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Maclean’s Mad Men panel: Don, in perfect harmony

A recap of the series finale of Mad Men, and analysis of what to make of that ending, and the show


 

mad men After seven seasons, it’s all over: Mad Men, that sartorially splendid, slow-burning show from AMC, has come to an end with Sunday’s series finale. Every week, Adrian Lee, Colin Horgan, Sonya Bell and Jaime Weinman have been recapping and analyzing each of the show’s final episodes, and, in true Mad Men fan form, obsessing over one detail or scene and (over-)analyzing its many prisms, as the episode’s Mad Moment. Spoilers, obviously, follow. Read all the previous recaps here. You can read our Canada-exclusive interview with show creator Matthew Weiner here. 

THE ROUNDTABLE

ADRIAN LEE: Matthew Weiner spent much of the last few weeks telling Mad Men fans to lower expectations for the series finale, because he was going to make the show on his own terms. It’s what he told the New York Times“I don’t really feel like I owe anybody anything.” It’s what he told me, too, in our long Q&A three weeks ago:I mean, I’m here to entertain [the show’s fans], I do want it to be twists and turns, but it’s not on my mind at all.” 

So my immediate take-away from this much anticipated episode, the dramatic “end of an era,” as AMC has been proudly crowing, is this: Matthew Weiner cared about what fans thought much more than he let on.

We’re going to get to the ending—and Don’s storyline—in the Mad Moment, but the non-Don portions of the series finale surprised me. My expectation was that a series that has always been about the journey, and not the destination, would treat this episode like almost any other, because that’s how life goes—things continue, moments happen, you collect them, you grow, you live. Besides, this was made by the guy who cut his teeth on The Sopranos, a show whose ending was so vague that David Chase is still answering questions about it to this day. So the fact that most of Mad Men‘s characters got a neatly wrapped ending was surprising to me, and a bit out-of-place. First, there’s Joan, who gets out of her toxic relationship with Richard and, as promised, “burns this place to the ground,” starting her own production firm, Holloway-Harris. We even get a glimpse at the possible dream-team combination of Joan and Peggy, as she offers a partnership; Peggy winds up declining, but the frisson of excitement for Harris-Olson is an unmistakable love-letter nod to fans. Weiner even gives us the Roger-Joan scene we wanted, with Roger leaving half his wealth to his and Joan’s son. As for Roger, he moves up to Canada with Megan’s mother (read about Matt Weiner’s “special connection” to Canada) and finds happiness at last. Pete gets on a plane with Trudy and their daughter, and it’s all contented smiles. Betty gets closure with Don; Sally and Bobby become adults, and show they’re going to be just fine when Betty passes away. And of course, there’s that most cheerworthy moment, where Stan tells Peggy he loves her, and she realizes she loves him, too. They run to each other; they kiss; the crowd goes wild. It was the equivalent of Breaking Bad‘s scene where Jesse kills Todd in an ultimate act of justice. It gave the people what they wanted.

Emotionally satisfying? Yes. Somewhat cheap and confusing, given the context the series has established for itself? Also yes. It was a greatest-hits of feel good in a show that spent a lot of time meandering in the way that true life does. So for it to tie up these loose ends, perhaps a bit too loosely, feels strange. In a way, that emotional cover hides the fact that Peggy’s storyline is wrapped up a bit disappointingly, if you strip away the pleasure of that eminently written (and aww-worthy) scene: the last detail we see of a brassy, cool woman who spent so long fighting for her own voice in a male-dominated culture is of her relationship with a man—not necessarily of achieving her dreams.

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COLIN HORGAN: As Don, sporting some sideburns, slowly smiled as he meditated by the edge of a cliff in northern California overlooking the Pacific Ocean at sunrise, I remarked: “No, they’re not going to end it like this. With Don meditating.” And then I laughed at how weird that might be. “They still have four minutes,” I said aloud. And then instead, it ended with a Coke commercial.

I am swayed by Lindsey Weber’s assertion at the New York Times Magazine this week that “the better the TV show, the harder it is to end it.” She suggests that finales fall into two categories – the ambiguous, where we don’t really know what happened, or the flash-forward ending, where we do, even if it’s quite a bit later on. I’d like to suggest there is (now?) a third option: whatever it was that Mad Men just delivered.

And what was that, anyway? For a show that had, by and large, for years resisted or at least avoided obvious TV clichés, the final goodbye to the central characters seemed an odd time to dip into that bag, only to pull out the worst one of all: the montage. For years, we were taught to accept that the important stuff on Mad Men was either left unsaid or unseen. There was ambiguity. There’s rarely anything ambiguous about a musical montage. It’s why America’s Funniest Home Videos uses them.

But truthfully: I’m happy that everyone seems happy. I’m happy Roger went to Paris and ordered champagne. I’m happy Pete seems happy (for now). I’m happy Joan ditched loser Richard and got a production business going. I’m happy Peggy and Stan got together (though I also hated his weird man-literally-overseeing-your-work-life routine at the end, but I’ll again lay blame with the montage – I guess). I’m happy Meredith will land on her feet. I’m even happy Harry got cookies to tide him over until lunch.

Is that enough to make a good ending? It’s unclear. Ah, there it is again: ambiguity.

SONYA BELL:  I’m going to choose to remember Peggy’s final scene as the one from two episodes back, when she walks into McCann-Erickson armed with sunglasses and a lewd painting. That’s where I wish we had left her. Before she turns down Joan’s offer to go into business together. Before she and Stan get all confessional. I never, ever thought Matt Weiner would—as Adrian suggested—give into fans’ wishes and pair the two of them off. They had a great friendship and the hint of something more was always there; but I think spelling it out cheapened the whole thing. “Stop tying everything up!” I screamed (with a pen, in my notebook).

There was far too much tying up this episode—I’m surprised the montage didn’t include an update on Megan’s acting career. But I can understand Weiner’s desire to see these characters through to something. And I have to admit, as a fan, I’ll sleep better at night knowing that Joan started her own production company, Trudy (and oh yes Pete) got a happy ending, and Roger and Marie are growing old(er) together.

(AMC)

(AMC)

THE MAD MOMENT

Every week in this segment, our Mad Men experts find one particularly fascinating moment to analyze deeply, reading into it for its clues and its contexts. This week’s Mad Moment is, obviously, that ending: Don at hippie haven Big Sur, weeping into the shoulder of a man who spoke of feeling invisible, and then doing sun salutations with a curling smile on his mouth, followed by the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola ad: “I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke.”

ADRIAN: Sneaky sneaky: The series’ very first episode told the whole story. It foretold Betty’s death: Don scraps with a psychologist over the morality of selling cigarettes, the very thing that would result in Betty’s premature death to lung cancer, arguing that “People were buying cigarettes before Freud was born.” Freud was the last thing we see Betty reading in their last physical scene together. Fair enough: The Sopranos did much of the same.

But the tell was this line from that first episode, The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: “What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” A show that superficially told the story of advertising ended up being entirely about the poetry of it: the idea that advertising is smoke and mirrors and feeling-manufacturing.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” Don says in that first episode. “And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” There are leaps and logical pirouettes in that sentence but Don Draper’s magic is his ability to stitch it all together. And that’s how we get to the ending, where the strong insinuation is that Don takes his cross-country road trip and, inspired by it, churns out as history’s most successful ad, a jaunty song that managed the spectacular trick of conflating human unity with sugar water.

He manages to distill his unique story of pain, suffering, tragedy and identity crisis, his experience of being utterly paralyzed and broken, into another saleable feeling. The Hershey meltdown, in a way, was just a practice run for this—he just wasn’t ready then. He needed to break down to be built back up, which in his case, is to be excellent at his job. Don’s blooming grin at the end, as he was in the middle of meditating? That probably wasn’t because he found inner peace; it’s because he figured out how to put soda on his list of what happiness is. And it’s spooky, in its own way—not just because a real-life relic from the ’70s found its way, crackling, onto our screens. It would seem that Don has learned no lesson—he’s not truly happy at work. So one can only wonder the size of the next breakdown he has.

Mad Men, more than anything else, was the story of advertising; it was the thing that Matt Weiner said was most important to him, and the thing he committed to first when creating the show. That should’ve been our biggest clue, not any literary allusion or wisp of referent. And that’s why this ending is perfect: It fits. For a show built on feelings, and about the act of manufacturing feelings, it felt so very right.

JAIME WEINMAN: In a way, I think the ending was spoiled a bit by the people who predicted it a week in advance, Todd VanDerWerff and Eileen Sutton. They were dead right about how Weiner was going to use one of the most famous ads of the 1970s to cap the entire series, but I actually found myself liking Todd’s version of the ending more than the one we got. Or maybe it’s just that it was the one I was used to. 

Still, I think it’s unquestionably a fitting climax to the show. For one thing, it caps Weiner’s obsession with finding real, seemingly trivial bits of pop culture or advertising history and integrating them into the series. He likes to demonstrate how trivia can tell us more about the way people lived than the big moments that make the history books. And it also helped create an interactive feel for the show, as critics and fans (most of whom were one and the same, you could say) competed to see who could be the first to identify the real-world references on the episode they’d just scene. Here we have the biggest bit of 1971 trivia, epic trivia, if you will. It’s just a commercial, just something that was expected to be seen and forgotten, yet it seems to tell us everything about people’s aspirations coming out of the “turbulent” ’60s, and about Don’s aspirations in particular. 

And that’s one of the questions the show has always played around with: is trivia meaningful? Is advertising hucksterism meaningful? It’s never been content to say, as some would like it to, that advertising is just a con and Don is nothing but a con man. (This concept of advertising was already a TV cliché by 1961.) The ending certainly doesn’t contradict the people who want to think this, but the sheer corny power and effectiveness of that commercial make it hard to dismiss out of hand. Yes, it’s selling a false image for the purpose of selling sugary drinks, but it kind of makes you want to believe in that false image. And doesn’t that make it art, and Don an artist? 

The parallels with Matt Weiner himself – working in a business that mostly exists to sell us products we don’t need and cable channels we don’t want – are hard to miss. You could be depressed that all that work and talent and money went into making something so superficial, or you could be happy at seeing all that work and talent and money make something so effective. Mad Men is a television show, and it ends with a great piece of television that gave people an artificial high, much like Coke (either kind) gives us an artificial high. Maybe it’s not as good as real peace or real family or real togetherness, but at least it’s something. And so the question the show posed all those years ago—is advertising justified, and, by extension, is TV justified?—has an unspoken answer: yes. Because it makes people smile.

COLIN: Of all the things that struck as odd in this final episode, perhaps the strangest was that Matt Weiner decided to substitute a replacement to deliver the kicker. Leonard, a bland, self-declared uncomplicated corporate drone from America, sits in the confession circle at the yoga/Psychotechnic/self-improvement commune and admits that he’s “never been interesting to anybody.” Nobody at his office cares he’s there, and when he goes home, he says, his wife and kids don’t even look up when he sits down. “They should love me,” he says, before speculating that, “you spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, and then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.”

Then he tells them about his dream: “I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling and they’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you. And maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”

The dream sounded heartfelt and dark. It sounded like a story about Don – or perhaps anyone feeling adrift, trying to find themselves. It conjured up a feeling of instability and anxiety in need of a cure. It was, ultimately, about connection. It could have made a great ad pitch. It sold Don, anyway.

It was a nice touch that Peggy was the last person to tell Don his other identity didn’t matter. “I’m not the man you think I am,” Don tells her over the phone. “Don, listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?” she asks. “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it,” Don replies. “That’s not true,” Peggy says. Which part? Probably the last bit. And that would be true, as far as she—and pretty much everyone else but Don—sees it. All along, it’s only been Don who has been convinced he’s not lived up to the American ethos of makings something of yourself. Don, of course, convinced himself that he’s made something of someone else.

With that in mind, what does redemption for Don look like? If he’s convinced by Leonard’s pitch, about not feeling like the man people are looking for, then how can he ever hope to return? How can he prove he is the person they need, or want? Does anyone know?

There’s probably something a bit hollow about a man who, after years of lies, reaches his psychological and emotional nadir, only finds his path back to clarity via a corporate jingle. No doubt this is what will drive fans crazy for years to come. And yet—without excusing the final scene outright—I wonder if there was any other way? Having chased Dick Whitman’s ghost across the country, Don finally accepts what the Beatles were trying to tell him years ago, and faces the fact he’s never accepted: He’s gone, for good. There is no Dick Whitman; there is only Don Draper. And there’s only one way to prove it.

SONYA:  I loved that Don’s big final light-bulb moment—after travelling across the country, learning that the mother of children is dying, and going on a yoga retreat—is just an idea for a (great) ad. This seemed exactly right to me—it stayed true to the character. But I agree with what Colin said earlier, what an unexpectedly lame final shot. What makes it particularly cringe-worthy—besides the sunrise and the ocean—is that, according to an interview Jon Hamm did earlier this year, Matt Weiner had been thinking about that shot for a long time. The whole final drive of the series was getting to that image. And what an image: Don as the original star of The Bachelor.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

COLIN: It’s too early for me to really be sure how I feel about having invested a lot of time into a show that ultimately only built to an old ad for Coca-Cola. Then again, this was always a show about advertising. It was always a show about the people who made ads just like that one – or, I guess, that specific one. It was a show, also, I think (as I wrote elsewhere) about what it might be like to be someone who only sees the world as opportunity for advertising. That being the case, ending it with an ad may have been the only logical way to do it.
Jaime asks whether trivia is meaningful. The answer, I think, is that people like Don Draper made it so by pushing our discourse toward the commercial, and therefore toward a system of trivial differences that separate consumer products. We connect easily via consumer trivia – so easily, in fact, that it appears to be something more profound. We use it to define ourselves, and have for years. Mac vs. PC becomes Mac vs. Android and nobody seems to notice it still doesn’t matter, just as long as it allows us to carve out a new identity. Mad Men was about that, too.

SONYA: Crap, Colin, did we really just spend seven seasons learning the Behind the Music of a Coke ad? That is upsetting. The only Mad Men legacy I’m sure of is that applications to advertising programs are through the roof.

Oh, and that it has launched Kiernan Shipka’s career – a child actor who never seemed like one.

ADRIAN: Mad Men was a show like few others, even in our “prestige” times. It was free of cheap tricks and easy cliff-hangers and was instead powered by lyrical, loping explorations of ideas, the relationships between people, and a fascinating time in modern culture. And let no one take away the fact that Mad Men has made people talk casually about a Coke ad as if it was a foundational text. It will be missed. And thanks for joining us.


 

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