Was last night's Mad Men finale everything we wanted it to be? The answer says as much about our theological perspective as it does about our aesthetics. When it comes to serialized television finales, what we viewers seem to want most is a reason to believe in a creator that is benevolent in our own image. We become keenly aware that the fates of characters we’ve followed for years rest in the hands of a few people: writers, showrunners, creators. We hope that those all-powerful forces will "do right by" the characters, in some way we can’t articulate. And we fear that in failing to bring those characters to their proper end, the gods will reveal themselves to be mere puppet masters.
Perhaps it’s telling that in the best series finale ever, Shawn Ryan ended The Shield by bringing down the hammer of justice on corrupt cop Vic Mackey. When creators try to go New Testament and offer their characters mercy, fans often protest about softness and sentimentality. Just look at the derision for Lost’s Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse when they sent the Flight 815 survivors into the light after putting them through hell. And ambiguity is the worst sin of all: whether we want Tony Soprano to survive or be executed, creator David Chase’s refusal to act definitively played, to some, like a betrayal.
What does a Mad Men eschatology look like? Creator Matthew Weiner started telling us weeks before last night’s final episode aired. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), a character whose officious entitlement covered up a deep sense of inferiority, got an unexpected shot at grace when he asked Trudy (Alison Brie) to reunite and start a new life in the Midwest. But Don Draper (Jon Hamm), who drove away on a whim from the complexities of his broken relationships and professional compromises, ended up victimized by the not-so-innocent locals; that same idyllic heartland for him is a film noir hellscape, where your guilty secrets will come to haunt you.
For Weiner, the more autonomy a character has enjoyed over the decade that he’s chronicled, the more he requires forgiveness by someone other than himself. Pete can give Trudy power over their reconciliation, but Don can’t expunge his crimes by pointing his car to the great anonymous West. He keeps trying to use his power to save the people he's wronged, but as Stephanie (Caity Lotz) put it in the finale, "I'm pretty sure you're the one who's in trouble."
The question is not whether these characters merit their maker's grace.
Weiner’s women, though, are in a different position. They have struggled for autonomy against a ceaseless, battering tide of casual patriarchy. Joan (Christina Hendricks), who was once pimped out by her co-workers to land an account for the firm, has the most compelling crusade for justice; she now has no interest in asking for permission to be fully human. Betty (January Jones) unexpectedly meets her cancer death sentence with equanimity and grace; it’s the one thing her life of gnawing dissatisfaction has prepared her to do. And Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), suffering from suppressed guilt even though she’s done nothing wrong, seeks forgiveness from her sympathetic confidant Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) - and inadvertently creates the conditions where all kinds of truths can be told,
"You don't know what happens to people when they believe in things," Don tells Stephanie, urging her to leave the California commune to which she has brought him. But deprived of the people whom he needs to forgive and all the people whom he needs to forgive him, Don is literally paralyzed.
It's in relationship where everyone, even in the most unlikely ways (a group chant, an imaginary partnership), can find grace. Don has to reach into something ultimate, ineffable and transcendent for his forgiveness: not the Jesus his traumatized childhood made impossible for him, certainly, but the common humanity he recognizes in the "organization man" across the sharing circle from him. Whether you think he draws from that an idea for an iconic Coke commercial or simply taps into the zeitgeist that some other ad man exploited for commercial purposes (and whether that ambiguity delights or infuriates you), it appears that Don’s creator bestows on him peace. Hard won, but still, undeserved.
The question is not whether these characters merit their maker's grace. These kind of endings seem, at last, to turn the story away from us observers and focus it on itself. We are suddenly aware again of peering in from outside. It isn't what we want that matters. Not our will, but Matthew Weiner's be done. Can we rejoice in Don Draper's relieved smile? There are worse ways to train for Judgment Day.