'Mad Men' finale: Are you sitting down?

madmnenfinale_s3_290.jpgI'm not sure any finale of "Mad Men" could match the dramatic weight of what's happened on the show in the past couple of weeks. Sunday's finale, in fact, didn't really try to do that.

That said, though, I'm not sure more has ever actually happened in an episode of "Mad Men" than in "Shut the Door. Have a Seat" on Sunday. After all that's gone down at the end of the season, things ended on a surprisingly up note. You could read that as the characters once again being a little out of step with the times -- not even a month has passed after the Kennedy assassination, and yet the founding partners and employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are charging ahead as if it's the dawning days of Camelot.

At first, it was a bit jarring to see the come-together, let's-do-this spirit of Don and Roger, Cooper and the handful of people they brought along with them. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and the larger forces to squash their idea. But they didn't, and it appears that SCDP is going to get off the ground (with Joan!). If the mission of a season finale is to make me start counting the days until the show returns, then mission accomplished and way beyond.

Don learns the news that PPL and Sterling Cooper are being sold to McCann Erickson -- one of the real-life giants in the ad industry -- from Conrad Hilton. Hearing it from him seems to confirm all the bad feelings Don has for his own father, and his first thought, as it usually is, is to bail. We see in flashback, though, that cutting and running is almost literally what got his father killed. A prideful decision to leave a grain co-op rather than take a reduced price, then an impulsive, drunken determination to take the crop to market himself on a rainy night leads to a spooked horse kicking the elder Whitman in the head -- all in front of the young Dick.

As I read it, that memory is what leads Don to swallow some of his own pride and go to Bert and eventually Roger with the idea to buy back the agency from PPL, and when that fails, set up shop on their own. It's kind of a huge moment of growth for Don to admit that he needs Roger's help -- and it subsequently allows him to woo both Pete -- whose foresight about where the business is headed is finally recognized and rewarded -- and Peggy.

She turns out to be harder to win over, in fact, because as Don tells her, he thought of her as an extension of himself, which is really no way to go about it. Finally, though, after assuming she'd be along for the ride, getting rejected and then showing up at her apartment, Don wins her over with a vintage Draper speech that we've heard precious little of this season: "There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. But something happened, something terrible. The way that they saw themselves is gone, and no one understands that. But you do, and that's very valuable."

Is it? she asks. Yes, he assures her: "With you or without you, I'm moving on. I don't know if I can do it alone. Will you help me?" And if I say no? Peggy wants to know. Will you just write me out of your life completely? "No -- I'll spend the rest of my career trying to hire you." It's a great scene that showcases both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss at the top of their respective games.

januaryjones_madmen_s3_290.jpgIf only Don could have as much insight into his personal life as he does with his work. The momentum of the latter portion of the episode swept this away a little, but Don has never been uglier than when he storms into Betty's bedroom -- he's been sleeping on the cot in Gene's room -- and demands to know who Henry Francis is. I'll grant that Betty ceded the moral high ground a little by not letting on about Henry (though if I had been her, I wouldn't have either), but that is in no way an excuse for Don to behave as cruelly as he did.

Even he seems to get that he was out of line, because he pulls it together the following day in order to tell the kids that he'll be moving out. It's a wrenching scene all around, with Don and Betty trying to break the news gently, Bobby naively wondering if it was his fault ("Is it because I lost your cuff links?") and Sally seeing right through both of them. Kiernan Shipka has done some really good work throughout this season, but Sally's wounded and closed-off reaction to her parents splitting up was probably among her best. Jared Gilmore shone as Bobby too.

Betty flying to Reno with Henry and baby Gene, while Don enters his new apartment and Carla watches the kids, perhaps isn't the happiest scene to end on for the Draper family, but it's about the only way it could end at this point. I just hope that at whatever point the show decides to return next season that Betty isn't marginalized, because she really came into her own as a character this season, and I'm fascinated to see what happens when she sees how green the grass is in her new life.

By changing the game so markedly with the finale, Matthew Weiner and Co. have also opened up a ton of possibilities for future seasons while managing to keep the core cast together (here's hoping SCDP hires Sal as its art director) in a fairly plausible way. Does season four open with the new agency still getting up to speed, or do we skip ahead to see where things are a year or two later? Can Jane handle Roger working with Joan again? What does it mean for Don to have put it all on the line for his work? How does Betty adjust to being a political wife?

I can't wait to find out.

Other notes from the finale:

  • Among the more satisfying moments of the finale was watching Lane join in the plan to start the new agency, finally getting free from the higher-ups in London who've taken him for granted all this time. I absolutely loved his response to getting fired over the phone: "Very good. Happy Christmas!" I also hope that Lane joining the team means we'll see more of Jared Harris -- he's a fine actor, and he brought a different flavor to the show this season.
  • Watching the partners plot to start their own firm was a little bit like watching a heist movie -- and I think that's how Weiner, who co-wrote (with Erin Levy) and directed the episode, wanted us to see it. The assembling of the team, the covert nature of the operation, Don kicking in the door of the art department, even a couple of music cues, were all meant to sell the idea of this crew pulling a seemingly impossible job and getting away with it.
  • Line of the night goes to Robert Morse as Bert Cooper, explaining how things are to a nervous Harry Crane: "Mr. Crane -- Harry -- this matter is secret and time-sensitive. If you turn us down and elect to be a mid-level cog at McCann Erickson, we'll have to lock you in the storeroom until morning. I'm sure you understand."
  • Second best line: Roger: "Peggy, can you get me some coffee?" Pause. Peggy: "No."
  • You also have to wonder what season four will bring for the people at SC who are about to be absorbed into the larger agency, and how much we might see of them in the future. Ken Cosgrove will presumably continue to skate along as he always does, but I'd really like to check in with Paul Kinsey sometime next season and see what being a smaller fish in a bigger pond does to his ego.
  • I can also imagine the "Mad Men" production designers having a blast designing new sets for next season. SCDP can only work out of a hotel room for so long, right?

What did you think about the finale, and just as important, where do you think "Mad Men" goes from here? Do you think all the changes we saw put in motion tonight will stick once next season rolls around?