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The End of Mad Men is coming.


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Andy Greenwald laments the beginning of the end of Mad Men as we start the sixth season:

Mad Men exists a universe away from the crackling nerd bait that fuels both the interest in and the ratings of more spoilerphobic shows. Which is to say: It exists in our universe. There are no apocalyptic plagues as in The Walking Dead,4 no magical dragons à la Game of Thrones. There's a smoke monster but it just happens to be the main character. Hearing story points in advance is unfortunate but certainly not catastrophic. It's not plot that makes Mad Men the best series on television; it's depth.5 That alone makes it a period piece far more than the fins on the cars and the fondue pots in the kitchen. There's an arms race raging in the world of cable dramas these days, the likes of which hasn't been seen since the Bay of Pigs. With so many scripted shows vying for a limited number of eyeballs, networks are unlikely to green-light anything lacking a massive, head-turning hook: The science teacher cooks drugs! The neighbors are spies! More and more, the trend is toward series built around big questions — Is Nicholas Brody a war hero or a terrorist? — with the knowledge that the audience's dedication will wax and wane depending on how you go about answering them.

As it enters its penultimate season, Mad Men is as removed from TV's trumped-up campaign of shock and awe as Roger Sterling is from sobriety. The series may have snuck onto the air in the drowsy summer of 2007 with an easily referenced glamour and a Trojan horse hook — Who was Don Draper? No, who was hereally? — but ever since then, Weiner has been waging a high-minded stealth campaign against viewer expectation. There was no "will they or won't they?" to Don and Betty's divorce. They did. The decision to dissolve Sterling Cooper and start a new firm was hatched up and realized in a single episode. The drama tends to come from the tragic inevitability of events, not their shocking revelation. When Peggy walked away last season, everyone in the audience already knew what Don didn't: There was nothing he could say to make her change her mind.

In a sense, this is all in keeping with the lessons Weiner learned on The Sopranos, a cerebral tiramisu that submerged its psychological mindfuckery beneath alternating layers of sex and violence. From the beginning on Mad Men, even when sales of bitters were booming, Weiner never wavered from his belief that the circumstances that drive a man to drink are inevitably more interesting than the drink itself. But in 2011, after successfully negotiating both a fat new contract and the unquestioned authority that came along with it, Weiner seemed to slip the bonds of traditional narrative altogether. The fifth season passed like a dream, digressing into cinematic formalism and lingering on unsubstantiated feelings of dread.

I love Andy's description of why Mad Men is set in the 1960s, so we already know what's coming:

The reason Mad Men is set in the '60s isn't because the clothes were better (though they were) or the misogyny was worse (though it was). It's because the distance allows us to see the characters the way we're unable to see ourselves: as unwilling actors trapped on the unforgiving treadmill of time. We knew long before they did that JFK would be assassinated, that Dylan would go electric, and that the Beatles would blow their minds. There's an air of inevitability and sadness hanging over these final seasons, whatever years they encompass, because we know that the peace and love of Haight-Ashbury is bound for the drug-filled doom of Altamont, that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream will be derailed by a bullet on a hotel balcony in Memphis. But most of all we know that, like us, every one of these brilliantly realized characters, so alive and vibrant in the moment, so desperate to stay afloat amid the riptide of history, will eventually grow old and die.

We may not know the specifics, but we know all too well how Mad Men will end. Still, if Weiner doesn't want me saying anything about the season premiere, then I'll happily obey. I'm just not sure what difference it'll make. Life without spoilers is exciting and unpredictable. It's also called "life." What's scary about the roller coaster isn't the drop. It's the excruciatingly slow climb when you can see the fall coming yet are utterly powerless to stop it.

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