AMC is advertising the upcoming series finale of Mad Menas the "end of an era." And if the network is referring to the era of stories about middle-aged men behaving badly as they wrestle with their inner demons, Don Draper's swan song may truly be the final nail in that coffin.
What remains to be seen is exactly how Don's internal battle ends. The first half of the show's final season featured one of the handsome ad man's most triumphant moments: After a season of behaving and simply doing the work that means so much to him, Don (Jon Hamm) regained his relationship with longtime protégée Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) and earned his way back into his own company. But that victory was undercut by the end of Don's marriage to Megan (Jessica Pare) and Don hallucinating a final message from a deceased Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), who seemed to suggest that Don hadn't really won anything.
Unfortunately for Don, the series' final episodes seems more interested in exploring the latter notion. "These last 14 episodes are one season, even though we had this big finale in the middle of it," creator and executive producer Matthew Weiner tells TVGuide.com. "So, those themes are still there. I cannot say it any better than that song said it: 'The best things in life are free,' and once certain needs are met, what else is there in life? Don feeling bad about what he did or trying to change does not mean that everybody else just applauds and holds him up over their head. He has burned a lot of bridges behind him.
"The first seven episodes of this season were a success story," Weiner continues. "The most boring story in the world is a success story, but it worked on this show as a tense event because you're thinking, 'Well, at some point, he's going to blow it. At some point, he's going to get drunk and punch somebody in the face.' What we have now is what happens if you don't go to that well? Is this guy changing? Is he trying to change? Does anybody care if he's changing?"
Indeed, the notion of change is at the heart of Don's story. After all, Don Draper is actually Dick Whitman, a man raised in poverty in a whorehouse who eventually stole a dead man's name and created the version of his life he's lived ever since. "Anybody who adopts another persona in a complete way is pretty obsessed with the idea of change," Hamm says. "It's about how you go about it: Do you want to do the work or not? Don recognizes his struggles with alcohol, his struggles with relationships, his struggles with authority, and sometimes wants to change but doesn't want to do the work because the work sucks. It hurts, it dredges up a lot of sh-- you don't want to deal with. It's so much easier to tell someone to go f--- themselves and walk out of the room and slam the door."
Even so, Don does seem to be doing the work for now, which was evident in the strides he made with Peggy. "Repairing his relationship with Peggy, [Don] didn't really do actively," Weiner says. "It was more of a matter of trying not to repeat old habits. I'm not going to be impulsive. I'm not going to go in and make that pitch to Burger Chef just because I need to make that pitch and because my ego's involved. I'm going to let Peggy do it because it's better for the company, and it's better for her. That kind of behavior doesn't sound like a hell of a huge sacrifice, but it's new for Don."
But will Don be able to apply those lessons to his strained relationship with daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka)? "That's the hope," Hamm says. "Don is very, very aware of what he is doing, has done, and will do to his kids because he saw it happen to himself," he says. "He was terribly parented, and he does not want to be a bad parent. Sometimes he can't help it, but he's very cognizant, much more than he is with any of the adults in his life. I think he loves Sally without any qualifying. I think he sometimes, as many men of that generation, has a hard time expressing it and a hard time putting it in a place in his life that works."
Change is the operative word at the office in Mad Men's final run as well. Now that Roger (John Slattery) sold 51 percent of the company to McCann Erickson, multiple staff members, including Joan (Christina Hendricks), Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Ken (Aaron Staton) suffer under the new ownership. And, as always, the culture is constantly changing. But Weiner insists that Don doesn't struggle with the latter at all.
"There's a hobbyhorse that people hold onto where they think that this story's about Don being out of touch, and the world is passing him by," Weiner says. "I feel quite the opposite. The message of the show is about what is unchangeable about Don, about him working his way down to the authentic part of himself, about him revisiting mistakes that are irreversible."
So, can people change? Is that the ultimate question for Don? "That was on my mind," Weiner says. "I'm still on the fence about that. I was much more committed to the idea that people can't change and that they never change. But I do find that your attitude can change, for sure. And the way you're perceived by other people can change."
As such, viewers should probably expect a contemplative end to the series. "My responsibility was to the characters more than to the audience, and I arrived at something that I thought was a good place to leave them," Weiner says. "It's not Lost. It's not like I had to write the answer to the whole mystery and I'm going to finally tell you what it is. It might be frustrating for people, but I kind of enjoy it as the uniqueness of the show. We did the best we could."
Mad Men premieres Sunday at 10/9c on AMC.
VIDEO: Elisabeth Moss looks back on Peggy's journey