Everyone’s madly trying to figure out how Mad Men will end. I’ve been trying to guess that since the middle of Season 2 or 3*, when I suggested on a message board that it would end exactly like Godfather II, with Don sitting on chair, absolutely alone and brooding about
fragmentary images from a life partially lived. I’m not sure if I believe that anymore; that’s where I’m headed myself, but there may still be a path forward waiting for Don. The only thing I’m sure of is that it won’t end with him falling out of a window like in the opening credits. I find it really funny that some people actually expect this to happen. (Not to say that I haven’t had my own nonsensical idea for the last episode: that it would be seen entirely through the eyes of Bobby, the Draper kid who’s basically been invisible since the first couple of seasons.)
A couple of weeks ago, Scott e-mailed me with an idea for a list that, as soon as I read it, I realized may even be more important to me: what song does Mad Men go out on? I immediately issued myself an invitation to join in, suggesting we both draw up lists and compare notes. The internet being the internet, we’ve since discovered at least one other venue that’s pondering the same question, a thread on Reddit. Which doesn’t lessen my interest in the question at all: whether movies or TV, music—what is used, how it’s used—invariably takes on a disproportionate importance to me, and that’s been especially true of Mad Men. Great end-credit songs have redeemed otherwise ordinary episodes (so much so that I can’t summon up any examples; I remember the songs but not much else), while the occasional misstep will undermine the rest of an episode for me. I didn’t like Dean Martin at the end of the recent “Time and Life.” I read a good online explication of Martin’s thematic links to Don, but seriously, it’s 1970 and Sly & the Family Stone and CCR are in the Top 10—I don’t want Dean Martin. Ideally, perfect songs—sometimes seemingly out of nowhere (the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune” as Don let Glen do the one thing he really wanted to do was brilliant)—have closed out great episodes. Obvious example: “Bleecker Street” to end “The Suitcase,” consensus choice for best episode ever. I’d happily settle for something as great as those two, or even “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” a couple of weeks ago, the highlight so far of these last few episodes (yes, more so than Peggy Lee, which struck me as somewhat obvious, and had also already been claimed by Martin Scorsese).
In compiling my list of 10 possibilities, I set a couple of conditions. 1) Assume the song will be drawn from either 1970 or 1971. The timeline sits at mid-1970 right now. The show has never skipped forward more than a few months at a time—even from one season to the next—so they’re going to finish in either late 1970 or early ’71. I haven’t done a systematic check, but more often than not, episode-ending music has been roughly in sync with the show’s timeline (i.e., a year either way), with a couple of exceptions: Matthew Weiner’s fondness for periodically returning back to sleepytime ‘50s songs—the Dean Martin problem—and that bizarre fast-forward to the Decembrists in one of the early episodes. (Not being up on the Decembrists, I had to look that one up.) While I wouldn’t be shocked if there’s a sleepytime finish to the last episode (the thematic justification is easy to formulate), I’ll be disappointed—the statute of limitations on that stuff is well past. Seeing as they’ve never repeated the Decembrists ploy, I can’t see that happening. Those exceptions noted, I’ll stick with ’70 or ’71. 2) Assume the song won’t be already identified with its use somewhere else—the Peggy Lee problem. Looking over Billboard’s Top 100s from 1970 and 1971, there are a few songs I might have considered if I didn’t already associate them with other films: the Carpenters “Close to You” with the original Heartbreak Kid, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head with Butch Cassidy, “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” and “Spill the Wine” with Boogie Nights, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” with American Hustle (a relationship maybe not yet as proprietary as the others), etc. I don’t think Weiner will want any outside interference lessening the impact. 3) Assume it’ll be a great song, or at least a very good one. (“Good” according to whom? To me.) One rule that’s been fairly inviolable in all the appropriated pop music I’ve ever loved in a movie is that the song itself has to be really good—alchemical miracles just don’t happen. I can think of maybe one song I had never previously liked at all that was completely transformed by the way it was used in a film: “Easy to Be Hard” at the beginning of Zodiac. Maybe I’m forgetting one or two others, I don’t know. But again, if the show goes out on some horrendous K-Tel novelty**, I’ll be disappointed. I don’t see that happening, either.
*(I only started watching Mad Men this past December, during my Christmas break, after finding the first couple of seasons on sale. I ended up watching the first seven-and-a-half seasons in about a three-week span.)
**(Maybe Boogie Nights and Reservoir Dogs are a category unto themselves here: they singlehandedly rescued “Sister Christian,” “Driver’s Seat,” “Little Green Bag,” and Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” from the K-Tel/Ronco junk pile—I’d never liked the last two, and didn’t know the first two but likely would have fled from them on the radio before the PT Anderson film.)
Here are my picks then, organized into groups. These are not predictions—if they ignore my conditions, which I don’t believe have been directly communicated to either Weiner or the writers, the chance of getting this right equals one divided by every song ever—but rather 10 songs that to me would make for perfect endings.
1) The Ending That Makes Us Swoon
Possibilities: Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” or the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There”
Mad Men succeeded brilliantly with the Swoon Ending once before: “Both Sides Now” as Don and his kids stood looking at his childhood home. (A great moment that was never adequately followed up on—if Don and Sally established some new and secret bond there, they were back to the chasm before long.) It has to be a song that’s built into the very fabric of our cultural memories of that time, a deeply sentimental song that everybody knows and virtually everybody loves. “Maggie May” would have no real thematic link—other than maybe Don’s penchant for May-December romances (with Don being May and Rod December)—but it’ll be pure bliss for me if that shows up at the end. “I’ll Be There” would work thematically, even if I suspect that it would most appropriately lend itself to a final two-shot of Don and Roger. Like Jerry Seinfeld discovering he’d been looking for himself the whole time, they often seem to be the one true relationship either one will ever have.
2) The Buoyant, Someone’s-Smiling-in-the-Last-Shot-Ending
Possibilities: Edison Lighthouse’s “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” or Bobby Sherman’s “Julie (Do Ya Love Me)”
Ignore what I said above—not all K-Tel novelties are horrendous by any measure, and these are two are my favourites. No Rosemarys or Julies in the series that I can remember; I’m just picking these as a matter of mood.
3) The Weird, Downbeat, Bad-Stuff-Ahead-for-Everyone Ending
Possibilities: Three Dog Night’s “Liar” or America’s “A Horse with No Name”
“Tomorrow Never Knows” is, no surprise, right near the top of my favourite Mad Men musical cues thus far—as much for what they did with the song as the song itself. The only other end-song with a comparably druggy feel that I can remember was one of my least favourite: Vanilla Sludge’s “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” My instinct tells me Weiner’s going to have generally happy endings for most of the main characters—or at least the possibility of happiness will be intimated—but if he does, after seven seasons, decide he wants to send some of them off into the abyss, Don most obviously, I’ll go with one of these two. Three Dog Night were already used in the aforementioned Zodiac and Boogie Nights, and “Joy to the World” finished The Big Chill (quite well; I’m mixed on the movie as a whole)—they were ubiquitous in 1970 and 1971, one of a few contenders for the decade’s key hit-maker before Elton John and Stevie Wonder asserted their claims. “Liar” wasn’t as a big of a hit, but I think it would be great as a final condemnation of the entire advertising industry, maybe even Don himself. It’s “A Horse with No Name” I’m really hoping for, though. Bear with me here. America was not a rock-critic favourite, and understandably so—most of the time they were perfectly insipid. But I still find “A Horse with No Name” (even allowing for the fact it’s a shameless Neil Young imitation) as strange today as I did when I was 11. It’s about a journey, a journey by someone who’s not even sure of his name—no explanation needed there. I’m listening to it right now, and I guess you could interpret it as a positive song; the singer is, after all, out of the desert and looking back. But I don’t think it would feel that way at all as a last song—just a series of disconnected images, kind of sad and gloomy, the story of a person completely out of sorts with his surroundings. Which might be Don at the end. (There was no shortage of amazing black pop from ’70 and ’71 that was bleak and druggy—War, “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” “Family Affair,” etc.—but Mad Men has been largely impervious to black pop, and has somehow, most of the time, gotten away with it. I did think the “Little Kiss” episode should have had Motown or Sam Cooke at the end rather than Dusty Springfield.)
4) The Off-the-Wall, This-Is-About-Advertising-After-All Ending
Possibilities: the New Seekers’ “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”
According to Wikipedia, the jingle came first, then the hit. (Unlike the T-Bones’ “No Matter What Shape,” where the jingle followed the hit.) Everyone noticed how McCann let the words “Co-ca Co-la” roll off his tongue the other night—as Scott pointed out to me, exactly the way Senator Geary says “Cor-le-on-e” in Godfather II. I’ve always loved this song (or jingle, or whatever). Not sure what it would look like as exit music—maybe another fantasy, like Bert’s dance number or one of those Judd Apatow musical epilogues. (It was a post by Dan Selzer on the I Love Everything message board that got me thinking about this one.)
5) The Beatles-Still-Loom-Over-Everything Ending
Possibilities: Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed”
The Beatles as phenomenon turned up in a couple of early episodes, and later, of course, you get “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Obvious connection, but in 1970, just as SC&P breaks apart, so do the Beatles (on the radio—they actually broke up a year earlier). A Beatles solo hit would be a satisfying way to bring both stories to a close, and except for Ringo’s “Photograph,” which is 1973 and too late, this is probably my favourite, and very swoon-worthy besides. (Dylan, because of those two early songs—“Don’t Think Twice” and “Song for a Woody,” still among my favourites—once looked like he might loom over everything, and Rob Sheffield made a nice connection between Dylan and Don earlier this year. I’ve elsewhere linked Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to Nixon’s resignation, and in many ways that would work here too. But it’s a song that also doesn’t appear until 1973, and it belongs to Peckinpah besides.)
6) The Matthew-Weiner-Is-Secretly-a-Rock-Critic Ending
Possibilities: the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’”
Chance of this actually being the last song: zero. But if you really do want to see Don falling through empty space at the end, this would get that across in the most contemplative, almost hymn-like way possible.
7) The Never-Mind-Don, What-About-Peggy? Ending
Possibilities: Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be”
If, as everyone says, Mad Men is as much about Peggy as Don, maybe Don’s story already essentially came to a close in last week’s “Lost Horizon,” and now the attention turns to Peggy. (I can’t see that, but I’ll finish with that possibility.) She accepts Stan into her life, or somebody else returns (Ginsberg? no…) or somebody new appears, and marriage is there, just on the other side of that last shot. But she’s not sure. As with Joan’s traumatic ordeal with McCann the other night, Peggy is conflicted about settling for less than whatever she was seeking, which—like Don—was never altogether clear to her anyway. “Okay—we’ll marry.” Open-ended, some measure of acceptance, bittersweet.
I will now go make a list of the other 170 songs that would work just as well, starting with Carole King’s “It’s Too Late,” which was actually the first song I thought of before it somehow got cast aside. Now that would be a downbeat finish.