After a season as eventful as any in the show's storied history, Mad Men concludes its fifth season tonight when The Phantom airs at 10 P.M. While some may wonder how Matthew Weiner and his talented band of writers can raise the bar and dangle viewers off the proverbial cliff, my own prediction is that after the carnage of recent weeks, we are likely to see a muted ending not unlike the Season 1 finale, which, while offering the most iconic of scenes (Don's Kodak Carousel pitch) and closure to Peggy's pregnancy, ended on an ambiguous note, with Don returning to an empty house, having sacrificed a Thanksgiving trip to visit Betty's family for work. There are two reasons I think we are unlikely to see a real "game changer" along the lines of the partners getting "fired" from Sterling Cooper at the end of Season 3 or Don proposing to Megan at the end of Season 4.
First, there is only so much change the system can take. What Weiner has done in the past two weeks is akin to when an anaconda consumes its prey. A snake has to open its jaws REALLY wide to consume an animal whole, and what viewers have been asked to do is swallow the equivalent of a wildebeest in the last two weeks - Lane killed himself and Peggy quit. To introduce additional disruption into the show in the finale would almost feel like piling on. There was little mention of Peggy's absence in last week's episode and of course, we have no way of knowing how the firm will be affected by Lane's death. Having dropped these enormous bombshells, the "system" needs time to process them, for the characters to be given a chance to be faithful to the experience of these two major shocks to the agency.
Further, there are no other major shoes to drop unless they come out of nowhere (a la someone falling down an empty elevator shaft). Don and Megan are relatively happy in their marriage, Betty's shedding her fat suit, Roger is in the process of divorcing Jane and while Pete may not be "husband of the year" (or "human being of the year"), his brooding aside, as others have pointed out, he'll quickly calculate that Lane's demise will accrue to his benefit. Joan has been served her divorce papers and is (one would assume) about to take on a lot more responsibility within SCDP.
Second, because Mad Men never picks up where it left off, there is no incentive to create a "Who Shot J.R." type cliffhanger. At the end of Season 2, Betty and Don had reached an uneasy detente with the news of her pregnancy and her acceptance of his apology for not being "respectful" toward her (an apology made easier after Betty had sex with a stranger in a bar). When Season 3 opened, she was almost 8 months along, life in Ossining was back to normal and away we went. Similarly, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was created out of whole cloth in a weekend at the end of Season 3, but when Season 4 started, it was no longer a room in the Pierre, but rather, a functioning office in the Time-Warner building.
This is something I like about Mad Men, that you can fill in some of the backstory yourself, or realize that whatever was "missed" is not necessarily germane to what is happening now. In this way, Peggy's departure is almost beside the point. She may have, in fact, ridden off into the sunset (or CGC) and we will never hear from her again, or she may pop back up in Episode 1 of Season 6 as SCDP's Creative Director in Training because the Talented Mr. Ginsberg jumped at a chance with a bigger firm or Don realized he needed to be a true mentor to a woman who he had entrusted with his rotten soul in The Suitcase. We simply do not know because Season 6 may start a few months or a year after the conclusion of Season 5, which allows for the show to pick up in places that it could not if it just unfolded in "real time."
If I were to guess at some possible, smaller storyline development, obviously, the potential to land Dow Chemical would be at the top of the list followed by a Megan pregnancy. The teaser for the episode mentions that Pete meets an intriguing stranger on the train, and perhaps that is opportunity knocking for bigger and better things or maybe it's just the fair Beth Dawes, prepared to dump her philandering husband for a different venal man in a suit. What is for certain is that regardless of how tonight turns out, this has been an intense, highly layered season where Roger took LSD, got blown by Megan's mother (with Sally catching an eyeful), dumped Jane and appeared to get his mojo back, Pete Campbell whored out Joan, slept with a prostitute and a housewife, and got emasculated by Lane and Don, and so much else. It's hard to believe we have already reached the end of another amazing season. While I will have much more to say about the season finale and, in a few weeks, a much deeper dive into Season 5, I hope you enjoy tonight's episode as much as I will.