TV is an odd mishmash of a medium. It shares enough qualities with film that we can use the word “cinematic” as a blanket compliment, yet its traditional broadcast model more closely resembles radio. In fact, with the advent of original programming from online-only platforms, it’s increasingly difficult to tell what, exactly, TV is. Maybe that’s why, dating back to The Mary Tyler Moore Show, TV is so often about itself. There’s a long history of scripted TV that’s about making TV. Yet, for all the literal examples of it—Sports Night, 30 Rock—Mad Men, which returns for its final seven episodes on Sunday, is the most self-reflexive series of them all.
Mad Men‘s ad firm Sterling Cooper & Partners (né Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, né the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency) is itself a representation of the process of making television. The writers’ room pitches, the long nights, the fights with executives over the creative integrity of material that, with varying degrees of explicitness, is ultimately about selling products. Many of the show’s most triumphant moments come not from interpersonal dynamics, but the act of intellectual conception—being struck by writerly inspiration, often in a room full of people trying to come up with their own perfect idea.
And the show’s behind-the-scenes dynamics become manifest in its characters. Critic Todd VanDerWerff has described episodes as “fan fiction Matt Weiner is writing about his own writers’ room,” something that’s especially apparent in the relationship between Don Draper and his protege-turned-peer, Peggy Olson. Their tempestuous creative partnership prompts fights over the ownership of everything from ad campaigns to each other’s careers, culminating in the infamous “That’s what the money is for!” scene from “The Suitcase”—an episode in which they argue over what you can and cannot do on TV.
In later seasons of the show, even that layer of metaphor has fallen away; the show has become much more explicit in enacting its own struggle to surpass the limitations of TV storytelling. In particular, the merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and onetime rival agency Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough is a self-conscious solution to the problem of keeping Peggy on the show once she had naturally grown past the point of needing Don as a mentor and professional champion. Don and Betty may have gotten divorced, but their relationship is effectively unchanged from what it was in Season 1—because to send her offstage is to deny Don his true moral foil. Will any of these characters ever change? Maybe not, but they’ll certainly keep trying, and stay painfully aware of their failures. Matthew Weiner and his staff threaten change, but it’s never real; they’re just daring us to confront what would happen if the status quo ever seriously shifted. And it’s all so artfully done that Mad Men more than justifies the level of Talmudic recap coverage it has historically received.
But at its core, that self-reflexivity is rooted in anxiety for the future—as well it should be. Because as it turns out, the end of Mad Men is not the end of TV, but rather the end of a particular era for the medium, one that has been repeatedly canonized in books like Brett Martin’s Difficult Men and Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution was Televised. The Difficult Men narrative of “visionary” showrunners provides a picture of what Good TV is supposed to look like, and how it’s supposed to be made: by exacting geniuses like Don Draper. Often, these creatives’ relationships are exorcised for public viewing: The best tidbit in Difficult Men is the fact that Damages‘ central relationship, between an overbearing, perfectionist mentor and her naive protege, was based on David Chase’s Sopranos writers’ room. And the TV that springs from their brains is supposed to be “novelistic,” fraught with antiheroes, and above all, bleak. (This is mostly an issue for dramas; half-hour shows are currently in the midst of their own revolution.)
Indeed, many of today’s prestige shows feel like the creative efforts of people who watched Mad Men, The Sopranos, and Breaking Bad and then tried to replicate them without understanding what actually made them so good. (To name a few names: House of Cards, The Affair, True Detective.) Many of these seem to be more about their relationship to these older shows than they are to anything else (pretty much any 20th-century period piece must now make an explicit case for why it should exist in the wake of Mad Men, while every show with guns puts itself in contention with Breaking Bad).
And their showrunners are increasingly self-parodies of Difficult Men; they’re monstrous Pete Campbells or Harry Cranes, whose value lasts only until you look closely at their work. Nic Pizzolatto wantonly punches above his intellectual weight. Everything out of Beau Willimon’s mouth about the future of TV is terrible. And Aaron Sorkin’s last, disastrous attempt at making TV was so concerned with flailing back at his critics that it finally ended in a perversion of TV darkness. Thankfully, this type of behavior is increasingly being pushed out—networks are increasingly willing to jettison showrunners who are too in love with their imagined imprimaturs. But with that comes the end of the type of man (and it’s always a man) symbolized by Don Draper.
Much of Mad Men is spent interrogating Don’s status as a Difficult Man. Sure, he has reasons to do the things he does, but they’re uninteresting and flat; the show’s worst scenes are the ones that blandly fill in Don’s hard-knock backstory. Don’s best pitches and strongest moments (especially his Carousel pitch from the first season finale and his Hershey pitch-slash-meltdown from the sixth) invert that ratio: They tell us his past, and they show us his creative genius. We’re told over and over that he’s an advertising savant, but it’s a rare and special thing indeed to be convinced of that by the man himself. Is Don so powerful a character because he is a Difficult Man? We have yet to get a satisfactory answer.
So the final cut to black on Mad Men, whether it’s preceded by Don’s death, an enigmatic statement about his future relationship with his daughter, or jumping out of a plane, will signify a type of death, a decay in the bout of creativity that fueled the past few years of TV. The show itself is aware of this, in the way that it has increasingly become about its characters’ irrelevance to their jobs and, in turn, about the future of TV itself. In last year’s batch of episodes, Mad Men‘s copywriters pitch ever more TV spots while witnessing the Harry Crane’s horrifying ascendance or Jim Cutler’s vision for the future of the agency (“Computer services, media buys pinpointed with surgical accuracy”)—something that sounds like focus-tested, blandly developed pilots. So yes, people will continue to make excellent TV. The question is just what comes next.