Relatively few Americans are watching the final season of Mad Men as it airs live. Unlike with Breaking Bad, AMC’s other prestige drama that ended on a bifurcated episode order, the availability of Mad Men on streaming hasn’t brought the show any closer to the phenomenon status of Game of Thrones or the megablockbuster spoils of The Walking Dead. It seems the slow pace, narrative digressions, literary allusions and absence of obvious narrative momentum aren’t driving people to furiously binge-watch and catch up as they did, urgently, for the end of Breaking Bad.
The show has few, if any, loose plot threads to tie up, and its characters hardly appear close to the happy endings some viewers might be expecting. But with the instant-classic episode “Time & Life” (which aired on April 27; yes, I’m behind), creator Matthew Weiner proved once again that he is singular among television writers for creating drama out of circumstances that seem to have passed their expiration date.
Mad Men has never won an award for Lead or Supporting Actor or Actress at the Primetime Emmy Awards. That one of the greatest television programs in recent and not-so-recent memory might leave the air without ever receiving industry recognition for the brilliance of its sterling cast is nothing short of a pop-culture injustice.
Much of the discussion of the acting on Mad Men stops and ends with Jon Hamm, for understandable and honorable reasons. Hamm is a force to be reckoned with, conveying dozens of emotions with a single facial gesture and portraying states of embattled loneliness and embittered aggression with equal force. His Carousel and Hershey speeches (in the pilot and the sixth season finale, respectively) rank among the most memorable, poignant, layered dramatic moments in the show’s seven-season run. There’s also the not-insignificant matter of Hamm’s dazzling good looks, which enhance the irony of Don Draper’s interior turmoil hiding behind the facade of a confident heartthrob.
But Hamm is just one piece of a much larger ensemble.