I began to get worried at about 10:58.
Realizing there wasn’t much time left in the series, I wondered how Matthew Weiner would be able to conclude Mad Men in a way that made sense and was true to the characters he had developed over seven (really eight) seasons.
The resolution wasn’t perfect, but I think time will be kind to it.
Last week, I discussed what we might get from the finale. I noted one key scene in the penultimate episode, where Don appears to glean some stroke of inspiration from staring at a broken, old-fashioned Coke machine. I said that I thought that would lead to an epiphanic moment in the finale, generating one last spectacular (and redemptive) pitch at McCann that produced an incredible, iconic campaign.
We didn’t get to see the pitch, sadly, but the conclusion of the finale lets the viewer in on the secret: It is implied (although not certain) that Don creates the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign by tapping into both cutting-edge culture and his unique insight into human nature to generate work that is brilliant consumer marketing disguised as a meaningful message. Just as he has done for his entire career.
In the end, this is who Don is. His own humanity was, as it turns out, irreversibly damaged by his horribly traumatic childhood. Even literally assuming someone else’s identity wasn’t enough to repair the fractures in his psyche.
But that damage also left him with a savant-like gift for understanding the basic needs, desires, and weaknesses of other human beings—and humanity writ large.
That insight is the only true through line in the series. The show begins and ends with it, and most of what comes in-between is either an exploration of Don’s insight, or an exploration of the manifestations of the damage that gave rise to that insight.
As the series concludes, we see this: Don’s personal “breakthrough” during a group seminar only comes when someone else voices some of what he’s been holding inside himself. Note that he never connects with the new-age-y Californians at the retreat. It’s only when a working stiff on the cusp of middle age voices his secret fears about mattering to no one that Don responds. Unlike most of the crunchy attendees, this overwhelmed office worker shows Don something of himself—and perhaps a sobering glance at the life that a less-attractive Don Draper with a weaker facade of confidence would have lived.
We almost never see that Don on the show, although we catch just a glimpse when he’s on the phone with Peggy. Here, it would seem that just knowing that someone else like himself exists is enough for Don to (yet again) patch himself up and get back to the business that is welded to his essence: Taking some element of culture, mashing it up with a basic human truth, and creating genius advertising work.
This is not an inconsequential plot point, either. It was no accident that those advertising awards from the late 1950s hung on the wall of Don’s office as the young Michael Ginsberg loudly implored Don to catch up with the times. There was a sense that, whether as a simple byproduct of getting older, a general boredom with advertising, or the increasing mess his personal life had become, Don had started to lose that vital connection to culture that had made him so formidable during his first decade in advertising.
Don began to reverse that trend in recent years (and Ginsberg wound up institutionalized), but it isn’t until that very last scene in the final episode that the viewer gets the impression that Don is finally, triumphantly, defiantly back to the speed that earned him the reputation with which he begins the series.
He has survived the tumult of the 1960s, personal instability, and career turmoil to get back to a place wherein he can chew up crunchy, New-Age nonsense and regurgitate it as the perfect way to sell sugary beverages to American consumers.
The finale wasn’t issue-free, however. Weiner comes from the Sopranos school of storytelling: Not everything fits together like a puzzle over the course of the series. Loose ends remain, the pacing can be a bit off at times, and not every event “clicks” as it should. He isn’t in, say, Vince Gilligan’s class when it comes to meticulous plotting and storytelling.
Tonight, much of the first 30-40 minutes seemed wasted, or at least labored. The only “eventful” moment—the long-awaited connection between Stan and Peggy—came off as rushed, as if Weiner looked at the clock and had the same mild panic I did. That scene played as if it were written by a college student who suddenly remembered he had a term paper due the following morning.
That aside, I thought Weiner provided a better finale than I expected last week—or even a better one than I expected with ten minutes left in the episode. I’m satisfied with the perspective we gained on Don . . . which, ironically, is that there really is no perspective to be gained on Don. To paraphrase Jaws, Don is a shark. He swims, and he eats, and he makes baby sharks.
Don lives to work.
Don is his work.
As Stan says, “There’s more to life than work,” of course. But that avenue of personal fulfillment was closed off to Don by the time he was old enough to form long-term memories. He can never cultivate that part of life in the same way that others do.
Don can merely go through the motions of what he believes a “normal” life is like. Except it never sticks, because he doesn’t have the capacity for that kind of life. He behaves as an alien would, trying hard to be as “normal” as possible, observing rituals and customs and behaviors he comes to understand intellectually, but never emotionally.
Perhaps the only person in the entire run of the show who truly understood Don was Betty, and, soon, she will be gone, too.
Don’s phone call to his dying ex-wife is one of two revelatory conversations from which the finale gets its title, “Person to Person.” Don’s call to Betty includes her correct observation that “normalcy” includes Don not being a part of the lives of his children, particularly Bobby and Gene, a fact to which a dejected Don ultimately concedes.
The other conversation is with Peggy, during which Don explains that he’s made a mess of his life, presenting her with a side of Don rarely, if ever, seen by his coworkers. When a concerned Peggy asks Don what he ever did that was so bad, Don provides a thumbnail sketch of a series’ worth of moral failures, punctuated by his final revelation—only for Peggy—that he isn’t the man that she or the rest of his professional contacts believe him to be.
At long last, there is nothing left of Don’s bravado, if only for a moment. The person beneath it, Dick Whitman, or whatever one wishes to call him, has little to show for his life’s work. It’s only that last-minute connection with a stranger and the recognition that there are others who have been hiding similar weaknesses and insecurities that rescues Don from possible suicide.
We can imagine where Don and the rest of the characters wind up. Joan runs her successful production company, although she likely never achieves the same heights as the truly gifted Peggy (who, as I said last time, is probably running McCann by the 80s). Roger, much more comfortable now with the idea that the world has passed him by, enjoys life for a few more years, delivering precision one-liners until his inevitable death during a passionate tryst with Marie (or, let’s be honest, some young secretary). And Ted seems utterly content being a semi-anonymous cog in a giant machine after all.
Pete and Trudy finally get the happy ending they’ve always wanted—and it should be noted that, of all the characters, Pete might be the only one who truly finds transformative redemption. He was the worst of the lot for the first several years of the show: unscrupulous, unfaithful, shallow. Yet, against the odds, he seems to come out on the other side as something close to the man he once only pretended to be.
The same can’t be said for Don. He is less a fully-formed, well-adjusted human being than he is a perfectly tuned musical instrument.
After an hour of sorrow and a tease of a suicidal ending, Don finally allows himself a wry, knowing smile during a meditation exercise designed to find meaningful, centering inner-peace. He’s made the necessary connection—his own relief at finding someone who shared the pain he thought was uniquely his, the search for New-Age truths on a hill, and the human qualities that endow those experiences with significance. It is in that moment that he is able to regain his grasp of personal fulfillment.
For Don, that fulfillment can’t be found through the love of a woman, or a child, or through charity, or through a Kerouac-esque road trip of discovery.
Rather, Don’s solace—his purpose—derives only from that fleeting moment of revelation associated with birthing the idea for a trend-setting ad campaign.
It isn’t that Don lives for that split-second. It’s that Don only lives in that split-second.
If we’re to accept the implication of Mad Men‘s final scene, the audience leaves Don, secure in the knowledge that, as long as there’s culture for him to co-opt and human nature doesn’t change fundamentally*, he’ll be that singular instrument that makes such beautiful music.
Those split-seconds of bliss will always be floating in the ether, and, despite personal pain and societal shifts, Don will always find a way to reach them.