Mad Men Season 7 Review: The Era Ends Gracefully

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As far as final seasons go, Mad Men had a strange path. Coming off the success of Breaking Bad‘s split final season, we got two batches of episodes all collectively considered part of the farewell season. The first episode of season seven aired in April 2014, with the last finishing in May 2015. That’s quite a stretch for what’s supposed to be considered one season.

The two halves don’t compliment each other as well as they should. The first half started off as a meandering squabble to figure out what a final season of Mad Men should feel like. The final two episodes of that half, “The Strategy” and “Waterloo,” finally got things together to make this a season about Don’s acceptance that he isn’t that special. Those two episodes also do beautiful work in finally bringing Peggy to Don’s level.

After all is said and done, “Waterloo” is still the best episode of both halves because it paid tribute to the series and the relationships that build its foundation, namely Don and Peggy’s.

So while the first half stumbled a bit in the beginning, the second half got things going with just its second episode, making this a legendary final run for one of the best shows ever on TV. The only thing really missing from the second half is the Don and Peggy dynamic. They only have two notable scenes together in the last seven episodes, a botched performance review in “The Forecast” and the worst excuse of a goodbye ever in the series finale.

But other than a complete lack of closure in the two main stars’ relationship, Mad Men spent its last four episodes ending gracefully with significant departures and farewells throughout. Don may not come in contact with a single significant series star in the finale (unless you consider Stephanie to be one), but his last face-to-face scenes with Betty, Roger, Joan, Sally, and, yes, even Megan are all so pitch perfect, they just came a few episodes earlier than we all expected. I just really wish Peggy was a part of that list.

As for Don’s ending as a whole, he finally stops running, stops pretending, and, seemingly, starts living again. It’s a worthwhile end for a man who’s morals were ambiguous to the finish.

And no, he did NOT go back to McCann and come up with the Coke commercial that closes the series. That would undermine so many things about what his final journey across the country symbolize. Don going back to advertising destroys his arc. The commercial was more meant as an ushering in of a new era, not intended to be written by any of the characters.

As for the other main characters, some only had arcs in certain parts of the season. Roger, for example, had to rise up and become a leader, especially in light of Cooper’s death. This all culminates in “Waterloo,” the mid-season finale.

Joan, meanwhile, gets an excellent injection of feminism in the second half of the season. Having her end the series starting her own company, choosing her career over her love life, was a perfect end for the character.

Betty also has a spectacular second half of the season, as she finally matures and learns to love the differences she shares with her children. Her story provided the biggest shock of the season, when we learned she had lung cancer in the penultimate episode. It was sadder to watch Betty deteriorate than any of us likely expected, but it did give way for Sally to feel more adult than ever.

Lastly, we have Peggy, the true hero of the series. The woman who started in 1960 with nothing and ended up in 1970 with everything. She and Stan make sense. Her staying at McCann to do what she’s great at makes sense. Peggy, the only character arguably better than Don, had a magnificent final season that boosted her confidence, enlivened her dreams, and gave us the instantly iconic scene of her walking into McCann with her cigarette, sunglasses, and painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman with an expression and a swagger that read, “You wouldn’t dare f*ck with me.” Compare that with timid little Peggy Olsen’s first day on the job in the pilot and you have one of the most rewarding character transformations in TV history.

So where does season seven rank among the rest? Keep in mind, Mad Men was never a bad show, but some seasons’ purpose felt more significant or rewarding than others. The two best are three and six, with one and four not far behind. I’d put season seven right around season five quality, with the undaring (though still great) second season resting at the bottom.

But those first five episodes last year hurt the season a bit. It’d be more forgivable if Don and Peggy had a proper final scene, but they don’t, which sadly feels like a middle finger to one of the strongest foundations of the show. Luckily, everything else was good ‘ol Mad Men or even better in some cases.

No final season, good or bad, could have undermined that this series was destined to be a classic from the very start. But it certainly feels like a victory for the medium that, despite this season’s few flaws, the show’s end will still be remembered fondly, keeping the entire series intact as a piece of significant art. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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