In 48 hours, the series finale of Mad Men will invariably disappoint a lot of people. There are a number of factors working against Matthew Weiner and his stellar ensemble cast. Here are a few:
- The show is in the conversation of "best shows ever" and therefore generates high expectations
- It has never been a shock-and-awe experience; it's deep and deliberate—a progression that makes tiny details so meaningful, but not necessarily riveting to watch
- Breaking Bad recently did the unthinkable by making its ultimate season spectacular, heart-pounding, and complete—disappointing (almost) no one and making us think, "If it can be done, then it should always be done"
- We've been burned before: The Sopranos and Seinfeld come to mind
It's not often that someone does something as well as Weiner has done Mad Men. It's undoubtedly his magnum opus. Achieving the reverence it has is an accomplishment in itself. Put in context, however, it's even more remarkable.
When I think about the other shows in that "best ever" conversation, The Wire, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad top the list for me. Those shows revolved around the war on drugs in Baltimore, an unusual figure in organized crime, and a chemistry teacher who turns to making meth after a cancer diagnosis. Mad Men is about an ad man with a secret and, increasingly, the other ad men and women around him. Yes, people have died in Mad Men, but not in as explosive fashion as its peers. Yes, there are illicit drugs (and lots of liquor and cigarettes), but not in a trafficking/dealing sense like its peers. In a larger context, then, Mad Men is amazing for being so good with fewer natural opportunities to "wow" us.
In a more recent context, it's just as impressive. What are the more popular, revered shows of the last five years? Game of Thrones. Walking Dead. Homeland. Breaking Bad. And a ton of reality shows. It's a similar argument. Mad Men is different; it pulls us toward emotion and history between characters, not the supernatural or national security or life-and-death decision-making.
For the finale, we should expect nothing more. If we do that, there's no way we'll be disappointed.