Here in the “responsive commentary” racket, the only thing that rivals writing something too late is writing something too early. Last week, this site looked at the dire-sounding Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul, surveyed the less-than-promising post-BrBa/Mad Men AMC line-up, and asked the question, “Is the golden age of AMC over?” For asking said question, I was branded with both the “e-word” (elitist) and the “h-world” (hipster). Such accusations prompted, as usual, a worried removal of my artisan organic wire-rimmed glasses, a long pull off my home-brewed stout, and a few heartfelt spins of Animal Collective on vinyl. And then AMC announced that their solutions to filling the original programming holes in their schedule are a) a Walking Dead spin-off and b) splitting the final season of Mad Men into two seven-episode halves. Can I say “told you so” yet?
AMC didn’t invent the two-part final season; like much of the network’s programming strategy, it was swiped from HBO. Sex and the City did it back in ’03-’04, and The Sopranos followed suit in ’06-’07. It’s one of the most transparently capitalist moves a network can make with a departing property: let’s squeeze a little more blood from this stone while we can. But at least with those shows — and with the two-part final season of Breaking Bad — the payoff for viewers was more of the departing programs. The Sopranos’ sixth season was a total of 21 episodes, 12 in “Part I” (only one less than Seasons 1 through 5), nine in “Part II.” SATC did 20 episodes in its sixth year, ten at a time (after a fifth season of only eight shows). And Breaking Bad, which had run 13 episodes a year in its previous three seasons, plumped that out to 16 total for its fifth and final year, eight at a shot.
Mad Men, however, will have a total of 14 episodes over the split season. “The first half of the season, dubbed ‘The Beginning,’ will air in spring 2014,” the Los Angeles Times reports. “The second, ‘The End of an Era,’ will air in spring 2015.” If you’re keeping count, that’s exactly one more episode (roughly 42 minutes) longer than its first six seasons. In other words, there is no real added value to making fans wait an extra year to find out where Don, Peggy, Joan, and Roger end up; it’s just the network wringing some extra prestige from the show on its way out the door (and some extra coin, for themselves and the show’s producers).
This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to television. After all, the final books in the lucrative Harry Potter and Twilight sagas were sliced in two in order to get one more movie out of those franchises — and eager fans ponied up the cost of admission again. And then there’s the matter of Peter Jackson, so direly in need of another LOTR-sized hit that he chopped the slender Hobbit into three movies, seemingly dramatizing every sentence, comma, and period.
That’s what the Mad Men split smells like: desperation. As NPR’s Linda Holmes notes, “Stretching the remaining Mad Men episodes so they end roughly 90 weeks form now is not a move that smells like confidence.” As previously noted, the end of Mad Men takes AMC down to one critical and commercial hit — so let’s put off the end of Mad Men as long as humanly possible. There’s an argument to be made (and some are already making it) that fans of Mad Men shouldn’t be bothered by the decision; after all, this means our show will stay on longer, and it’s not like the delay means we’re not going to watch.
But this a show with its own peculiar alchemy, and a specific trajectory that this plan disrupts. In March of 2011, when creator Matthew Weiner made the deal with AMC that would take Mad Men through its seventh season, he announced that it would be the show’s last. That’s been the end game for the past two years — we’re working our way towards a seventh season conclusion. It’s not that those who care about the show want it to go away, but that’s the finish line, and part of the satisfaction of the show’s conclusion will come in finally having the long-running questions answered and overarching deceptions tied up. It’s always been a show that withheld information; this was (maybe) when we’d finally know the entire story, and its presumptively powerful destination.
And now we find out that we’ll get half of that season, and then we’ll wait another year — just as we took 2011 off while Weiner and his network wrangled over money. Meanwhile, over on Netflix, you get an entire season in a day. One feels like the future of television viewing. The other feels like a cruel, greedy tease.