Season finale: Mad Men (season three)

It's all been building to the finale

Mad Men

In the US: Sunday 8th November, AMC
In the UK: BBC4 still haven’t bought it…

That’s it. It’s over again for another year. Damn those AMC people. But 1963 and season three of Mad Men have ended, and we’re going out on a high.

It’s been something of a rollercoaster year for Mad Men. After the somewhat existentialist season two, in which Don went to California, found himself, and came back to Sterling Cooper seemingly refreshed, Don seemed to drop the ball a little this season. His life’s become a mess thanks to Betty having found out about his affairs last year, and he’s started up another affair with a teacher. His work’s gone to pot, thanks to the British buy-out of the company and their constant cost-cutting. And Conrad Hilton’s turned up, played with him and thrown him away.

In retrospect, everything’s been leading up to the finale, in which Don, Sterling and Cooper decide enough is enough, prompted by the reselling of the company by the British to another ad agency. The producers have been manouvering everything to whittle the show down to its best elements for next season.

And what a finale it was, with Don and co leaving Sterling Cooper to set up their agency, taking with them their favoured employees and ex-employees, Betty filing for divorce from Don, Peggy growing a spine at last and new arrival Jared Harris proving that the English aren’t all nobs in US dramas.

However, to get to that end point, there’s been a mix of both good and bad episodes. There have been a few obvious standout moments, such as Sal’s firing for turning down another man’s advances, the death of Peggy’s father, the "lawnmower meets foot" episode and when Betty finally discovers Don isn’t Don but a Dick – followed by Don’s revelations the following episode.

The British invasion of Sterling Cooper was actually well handled, with none of the usual stereotypes of the English being deployed. In fact, the show seemed to have quite a decent understanding of what English businesspeople were like in the 60s, even if they did have to drag in the usual hammy actors (Neil Biggles Dickson and that guy from The Nanny) to do it. Jared Harris, however, has been as thoroughly brilliant as always (cf The Other Boleyn Girl and To The Ends of the Earth).

But the show has drifted a little at times, and while life meanders, it does feel like certain characters have been underused and character development has gone up a few side alleys, found itself stuck, then gone into reverse. Peggy and Pete have both had little to do beyond complain and not be especially competent – most of Peggy’s storyline being about her moving out of her mother’s house and finding an apartment. Sal’s gone, of course, when he was doing so well for himself. It’s only really Don and Betty that have done well from the ongoing stories, although Joan’s evolution over the season has been well handled.

It’ll be curious to see where the producers go next, given the talk of season four is of the show being very different. The Hilton storyline ended inconclusively, so that might return. Will Don end up with the teacher? Will Betty be in the show at all? Will Sal and other Sterling Cooper exs be recruited for the new agency?

Nevertheless, I’m glad of the direction the show has gone in. The season has a whole has probably been more emotionally involving and better than season two. Don and co now seem to have a real chance at self-fulfilment in both work and their personal lives – presumably a deliberate act by the producers to tie in thematically with the approaching mid-60s.

I’m hoping that secondary characters get more of a look in though next season. Betty’s situation is going to be interesting, and I want to see what happens to Pete for some strange reason. It looks like the core cast that we all care about have been put into one place and I really want to see how well Jared Harris fits into the smaller group.

Great stuff. Not quite season one great, but thoroughly enjoyable as a whole. You just had to stick with it.