Jon Hamm portrays Don Draper in the AMC series, "Mad Men." (Credit: AP Photo/AMC)
(USA TODAY) -- Remember when people were worried that Zou Bisou Bisou would be this year's most memorable Mad Men moment?
That was back at the start of the season, when, as usual, the show seemed to be more about setting a mood than telling a story. Before Lane killed himself, that is, and Joan prostituted herself, and Peggy found herself another job. Back when there seemed there might be some small, outside chance - unlikely, but not impossible - that Don Draper could be happy.
If viewers took anything away from Sunday's season finale of AMC's prize-winning drama, it's that conventional happiness is probably not going to be Don's lot. How could it be, when he leaves his wife, Megan, as she shoots the commercial he won for her and walks into a bar, where the episode ends before he can answer the crucial, final question: "Are you alone?"
In other shows, that might seem tragic. On Mad Men, the tragedy is tempered by the show's sometimes subtle but persistent implication that if Don's unhappy, it's because he deserves to be. As The Sopranos did with Tony, Mad Men often goes out of its way to remind us that this man who can seem so charming and is unquestionably attractive, is not a nice person, or even a real one. He's a self-invention, a man who knows how to sell people what they want, but is too cut off from himself to give them what they need.
Certainly Don had more than his share of personal problems for the finale. Confronted by Lane's bitter widow, called to task by his dismissive mother-in-law, conflicted over the status of his marriage (as witness the subplot about the abscess he resists having removed), Don's only sweet encounter with a woman comes when he unexpectedly runs into Peggy in a movie theater. And even that meeting ended on a sad note - though not for viewers, who were no doubt relieved to see Elisabeth Moss back, at least for the season ender.
Once again this season, Don's personal problems were mirrored by Pete's - another man seeking to reinvent himself with a new wife, though unfortunately not his own. The story did overreach a bit: Having Pete's adultery end with Beth having him electro-shocked out of her memory seemed more '50s movie melodrama than '60s reality, and having Pete get beat up again, and not once, but twice, seemed like overkill. Yet there's no doubt that Pete and Vincent Kartheiser, the fine actor who plays him, have come into their own this season, as Pete's growing success and assertiveness at work have only underscored his personal failures and his lack of social skills.
So where do we leave them? The firm is doing well - so well, that it's about to move into bigger quarters - and yet there was a persistent foreboding note, sometimes ironically played. (The use, for example, of You Only Live Twice as a closing theme.) As for where the characters leave us, most likely emotions are mixed: Sad to see them go, a bit worried that their show is starting to feel a bit self-consciously weird and claustrophobic, and yet eager to have them back.
It may not have been the best season of Mad Men, and the show may not be able to hold its place on top of the Emmy ranks - not with Breaking Bad and Homeland pushing up against it. But "best" for Mad Men is an incredibly high standard to reach, considering the bar the show has set for itself and every other drama on TV.
Let's settle for "great," and leave the season at that.
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY