When AMC announced they were splitting the final season of Mad Men into two seven-episodes halves, similar to what had been done with Breaking Bad in its last two years, I could only roll my eyes in disdain. The splitting of cable drama seasons is often an annoyance, and while it can work out fine with some series – The Walking Dead and its enormous fanbase seem to have adjusted just fine to the strategy over the years, in part because they’ve being doing it since the second season – it feels especially cumbersome and unnecessary when imposed upon the final years of a long-running drama that has long-since established a workable format.
It’s easy to forget that Breaking Bad seriously struggled with the half-length season format in its 2012 episodes, given how utterly brilliant the final eight hours were in 2013, but where Vince Gilligan and company had so carefully cultivated a suspenseful and engaging pace in previous 13-episode runs, the drama felt rushed and underdeveloped in their first time aiming for the shorter season order. And with Mad Men, a series that has historically relied on the breathing room afforded by a full-length cable season even more than Breaking Bad, the split order seemed like a recipe for creative difficulties. With such a large ensemble, and so many themes, arcs, and ideas that usually take time to properly develop, could Mad Men deliver its usual season’s worth of brilliance in only half the time?
The answer, to my pleasant surprise, was a resounding yes. Rather than creating a compromised, diluted version of what makes Mad Men great, Matthew Weiner and company managed to create another truly masterful season of television, one filled with captivating arcs and powerful points of culmination; they simply did it with fewer episodes, tightening the scope of the season in contrast to other years, but without giving major characters the short shrift or sacrificing the delicate pace that makes the show such a refreshing, singular pleasure to watch.
In fact, Season 7A (as I suppose we must call it) is one of the most rigorously structured seasons Mad Men has ever produced, though that won’t necessarily be apparent in the early going, where the focus appears to be squarely on protagonist Don Draper to the exclusion of nearly everything else. This doesn’t seem like a huge problem on the surface, as Don is a fascinating character, Jon Hamm remains one of television’s most talented performers, and seeing the character actively try to break from his most destructive behaviors and patterns makes for tremendously compelling drama (while also further justifying the repetition of said patterns in Season 6 – the contrast here is stronger for where that season took Don).
But with Mad Men featuring one of the best extended casts of characters in TV history, I found myself growing anxious, through those first few episodes, by the relatively minor amounts of Peggy, Joan, Pete, Roger, and others we were given (and while I love this season as a whole, I cannot ignore that a subplot involving Peggy and a flower-based misunderstanding in the second episode is one of the dumbest things Mad Men has ever done). Mad Men was not (other than the flower incident) sacrificing individual episode quality in these early outings, but if the half-season order meant we were losing focus on characters other than Don, then that alone would be cause for serious disappointment.
I should not have worried. To say the season picks up steam and starts tying plot and character threads together left and right as it goes along would be an understatement. The third episode, for instance, is a surprisingly great showcase for Betty, used better here (and in the season’s fifth hour) than she has been since the third season, reminding us that while the writing for her can be spotty, January Jones can be extremely effective when given good – or, at least, vaguely interesting – material to play.
Jones’ delivery on the zinger Betty tosses at son Bobby’s teacher – Bobby: “She really likes you.” Betty: “Yes, well that blouse says she really likes everyone.” – is a thing of passive-aggressive beauty. The fourth episode offers a terrific Roger story, moving him to the center after having interesting scenes sprinkled throughout the previous three hours; the subplot, about Roger trying to engage with his hippie daughter after she runs away to a co-op, also happens to be the best story about counterculture Mad Men has ever told. And the fifth episode even shines a fascinating, disturbing spotlight on supporting player Michael Ginsberg, one that has already caused plenty of debate amongst fans and critics, but which feels to me like the right balance between organic and sensationalistic.
But it’s the final two episodes, and the absolutely tremendous finale in particular, that makes this seven-episode run feel like a beautiful self-contained journey. The core conflict of the season involves Don trying to reintegrate himself at Sterling Cooper and Partners, even as Jim Cutler machinates furiously to get him kicked out for good, and as this struggle begins to boil over, everybody’s arc come into sharp focus. Roger gets to finally stand up and make a difference at the firm, choosing friendship and loyalty over the lethargy and doubt that has plagued him for years. Bert Cooper, at most a figurehead since the start of the fourth season, makes major professional and personal impacts on everyone at the agency, Don especially. Joan makes her voice heard in dynamic and unexpected ways, while nominal antagonists Cutler and, to a lesser extent, Ted Chaough get exactly what they deserve (and not necessarily what the viewer may at first expect). The only character who feels a tad underserved by the end is Pete, and even he gets some great scenes sprinkled throughout, especially opposite Don and Peggy in the second-to-last hour.
Most importantly, though, the final two episodes do right by Peggy, whose relatively limited presence in the first five hours winds up being of little consequence, as the small moments she is given pay off in some of the single greatest and most satisfying sequences in the history of the show. Her and Don’s relationship is brought to an emotional climax in the penultimate episode, and in the finale, Peggy gets to deliver an advertising pitch that rivals any other over the course of Mad Men. It’s a downright heroic moment, and Elisabeth Moss positively revels in it, proving once again why Peggy isn’t just the heart and soul of this show, but still one of the greatest characters on television.
In the end, when all these rich component parts are pieced together, and one arrives at the end of these seven episodes, the cumulative impact is as strong as any other season of Mad Men. The finale is so good, in fact, and pays off so completely not only on the arcs of this season, but on the character relationships cultivated over the last six years, that it could easily serve as an excellent send-off to the series as a whole.
The show does have more to go, however, and in the conflicted emotional place Don has arrived at by the end of the season, I am hugely interested to see what endgame Weiner and company have in mind. That this team could pull such an excellent, cumulatively powerful season of television off in just seven hours, instead of their usual thirteen, speaks volumes to the still-daunting brilliance of this all-time great series. If Mad Men experiences a similar leap in its final half-season next year as Breaking Bad did in its ending run, already starting at a much higher place than that show was, I can only imagine the kind of creative revelation that awaits at the end of the road.
For more on Season 7A of Mad Men, you can catch up with Jordan Adler’s take on each installment of the season.
I am happy to report that plenty of praise can also be given to Lionsgate’s release of this season on Blu-Ray, after the appallingly lazy treatment the company afforded the show last year. As outlined in my review of the Season 6 set, Lionsgate seemed to respond to the dwindling hype surrounding the series by delivering a bare-bones release that flew in the face of the show’s rich, high-quality home video history. In place of the dozens of audio commentaries and many featurettes that accompanied prior seasons, Season 6 came with almost nothing extra – just one interactive gallery and two historical video documentaries (tied very loosely to the themes of the season), with no involvement whatsoever from the show’s chief creative talent located anywhere on the set.
Thankfully, Lionsgate seems to have heard fan complaints, and they have responded in fine form in this year’s set. In addition to the series’ usual exemplary video and audio quality, Mad Men: The Final Season, Part 1 plays host to a healthy and informative supplemental suite. It’s not quite as robust as the sets for the show’s early years, once again favoring historical documentaries to actual behind-the-scenes content, but the material we are given is good and (mostly) fitting, and most importantly, the audio commentaries are back in full force. Lionsgate has even included a full set of Ultraviolet digital copies for the season, further increasing the value over last year’s paltry offerings. The packaging, too, is a welcome step-up; Mad Men releases have always had a pleasing visual design, but the artwork here is particularly striking, a colorfully trippy take on the series’ aesthetic iconography, and the imagery on the discs themselves – bright yellow and orange, with Don and Peggy each getting their own disc – is wonderful. It’s a nice, appreciated touch.
The aforementioned A/V quality is, indeed, spectacular. Mad Men continues to be one of the best-looking shows on television, with incredible production design and cinematography, and the Blu-Ray, as always, shows off every minute, splendid detail. This year’s set even looks a tad bit better, to my eyes, than Seasons 5 or 6, though that’s due less to the transfer than continued improvements in the show’s visuals. The series switched to digital photography back in Season 5, necessitating an adjustment to the show’s overall aesthetic, but they’ve gotten better over time at matching the warm, filmic quality of the show’s early years, and with Season 7, they’ve really managed to recapture the incredible depth and rich grain structure of 35mm photography (it almost looks to me like they switched back to film this year, though I have no way to confirm that). It’s not something I fully noticed watching the series on cable earlier this year, but the beauty of the image is just stunning on Blu-Ray. The colors are dazzling, incredibly deep and warm and vibrant, while textures are just impossibly detailed, and facial features look almost eerily lifelike.
With some of the series’ action continuing to take place in California, there continue to be many opportunities for outdoor and location photography, and those images look tremendous as well. Overall, this isn’t just one of the best video transfers Mad Men has ever received, but one of the best I have ever seen on a television release. Seeing these episodes in this quality is like experiencing them anew, and worth the price of admission alone.
The soundtrack may not be quite as immediately impressive, but it is no less competent. Mad Men is not an aurally busy show for the most part, but the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track does a tremendous job presenting all the subtle, nuanced aspects of the sound design, like background chatter and movement. Directionality is exquisite, even if the surround channels rarely receive a hefty workout, and music – always a highlight of Mad Men – sounds excellent whenever it appears. Dialogue, the show’s most important aural element, sounds natural and refined, and is perfectly balanced in the mix. Mad Men may not reinvent the sonic wheel, but no one would mistake this track for a ‘lossy’ offering; it sounds great in ways only Blu-Ray can deliver, and helps to make this release an essential part of the show’s home video archive.
The bonus features are split between the set’s two discs, starting on the first with “Technology: 1969,” an interactive gallery that explores exactly what its name suggests: the computer companies, products, and developments found in the year the season takes place. It’s nothing revelatory, and even given the heavy amount of attention given this year to computer technology, feels only tangentially linked to the show itself. But your mileage may vary. The “Gay Rights” featurette (23:47) is of much greater substance; if you’ve seen previous historical documentaries included on Mad Men releases, you’ll know what to expect – a well-produced, detailed discussion of the issue at hand with scholars and experts – and I personally found this one more interesting than previous features of this ilk. It doesn’t have much to do with this season of Mad Men – for better or worse, gay rights aren’t something Mad Men has dealt with much, especially since the departure of Sal Romano in Season 3 – but it adds context to the time period being explored, and is hardly a bad way to spend twenty minutes.
Finally, “The Best Things in Life Are Free” (7:51) offers a nice-enough retrospective on Bert Cooper, though it mostly amounts to a seven-minute clip show. There are some brief, mildly insightful comments from Matthew Weiner, and a decent amount of on-set production footage, but no one else pops up to give their input, even Robert Morse himself, and that’s a shame, making this featurette a lot less substantive than it could have been.
Disc Two continues with “Gay Power” (21:44), a companion piece to the “Gay Rights” feature of similar structure and quality, and “The Trial of the Chicago Eight: Part 1” (17:56) and “Part 2” (36:10) which collectively recount the drama surrounding the 1968 democratic convention, and the ensuing trial of those accused with inciting riot. Another historical feature, this one is again very-well produced, and offers plenty to learn for those interested in the subject, though I would again posture that it’s not material fans of Mad Men will inherently find necessary, given that these events don’t really play into the series at all.
Then again, it’s hard to complain about the lack of the production features when every episode across these two discs once again gets its own full-length commentary, each featuring Matthew Weiner and various other writers, directors, and crew members. The cast is not represented at all in these commentaries, but I don’t find it too disappointing, both because the quality of the commentaries we do get is so high, and because cast tracks in previous season were sometimes composited from separate recordings, which could be more awkward and distracting than informative. These are simple, straightforward, no-frills commentary tracks with people directly involved in the most intimate aspects of production, and they’re great, filled with interesting discussions, anecdotes, and insight. If you have enjoyed Mad Men commentaries in previous years, you’ll enjoy them here – it’s great to have them back.
Last year, I found myself conflicted when writing the Mad Men Blu-Ray review. The season itself was terrific, as always, but the Blu-Ray set itself epitomized the laziness of modern TV home video sets, and that made it tough to recommend. My job is a lot easier this year. Mad Men: The Final Season, Part 1 is a terrific season of television, and the Blu-Ray set is wonderful in its own right, featuring tremendous A/V quality, a well-produced (if somewhat off topic) assortment of video features, and another great suite of audio commentaries, with nice packaging and a full set of digital copies. Especially considering that sale prices are currently hovering around a mere $20, this set is a no-brainer for fans who have steadily been building their Mad Men Blu-Ray collections, or missed the episodes on their initial airings earlier this year. Buy with confidence – this time, the release has actually earned it.
After a disappointing Season 6 collection last year, Mad Men on Blu-Ray rebounds with another excellent set, featuring terrific technical merits, great extras, and seven top-notch episodes of television's all-around best show.