A review of the “Mad Men” series finale coming up just as soon as I translate your speech into pig Latin…
“I hope he's in a better place.” -Meredith
He's not, Meredith. He's right back where he started.
Or so it seems.
I mean, there's a way to interpret the conclusion of “Person to Person,” and “Mad Men,” in which Don Draper's voyage of self-discovery across these United States doesn't lead to him writing the most famous Coca-Cola ad of them all. In that version, one might lean on Matthew Weiner's own words about how he would never give one of his characters credit for an iconic real-life campaign(*), and one might suggest the point of the ad is to represent the world he left behind, which would try to take this genuine moment and turn it into yet another commodity. What Don has on that cliff is the real thing, baby, while the Coke ad is a slick and phony attempt to mass-produce that feeling for every soda-buying individual with a television set.
(*) Of course, the series began with Weiner appropriating a very old Lucky Strike slogan (“It's toasted,” which dates back to 1917) for a Don brainstorm, so he may have felt comfortable coming full circle. Also, his “never”s aren't always absolute; at the end of season 2, he said he couldn't see himself doing a JFK assassination episode, then did exactly that the following season.
That's not an unfair interpretation of what happened, and it may be exactly what Weiner intended, even as he filled that retreat with images and sounds designed to evoke the “I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke” spot. Maybe when he's interviewed Wednesday night at the New York Public Library by novelist A.M. Homes, he'll shoot down every “Don wrote that ad” theory faster than Members Only Guy allegedly shot Tony Soprano.
In the immediate aftermath of watching “Person to Person,” I wanted to think that the ad was simply there to underline the genuineness of Don's moment of bliss by showing us what a phony version – produced by the agency and business he traveled thousands of miles to escape – looked like.
And that was mainly because I didn't want the entire series, and in particular Don's cross-country odyssey of self-discovery – during which he gradually shed himself of all the trappings of the life he built by stealing the real Don Draper's identity – to build to him learning nothing besides how to write a better tagline.
Even if that ultimately feels true to both him and the series.
We forge attachments with the characters of our favorite shows. We spend years watching their stories, and we want that time to feel well-spent. Sometimes, that means accepting them for who and what they are – embracing the monstrosity of a Tony Soprano or a Walter White, or accepting the deeply flawed natures of everyone and everything on “The Wire” – and appreciating how artfully their stories are told. Sometimes, though, we want to believe the best of them: that despite abundant evidence to the contrary, they can transcend their weaknesses and destructive patterns and become worthy of the time we put into them not just as a complex and interesting character on a TV show, but as someone worthy of this theoretical, entirely one-sided relationship we've built with them.
The Don Draper we spent 92 hours watching was frequently a terrible human being. He stole a dead man's identity, drove his own brother to suicide, repeatedly cheated on both his wives, abandoned all responsibility to work and/or family whenever the mood struck him, and walked all over Peggy like she was a wine-stained scrap of carpet. But the Don we watched also had his moments of trying to be better, and occasionally achieving that goal for a moment or two before backsliding into his bad habits. The Don who showed Peggy the new Samsonite idea at the end of “The Suitcase,” or the one who told Sally the truth about his upbringing, or even the one who wished his Birdie luck at school a few weeks ago – that is the Don Draper, or the Dick Whitman, or the blend of the two, whom we wanted him to be. And his final hobo odyssey – particularly that wry grin on his face as he sat on the bus bench at the end of last week's episode, completely free of the burden of being Don Draper, master of the universe – seemed to be pointing him in that direction.
If Don really traversed this great land of ours, threw away all the sigils of Don Draper-hood, learned of Betty's impending death and the shaky future of their three children, and finally heard someone articulate his own deepest feelings of unlovability, and he came out the other side having only acquired the inspiration needed to buy his way back into McCann(**) and write that Coke ad – and cutting straight from the look of pure bliss on Don's face to the ad, without giving us hints of anything else he might do upon returning to New York, suggests that this is the only thing that ultimately matters to him – then that is a very cynical and dark take on a man I wanted better from.
(**) During Peggy and Stan's phone call (about which I will have more to say in a bit), he tells her that Don will come back and be just fine like he always has in the past, and she later observes that Stan is always right.
But it also seems like an honest take on who that man actually was, and what “Mad Men” has been about.
This is a show whose opening credits – depicting an ad man who has his whole world stripped away, sending him plunging to the ground, only to end up back where he started, lounging confidently, a cigarette dangling from his hand – promised this exact journey, and whose stories time and again dealt with the tremendous difficulty of personal change. Don, Joan, Roger, Peggy and Pete weren't Baby Boomers, who would get to find themselves as Camelot gave way to Woodstock; they were adults at the start of this tumultuous decade, and though all grew and changed in different ways, the change often came at deep personal cost, and not all of it stuck. Time and again, we saw Don vow to stop cheating, to stop treating Peggy like garbage, to be more involved in his children's lives, and we saw him stick to those vows… for a little while. And then he went back to doing what was easy.
This latest journey seemed like it was going to be different. He spoke of advertising in the past tense (in the finale, he tells Anna's niece Stephanie that he's retired), got absolved of his role in Donald Draper's death and gave a would-be Dick Whitman a chance to avoid committing the same kind of original sin, and seemed to be heading towards something new. There was hope there for a new, better version of Don – one that would last past the first stumble, or the first bit of temptation.
Instead, we didn't get a new Don. We got a new Coke ad(***). He didn't become a better human; just a better ad man. Which was the only thing he was consistently good at to begin with.
(***) But not a New Coke ad. That's for the reunion movie, where Peggy is now creative director at McCann, as Pete predicted, and trying like hell to talk the client out of changing the recipe.
So, no, ending on the Coke jingle didn't fill me with uplift and contentment, particularly after a finale that took both Don and the show so far out of their comfort zones in bringing him to that New Age retreat along the California coast, in a way that seemed to promise something deeper than he ultimately proved capable of becoming. But perhaps that was the point: that even a journey of thousands of miles – involving heartache and personal injury and devastating news from the homefront – and even a visit to a place this peaceful and open and lacking in guile or commerce wouldn't be enough to fundamentally alter who Don is at his core and what matters to him.
And if that's the ending Weiner was shooting for, then that's ultimately true to the nature of the show and the man, even as it's disappointing to have him turn out that way, and even as parts of “Person to Person” dragged mightily in getting us to the two different groups of people on a cliff.
Now, what was happening back in New York was wonderful, even when it wasn't for the characters involved. Weiner and company had so thoroughly given every major character a great final moment (Peggy strutting down the halls of McCann with Cooper's octopus painting under her arm, Betty going back to school despite the cancer diagnosis, Roger toasting the gutted SC&P office) that there was no one I needed to see one more time if the finale had decided to focus solely on Don's journey. But many of those previous scenes felt ambiguous – Was Peggy going to come in and take over McCann, or get ground up in its gears? Was Richard really enough for Joan? – where the New York scenes of “Person to Person” gave us a clearer picture of what would happen to them in the future, even if we never got past the fall of 1970. (Note the Halloween decor of Peggy's office.)
So Peggy and Joan both decide that work is the most important thing of all – albeit not together, since Peggy stays at McCann, while Joan has to use both of her last names to make her production company sound impressive – but somehow Peggy is the one after all these years who finds a man who will happily go along on that ride with her, while Richard bolts the moment he realizes Joan isn't ready to retire with him. Peggy and Stan's phone call was about as sappy and wish-fullfillment-y as “Mad Men” has ever gotten, yet if there was one character I wanted nothing but good things for at the end, it was Peggy. And it's not like the show hadn't laid out every last piece of track for that relationship over the years, going all the way back to when she stripped naked in front of him on their first big assignment together. Much as my heart sang at the thought of Peggy and Joan finally working together as friends and equals – particularly at Joan's insistence that she could find another writer, but that Peggy was the only person she would consider as a partner – Peggy loves advertising more than anything, and Stan understands her more than anyone other than Don, and certainly treats her much better than Don usually has, so this seems a fair way to end things.
Though only a few months have passed over these last three episodes, Joan and Peggy's lunch, and so many of the New York scenes, had the feel of a class reunion involving people who hadn't seen each other in ages, and knew they would likely not be seeing each other again for far longer. Pete's farewell to Peggy was a marvel, acknowledging parts of their very long and complicated history without ever getting anywhere near the most important piece, with Pete demonstrating his own huge personal growth (he and Peggy are the two characters who have changed the most since the pilot) in the compliment he pays Peggy – and in his complete lack of vanity or envy in acknowledging that no one has ever said such a thing about him – and Peggy replying by quoting Pete's all-purpose exclamation, “A thing like that.” They don't hug, they don't allude to the baby, or the affair, or anything that most ties them together. At the end, they are simply colleagues who have earned each other's complete respect and admiration, and that's remarkable on both ends, given who they were when they first met.
If there was one “character” I very much wanted to see in the finale – even as I knew that I could accept the dance from “The Strategy,” or the shared look in the Burger Chef meeting from “Waterloo,” as its farewell – it was Don and Peggy's friendship. We didn't get it in person, but we did get one last meaningful phone call, which very much evoked their interaction late in “The Suitcase.” Back then, she told him it wasn't true that Anna Draper was the only person who truly knew him; here, she says the same about the idea that he made nothing of the man's name he took. As always, Peggy doesn't have all the facts, and it's somewhat amazing that she made it to the end of the series without ever getting the full download on Dick Whitman. But she knows the man, and she still, like us, sees the good in him even though she's been witness to (and victim of) so much of the bad, and the ache in the performances of both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss in that scene was as powerful as any scene the two ever got to play in physical proximity to one another.
That they have a conversation so fraught unfortunately hangs over the next call she has with Stan – it's hard to invest entirely in that 'ship coming in when she's afraid Don is about to kill himself – and to an extent it colors the payoff with the Coke ad. Peggy sees more in Don than Don sees in himself, and if all he gets out of the journey is inspiration for another ad, then perhaps that faith was misplaced.
Or, given how much of her soul she has poured into this business in her quest to emulate him, perhaps her smile will be just as broad when he tells her the idea.
Weiner often objected to critical attempts to link his show with “Breaking Bad,” even with their shared network and roughly overlapping lifespans. And stylistically, “Mad Men” certainly has much more in common – including an ending that left much of its audience asking what in the world they had just watched – with Weiner's previous job writing for Tony Soprano and friends. But another thing the two AMC dramas share is the way they both took a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure approach to their final seasons, so that there are multiple points at which each show theoretically could have ended, even if there's in fact only one actual ending for each. And just as some “Breaking Bad” fans might prefer “Ozymandias” as a closing note over “Felina,” I imagine there will be some “Mad Men” fans who would rather the last we saw of Don was on that bus bench in Oklahoma, looking at peace with a world of possibility in front of him, rather than a reunion with Stephanie and a week of getting in touch with his feelings. And the two or three episodes before this felt tighter and more potent in both the New York scenes and whenever we caught up with Don on the road.
But I wouldn't have wanted a “Mad Men” that didn't give me Don and Peggy's phone call, or Pete giving Peggy the cactus, or Joan laughing at Roger's new circumstances and calling Dr. Greg a terrible person. If that means I also have to go with Don's journey finally taking him to Coca-Cola, rather than being there for the kids or Betty, or finding a life completely unrelated to advertising, then so be it. Don couldn't entirely change his nature, and neither could “Mad Men.” And the show was often better for it, even if its main character was not.
Some other thoughts:
* A few people have asked me if perhaps the idea is that Peggy, not Don, wrote the Coke ad. I don't think that's it. There may be some ambiguity over whether Don wrote it, but you don't cut straight from Don's face to the ad if you mean to suggest that any other character on the show was responsible.
* Don driving the hot rod through Utah's salt flats recalls his interest in fast cars from his visit to Anna Draper back in “The Mountain King.”
* Nearly all of the main season 7 cast returned for the finale, save for Henry (not even to argue about custody with Betty) and Teddy (whose last scene, as expected, was watching Don walk out of the McCann meeting). Meredith also gets a farewell scene, along with some more praise from Roger, after getting to succeed Shirley as his new second secretary. (And in hindsight, I realize that Shirley got a proper goodbye, but Dawn – a far more important character in the grand scheme of things – did not.)
* More great phone call acting from Hamm and January Jones in Don and Betty's final conversation. Betty needs to be that firm in demanding he not come home for Don to not seem completely horrible for not immediately doing so, but both actors did a superb job conveying the complicated feelings the two ex-spouses have for each other at this moment in time.
* And what a lovely and sad scene between Sally and Bobby (with poor Gene again on the outside looking in) as they do their best to carry on and act like grown-ups while their mother is dying and their stepfather is already apparently mourning off-camera.
* Again, Joan's desire to team with Peggy was a nice bone to throw to all the viewers who rooted for those two to get along for more than a few minutes at a time. But McCann is where Peggy belongs, as evidenced by the earlier scene where she steamrolls Lorraine's attempt to do the same to her about the Chevalier account. She has clearly taken Roger's advice to heart and has figured out how to survive and thrive even without Don's protection.
* Richard and Joan snorting cocaine at the tail end of their Key West getaway offered us one last glimpse of a decade of decadence that “Mad Men” unfortunately won't be around to give us.
* Not sure which piece of guest casting for the retreat folk I found more amusing: Brett Gelman essentially reprising his role from “Go On” as one of the group members, or casting Helen Slater as one of the leaders, which meant that when she was talking to Stephanie, we got Supergirl giving advice to the Canary.
* As you might expect, we featured a lot of “Mad Men” coverage over the past few weeks. Here's one post which features links to all of it (including where you can find my reviews of seasons 1-3), from the relatively serious like Fienberg and I picking our 20 favorite episodes and my memories of all these late nights reviewing the show, to something sillier like my definitive annotated list of “Mad Men” rankings.
* Also, for those who have asked, there will be an updated version of “The Revolution Was Televised,” to be published sometime this fall, which will involve the end of this show and of “Breaking Bad,” as well as some other changes to the story of TV drama in the three years since I first published it.
I hope to have the rest and mental clarity to write one last “Mad Men” review later this week looking back over the life of the series, but this is my last episodic dissection of it. I won't miss the lack of sleep, but I will very much miss the other challenges of covering this one.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org