In the third season finale of Mad Men, Don Draper, the walking quintessence of ad-manology, has to pitch his formerly taken-for-granted creative exec Peggy on staying with him, and he tells her why he needs her:
There are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that's very valuable.
The speech is a kind of blank verse reiteration of what the series is about, a neat summation of what its auteur Matthew Weiner has understood about America and embodied in the arc of the show this past year.
"And the way that they saw themselves is gone," says Don, his eyes glistening with the pain of his own private loss, for the Don that was is no more. Season 3's end - spoilage is unavoidable here - takes a rich, ghastly gleefulness in ripping apart every relationship the series has so carefully woven together for its characters over the last three years.
But then - at the darkest of dark moments - comes the re-bonding dawn of a new enterprise. There's a weird sort of Christmas-y, It's a Wonderful Life vibe to the place where our mad crew ultimately ends up this time around. After every American dream has turned nightmare, each archetypal persona punished (the genius a fool, the wife declared whore), we realize we've been witnessing the birth pangs of a new world order.
And this time we'll all get it right, won't we?
We are ruined, and we need to remake ourselves anew. This is the story the ad men feed upon, and it's the myth that Weiner and his impeccable company have rendered so rightly in this season's canny arc.
A great ad makes us believe in that new story about who we, however wounded, can be. A great series is only as great as the boldness of its over-arching storyline, and in this, Weiner has mined a motherlode: reframing its first three years as essentially prologue to The Real Story, the whole Mad Men shebang has been reborn, or rather, revealed for the creation myth that it was apparently intended to be.
The theme's right there each week in the credit sequence, a choreographed disintegration from the get: everything falls apart, but that falling body never does hit the ground. The darkness that's swallowed us turns out to be the slick suit jacket of the same executive, renewed, reborn, set back in his chair.
In this regard what really counts is who we've gotten back on board for the next resurrection. Throughout every Mad Man fan's long, dark wait till the start of Season Four, it'll be heartening to know that the dawn brings Joan.