After seven seasons of critically-acclaimed existential despair, Mad Men will come to an end on Sunday, and even the most devoted fans really have no idea what to expect from the finale.
That’s not because the show is known for wild, Shyamalan-esque twists (though there were certainly some surprises over the years), but rather because, like The Sopranos (the show on which Matthew Weiner cut his teeth), Mad Men is unpredictable in the sometimes maddening and often meandering way that real life is.
Back in 2007, it seemed that fans who expected Tony Soprano to go out in a blaze of glory hadn’t really been paying attention over the years, and the same can now be said for the viewers who want Don Draper to tumble from a skyscraper or find lasting peace on a California commune.
We’re not claiming to know what will ultimately become of the man once known as Dick Whitman, but we can tell you his fate almost certainly won’t be a perfect match with any of the most popular predictions.
Weiner and his writers are known for their subtle foreshadowing (We figured there was going to be a suicide in season five, but most fans guessed Pete Campbell would be the one to check out early.), but even so, trying to guess exactly what will happen to Don in the series finale is sure to be about as fruitful an exercise as predicting where you yourself will be in five, ten or twenty years.
And therein lies much of the appeal of a series that often feels more like great literature (and dare we say, real life?) than a television show.
In something of a surprise move, the penultimate episode gave us more in the way of definitive endings and hints about the future than we’ve come to expect from Mad Men.
There were some illuminating callbacks and allusions in a season that’s already been filled with them, and the Internet is currently abuzz with theories and conjecture.
Even so, Don's future remains almost as characteristically murky as it's ever been.
The show has never really trafficked in bombshells, so it makes sense that in a way, the two big surprises in Mad Men Season 7 Episode 13 have been telegraphed for years.
Cigarettes and war were the specters looming over this show from day one. In fact, Don’s opening bit of dialogue in the very first episode was about smokes and military service.
So it makes sense that the unwelcome surprises that greeted Don and Betty last week were directly related to the deadly boogey-men that so often made headlines in the 1960s (and '70s).
Betty's diagnosis and Don's beat-down were both classic Matt Weiner plot developments - the kind of surprises that you realize you should have seen coming only after they blindside you.
But what now? We’ve likely seen the end of both Betty and Pete (His happy ending may have been more of a shock than her tragic illness.), and while we could spend days discussing whether or not those characters deserved more or less from the writers, the really important question at this point is, What about Don?
The last we saw of Mr. Draper/Whitman, the once-imposing ad man was at an Oklahoma bus stop, a rumpled Sears bag his only luggage.
Many fan theories went out the window (no pun intended) following the death of Betty, as while Don wasn’t always the most attentive parent, he'll likely man up when it comes time to care for Bobby and Gene.
Some feel that his newfound single-parenthood will prevent Don from reaching his West Coast Shangri-La. (A recent episode was titled “Lost Horizon,” which is also the name of the novel that gave us that term for an Edenic paradise.) Others think he’ll shirk his duties and keep right on drifting.
One interesting theory has the Draper boys relocating to Europe, and as absurd as it might sound, the move would actually make a fair amount of sense, if only because it would enable Don to resume living his life as Dick Whitman.
It's tempting to try to cobble together the clues and toss out the red herrings in search of a clear indication of what's to come, in much the same way that we'd love to see our own futures with crystal ball-clarity.
However, in both cases, it's highly unlikely that the major events will be wrapped up in a neat little package that perfectly makes sense of everything it encapsulates.
All we know at this point is that Don is heading West, just like unmoored Americans have for centuries.
Like the pioneers of yore, his future is uncertain and he's guilty of more than his fair share of atrocities, but despite the destruction the ad man of mystery has left in his wake, many of us still hope he'll find some modicum of contentment wherever he lands.
And we hope for our own sake that the future of television will offer characters just as frustrating, baffling, and strangely identifiable as the farm-boy-turned-corporatized-creative-genius-turned-beatific-drifter that we met first in a smoke-filled Manhattan bar back in 1960.
If you still need to get caught up in time to avoid those Monday morning spoilers, you can always watch Mad Men online at TV Fanatic.