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How will 'Mad Men' end? Critic lays out possibilities, predictions

John Slattery as Roger Sterling in "Mad Men"

John Slattery as Roger Sterling in "Mad Men" Season 7B, Episode 11. Credit: AMC / Justina Mintz

This Sunday (10-11:15 p.m., AMC), a great TV series ends. But how? "Mad Men" speculation is everywhere and unavoidable. Does Don live or die? What of Peggy? Roger? Joan? So many stories to wrap, so little time left to wrap them up.

So today, some ideas about what to expect. But first, I offer this general observation as your guide going into Sunday's "Person to Person."

"Perfect" finales are unattainable because perfection is unattainable. However, dramatic, beautiful, resourceful finales have absolutely been made, with the common denominator in each instance being a showrunner who refused the temptation to do everything. Instead, the showrunner remained true to the spirit -- and philosophy -- of his or her series.

That's it.

With that in mind, here are some possible ways showrunner Matthew Weiner can wrap, with past classic finales as guides:



What the ending was: The 1988 finale revealed that the entire series had taken place in the mind of an autistic boy, who stared into a snow globe. Creator Tom Fontana brilliantly stood the whole "let's wrap this up big" commercial TV impulse on its ear, with an inversion of that impulse.

How "Mad Men" could do this: Weiner could play this trick too -- and it's long been speculated that he will -- by making Don Draper into "D.B. Cooper," a real-life mystery man who extorted $200,000 then jumped from a plane in 1971. Unfortunately, this would turn the last seven seasons of "Men" into a joke. That's not what Weiner has intended.



What the ending was: Fade to black! The June 10, 2007, ending -that-wasn't left one major question unresolved forever. Did Tony live or die?

How "Mad Men" could do this: Let's be clear -- "Mad Men" won't do this, but there are other ways irresolution could be applied. Simply end the story without ending the story. Turn off the camera. This thought may have occurred to Weiner, who wrote the penultimate episode of "The Sopranos" ("The Blue Comet"). The genius of David Chase's final shot -- not so obvious back then -- is that we continue to debate the meaning.



What the ending was: All the Baltimore leaders responsible for the disaster in the streets get big promotions, and even drug lord Marlo Stanfield (Jamie Hector) moves up and out in 2008's final episode, "-30-."

How "Mad Men" could do this: McCann Erickson swallows even more agencies, destroys more careers, and M-E boss Jim Hobart (H. Richard Greene) expunges all vestiges of Sterling Cooper. Penniless, Don is last seen dead drunk -- or maybe just dead -- on some dark street in a dusty Midwestern town. Does Weiner really want to end on such a bitter "gods-must-be-howling-with-laughter" note? Let's hope not.



What the ending was: The East Dillon Football program is shut down, leaving some lives in limbo.

How "Mad Men" could do this: Jason Katims' 2011 life-goes-on wrap recapitulated "FNL's" enduring themes of family and small-town values. My hunch is that Weiner's instincts tend to this type of conclusion -- not those themes, of course, but the sense that (yes) life goes on, and indeed, the lives of TV show characters do as well. Also, the universe may be indifferent -- Don's famous words from the first season -- but the universe is also mysterious and boundless. Expect a sense of that as well.



What the ending was: Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) gets promoted to run the 15th Precinct, in 2005's "Moving Day."

How "Mad Men" could do this: Jim Hobart falls out the window (oh, that was him!); Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) is appointed McCann-Erickson chief. While I love the justice of this wrap -- especially the closing shot of Peggy hanging her Octopus painting in Hobart's now empty office -- it's simply too neat. Or is the word I'm looking for, "ridiculous?"

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