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What I learned from the biggest finale week of the year

We’ve just been through the biggest and most dramatic week of television finales and farewells that we’re going to see all year. So what have we learned from it all?

After all, if life isn’t about learning, what IS it about?

Strictly for myself I learned:

1. I admired the sudden pint of acid that Matthew Weiner threw over the last 45 seconds of “Mad Men” last Sunday, even though Weiner now seems to be protesting that he did nothing of the sort. That’s where we saw genius ad man Don Draper at an Esalen-type institute in 1971, chanting “om” with legs folded into lotus position and then mysteriously slipping into a faint half-smile.

Quick cut to one of the most famous commercials of all time – Coca-Cola’s hilltop gallery of beatific, well-scrubbed young folks singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony/I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” etc.

The cut was crucial. It was “Mad Men,” in miniature. Did it mean that Don, in lotus position, had an inspiration for that Coca-Cola commercial at that moment? Or was that visual connection a 1971 metaphor for one higher form of emptiness resembling another, usually thought lower and trashier?

Either way, it seemed rather brilliantly corrosive to me – a reminder that emptiness is what the show is about as much, or more, than anything else. Cool, I thought. Way cool.

But then, within minutes, came the Internet deluge. I realized in just a few minutes that there was a much bigger subject out there that I’d been missing all along about “Mad Men.”

Inside that Internet Tsunami of Debate on the “Mad Men” finale, every ambiguity and nuance of the finale and its relationship to the show’s entirety was picked apart. The show’s characters were deconstructed and reconstructed countless times in countless ways.

It hit me full force.

“Mad Men,” even more than “The Sopranos,” “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” had been American television’s Festival of Ambiguity for English Majors – and their progeny.

Here was a show aimed at all those interpretive skills high schools and colleges taught about novels and plays and stories and poems, all of which are generally though to be valueless in the commodity world of late capitalism – especially when people try to convert those skills into money to buy dog food and bathroom cleanser.

To the very degree that may be so, it’s also true that they turned “Mad Men” into a passionate ongoing festival of “reading” a TV series down to the micro-level, where every comma, cut and camera tilt came into play.

That “Mad Men” finale was linked to commentary from everything but the Alaska Moose Oil Review (Sarah Palin, no doubt, was wildly interested in the subject). Blogs blazed and discussion threads on social media threatened to reach equator length.

All that money that parents spent on higher education – and that they often rue while watching where it went – turned into this Dionysian Sweeps Weeks Carnival of Analysis, Conjecture and Interpretation by people celebrating their skills in talking a certain way about certain things.

That, I suddenly understood, is the big subject I’ve been missing all along while I, like everyone else, had been hovering around the micro-level about this nuance or that.

It’s on the macro-level that “Mad Men” was a historic development in the history of American television. It unleashed the beast. All those people taught about poems and stories and novels and plays and movies suddenly had a place they could use it all with large-numbers of like-minded sufferers and debaters.

The Internet completed “Mad Men.” And vice versa.

2. I learned how little we now know – and may ever know – about David Letterman’s retirement for all the reams of prose and conjecture. Just as the most important details of Johnny Carson’s psyche in retirement are likely to be shrouded in obscurity forever, Letterman’s statements about his motives raised more questions at every turn than they answered.

But then, that’s on the micro-level. On the macro-level, which is hard to see, it may be very simple: He’s just a 68-year-old man at an age where questions of one’s longevity are unavoidable and where 11-year-old sons are about to enter the period in life where parenting for the devoted gets very complicated indeed.

You can’t just get away anymore with loving your children to pieces when they’re teenagers. You’ve got to figure stuff out. You’ve got to explore the unknown every day with very little to guide you but your experience, your values and the experiences that others are willing to share.

As far as Letterman’s show went – and what so many of us saw as his considerable disengagement from it at the end – I suddenly understood in a flash that the last moments of pure playfulness I remember on the show were those little on-air bits with Stephanie Birkitt, one of his office assistants, where he called her “Monty” and she teasingly called him “Mr. Carny.”

It seemed like such innocent role-playing – the kind of intimate joking that a man might seek with women he works with when he’d grown up sharing inside jokes with two sisters. When it was revealed to be dangerous – and the center of a romantic relationship with Birkitt where her old boyfriend made ridiculous blackmail demands – it turned Letterman into another figure altogether.

I think, at that moment, his desire for wild, childlike playfulness and improv on the show ended. Goodbye “Is This Anything?” Goodbye “Will It Float?” Goodbye “Did You See Or Touch Any Monkeys?”

That, I think, was the beginning of the end of the show. It just took a while to happen.

3. Old people matter, as “Mad Men’s” tour of the 1960s and early ’70s taught the world.

What a terrific irony: In a business (broadcasting) where slow-witted people still cling desperately to all they’ve learned about demographics and want to reach the maximum number of young people who spend money in the most impulsive and promiscuous ways, we’re seeing show after show sometimes intended for audiences that are old enough to have lived through the periods they’re about.

The newest is “Aquarius,” beginning Thursday on NBC, the latest large-scale fantasy about Charles Manson. It begins in 1967’s “Summer of Love” in California.

I must admit it makes me nervous to see Manson – still alive and still in prison – as a character in a weekly TV series. And I must also admit that Gethin Anthony is no match for Steve Railsback’s version of Manson in TV’s version of Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Helter Skelter.”

But all the accurate fictional feel I could never quite ascribe to “Mad Men’s” view of the 1960s and early ’70s, I instantly saw with “Aquarius” when I watched some preview DVD screeners.

The people who made this series understand 1967. They got it.

Or not. By all means, if some are so inclined, let the Talmudic Internet debates begin.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com