across America, ultimately made good on the hints the show had been dropping. Don finally did find himself — whoever that was — at a New Age meditation retreat in which his “Oms” led him home to create the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coke ad. It was a brilliant stroke, a gently acrid capstone to a show that has always been about the way a consumer culture packages real things like emotions and enlightenment into the “real thing” of carbonated sugar water.
When a TV series ends, we say goodbye to its fictional characters, while the actors playing them, with luck, go on to other roles. When a celebrity known for playing himself — or some version of himself — quits the stage, our feelings are more complex. As a public entertainer, David Letterman has always been more beloved than popular, more valued than watched. The dry Midwestern surrealism of his humor, the prickliness that can turn actively spiky, the feedback loops of catch-phrases that transform comedy into oddball performance art — these are hallmarks of a master ironist, and irony does not sell in America, even after midnight. There’s a reason that Dave never made it to “The Tonight Show” chair while the reliably bland Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon have prospered there.
This article goes to press before the final “Late Night With David Letterman,” so I can’t comment on what I haven’t seen. But Tuesday night’s penultimate show was telling, especially when you stand it next to the very first show, which aired on Feb. 1, 1982, and which is available in its entirety on YouTube . Bill Murray was the guest on both shows, and what’s striking is how little actually changed over 33 years. Then and now, two sly dogs deconstruct the talk-show format with fondness and subtle wit, host and guest delivering the entertainment goods while parodying our desire for them. We were always part of the joke with Letterman; that’s really why he never made it to the center ring.
Yet he’s necessary to the culture, too — what’s faith without doubt? — and we’re sending him off the way you do a curmudgeonly uncle who tells the sharpest jokes at the picnic. We celebrate rather than mourn because Letterman’s not actually dying. He is disappearing from the media stage, though, and that is a kind of pop culture death. Johnny Carson retired from TV in 1992 and died 13 years later; the latter event seemed only a sad coda to a farewell that had been conducted much earlier.
So we celebrate pop-culture death and mourn actual death, and I wonder whether it shouldn’t be the other way around — whether we shouldn’t grieve for the passing of pop moments and celebrate a life well lived. B.B. King was one of the greatest of American success stories, a sharecropper’s son abandoned by his parents, who grew up black and poor in the Jim Crow South, and who crossed the finish line with 15 Grammys, an honorary doctorate from Yale, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was one of the nicest guys in show business, he played almost until the end, and he died in his own bed at a ripe old age.
And the music — God almighty, the music. King was famous as the “King of the Blues” but in truth he was a masterful synthesist of several different strands of 20th-century black music. He got his start in gospel, inherited the acoustic Delta blues from his cousin Bukka White, absorbed electric blues from Sonny Boy Williamson, became a walking encyclopedia of blues and R&B as a Memphis disc jockey, knew where the seams were that joined R&B to rock ’n’ roll.
You hear it all in his records: the gospel in King’s pleading voice, the electric blues in his stinging guitar, the tragedy and endurance and humor in lyrics that travel far back in time, all the way through earlier bluesmen like Robert Johnson and Charley Patton to the slave ships themselves. King was a time-capsule history of African-American resilience and response, and it’s right there in an album like “Live at the Regal,” the 1965 release that may be the greatest in a consistently great body of work.
It’s funny how we process our cultural endings. The final “Mad Men” riveted a huge chunk of the viewing public, but only a hard-core fan would take in the series a second time. Letterman is going out on a tidal wave of affection, but in 20 years only academics will watch his shows. B.B. King is dead but his music is alive and it will be as long as humans have ears. What’s there to mourn about that?