How is it that leaving our TV families can be harder than leaving our own? Think about the reluctance with which viewers have parted from the Friends, the "M*A*S*H*" gang, the Sopranos, and all the rest. Think, too, of the frustration when the farewell didn't go as we wanted, the cast of "Seinfeld" sitting in a rural jail cell or Tony Soprano looking up to meet either his death or his dinner. If we have to end our addiction to a bunch of fictional people, we want open-ended closure — a sense that while the story has run its course these lives will go on.
Which brings me to "Mad Men," a show which will finish its seven-season run on Sunday night and about which many viewers' emotions are, to put it mildly, complex. (WARNING: Major spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen "Mad Men" and still want to, or just haven't caught up with last week's episode, gently put down the paper or electronic device and walk away.)
"Mad Men" is an entertainment, obviously, but it also resonates on a ridiculous multiplicity of levels. It spans the upheavals of the 1960s and early '70s, and it's about the advertising industry, unfolding in the offices and homes of the men and women shepherding our consumer culture into being. In other words, it's about the roots of the world in which we now live and it's also, if you're over a certain age, about the roots of you. "Mad Men" is a soap opera about our parents, the lies they told us and the lies they told themselves, the love they were and weren't able to give, and all the societal blind spots that are glaring only in hindsight. If you came of age in the time period depicted in this show, your response can't help but be personal.
It certainly is for me. As a '60s/'70s kid who lost a parent to cancer, who witnessed the struggles of a working single mother, who can easily recall the cocktail culture — which is to say the functional alcoholism — of the generation charged with raising my friends and me, and who saw how the era's new freedoms thoroughly bamboozled that older generation, watching "Mad Men" is an alternately painful and hilarious emotional scrapbook. Of the available media artifacts, only the 1997 movie "The Ice Storm" has gotten it so right — the fragmenting parental culture, the pitiless and wondering stares of their children.
So my feelings about letting this show go are pretty raw; maybe yours are, too. (Or maybe not: It's only a show, right? You can't actually tell where a culture is from where it has been, can you?) I'm coping by arranging the characters of Sterling Cooper in ascending order of how much I'll miss them. The following list does not include those who've already passed on: RIP, wherever you are, Bert Cooper, Lane Pryce, Rachel Menken, and Miss Blankenship.
Harry Crane (Rich Sommer). The grinning office rat. I hope he chokes on his extra-wide '70s necktie.
Henry Francis (Christopher Stanley). Betty's second husband and a member of Nelson Rockefeller's administrative team. And dull. So dull. Maybe he was there to make Betty look like an intellectual.
Bobby Draper (Mason Vale Cotton). The kid with no story line. Bobby, we hardly knew ye.
Megan Draper (Jessica Paré). As much as I sympathized with the second Mrs. Draper — and as much as I loved the spectacle of a glamorous woman with unglamorous teeth — the character just wasn't strong enough to carry her long, long story arc.
Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). He lost me with the eye patch.
Ted Chaough (Kevin Rahm). A "Mad Men" character who didn't get enough of a story line, arguably. As the office nice guy, Ted illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of decency. Usually the weaknesses.
Meredith (Stephanie Drake). Don's final secretary started as a ditzy joke and ended as one of the sharper, subtler, and more loyal of office players.
Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser). Oh, Pete. As the fatuous, self-important office climber, he endured the brunt of the show's social comedy — that conference room fight scene in season five was a high point. He's also the one major "Mad Men" character who will never achieve the self-knowledge he thinks he craves, no matter what he told his ex-wife in last Sunday's penultimate episode. This show tends to bring out the conspiracy theorist in a viewer, and while the "Will Don Draper turn out to be D.B. Cooper?" meme seems to have died down, I'm dreading Pete's relocation to Wichita, having followed one too many links to articles about a 1970 plane crash in that city.
Trudy Campbell (Alison Brie). A charming and rather heartbreaking character who's just slightly smarter than her once and future husband, not that it does her any good. Played to nuanced perfection by the underrated Brie.
Shirley (Sola Bamis) and Dawn (Teyonah Parris). "Mad Men" was always more about gender dynamics than racial relations, but every scene with secretaries Shirley and Dawn was a precision evisceration of white white-collar assumptions and entitlements. And Shirley's farewell scene with Roger put everything on the table with class.
Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson). The most mature of the Sterling Cooper art department bohemians, and the one whose flaws only made him seem a better person. It's probably not happening, but I still hope he and Peggy get something going.
Roger Sterling (John Slattery). The bon vivant who inherited daddy's ad agency yet never really owned it. As delightful as Roger (and Slattery) could be, especially in the early seasons, the character arguably lost his mojo as the show's shadows deepened. Plus, that mustache is terrible. I wish Roger well, even as I know that without his own company he will cease to exist, a tragedy he himself would wave away with a swizzle stick.
Betty Draper Francis (January Jones). Character and actress both have taken a beating over the years: the dumb housewife and the wooden performer playing her. Then how come her diagnosis in last Sunday's episode hurt so much? Much of the empathy among "Mad Men" fans has been for struggling career women like Peggy and Joan, yet the stay-at-home moms like Betty (and Trudy) and their travails probably represent the era's realities better. How ironic that the most mocked person on the show now seems the most noble.
Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). She has had the most dramatically satisfying arc of the whole show, rising from secretary to copy chief of Sterling Cooper & Partners, battling inner doubts and external resistance all the way. And in that great parting shot two episodes back, Peggy striding hung over and triumphant into McCann Erickson, it was clear that she had achieved her goal: to become Don Draper. Unfortunately, not even Don wants to be Don Draper by now.
Don Draper (Jon Hamm). As the central figure of "Mad Men," he has epitomized creator Matt Weiner's take on ad culture and 1960s America: strappingly vital on the surface, a neurotic mess beneath, and under that a self-made fraud whose entire identity is up for grabs. The second-to-last episode saw Don cast off his belongings and draw closer to A) Zen purity, B) his Dick Whitman-esque past, C) his death, or D) all of the above. None of those would surprise us at this point; in a weird way Don has outlived the show and the show has outlived him. That said, I really hope he phones home.
Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks). Joan has embodied (you should pardon the expression) the most severe challenge to the men of "Mad Men" — whether they can look past the Jessica-Rabbit exterior to the smart, poised, dignified person she actually is. The show's honesty demands that, at the end of the day, they can't, which is an acknowledgment of the fact that, culturally speaking, we still can't. One of the hardest sights to bear as "Mad Men" comes to a close is watching Joan take her marbles — half of them, anyway — and go home.
Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka). Well, this one's easy, especially if you're the right age. Sally is us. She's old enough to be Matt Weiner's big sister (and mine), and her progress through seven seasons of TV and a decade of American cultural drama has coincided with her coming to adulthood. The one true story line of "Mad Men" is the darkening in Sally Draper's eyes as she looks at her parents and their generation, sees through the desperate false fronts — through the sales pitch at which her father excels to the existential uncertainties beyond — and is ultimately moved to pity. How telling that she ends up comforting her grief-wracked stepfather rather than the other way around.
Sally's the show's emissary from the future, in other words, coming to terms with an army of self-involved grown-ups and on her way — who knows? — to being a helicopter mom somewhere in the suburbs. Or maybe that different drum her mother wrote about did in fact lead her to new adventures. As "Mad Men" fades into televised nostalgia, a lot of us find ourselves wondering where Sally might be today. And then we realize she's all around us.