Mad Men's penultimate season ends on Sunday, leading to preemptively high spoiler-alert levels of conversation at the water cooler: How will this show, however flailing, ultimately come to close? But TV endings are tricky, especially when you're talking about one of the greatest shows of all time. The final chapter can be absurdist, like Seinfeld's, or confusing, like The Sopranos. To some, however, Mad Men had its ending in its beginning, thanks to that instantly iconic animated man of opening-credits infamy, setting down his briefcase and tumbling down past buildings with billboards of beautiful women and happy families, perhaps toward his shadowed death. And while creator Matthew Weiner now says that his show will not end with a jump—just think how clichéd that would be—the image seems ever more important as Mad Men hurdles toward the brink.
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During an interview, The Wrap's Tim Molloy said: "With so many people saying the show should end with a jump out the window, that must be pretty much the only thing you can't do." To which Weiner responded:
It never even occurred to me. I’ll be honest with you. Never occurred to me. That jump out the window was always meant to be symbolic and internal. I never meant it literally. I think it’s fascinating, though—I think people think it would be cool. But it hasn’t been an option. And now that we’ve had this conversation, I really can’t do it.
Weiner has always said that the man falling to the theme song was not supposed to be Don. He told an audience at the Paley Center that "the origin of the credits was I had an idea about a guy getting up in the morning—a faceless man, not even Don, I didn't know who he was—going to work and going in, walking past the office, going into his office, opening the window and jumping out." He explained: "To me the American businessman jumps out the window, that is a statement and it only happens—it's part of our iconography, so I wanted to say that's what's going inside of this man."
Over time, Mad Men's jumping American businessman has served as fodder for both conspiracy theories—they're fun to indulge, but ultimately worthless—and heady controversy. Last year's season-five poster isolated the show's falling man, and was deemed insensitive for recalling another falling man, the one so famously photographed leaping from the World Trade Center on 9/11. "On the one hand, the poster is merely a continuation of the art that has accompanied the show since its inception — a bit of shorthand that refers as much to the viewing public's impatience to get Mad Men back after its extended hiatus as it does to the existential consequences of Dick Whitman impersonating a dead man named Don Draper," wrote Tom Junod, who chronicled the 9/11 photograph for Esquire. "At the same time, the poster dispenses with the corporate context specific to Mad Men, indeed with context altogether, and, by concentrating on one falling man, seems out to remind viewers that the show is really about the Falling Man... that for all its American-Century trappings, it's set squarely in the age of American decline."
So, Mad Men will not end with a jump, but the image—or at least what Weiner wants the image to represent—appears increasingly relevant as we approach Sunday and the finale season. We entered season six in a haze of death, with Don pitching ads that were not so veiled premonitions of killing himself. And that was right after season five had left us reeling from the suicide of Lane Pryce—in perhaps the moment that had most resembled the opening credits, here was a man at his wits end, driven by office culture to take his own life. Mad Men returned with Don's collapsed doorman. The rest of the season has existed in a depressive, drug-induced fog. In 1968, the world has collapsed around our besuited cocktail drinkers. With riots and war and rage, they are anomalies, so much so that Peggy stabs her boyfriend in an effort of self-preservation.
Our characters, at this moment in their fall, are miserable. Don is disgusted with himself. Sally is disgusted with her father, having walked in on him cheating with the next door neighbor. Peggy, despite her remarkable progress, still is not getting the treatment she deserves. Ted, the good man, is in love with Peggy, who is not his wife. Pete has, for all intents and purposes, been abandoned by his family. Bob Benson has now been outed in more ways than one. There's something ghostly about this season. Margaret Lyons at Vulture has espoused the theory that Don is a version of Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby, which Sally Draper read and multiple characters went to see at the movies this season. Over at Grantland, Andy Greenwald writes: "Don Draper has been surrounded by doppelgängers, mocking shadows that flit around him the way ghosts teased and enveloped Dante on his long walk to hell." Even though Weiner has said that no one is going to die this season, it wouldn't be shocking if one of the characters—maybe Don, maybe Pete—took that leap.
But that leap is a metaphor, Weiner insists, as so much in this show is. So while Mad Men may not end in a leap, we may feel a progressive push of our favorite doomed characters toward that window, toward the edge. Don, all curled up in the fetal positon as he was at the close of the last episode, now seems to understand that his American Dream, his assimilation as someone not himself, was futile.