Saturday 10 December 2016

Television: Even Mad Men must go home

Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)

Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan

We are approaching a landmark in our culture. Next week, we discover the ending of Mad Men. Compared to this, The Sopranos was easy. It was the other American masterpiece of the age, but even with all its complexity, in the end there's a limited number of ways you can plausibly turn the lights out on a gangster - really there is just one way. Mad Men has created something so rich, without the use of murder as a means of conflict-resolution, it has created for itself an almost impossible endgame.

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Perhaps one of the reasons that we admire The Great Gatsby so much, is that the last lines are so powerfully written. It is hard to imagine how we would regard it without that final flourish. Mad Men has echoes of "Gatsby", but as yet it does not have the pay-off. The most obvious suggestion I have seen, is that Don will end it with the greatest of all pitches, for the Coca-Cola ad that becomes "I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing" - a combination of the uplifting and the downright disgraceful.

Many a Hollywood movie would be proud to play itself out on such a perfect note, which is why I suspect it will not be the one. All the time, Mad Men has been operating at a level that is beyond anything we're seeing in the movies, beyond literary fiction, beyond these once-revered forms which seem by comparison with these giants of television drama to be producing little more than cartoons.

Aficionados have also been putting together a theory that Don Draper will turn out to be one DB Cooper, a mysterious figure who hijacked a plane in 1971, maintaining a tone of civility and even pleasantness throughout the operation - he got away with it and with about $200,000 of a parachute payment of the most literal kind, and he was never heard of again. Again, I have my doubts. In the course of seven series, the writers of Mad Men have scarcely put together a single scene that plays out the way it would in some other show. So at this stage they're hardly likely to wrap up the whole thing with an episode that has already been scripted on the internet.

Some say that Don will jump from the 14th floor and fall like the figure in the opening credits, but that sounds a bit too violent. Mad Men is not Fortitude, which created a very enjoyable atmosphere in many ways, if you enjoy a bit of existential Nordic bleakness, but which eventually threw such awe-inspiring violence at you, it just made you sick.

Anyway I find it hard to see Don checking out in this way, or checking out at all, as long as there are bars in the United States, and women.

Maybe that's all we'll see, a fairly contented Don Draper sitting on a stool in some late-night bar, waiting for his future to walk in the door. Or maybe there will be a scene involving his daughter Sally, not necessarily a big "dramatic" scene, perhaps just something ordinary that conveys her importance by dint of the fact that the credits are about to roll - as for the music on the closing credits, it is terrifying to contemplate the hours that must have been spent deciding which piece of music of that era is most fitting. The makers of Mad Men have always known that the great art of the 20th century was often the stuff that was usually disparaged as "popular culture", so they choose the music with the most exquisite care. They know that the music justifies that level of care. Whatever it turns out to be, what matters is that we want it to be right. We think that it deserves to be right.

People will be looking at this in 50 years time, of that there is no doubt. They will wonder how the "great American novel" of our time wasn't even a book, but had somehow emerged in a medium that is so baffling to supposedly serious people. Many of us are still baffled, not just at the making of Mad Men, but at the notion that anyone even thought that such a thing could be made. That they would reach for such excellence, and that they would get there. After all that, they will hardly just throw him out the window.

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