“Nostalgia is the pain from an old wound. It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.”
Those words were spoken by Don Draper, the main character of AMC’s Mad Men, way back in season one. He was pitching a client at the time, but I think it’s safe to assume he meant what he said all the same. Nearly eight years later, fans of the show are probably experiencing some similar nostalgia as Mad Men draws to a close. Saying goodbye to characters they’ve loved, some they’ve hated, a world they’ve spent enough time in that for some, it must feel like a second home. That hurts. It leaves a wound.
Finishing a television show is a complicated thing. It’s complicated for the creators—bringing a long-running show to a satisfying conclusion is a difficult and usually thankless task. But it’s complicated for viewers, too. Audiences spend more time with television shows than they do with nearly any other storytelling medium. The result is that series finales are not just the final chapter of stories; they’re valedictions, too, tearful farewells. Often, they can be as sad as saying goodbye to a beloved friend.
TV finales are fraught affairs these days. The golden age of television has brought with it high and almost unrealistic viewer expectations. TV used to be purely episodic—some episodes were good, some bad, but you rarely got the sense that you were watching a single story, a coherent arc that should be brought to a satisfying conclusion. With the advent of serialized TV storytelling came the expectation that TV finales should be not just decent episodes of television that give audiences a graceful emotional exit from the show, but decisive conclusions to years-long stories that wrap up and somehow justify everything that came before.
The golden age of TV has given us some great series, but few beloved finales. Battlestar Galactica and Lost are beloved television series with despised finales that many people feel ruined the shows; Breaking Bad got off a little easier but many still felt that the ending didn’t live up to the moral weight the show had tried to achieve. Perhaps the most successful finale of television’s golden age was, in many ways, its first: that of The Sopranos, which succeeded by pointedly not wrapping up the story, but leaving it completely indeterminate in a way that fans still argue about today. The Sopranos didn’t give us an exit but rather denied it; you might say that instead of ending, the show, in the minds of its fans, somehow goes on. (“…and on, and on, and on.”)
I may be making too much of this, but it seems to be no coincidence that the most iconic and beloved finales largely come not from the golden age of television but from the age preceding it, when the final episode of a television show gave us not the conclusion to a story we’d been collectively picking apart on blogs and message boards but gave us one more chance to hang out with characters we’d come over the years to love. MASH. Cheers. The finales of Seinfeld and Friends weren’t anything much, but they did do something that TV can’t do any more: capture the imagination of an entire culture. Heck, one of the most memorable finale-viewing experiences of my life was the show Wings. I still remember the plot of the finale—Joe and Brian came into a small fortune and had to decide whether they cared enough about Sandpiper Airlines to keep it going. I also remember (and I’m not at all ashamed to admit this, dammit) crying.
Mad Men will come to a close this Sunday. It’s likely to draw a small crowd—for all the show’s cultural currency, it’s never had a big viewership, and I’d wager (though I’ve not looked it up) that the audience for the finale of Wings, barely a footnote in the annals of pop culture, will dwarf that of the final episode of Mad Men. But for a lot of people, it will mean something. Mad Men is a bit more like The Sopranos than it is Lost or Battlestar Galactica—a serially-told story, yes, but also just episodic and aimless enough that come Monday, even if it failed to conclusively wrap up the threads we picked up way back in episode 1, the bulk of the conversation will be about the emotional and thematic exit it gave its viewers. Will it leave a wound? We’ll have to see. But on some level, I think the show already has.