Two things I”m a major sucker for: a good commercial and a good series finale. I should have had faith that “Mad Men” of all shows would deliver both of these things at the end, but somehow I didn”t actually see either coming.
I”ve always had a lot of respect for this show, but for whatever reason I kind of expected them to drop the ball. Why? Well, because it is so easy to drop the ball. You see it happen all the time. TV is a circus in that way; writers, actors, directors, and a couple hundred other figures work around the clock to maneuver a storyline from one end of the tightrope to the other with a million opportunities to fall. Some moments during the finale it seemed a fall was possible, even eminent (Don sitting on the floor like a moody teenager preparing to throw himself off a Northern Californian cliff), but then, lo and behold, the most impressive final moments of a TV series occurred, and it was thrilling as a teetering acrobat taking a triumphant bow.
Why did this finale satisfy me to my very core? I”ll return to that shortly (Suspense!). But first:
What you may or may not know is that Sunday night was not just the Mad Men finale but also the Mad Men live reading directed by the highly talented Jason Reitman. Put on by AMC and Film Independent, this event will go down in history as an iconic moment in television and one of the coolest nights of my life.
After watching Jon Hamm stroll in off the red carpet looking more handsome than ever in quintessential Don Draper Gray, we took our seats in the Ace Hotel theatre to watch Jason Reitman direct a cast as they read through the final episode of the first season entitled “Carousel”. These phenomenal actors were: Fred Savage, Colin Hanks, Kaitlyn Dever, Ashley Green, Rob Huebel, Brian Klugman, Mickey Sumner, David Wain, Kevin Pollak. Every single one of them brought a sparkling though subtle emotional presence to the stage, which echoed the signature Mad Men tone perfectly. All gave a lovely performance, though there was one actor who stood out among the group, and that was none other than Fred Savage. His portrayal of Peter Campbell was so spot-on that if you closed your eyes you would no-doubt mistake him for Vincent Kartheiser. The audience roared with delighted laughter at each of his lines, each and every one of us blown away by his uncanny rendition.
As Jason Reitman read stage directions, photographs from the “Mad Men” set loomed over the crowd creating that rich dose of nostalgia that, as Don Draper informs us in “Carousel” is actually a Greek word that means “the pain from an old wound”. And yes, this reading was painful in that way; remembering the first season and how far each character has come, knowing it”s all about to be over, felt like scratching a wound that”s been wanting to heal, that dull ache that comes from trying to dig up a buried past.
“It”s not a spaceship, it”s a time machine,” Don tells Kodak as he pitches them his campaign ideas for their new slide projector, a product designed specifically for digging up a buried past. Harry Krane bursts into tears at the perfection of Don”s delivery and then I burst into tears at the thought of Don sitting alone in the dark flipping through slides of Betty long after she”s gone, flooded with nostalgia.
And just like a slide projector, that brings us full circle to the second and final part of last night”s event: the series finale played up on the silver screen. Matthew Weiner, creator of “Mad Men”/Television God, introduced the episode with a request that nobody approach him afterwards with negative comments. Very funny, Matthew Weiner, you know you nailed this finale one hundred percent.
For years we”ve been speculating about how Mad Men will end and, in particular how it will end for Don. Will he die? Will he find true love? Will he quit advertising? Well, guess what? He”s Don Mother-effing Draper so the answer to all of those questions is NO. Agatha Christie once said that a great book should end in two ways: 1. How you never would have expected AND 2. The only way it could possibly go. This is a near impossible feat to pull off, but the makers of “Mad Men” did it in a way that had me sobbing into my Macallan. I never would have expected Don Draper to sit on the cliffs of Big Sur and mouth the most anti-Don word of all time: Om. Never would have expected it, and yet it absolutely had to happen. Don”s journey swung so far into the darkness that a spiritual respite was required in order for him to find some semblance of peace and learn to have compassion for others. In the finale Don discovers human compassion during a seminar in which he embraces a man named Leonard and cries deeply with him. He doesn”t relate to what Leonard is saying, but he has compassion for his sadness. He has compassion for others and he has compassion, finally, for himself.
So much so that he becomes responsible for creating a commercial famous for celebrating universal compassion. Thousands of people from around the world singing “I”d like to buy the world a coke” in diverse, open-minded harmony, using compassion as a selling point. A manipulation tactic. Ah, so he hasn”t changed THAT much. He”s still Don Draper, you won”t see him moving off the grid to spend the rest of his days praying to the Sun Gods and telling people how they make him feel when they say x y or z. What you will see, I believe, if you encounter Don Draper somewhere down the line in the 1970s, is a man who is on the way to recovery, a man who is learning about health
If you weren”t able to be at the live reading Sunday night, here”s the important take away information and some crucial insight into the finale:
1. Fred Savage is an incredible and underrated actor.
2. The closer you get to Jon Hamm's face, the more beautiful it is.
3. Nostalgia is Greek for “the pain from an old wound”.
4. Don Draper”s journey ends in both a way we wouldn”t have expected and yet the only way it possibly, realistically could have: he finds goodness in his heart and then uses it to sell Coca Cola.
5. Also: Betty is dying of lung cancer but it is hard to feel sad for her and here is why: her fingernails have never looked better. Go Betty!
Okay, I am going to get back to crying my eyes out over a show that didn”t fully win me over until the final ten to twenty seconds. I am now a firm believer that this not only one of the best TV shows of our time, but also a true work of art. I would say I”d like to buy the world the full “Mad Men” collection, but luckily for my bank account y”all can stream it on Netflix.