Matthew Weiner explains the ‘Mad Men’ ending — or not

“I have always been able to live with ambiguities. I don’t really understand a lot of things that regular people understand, that’s part of it. So holding those things in my head, (someone might ask), ‘Well, which is it?’ Why does it have to be one or the other?”

This was Matthew Weiner early in his conversation tonight at the New York Public Library with novelist AM Homes, which he had promised would be the only public comments he makes for a very long time about the end of “Mad Men.”

Those who came to the event (or watched the live-stream) expecting Weiner to run through a point-by-point explanation of the series finale – and particularly of his intentions for the final sequence, which implied that Don Draper had dreamed up the legendary “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad – likely came away disappointed. Homes seemed only casually interested at times in discussing the finale, or even the series itself, instead leading Weiner down tangential paths about Richard Nixon (albeit in the context of his parallels with Don) or the short stories of John Cheever. The Coke ad wasn’t even mentioned at all until more than an hour into the event, when Weiner noted that it was one of the elements of the finale (along with Betty’s impending death from cancer) that he settled on shortly after the contentious contract renegotiation with Lionsgate between seasons 4 and 5.

But he did eventually explain some of his intentions about using the ad, and about Don’s larger breakthrough at the Esalen Institute. More importantly, though, he talked about ambiguity, which is at the heart of so much of “Mad Men,” and particularly of that final transition from Don at peace on the cliff to the classic Coke ad.

We’ll get back to what Weiner said in a bit (which wasn’t as much as we might have hoped, but was still illuminating), but first I want to talk about the three days since the “Mad Men” finale aired. In those three days, I’ve had many long conversations, in person and online, about the meaning of that final scene. At first, the question was simply, did Don write the ad? After a while, the intent there – particularly in the way the Esalen receptionist is costumed exactly like one of the women in the ad – seemed fairly clear. Which led to the bigger question: so what does that mean for Don?

On the night the finale aired, my reaction was one of disappointment. Not disappointment for “Mad Men” itself, since I thought the finale, and the final season as a whole, did a lovely job of wrapping up so many of the stories of these people and this world. But more disappointment for Don, because the very purposeful nature of that cut – straight from Don’s blissful, grinning face to the ad, with nothing in between, even, say, a brief glimpse of Don back at work with Peggy, finally looking at peace with this job and life – seemed to be saying to me, Hey, Don Draper went through all this turmoil, strife and mortification, lost or gave away every relationship and material possession he had, traveled across the country, had an emotional breakdown, and then breakthrough, at this New Age retreat, and he comes out on the other side with… a better ad campaign. It didn’t seem dishonest to the character of Don Draper, whom we had frequently seen recover from breakdowns, promising to be better, only to revert to his old ways, and whom we had frequently seen look at genuine life moments and co-opt them into something he could use to sell floor wax. But if we had come all this way, in physical and temporal and emotional space, just to get right back where we started from, well… to borrow the Peggy Lee song that opened this final half-season, is that all there is?

Some of you agreed that this was the scene’s intention, and laughed at the idea that “Mad Men” would allow Don to grow. The grin wasn’t one of understanding, but of contempt: Don figuring out how to make a buck off these hippies. Some of you argued that the whole point of the final season was to show all of these characters growing – and it’s inarguable that the versions of Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger and Betty that we saw in the finale had evolved tremendously from who they were way back in “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” – and that Don obviously had to join in on that.

And you argued that Don being able to write a better ad campaign wasn’t incompatible with Don being a better and more well-adjusted human being – that, in fact, only a man truly at peace with himself could have written that ad in the first place. Jon Hamm had some interesting things to say about this to Dave Itzkoff at The New York Times, looking at the notion that Don makes peace with being an ad man – not in a cynical way, but where his breakthrough “represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.”

And what I found as we all talked is that sometimes I swung that way and felt, Yes! Don is finally a whole man, and only a whole man can create that ad!, while at others, I thought, If Weiner wanted us to see Don as a whole man, he would have shown us Don back in his own world, no longer the aggressive imposter, but the contented lifer(*).

(*) One of the more interesting observations Weiner made tonight was something that only occurred to him at the end of the show: “Don likes strangers. Don likes winning strangers over. He likes seducing strangers. And that is what advertising is: ‘We’re gonna walk down the side of the road, and now we know each other.’ And once you get to know him, he doesn’t like you.” (He noted that this was one of the reasons he chose Megan over Dr. Faye, who had come to know him much too well by that point.) And if that’s who he’s always been, then perhaps it is helpful to give some evidence – even a wordless scene scored to a part of the Coke jingle – of him being with one of the people who knows him, whether that’s Peggy or Sally or the dying Betty (the three women in his life, Teddy Chaough-style), and no longer carrying himself like a cornered animal.

But this was a pleasurable argument, in a way that a lot of the debate over, say, the fate of Tony Soprano has not been. Both endings are ambiguous, yet this one seems openly so. It invites interpretation, functioning almost as a Rorschach test for the audience. There are definitive, concrete, inarguable conclusions for nearly every other character on the show (even Harry gets to shove a cookie in his face before he disappears from our lives), but Don’s ending is whatever you make of it. If you want him to be a cynical hustler forever, he can be. If you want him to be a man at peace with himself and his career, that works, too. Hell, if you want him to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Coke ad, you can always rest on Weiner’s earlier comments about not wanting to give his characters credit for real-life campaigns like “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Ambiguity is not a thing to recoil at, or dismiss. Some stories, or characters, demand clear and specific endings. Some don’t. I can see the end of “Mad Men” one way, and you another, and we can argue about the visual grammar of the scene, and about past instances of Don having breakdowns and making promises to reform, and about our own feelings about advertising, and therapy and every other damn subject on the show. And that’s okay. To borrow a line Don told to the executives at Lucky Strike in the pilot(**), you are okay.

(**) Weiner noted tonight that the phrase deliberately repeated throughout the series, and that if Don used it in a pitch meeting, “then he said it a lot.”

That said, Weiner told Homes tonight that “I do not like ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. I do not like people who will not commit to a story, who will not commit to a meaning. It’s just that I think a lot of meaning – and stain-glassed windows will attest to this – is non-verbal. As soon as you start parsing things into words, you’re in a hole. It doesn’t mean anything.”

And he certainly implied his intentions with the scene, even if he never confirmed them outright.

On Don’s tearful embrace of Leonard after Leonard talks about his dream of being an unloved, unselected item in the fridge, Weiner said, “I hoped that the audience would feel either that he was embracing a part of himself, or maybe them. And that they were heard. I don’t want to put it into words more than that. It really wasn’t intellectual.”

And he defended the artistic and emotional merit of the Coke ad in a way that suggested we should feel very proud of Don Draper if, in fact, he was the man responsible for that ad in the fictional “Mad Men” universe.

I did hear rumblings about people saying the ad being corny, and it’s a little bit disturbing to me,” he said. Alluding to an earlier discussion with Homes about the cynicism of the audience, he said, “I’m not saying that advertising’s not corny. But the people who find that ad corny are probably experiencing life that way and are missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an ad together. The idea (was) that some enlightened state, and not just co-option, might have created something that is very pure. And yeah, there’s soda in there with the good feeling. But that ad, to me, it’s the best ad ever made. And it comes from a very good place.”

He instantly admitted that part of that place “is a desire to sell Coca-Cola, but you shouldn’t write everything off. The ambiguous relationship we have with advertising is part of why I did the show. My main character in the pilot is selling cigarettes, and we cheer when he figures a new way to sell it. I said, ‘He isn’t Tony Soprano. He doesn’t kill people. But he kills people.

“I felt like that ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don’t think as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is,” he added.

This is Weiner saying, without just saying it, that Don wrote the ad, and that Don’s ability to do so speaks to his emotional breakthrough with Leonard being more real and permanent than, say, the one he had when night turned to day at the end of “The Suitcase.”

When Homes noted that ending the show with a real ad from the period in its entirety felt like a nod to the basic idea of TV shows going to commercial, Weiner said, “I did think, ‘Why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made?’ But what it means to people and everything, I am not for ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, but it was nice to have your cake and eat it, too, in terms of ‘What is advertising?,’ ‘Who is Don?’ and ‘What is that thing?'”

With any story, or any work of art, there is the intent of the artist, and there is what the audience takes from it. Sometimes, the two are moving in perfect harmony, and at others they are ships passing in the night. If David Chase were to come out tomorrow and say, unequivocally, that Members Only Guy does not shoot Tony, there would be many “Sopranos” fans who would insist they didn’t care, and that this is what they took from the show. And they wouldn’t be wrong to do so, any more than those who think Tony survives the night are.

Weiner tonight came as close as he likely will to telling us what he wanted us to take from the juxtaposition of Don on one cliff and the singers in the Coke ad on another. Yet those who don’t agree with him can find themselves taking just as much enjoyment out of the finale, and out of “Mad Men” as a whole, as those who are in lockstep with Weiner’s intentions.

It’s not the kind of conclusion that would work for every show, but it sure worked for this one.

Some other notable comments from the evening:

* Weiner said that Joan was the character who surprised him the most over the run of the series, and not just because she wasn’t even designed to be a main character until he met Christina Hendricks. His plan was for her to go through with the abortion, but writer Maria Jacquemetton convinced him to let her continue the pregnancy, because she wouldn’t want to miss her chance to have a baby, even though the marriage to Greg was doomed. “She said, ‘I think Joan is going to be the one. I think Joan is going to be the single mom.'” Of Joan’s pivot into feminism at the end of the series, he said, “I love the fact that it’s not philosophical for her. I’m not demeaning feminism. This woman made a practical decision not to take any shit any more.”

* Asked when he realized that Betty was going to die, he joked, “Well, they’re all going to die.” But he said he felt that early on, given that she begins the series mourning the recent death of her mother, and that he liked the tragedy of her finally “realizing her purpose in life right when she ran out of time.”

* Weiner said that Stan and Peggy getting together as a couple “had to be proved to me,” implying that it was not an idea he came up with, or was in favor of when it was first proposed. He also noted that having Stan and Peggy declare their love on the phone – and, for that matter, having all of Don’s finale interactions with significant characters be on the phone – goes against many unwritten rules of drama, which translate as “Get ’em in the same room!” But he felt “like a lot of the most important things in my life have happened to me over the phone.” (Earlier, he admitted that the show’s leisurely pacing and focus on the technology of the era meant “we wasted an hour of people’s lives over the life of the show watching people dial a phone,” but he felt that added tension to so many of those calls.)

* Weiner also quoted one of Peggy’s first bursts of inspiration in explaining why Don walks out of the McCann conference room: “He doesn’t want to be one of a hundred colors in a box.”

* He described the intent of the Don story from “The Milk and Honey Route” as “I want to see Don on his own. I want to see Don out there. I want to see an episode of ‘The Fugitive,’ where Don comes to town, he can be anyone, or anything.”

* Many coincidences of location throughout the series. While the rest of the series was filmed in LA, the “Mad Men” pilot was shot in New York while Weiner was on a “Sopranos” hiatus, and the floor they wound up shooting on, he says, “was actually the creative floor of McCann-Erickson in 1970. So when Don walked out of that office, it was where we shot the pilot.” And when they filmed Pete and Trudy’s departure for Wichita at the airport in Van Nuys, an airport official told Weiner that this was where the airport scenes from “Lost Horizon” were filmed.

So what does everybody think about what Weiner had to say? And where are we sitting with the “Mad Men” finale as of tonight?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at