A Last Word on Mad Men

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.

DonDraperDoorThe 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.

Harry is the anti-Pete: Starts out as a decent enough guy, and becomes the most morally reprehensible character on the show by the beginning of the final season.

Harry is the anti-Pete: He begins as a decent enough guy, but he becomes the most morally reprehensible character on the show by the beginning of the final season.

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.


*=Spoiler alert: there will be, and it doesn’t, respectively.
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49 Responses to A Last Word on Mad Men

  1. Pingback: Best of 2015 | The Axis of Ego

  2. Reblogged this on gender_concerns and commented:
    So, what are your last words on bad men?

  3. You know, I quit during the second to last season, and I just couldn’t bring myself to start again.

  4. foxxyt says:

    Reblogged this on vividlyfoxxy and commented:
    ; 0

  5. Roohi&Prachi says:

    This was one of the first series I greatly enjoyed watching. It’s a shame that it has come to an end but I think a satisfying end.

  6. ccrbrandla says:

    beautiful assessment

  7. C.F. Martin says:

    I just binged watch this show for the last three weeks. Loved it way more than I thought I would! Amazing show!
    Thanks for the post!

  8. ciccipie says:

    Don’s a joiner.

  9. Advertising takes a feeling that is nascent in the culture, attaches a product to it and then sells the feeling back to the culture. The big question of Mad Men, for me, was whether Don was going to be able to stay on the same path — being a person who can tap into feeling, identify it and repackage it while staying personally detached and unchanged himself. When the finale aired I was ambivalent, but now, I’m with Joyce Carol Oates. There’s no arc.

  10. I loved the ending. Even though I only caught the show occasionally. http://www.thisisyourbestyear.com. A blog for and about women of a certain age.

  11. Sonnische says:

    Love your treatment of this. We watched Mad Men for several seasons and then for reasons that escape me now, stopped so we missed last season and this. After seeing Matt Weiner interviewed, we decided to watch the series finale, and in order to do it right, we binged on this season all Sunday afternoon and evening and then caught the big ending. It was refreshing to see Don break through his wall of shameful secrecy and weep, and then to see him smiling in the lotus position made me inexplicably happy, and the Coke commercial that is part of the soundtrack of my adolescence simply enhanced that.

  12. jadb5 says:

    Person to Person was the title of the episode and I think Dick/Don wants the person to person connection that he has not been able to have personally.

  13. compillow says:

    I get it, great summary. Great insight.

  14. shantiepc says:

    Reblogged this on The EndPoint Business Blog and commented:
    Emotional connection is the most important thing for me and the finale, at least the second half didn’t disappoint.

  15. Jerald says:

    AI have to agree with the brothers and sisters above. Yours is oneof the finest and most rewarding wrap up of this complex series as I’ve read anywhere. The series itself is great yet slightly flawed, as you pointed out. It is its characters, however, and it’s a compelling cast. Your blog captures the essence.

  16. Great insight . Terrific observations of periphial characters.

  17. Behind the Story says:

    In the last scene, I was just enjoying the Coke ad, remembering back. It still brings tears to my eyes. Being more accustomed to simple, solve-the-problem, marry-the-guy, catch-the-crook endings, I was waiting for the meaning to wash over me without effort on my part. I agree with your interpretation on all counts. What else could the ending mean?

    Every season I was waiting for Don to become a better man. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t happening. Weiner teased us with possibilities. But it never happened.

    It was a real pleasure reading your post and reviewing the characters with you. My daughters didn’t watch Mad Men; neither did my sister; and I live alone, so I seldom discuss it with anyone.

  18. that girl over there says:

    Reblogged this on sun in the trees and commented:
    A well-written (and well-played) show.

  19. nicolel5822 says:

    I have to admit that’s what I got from the series end also. I enjoyed it so much I’ll probably start it again and go right to the end. It’s going to be missed a lot too.

  20. jana6nguyend1s says:

    Reblogged this on jana6nguyend1s.

  21. Great ending we all get to think how Don moves forward in his life.

  22. vaibhavsingh719 says:

    Reblogged this on Little Bit Science.

  23. Crissy Dean says:

    Great job on a well written piece. Congrats on being freshly pressed. Come check my new post out on Real Life Natural Wife and leave me a comment with your thoughts. Enjoy your day!

  24. MPG Narratives says:

    Reblogged this on mpgnarratives and commented:
    Don is like a lot of people I have worked with over the years. This is a good review of a series I’ve enjoyed watching.

  25. Great post, nicely thought-out.

  26. I like many of you was shocked at the ending of Mad Men. I would like to believe that Coke was his dream job! He went home and raised his children. GOD can heal all things.

  27. Lisa says:

    I was searching for tutorials for WordPress and found your blog (https://wordpress.com/fresh/) when I saw the Mad Men reference. I thoroughly enjoyed your article!

  28. AthenaC says:

    “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.”

    I actually didn’t pick up on this, and I like the way you articulated it.

    I like the way Don’s future isn’t spelled out for us and that we are forced to imagine and debate it. On the one hand, Don’s conversation with Peggy (and his prior conversation with the veterans in Oklahoma) put together are the closest Don is going to get to that going-to-Confession experience – the act of having to say what you’ve done out loud forces you to confront the reality that you are not as angelic and noble as you like to think you are and those awful feelings goad you into (hopefully) choosing differently in the future. But of course it’s not necessarily sufficient motivation to change either. So did Don change? I don’t know and I’m glad I don’t know. I have a hard time picturing a better Don but I would like to think it’s possible.

    I also enjoyed the conclusion of Pete’s story arc. I saw some snarky commentary somewhere along the lines of “Do you really think Pete has changed? *scoff* How naive areyou?” But those seeds of change began several episodes ago – Pete thinking deep thoughts at anyone who will listen, looking for lasting meaning and love, Pete voluntarily spending time with his daughter, Pete making the well-being of his daughter (and Trudy’s honor) a priority when he punches that awful headmaster. I was as surprised as anyone when I started liking Pete’s character for the first time, but Pete and Trudy’s happy ending was well-earned.

    I loved seeing Stan and Peggy finally get together – they have been acting married for so long but not in that obnoxious sexually tense way that most shows milk for seasons on end. They have just been good companions and partners and it was good to see it go somewhere.

    I could go on for pages, but I just have one more point –

    I’m glad Richard left Joan. He was a jerk. I would have liked it better if she had kicked him out, but she chose her path firmly, knowing she would lose him, and that works well enough for me. A few episodes ago when Joan said, “I’ll send my son away. If I have to choose between my son and you, I choose you.” That hurt. Bad. I wanted to shake her – “You have a son! This is your life! OWN it! Anyone that wouldn’t respect your life – ALL of it – isn’t worthy of you!” I’ve been the single mom navigating the dating field, and I will say that there is nothing wrong with a guy that doesn’t want to be a part of raising children. Know what that means? It means you’re not good together. So break up amicably and don’t force it.

    Anyway, TL/DR: I was surprised by how much I liked the end of the series.

    • AthenaC says:

      Oops – forgot to turn of the italics! Lol.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      I was also surprised. I really thought that I was going to dislike the finale with just a few minutes left. After they did the rushed Peggy and Stan thing, I was like “Oh, brother.” But the conclusion redeemed it for me, and I think it was true to who the character of Don Draper was. Thank you for reading!

  29. This was excellent! Very well written.

    • Tom Garrett says:

      Thank you very much! I appreciate it.

    • ACoupleTalks says:

      Man. I’ll have to come back and read this. I am only half way through the last season because it is all Netflix has released. I thought I was at the series finale and wondered why it was so anticlimactic. My boyfriend started to google the meaning of the last episode only to realize we still have more to go. I’ll be back once I catch up with it all! 🙂

  30. Reblogged this on Invisible Mikey and commented:
    This was a great selection from the WP editors. The other one I liked best was Rolling Stone’s rejection of the trend of having to produce series finales, because they have to be disingenuously magical to tie up all the loose ends. http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/recaps/mad-men-series-finale-recap-coke-and-a-smile-20150518

  31. jhorel freeborn says:

    Reblogged this on Jhorel's Blog.

  32. jadb5 says:

    Thank you for your response and earlier, I omitted my thank you for you starting the discourse. I think my focus is on his personal adjustment rather than business adjustments. By the way, I did not see your America’s sour heart label before I commented. Later, I saw your original page and noticed it. Therefore, I must be America’s sap heart! The idea that people do not change is a topic that intrigues me.
    I can not see him being the same man that he was internally before his break through over the phone with Peggy.
    He realizes that like, Stephanie, he too, come and go with no good byes and he feels something for the first time, that he never says goodbye to Peggy and he wants to, more importantly. He yearns for resolution, reconciliation.
    I relate to that, Dick Don, moment.
    Do you want me to believe, he, like Roger keep chasing their tales?
    You didn’t feel that Dick Don knows that he is not work.
    Work is not Dick Don.
    I feel that he knows now, how he must conduct himself from here on out. Whether he gets saps like me to buy sapping drinks, is not my main focus.
    My focus is that he now knows that saying Goodbye’s are important to him. When his daughter abruptly hangs up on him, when Stephanie leaves him surprisingly, when he reaches out to Peggy who is totally clueless to Dick Don’s life internally (everyone is saying she knows him best, Joan knows him best…..) Dick realizes he wants to say hello and good bye to Peggy. I have to think he wants to make more effort with his children since he saw he didn’t get the second chance with Betty like (he will find out later) Pete and Trudy got.

    Where is there a compromise to our sweet and sour. I need more sour perhaps but may I be so bold for you to throw a little sugar on that lemon and make lemonade.

  33. jadb5 says:

    i took away a completely different interpretation, one more suited for the sappy consumer, Don/Dick captures. Entranced by his epiphany to say good bye, I relayed to my boyfriend, he changed.
    If I am not mistaken, it sounds as though you are sure he has not. It sounds like you believe him to not ever change.
    I am a sap, I know. You do not sell me on your take, however. If your interpretation is land in Cucamunga, and I know now, that the real estate boomed, I still would not buy, because that’s how sugary and sticky my sap is!

    • Tom Garrett says:

      These things are always open to interpretation, of course, and you should feel free to cling to your sap! 🙂

      Having said that, I think that Don, at bottom, is in it for the art of creating compelling messaging. He doesn’t really care much about the consumer, but he also doesn’t really care much about the financial fortunes of, say, Coca-Cola. What he cares about is creating something that resonates and will continue to resonate. That is his burden / gift / lot in life.

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