"Mad Men" almost could have ended last night.
We would have complained, of course: Complained that we would never again get to see striking images like Joan in her red dress, standing with the remaining partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, surveying their new view from the 38th floor. That we would never again see Don Draper sitting alone, watching images of the woman he loves. (In what seemed like a lovely call back to the season 1 "Carousel" speech.) We could have complained about never again seeing poor Pete Campbell, punched once more in the nose.
But we couldn't have complained about unresolved storylines, because "Mad Men" is perhaps the last show on television with no use for cliffhangers. It tells its stories, resolves them, or sometimes doesn't. Occasionally they just wander off, like Salvatore Romano to a phone booth in the park, never to be heard from again.
Or never to be heard from until we've all but forgotten them.
With its fifth season, which ended Sunday with yet another beautiful episode, "Mad Men" proved that it is a show with nothing to prove. Nothing much happened this season — there were a lot of small, self-contained episodes, with no histrionics. Until suddenly huge things happened, with so little fanfare we may have missed how huge they were.
Lane punched Pete. Joan told her husband to take a hike. Roger and Jane dropped acid and decided to get a divorce. Megan quit. Kinsey became a Hare Krishna. Joan prostituted herself for the good of the firm. Pete cheated on Trudy, but this time with someone he wanted to run away with. They got Jaguar. Peggy left.
And Lane killed himself. That was the sole moment this season in which the immensity of the event was immediately clear. Because come on.
But lots of things didn't happen: Don and Megan are still married, though Sunday's ending suggested that he may have less respect for her — and their marriage — after interceding to get her an acting job. Roger and Joan haven't ended up together, though nothing stands in their way. SCDP hasn't gone under, and in fact appears to be thriving.
What's left for "Mad Men" to do?
The show has at least one and probably two seasons remaining, but we aren't worried about how it will fill the episodes. "Mad Men" could have ended last season, with Don reinventing himself once again through his marriage to Megan, changing everything without ever really changing.
The final moments of Sunday's episode felt like the show could have ended last night, too: Don has an old fashioned, his favorite drink, and ponders the question, "Are you alone?" Roger is still finding himself, and quite enjoying it. Peggy continues to thrive professionally, but somehow it isn't as thrilling as she feels like it should be.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans. Fill in your own wisdom.
But: This is the late '60s. Nothing was settled. And "Mad Men" is about to enter the most unpredictable time of all.
We suspect the sense of things staying the same is completely illusory. Just because there's no cliffhanger doesn't mean there isn't a cliff, somewhere just ahead.