There's something more than a little voyeuristic about watching the last episode of a beloved television series with the people who made it, so it was with a mix of bittersweet excitement and clumsy curiosity that fans and friends of Mad Men gathered at Sunday night's finale screening.
A long evening that capped off one of the more notable farewell tours in recent TV memory, the AMC drama signed off at downtown Los Angeles' Ace Hotel with cast members past and present crowding the packed theater with creator Matthew Weiner, the series' writers and producers and other familiar faces all in attendance. But before the episode aired, timed almost perfectly to the East Coast telecast, the horde sat through a live reading of freshman season finale "The Wheel" orchestrated by Jason Reitman.
"We should lock the doors," said Reitman, at the top of the night. "Matthew Weiner doesn't get to leave until we get a few more seasons. I don't really give a f— about his personal life or what else he wants to write. This is what I want."
Reitman briefly beckoned Weiner to stand, when he received the first of several standing ovations for the night, and then welcomed nine actors on stage to fill the series' familiar roles. Most, including Rob Huebel, Ashley Greene and Colin Hanks, opted to give their own takes on the parts of Ken Cosgrove, Joan Holloway and Don Draper (respectively) — but it was Fred Savage who immediately won the audience over with a spot-on impersonation of Vincent Kartheiser's Pete Campbell. (Kevin Pollak also brought laughs with his oddly harsh take on Bert Cooper.)
Nice as it may have been, it was just the opening act. People were there for the hotly anticipated episode. The dapper proletariat who paid for tickets in the upper balconies, after waiting in a line that wrapped around the block, sported period garb, slick suits and updos that would have made Betty Francis proud. Weiner recognized the unique scenario when he briefly took the stage before the screening, the last he'll likely speak on the record before a May 20 conversation about the finale at the New York Public Library.
"I will call this a relationship, even by Don's standards," he said of his nearly decade-long rapport with Mad Men's audience. Weiner brought nearly the entire cast out on stage, including "fearless leader" Jon Hamm. Christina Hendricks and January Jones, both of whom were present at a TV Academy panel for the series earlier in the afternoon, were the only significant absences.
There's not a whole lot left to say at this point. Mad Men kicked off its final seven episodes just two months ago with an even bigger party. And the show's long goodbye has seen Weiner and his troops cover a lot of ground. The showrunner did take the opportunity to pay one final, public homage to his cast and crew and then left the crowd with this friendly message: "I will be in the audience. Leave me alone afterwards if you don't like it."
The screening itself brought more laughter than was likely heard in any living room that night. Series' producers and the bulk of the writers' room made silent cameos throughout the supersized episode, drawing hoots, hollers and hysterics from the company and their pockets of comrades throughout the theater. The closing credits brought another standing ovation, as the cast bolted for the after-party upstairs.
And if anyone didn't like the episode, few let on. Weiner stood near the entrance to the intimate gathering, playing both consummate host and father of the bride, to shake hands with whoever would pause for a moment. There were pats on the back and small reunions across the room. AMC president Charlie Collier got a congratulatory handshake from Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos, young Kiernan Shipka and Marten Weiner (Sally Draper and Glen Bishop) caught up while the adults sipped cocktails and visibly proud Jon Hamm made the rounds
Mad Men plugged these final seven episodes as "the end of an era." That seems to be true in more ways than one. The series' delivery has been so meticulously and secretively curated for so many years, and now it's finally all out in the open. And as guests slowly made their way out of the party, the significance of that seemed to sink in and bittersweet excitement gave way to relief.