Mad Men: The End Is About to Begin

03/23/2015 11:18 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2015

Monday's unveiling of a Mad Men sculpture outside Manhattan's Time-Life Building, site of the fictional headquarters of Sterling Cooper & Partners, reminds that the final season of the landmark television series set in the New York advertising world of the 1960s is nearly upon us. April 5th marks the beginning of the ending. Just seven episodes remain in one of the best series of all time, currently tied with just three other shows for the most Best Drama Emmy wins in history.

It was 2007 when Don Draper, figuratively depicted in the show's elegant opening titles, began his long fall through the 1960s, passing through the best of the materialist America he helps spin into being on his way to ... what?

Mad Men's classic title sequence is a metaphor for anti-heroic protagonist Don Draper's journey through 1960s America.

Literal-minded viewers have long believed that title sequence presaged Draper's suicide, or at least his destruction.

But the title sequence has always been a metaphor for a different sort of journey. A journey which has frequently provided a strong American studies master class view of a formative time and place through the prism of a quintessentially illuminating industry, and which has always provided an intriguing and frequently moving view of a compelling set of mostly ambiguous characters.

Despite some notably soap opera-ish notions to the contrary, our core group has proved to be a very resilient crew.

Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), at an advanced age, passed on at the end of last year's run of the show. But in addition to Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm), whose self-invention was after all prodded by a very strong survival instinct, and whose resilience is more along the lines of the self-invented Bill Clinton than Jay Gatsby, the others are still very much alive and kicking.

Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss), who would now be the age of Jerry Brown, has moved along nicely though she hasn't taken over the world of advertising yet. It was really the '70s which saw the star burst of feminism.

Joan Harris (Christine Hendricks), a transitional figure of great core competence whose hard-won partnership reflects the double-edged sword of her sexual allure, is still on her journey.

Betty Draper Francis (January Jones), much-maligned ex-trophy wife and non-mother of the year, may at last be getting in touch with a truer self.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery), the ever entertaining silver fox of the Sterling Coo crew, has wended his way through declining relevance and dolce vita decadence to a position of greater strength, perhaps more with the aid of acid than analysis.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), everyone's hated twerp of Season One, turned out to be one of the most inventive -- and liberal -- figures in the show, though he still has a tendency to be a dick.

Mad Men ... in the beginning.

Speaking of which, Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), the early young Mr. Television of the agency, continues his alternating path of being both shrewd and amusingly appalling.

Megan Calvet Draper (Jesse Pare), Don's controversial young second wife who exchanged her knack for advertising for a big bite at the acting bug, is, like the decade she was often asked to represent, still unresolved.

And young Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), who we've watched grow into a formidable if vulnerable teenager, has proved to be not only the baby boomer lens into the Mad Men world but also far more resilient and sane than many fans imagined.

One of the most impressive things that creator and show runner Matt Weiner has pulled off is to make us care about a group of people who are neither the progressive heroes and heroines, nor the villains and victims usually associated with a show or movie about the 1960s.

That was clear in Mad Men's brilliant pilot episode, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," in which the Sterling Coo crew's orientation is spelled out in unmistakable terms. Don Draper is casting about for a creative way to market their core client's product now that the government has forbidden spurious claims about healthy smoking. And Roger Sterling is is gearing up for the agency's role in the 1960 presidential campaign, opining that it shouldn't be too hard to make America fall in love with a good-looking Navy hero like -- no, not JFK -- Dick Nixon. (Later in the series, would-be progressive heroine Peggy Olsen expresses disappointment in not being able to work on Barry Goldwater's right-wing '64 presidential run, and pride in her role in helping sell cigarettes to a new target demographic -- young women.)

They haven't been paragons, they've been people making their way through a famously tumultuous time, during New York's heyday as the greatest city on the planet.

The ride hasn't always been scintillating. At its best and most eventful, Mad Men is still a pretty subtle and cerebral show. And there have been times when metaphorical anvils a bit too beloved by the English majors among us have been present in a certain profusion.

But every great novel, and Mad Men is a great novel unfolding on television, has spots in which one summons up the spirit to slog on through.

I've been a big taken aback by how censorious elements of the Mad Men community can be about smoking, drinking, and sex rather than the sometimes deadly products the characters have marketed. The supposed imminent destruction of Don Draper has been hinted at rather too often.

There have been no shortage of nostalgic moments for fans of Mad Men, as this trailer makes clear through the structure of Don Draper's masterful Season One "Carousel" pitch for Kodak.

Now we're coming to the end of things. It almost certainly won't be as flashy as the ending of another of my favorites, Breaking Bad, with that lovable Walter White fellow. (Who had the makings of a vicious, self-entitled psychopath all along, yet remained a somehow sympathetic figure to surprising numbers of people. The good guy anti-hero of Breaking Bad was really Walt's much maligned ex-student, Jesse Pinkman.)

Almost certainly not coincidentally, Mad Men won its record-tying four straight Best Drama Emmy Awards for seasons set in the first half of the '60s. The end of the series finds itself at the tail end of the legendary decade, nudging the '70s. That's a much more familiar, and familiarly cliched, time which carries none of the sense of stylistic discovery that the early and mid-'60s did.

But the lack of melodramatic shootouts and the presence of fill-in-your-favorite-fashion-disaster can't detract from the import of this show and its achievement in bringing such a consequential and multifaceted real-life world to life in dramatic form.

The show may or may not have enough of-the-moment zing left to win a record-breaking fifth Best Drama Emmy. But one thing is sure. If Jon Hamm does not at last win best actor for his masterful portrayal of Don Draper -- he's been nominated seven times so far without taking the prize yet -- it will be an even greater injustice than Martin Sheen never winning for The West Wing, which also won four straight Best Drama Emmys.

Because in the end, for all the brilliant ensemble work and indelible characters, the journey does come down to the suavely troubled reinvented one. As we see with the new Mad Men sculpture just unveiled outside the Time-Life Building. (With the street signs at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 50th Street changed for a time to "Mad Men Avenue" and "Don Draper Way.")

It's a bench, allowing anyone who sits there to be photographed beside the relaxed outline of a seated Draper that closes the iconic title sequence, viewable above. After falling through the '60s, past the best that materialist America has to offer, the Draper figure ends up seated, looking at his panoramic window scene, viewing it all.

Because there's nothing really wrong with falling. Or else there would never be skydivers, or paratroopers, for that matter. Just so long as you know how to land.

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