TERRY GROSS, host:
Last night, two of television's most challenging and intricate series, AMC's "Mad Men" and "Rubicon," presented their season finales.
Our TV critic David Bianculli has some thoughts about those last episodes and whether he should be talking about this at all.
DAVID BIANCULLI: The last time I gave any details about a show I was reviewing and praising - the season premiere of Showtime's "Dexter" - I got some emails and postings from listeners who were upset that I was ruining the show for them by revealing plot details. It didn't seem to matter that the plot details I was discussing were from the previous season. But it matters to me.
So before I talk at all about last night's "Mad Men" and "Rubicon," let's get something straight. Here's my official position on what are called spoiler alerts: Before a show is broadcast, I'm very careful about how I describe it. I want viewers to enjoy the same surprises I did. But after it's been seen by millions of people, if you want to wait a few days to watch it on TiVo - or a few months or years to see it on DVD - that's your business, not mine.
After all, there are always people who still haven't seen that movie where the big surprise twist at the end is that the guy is a ghost. Or the girl is a guy. Or the secret word is a sled. How long do we protect them, and keep our critical mouths shut? With movies, it's fair to keep quiet during its original theatrical run. But on TV, its national premiere is its original run. So if you don't want to know even the most general details about last night's "Mad Men" and "Rubicon," duck away for a few minutes.
This season of "Mad Men" began, quite literally, with the question: Who is Don Draper? It ended, after a year of crisis at work and aimless hedonism at home, with the most surprising of twists: Don Draper was happy - so happy that he surprised not only us, but himself, by taking his secretary, Megan, as a babysitter on a Disneyland vacation with his children, then presenting her with an engagement ring. Jessica Pare plays Megan. Jon Hamm plays Don Draper.
(Soundbite of AMC's, "Mad Men")
Mr. JON HAMM (Actor): (as Don Draper) I'm wise about you, but I feel like myself when I'm with you, but the way I always wanted to feel, because I'm in love with you, Megan. And I think I have been for a while.
Ms. JESSICA PARE (Actor): (as Megan) Don. Oh, my goodness.
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) Open it.
Ms. PARE: (as Megan) It's beautiful.
Mr. HAMM: (as Don Draper) When I saw you sleeping there, I thought I couldn't imagine not seeing you there every morning. Will you marry me?
Ms. PARE: (as Megan) Oh, I don't know what to say. This is all so fast.
BIANCULLI: "Rubicon," on the other hand, surprised us by ending with a non-ending. The hour started perfectly, with Will, played by James Badge Dale, instructing his intelligence team to connect the dots - but to be careful, warning that just because all leads were pointing to the same conclusion, that didn't make it so.
(Soundbite of AMC's, "Rubicon")
Mr. JAMES BADGE DALE (Actor): (as Will) It's almost as if they wanted us to find all this.
Unidentified Actress: A slam dunk.
Mr. DALE: (as Will) Exactly. Now we've already had one failure. I don't want to just spin some theory here. I want to make a case, and I want to make it airtight.
Unidentified Actor: It is airtight. This is intelligence, not law enforcement. CIA and DIA have already made up their minds. FBI is right behind them. We're just stalling.
Mr. DALE: (as Will) No. No. No. No. No. Let the CIA and the FBI and whoever else jump to whatever conclusion they want. We are not going to do that. We are API. We are the safety. We have to get this right.
BIANCULLI: In the end, Will followed his own trail and ended up implicating the boss of his own agency and confronting him on the roof. We knew this confrontation was coming, but all we got at the end was a tease and a non-ending. The writers clearly were more concerned with setting up a season two than in concluding a season one. But that's where I cry foul. I can, and often do, defend TV series that start slowly by comparing them to novels and saying they deserve time to build. The fans who stayed with "Rubicon" all season deserved more. They deserved a conclusion.
My final conclusion is that TV on Sunday nights, even without "Rubicon" and "Mad Men," is alive and very, very well. "Boardwalk Empire" on HBO just presented its best episode yet. Showtime's "Dexter" just set up an intriguing new plot with Julia Stiles as a victim saved by Dexter, and about to turn vigilante herself.
BBC America just premiered "Luther," an impressively intense new detective series starring Idris Elba, the actor who played Stringer Bell on "The Wire." And next week, AMC premieres its newest series, "The Walking Dead," which I've seen, and I love. But for now, I won't say any more than that. Don't want to spoil anything.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," has just been published in paperback.
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