'Mad Men' series finale review: The cryptic end of an era (SPOILERS)

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'Mad Men' Ends, and Don Draper Begins: Life Is OK

By Variety: www.variety.com

Before going any further, how did you expect "Mad Men" to end? A revenge killing by an ex-girlfriend? A quiet heart attack at 80? A flash-forward neatly wrapping up where every character landed? Sally Draper on a therapist's couch, explaining her screwed-up childhood?

There are no right answers, perhaps. But based on the way series creator Matthew Weiner approached the show – and especially the meandering, detour-heavy nature of the half-dozen episodes leading up to this – there were clearly wrong ones, starting with those who hungered for definitive closure. After all, Weiner not only cut his professional teeth on "The Sopranos" but has also expressed his unreserved admiration for its ending, one of the more debated finales of the modern age.

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'Mad Men' series finale review: The cryptic end of an era (SPOILERS)

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 11 - (Photo by Justina Mintz/AMC)

In this publicity photo released by AMC, Jon Hamm as Don Draper is shown in Season 5, Episode 1, of "Mad Men." The nominations for the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards are announced on Thursday, July 19, 2012. "Mad Men" is making a bid at Emmy Awards history to win its fifth best drama series trophy. (AP Photo/AMC, Ron Jaffe)
This TV publicity image released by AMC shows Linda Cardellini as Sylvia Rosen, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from "Mad Men." The program was nominated for an Emmy Award for outstanding drama series on, Thursday July 18, 2013. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Emmy ceremony will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It will air Sept. 22 on CBS. (AP Photo/AMC, Jordin Althaus)
This TV publicity image released by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from "Mad Men." Hamm was nominated for an Emmy Award for best actor in a drama series on, Thursday July 18, 2013. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Emmy ceremony will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It will air Sept. 22 on CBS. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
In this publicity photo released by AMC, Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson is shown in Episode 11, Season 5, of "Mad Men." Moss was nominated for an Emmy award on Thursday, July 19, 2012 for outstanding actress in a drama series for her role as Peggy Olson. The 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 23 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and airing live on ABC. (AP Photo/AMC, Jordin Althaus)
This image released by AMC shows, from left, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, John Slattery as Roger Sterling, Jared Harris as Lane Pryce and Robert Morse as Bertram Cooper in a scene from the fifth season of "Mad Men." On Thursday, July 19, 2012, the program received a total of 17 Emmy nominations including best actress in a drama series for Elisabeth Moss and best actor for Jon Hamm. The 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 23 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and airing live on ABC. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of "Mad Men," Season 6, Episode 1. “Mad Men” returns for its sixth season Sunday, April 7, 2013, on AMC with 13 new episodes. Series Creator Matthew Weiner says he plans one more season for the 1960s drama. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This image released by AMC shows Jessica Pare as Megan Draper, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from the season five premiere episode of "Mad Men," where Megan surprises Don with a birthday party. On Thursday, July 19, 2012, the program received a total of 17 Emmy nominations including best actress in a drama series for Elisabeth Moss and best actor for Jon Hamm. The 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 23 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and airing live on ABC. (AP Photo/AMC, Ron Jaffe)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05: Jon Hamm is seen filming 'Mad Men' on March 05, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by GONZALO/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
This undated publicity image released by AMC shows Jessica Pare as Megan Draper, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene outside of a Howard Johnson's restaurant in an episode of "Mad Men." The actual Howard Johnson's in upstate New York in this scene, was in fact a shuttered, deteriorating one in an LA suburb. Virtual airbrushing was provided by Zoic Studios, which repainted the building, replaced its sign and deleted nearby post-'60s buildings, all digitally. "Mad Men" competes with other contenders now for a special effects Emmy nomination in a new category. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This publicity photo provided by AMC shows Jessica Pare as Megan Draper, left, and Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene of "Mad Men," Season 6, Episode 2. “Mad Men” returns for its sixth season Sunday, April 7, 2013. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This publicity image released by AMC shows John Slattery as Roger Sterling, left, Jon Hamm as Don Draper, center, and Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell in a scene from the season six premiere of "Mad Men," airing Sunday, April 7, on AMC. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This image released by AMC shows newcomer Teyonah Parris as Dawn Chambers, left, and Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in a scene from "Mad Men." On Thursday, July 19, 2012, the program received a total of 17 Emmy nominations including best actress in a drama series for Elisabeth Moss and best actor for Jon Hamm. The 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 23 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and airing live on ABC. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 05: John Slattery, Rich Sommer and Jon Hamm are seen filming 'Mad Men' on March 05, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by GONZALO/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
This TV publicity image released by AMC shows Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson, left, and Kevin Rahm as Ted Chaough in a scene from "Mad Men." The season finale airs Sunday, June 23, on AMC. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This publicity image released by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper in a scene from the finale of "Mad Men." The popular drama ended its fifth season on Sunday, June 10, 2012. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
Don Draper portrayed by Jon Hamm, from left, Roger Sterling portrayed by John Slattery, Pete Campbell portrayed by Vincent Kartheiser and Lane Pryce portrayed by Jared Harris appear in a scene from season six of "Mad Men." The final episodes of the popular series begin on Sunday. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This image released by AMC shows Jessica Pare as Megan Draper performing a French song in a scene from the season five premiere episode of "Mad Men," where Megan surprises her husband Don with a birthday party. On Thursday, July 19, 2012, the program received a total of 17 Emmy nominations including best actress in a drama series for Elisabeth Moss and best actor for Jon Hamm. The 64th annual Primetime Emmy Awards will be presented Sept. 23 at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel and airing live on ABC. (AP Photo/AMC, Ron Jaffe)
This TV publicity image released by AMC shows Jon Hamm as Don Draper, left, and Jessica Pare as Megan Draper in a scene from "Mad Men." The season finale airs Sunday, June 23, on AMC. (AP Photo/AMC, Michael Yarish)
This TV publicity image released by AMC shows Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in a scene from "Mad Men." Olson was nominated for an Emmy Award for best actress in a drama series on Thursday July 18, 2013. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences' Emmy ceremony will be hosted by Neil Patrick Harris. It will air Sept. 22 on CBS. (AP Photo/AMC, Jaimie Trueblood)
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As a complicating factor, as great as this series has been, it hasn't been at its creative peak the past couple of seasons. "Mad Men" was never bad, but it did at times appear flummoxed by its gradual advance through the 1960s and away from its Eisenhower-era beginnings. Some have grumbled about Don's marriage to former secretary Megan (Jessica Pare) as having undercut the story, but it was really more about struggling to reflect the increasingly groovy world in which the program existed.

As the sideburns got longer, in other words, the quality diminished accordingly. Whatever the cause, it's hard to think of many moments in recent seasons that rival a favorite from the early going, when the Kodak carousel was pitched to the client as having the attributes of a time machine.

Written and directed by Weiner, the finale (and SPOILER ALERT if you haven't watched) was characterized by a lack of urgency that has been emblematic of the show's brand of storytelling, but especially true since its return in April. So while the hour mixed in some wonderfully graceful notes and tied up a few loose ends, others were left dangling, starting with the cryptic question of whether meditation and peace with the universe birthed that famous "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coca-Cola campaign.

Indeed, the decision by Don Draper (Jon Hamm, splendid throughout the run, but even more impressive in the finale) to drop out of life – abandoning his coworkers, toiling under the oppressive stewardship of McCann-Erickson – added a degree of difficulty dramatically speaking to the entire episode. That was because all of Don's scenes with other key characters – from his dying ex-wife Betty (January Jones), to his daughter (Kiernan Shipka) to longtime colleague Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) – took place over the phone.

To their credit, the actors got the most out of those exchanges, and when Betty dryly said in regard to Don not taking custody of his children, "This way you see them exactly as much as you do now," it had the impact of a punch to the stomach. Still, Don's whole sojourn to California and the commune, while building toward the payoff ad, felt as frustrating during the episode as much of what has recently preceded it.

Weiner compensated for that, or at least seemed to be trying to, by introducing some fairly major developments in regard to supporting characters. Of those, the most crowd pleasing, potentially, involved hooking up Peggy with Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), which had a certain charm to it but also felt forced and, despite the long nature of their professional collaboration, rushed.

There were other big flourishes, such as Roger (John Slattery) marrying Megan's mother (Julia Ormond), or Joan (Christina Hendricks) ultimately choosing career over romance. That said, a contingent of the audience doubtless came to this primarily wanting to feel as if they had seen Don's entire journey, and on that score, the final shot risks being as divisive as Tony and his family sitting in that diner.

Then again, as stated in the frenzied run-up to the finish line, "Mad Men" didn't really lend itself to a knock-your-socks-off conclusion. And given the reams of scholarly analysis the program has already generated — a cultural footprint that went well beyond its ratings — leaving something to the imagination has an element of poetry to it, even if it reads like a haiku.

AMC has promoted this last season as "The End of an Era," a slogan fraught with meaning, inasmuch as the show helped transform the network, thus paving the way for "Breaking Bad" (a more fully realized and consistently executed series), "The Walking Dead" and the other prestige dramas that followed it. The phrase, however, also evokes the transition from the '50s into the Kennedy years, Vietnam and the cultural upheaval that went with it.

Indeed, Don and Betty owe much to the Kennedys: a beautiful couple whose outward image masked infidelity and pain. And Weiner's creation has always derived power from re-litigating the impact of those years through the prism of where we are now. That's a lot of baggage to hoist around.

Taking all that into account, the finale wasn't bad, but like much surrounding "Mad Men" these last few seasons, it felt – in a somewhat exasperating manner – like less than it might have been. Then again, we'll always have Camelot.

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