The Mad Men series finale was polarizing, with its wild tonal swings, its too-pat closure of some stories, the disappearance of Don as an active participant in his life, and its seemingly ambiguous ending — until you realize that it's not ambiguous at all, at which point it might seem too cute. To have an ending that some people will worship, and others will hate feels right for Mad Men, a historically important show that was never a mass hit, unlike its AMC brethren The Walking Dead or, as the years went on, Breaking Bad.
No one knew Matthew Weiner's Mad Men was going to change television forever when it premiered on AMC on July 19, 2007. For the TV business, the quality of dramas on basic cable was about to hit its apex, and Mad Men would soon start collecting the Emmys to prove it. For fans, Mad Men's visual beauty, its attention to history, and its rigorous narrative complexities were their own rewards. Of course, it was never the most fun show of television's second Golden Age. And there are plenty of people who loved Mad Men's beginnings more than its later developments — those who watched it for period kitsch or jokes about how kids used to put dry cleaning bags on their heads would soon be disappointed, as Weiner drilled down into his characters and story and began to veer from gimmicks.
If you watched Mad Men for seven seasons, then you may think, like I do, that there were no bad episodes. So to rank them is an exercise in the relativity of excellence; an excuse to rewatch them in a compressed period of time (as opposed to the years over which I had originally seen them); a new way for me to see all seven seasons as one whole story with strengths (and sometimes tiny weaknesses) and callbacks; a personal exorcism that evoked laughter and tears; and, as someone said to me recently, something that could be perceived as trolling. It certainly was a show that inspired its fans to know an inordinate number of episode titles: There will be fights.
However you feel about the finale itself — and, without the benefit of time to add perspective, I am very mixed (see No. 42, where I have slotted it) — Mad Men gave us these people: Don Draper (Jon Hamm), Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), Joan Harris (formerly Holloway, Christina Hendricks), Betty Francis (formerly Draper, January Jones), Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka), Megan Draper (Jessica Paré), and dozens and dozens more. Mad Men's 10-year sweep of a crucial time in American history was told through these characters, and it was both particular and huge: a story about class striving, women, passing, de facto racial segregation, New York City, the call of the West, American ambition — and so on. Mad Men constructed a whole world.
And it was terribly sad to say good-bye. But as Don Draper would say, we have to move forward. Wait! In the series finale, "Person to Person," someone finally told him that's actually terrible advice. How great was that?