This Sunday's Mad Men finale—which I have not seen yet, since those sadistic bastards at AMC are sensibly keeping it from slavering critics like me—will cap a season of buzz and backlash. I’m no fan of the “jump the shark” concept; I hate the way it closes hearts, turning fans into paranoiacs. But that doesn’t mean I’m not vulnerable myself, especially in the third season, when viewers tend to find fault with even the greatest series. Unlike books or movies, loving a TV show means years of commitment—a marriage, not an affair. And this year in particular has been an anxious one, post– Sopranos and The Wire, mid–Jay Leno: a 1963 of the televisual soul.
So if you’re bored by Betty (as I am), it’s easier to lose patience; it’s harder, too, to care when Don betrays her with another brunette. Mad Men’s third season began with flashbacks to Don’s birth, bravely—or foolishly—showcasing the series’ greatest flaw, that JT LeRoy–esque origin story. I know creator Matt Weiner means for Don Draper to be deeply artificial, at once symbolic and real, and Jon Hamm’s brilliant performance has pulled off that difficult concept beautifully, bringing out glints of violence and tenderness in Don’s most mysterious acts. But three seasons in, when Don’s ghost-dad cracks hillbilly jokes, it’s harder to suspend disbelief. (Stolen identity, okay. But prostitute mom, death in childbirth, alcoholic dad, evil Christian stepmom, stillbirth, half-brother suicide, and a friendship with the stolen-identity guy’s widow? C’mon.)
Like the best pay-cable shows, Mad Men is a showcase for its sparkling ensemble, which means that some of the best scenes happen during meetings and at parties. But by now, we all have our favorites (more Sal, more Joan, more Peggy!), and for this viewer, the isolated Betty Draper made for a maddening third-season emphasis, less mysterious than simply blank. Huge things happened to her: Betty lost her dad, gave birth, confronted Don, even fielded a marriage proposal. But whether it was Weiner’s instructions or something stuck within Jones’s performance, Betty stayed dead at the roots, a petulant Hitchcock Barbie even at her most exposed.
So why is it that, for all these frustrations, I feel more deeply committed to Mad Men than I did the day I first saw it? Maybe it’s because the actual experience of watching the show—not analyzing it, but watching it—is still amazingly narcotic. Unlike talkier, faster-paced series, Mad Men has always been overtly fetishistic, bejeweled: as much a dream as a story. (Weiner reminds me of David Lynch, not just David Chase.) And although I’m interested in Weiner’s bleak, almost Hobbesian take on a pre-feminist universe, as the season ends, I’ve started to think it’s a mistake to dig for some grand thesis of the sixties. When it works, Mad Men is a gleefully anti-psychological series, resistant to the viewer-as-analyst. Its best moments involve relationships that knit up invisibly, like Pete’s marriage, which transformed between seasons two and three without explanation, and yet every scene that followed between them felt rich and nuanced, a glimpse into an intimacy we didn’t have to understand for it to feel real. Or those wonderful, ambiguous scenes between Grandpa and Sally Draper, which hovered between love and fear, keeping the viewer just outside the circle of understanding.
If Weiner’s pacing sometimes seems choppy, that’s also a gambit that pays off more often than not; sharp repartee is followed by a muddy nightmare of missed social cues, and then a visual tour de force like Roger’s blackface serenade contrasted with the stoned “creatives” and Joan’s sad party. The third season had many sequences that were nearly hallucinatory: that hotel clerk’s shoes one step too close to Sal’s, the gory John Deere mower, Joan on accordion, Peggy shriek-singing into her hairbrush, Pete at the nanny’s door. When Weiner fails, his dialogue goes static, as with Betty’s oddly null marriage proposal. But if sometimes I wish there were more joy in Weiner’s universe, I’m happy to stay underwater for now. Who would expect that one of the liveliest characters this season would be sozzled Roger Sterling, with his pathetic trophy wife? A world in which Sterling stands for joy is a cynical one indeed, but also original enough that I am dying for season four.