History repeats itself, first as a bad Disney inspirational underdog sports movie and then as the series finale for one of the greatest TV dramas ever made.
In 2014's “Million Dollar Arm,” Jon Hamm plays a soulless sports agent who has lost his way and become a dead-eyed automaton, joylessly banging interchangeable bimbettes, but losing the true joy he once had. Only through importing two Indian baseball players and adopting a few key pieces of their approach to life is Hamm's character able to get his groove back, rediscover enlightenment. Thanks, Disney!
In Sunday (May 17) night's “Mad Men” finale, Donald Draper also had lost himself. But through appropriating a different kind of Indian culture, he's able to find enlightenment or cynically rediscover his mojo. No, the transcendental meditation that helps Don Draper realign after a nightmarish few weeks wandering in the desert, isn't really Indian culture, but if we're being completely honest the plot of “Million Dollar Arm” isn't actually all that inspirational either. A sports agent stages a reality show to find two Indian youngsters who are ultimately incapable of being major league pitchers, but they get to have a little fun and the agent gets to get his groove back, so everybody kinda wins.
I understand that this is probably a glib or cynical way of looking at the finale for a TV show that I've loved more than anything since “The Wire” went off the air and possibly, as I give it more thought, more than anything other than “The Wire” in the medium's history. But the primary reading that most people are getting from the “Mad Men” finale is one of cynicism, which isn't at all out of keeping with the show. [I also know that Esalen was kinda a pupu platter platter of philosophical approaches, but I wanted to make the “Million Dollar Arm” reference, so I Indianized it. Apologies.]
Just as the finale of “The Sopranos” left people with a binary reading of dead/alive for Tony Soprano, the finale for “Mad Men” seems to leave you with a binary reading of Coke/Not-a-Coke for Don Draper, which actually would be more appropriate if it was being insinuated that he might have written the “I'm a Pepper, he's a Pepper,. She's a Pepper, we're a Pepper, Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper, too? Be a Pepper. Drink Dr Pepper.” ad, which would have been spectacularly brilliant, because “Donald Draper” is an anagram of “Drink Dr. Pepper.” [It's not. But it's close enough that you spent 1.2 seconds going “Wait, there's no 'a,'” before you realized I was messing with you.]
If the resolution of the finale isn't that Don achieved exactly enough enlightenment to conceive of the “I'd Like To Buy The World a Coke” ad campaign, then you prefer to take the reading that Donald Draper found personal meaning through the yogi going on about “Lives we've led, the lives we've yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.” And why wouldn't he? “A new you” would be the most enticing idea imaginable for Don Draper/Dick Whitman. So the ding of the bell and the soothing “ommmm” and the smile on Don Draper's face? Why not take that as a happy ending for Don's soul? Maybe then you can think that Peggy writes the Coke jingle. Or that the real guy in the real world who actually existed and wasn't a character on “Mad Men” and actually wrote the Coke jingle writes the Coke jingle. But Don is happy and that's all that matters if you think that Don Draper's happiness is relevant.
Or you can take the ding of the bell as the manifestation of the light going off in Don's mind and why shouldn't it be a light going off related to Coca-Cola? The lure of Coke has always been real for Don and it's a lure he achieved in an bizarro way last week when he was given the Coke account at the Oklahoma motel he was staying at, or at least called to account for the broken Coke machine. But in this situation, we had Don at the end of his rope calling Peggy assuring him he could still come back to McCann to work on Coke, followed by Don having a moment of understanding with Leonard, the random guy at group therapy. But what is Leonard's confession about? It's about being the thing in the fridge that people don't choose, the thing that people don't think about. That's Leonard. But who is Leonard? He's not Coke, I'll tell you that. Coke is the thing in the fridge that gets chosen when the door opens. Leonard's dream ends with, “Then the door closes again. The light goes off.” And that's when the light goes on in Don's head.
It seems to me that “Happy Don” as a resolution to “Mad Men” probably isn't exactly a conclusion to what the show was ever about and that “Successful Don” probably is. Last week on the podcast, Alan and I talked about Don's drunken confession at the American Legion and the forgiveness he gets from the other veterans who all understand that for a soldier, it's all about coming home. At the time, I asked what felt like a pretty big question to me: If you're Donald Draper, what is “home”? And that was the big question of this episode. He tries to volunteer to come home to New York to be a father to Eugene and Bobby, but Sally and Betty both call him on the ludicrousness of that pursuit. That's not home for Donald Draper. He tries to go visit Caity Lotz's Stephanie, presumably thinking that by doing right by her and her son, he'll be finding home for “Donald Draper” and that will be enough. But Stephanie isn't living with her child anymore and she's got no real interest in his financial support. So that's not home either.
But Peggy knows.
“I know you get sick of things and you run… but you can come home,” she tells him in one of the key Person to Person phone calls that gave the episode its title.
So either you think that Don has found a home with the wacky hippies and that's why he's smiling, or you figure that the most recent offer of home that Don got was the correct one.
Leonard laments his invisibility and says, “It's like no one cares that I'm gone. They should love me. Maybe they do. But I don't even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you're not getting it, people aren't giving it to you. then you realize they're trying, but you don't even realize what 'it' is.”
Well, Don is missed. People care that he's gone. And maybe now he has a brilliant idea, even if we're not saying with absolutely certainty what his brilliant idea was, since it was actually somebody else's brilliant idea in real life and it's not cool for Matt Weiner to directly attribute that brilliant idea to a fictional character.
But we know.
Or we think we know.
So either it's a happy ending that feels hollow or a happy ending that feels cynical. Either he's sold happiness to himself, or he's about to sell happiness to the world. I guess I know which one seems right.
Anyway, I've already tread too much into Sepinwall's territory here and he's working on his own full recap right now.
So I just wanna nod to some things I loved about Sunday's finale, things that no doubt will be covered in this week's sure-to-be-lengthy all-“Mad Men” finale podcast.
A few of my favorite things:
*** Don Draper was never going to be DB Cooper and Megan was never going to be Sharon Tate and I know there's no such thing as a “wrong” way to watch a TV show, but… The people who insisted that they'd “solved” “Mad Men” were watching it wrong. Yes, there were clues leading us to the Coke ad at the very end and many people wondered if the ad would play a role in the conclusion.
*** For the last time: January Jones is good. You give her good things to do, she does well with them. All the hate that people have conflated for both January Jones and for Betty? Feh. Betty is a complicated character who does lots of things wrong and lots of things right. She's been smart and resourceful and loving at times and she's been stupid and stubborn and obstinate at times. Those seem like human traits and as lovely as the happy last scene between Don and Betty was, the tear-filled finale phone conversation was lovely on its own.
*** And the final phone conversation between Don and Peggy was great. Don was a mentor for Peggy and he often helped her, but he also got in her way and made things difficult for her. But remember in “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” when Don vows that if Peggy goes off on her own, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.” Peggy's not in position to hire Don back, but she's still in position to try to lure him back in a different way, to lure him back from the edge.
*** I did not expect the “Mad Men” finale to feature that much of Brett Gelman.
*** The phone conversation between Peggy and Stan as Stan confessed his love and Peggy talked herself into realizing that she loved Stan as well was glorious. I've never been a Peggy/Stan shipper, but I know that there were many. And Peggy never had a man in her life who was worthy of her. Is Stan? Dunno. But in this moment, he sure seemed to be. He's gotta be better than Abe.
*** Speaking of women who have never had a man worth of them? Chalk up Richard as another person not worthy of Joan. I appreciated that he admitted his mistake in freaking out about her son, but he became worse this week, even if he introduced Joan to the coke that isn't The Real Thing. Bye, Richard. I think there's something right about Joan starting her own production company, but also something right about Peggy aspiring to break the glass ceilings on Madison Avenue. They should each be able to take their own desired path and as much as “Harris/Olson” was a good dream, I love Joan giving the company both of her names instead. And that was a great scene between the two of them, especially flashing back to how they interacted in the pilot.
*** I like Joan owning her own destiny and even if she ended up without love for the moment, there was one last great scene with Joan and Roger, plus a great Greg diss. And I guess that Roger has found happiness with Megan's mom and it's funny that the member of the Calvet family who becomes a permanent part of this sphere is Marie and not Megan.
*** And a super scene with Pete and Peggy, as he told her she'd be creative director by 1980. I hope she is. And I hope she keeps the cactus.
*** Fiona Gubelman!
*** People were worried about Diana in the season-opening episodes, but she ultimately mattered exactly enough. She was a false catalyst for Don and nothing more. She was false hope that viewers never bought for a second. And we were right. But why was Don supposed to be right? Don has reached out to many women as false hope over the years and just because Diana always seemed falser than most doesn't mean that she was an unrealistic goal for Don to reach for and then continue beyond. I think we got exactly the right amount of Donna.
*** And we got multiple lines of dialogue from Gene! And Bobby proved capable of recognizing that his mother was dying all on his own and he was coping with it as best he could. And while Bobby once took food out of his mother's mouth in exchange for gumdrops, he was trying to cook in her absence. It wasn't working. But he was trying.
Anyway, I'll have much more to say about this in the All “Mad Men” podcast and Alan will have much more to say in his recap, but I couldn't let the finale for a show I respected so much go by without writing a bit… And feel free to email any podcast questions about the finale and whatnot to FirewallIceberg@HitFix.com.
What'd y'all think?