Damn me for a fool, but I should have seen this coming!
I’ll get back to that but first, let’s talk about endings….
In “the new golden age of television,” there have been, by my count, three era-defining endings of shows that have stuck in people’s minds. The first was Alan Ball’s finale for Six Feet Under, in which Claire mentally flashes-forward to the literal end of the Fisher family; imaging every single death of every single member of her family. This was a perfect ending in my mind for that story, acknowledging the frailty of life and yet still aware of the Fisher family business. The second big ending was the finale for Breaking Bad, which I’ve talked about before. While I don’t expect television shows to wrap up every single detail, and I am fully aware that things change over the course of a show’s run, but I appreciated the tidiness of the storytelling in the finale reflecting the glorified chamber piece that showrunner Vince Gilligan had created. The third would have to be The Sopranos, as David Chase gave us an ending that was tonally jarring and ambiguous and forced the audience to question everything that had come before.
In the case of Mad Men, it was a slight blending of all three. While many characters got to see an ending, creator and showrunner Matthew Weiner (who wrote and directed this final episode) gave many of the characters endings that bordered on wish fulfilment (and internet baiting) while ending the story of Don Draper on an infuriating note. I’ll come back to that but let’s discuss the endings for the other characters first…
ROGER – While it’s clear that he’s not quitting or dying, there was a strict sense that he is putting his affairs in order. First, he let go of poor Meredith. Then, in a surprise move, he revealed to Joan that he’s changed his will to divide his estate between Ellory (his grandson) and Kevin (his son with Joan). While on the one hand it’s a very sweet gesture, on the other it was probably an act of self-protection; after all he is planning to marry Marie Calvert and he probably learned from the Don fiasco to not trust her with money. That being said, the pairing of those world-weary roues Roger and Marie, eating lobster and judging people, was probably the happiest ending for him.
PETE – Pete finally gets the happy ending that he deserved. After hitting the wall with New York, he gets to leave on a Learjet with Trudy (who has never looked better) and Tammy for happiness in Kansas. He even got to say a proper goodbye to Peggy. Whatever faults Pete has had (and there have been many over the years), his appreciation for Peggy and her creative talents was not one of them.
PEGGY – The ‘shippers were right; Stan and Peggy forever! While it was pure fantasy to have them end up together as a couple, it was hard not to see it happen. Peggy’s story has always been about the workplace, so if she was going to find love, it would have to ultimately be at wherever she worked. Not that Joan’s offer wasn’t tempting (more on that in a moment), but I had a strong feeling she would have no problems within the juggernaut that is McCann Erickson (look how she handled Lorraine’s bitchiness without batting an eye). What I was surprised – and more than a little shocked – by was how Weiner went all in on the fan service and had Peggy and Stan finally hook up. While it was pure fan service, it was an earned moment in that they both ended up backing into it; both accidentally admitting that they loved each other. And how cute was that last phone conversation between the pair of them. They’re going to be okay.
JOAN – While I was all excited about Harris Olson Productions (fan service again!), in a way it makes more sense that Joan strikes out on her own, especially now that she doesn’t have to worry about Kevin. (By that I mean that now that Kevin’s financial future is truly guaranteed, she now has the agency and financial freedom to invest in herself.) Unfortunately for her, that means the end of her liaison with Richard. While it could be mean that he left her, in a way he was man enough to know that his selfishness would be a hinderance to her and her ambitions. It’s funny how Joan’s story has ended up. On the one hand she swore up and down that she never wanted a career, but whether by accident or (subconscious) design, she has found herself in situations where she has shown tremendous business acumen; which has been thwarted by the men in her professional life. And while I’m thrilled that she now has control of her creative destiny, I’m overjoyed that the company is Holloway Harris Productions. If, as she said, it takes two names to make it real, then Joan Holloway Harris is on her way. Attagirl!
BETTY AND SALLY – Oddly enough, not everyone gets a happy ending, and how fitting is it that Betty and Sally would end up squabbling on what would happen after she died. In their separate phone calls to Don, they both expressed their wishes for what would happen, with the difference being on what was to happen at the end. Betty is trying to maintain control in how she leaves this mortal coil and make sure that her wishes are met and that her children are taken care of (and that Sally isn’t the one that has to do it). Sally meanwhile is trying to protect her brothers from the fallout of Betty’s cancer (which blows up in her face as Bobby knows what’s going on – continuing the tradition of someone seeing through a Draper’s ruse). The end features both of them as a weird Janus-like state with Sally doing dishes and Betty sitting and smoking, both facing away from each other
DON – All of this leads us back to Don and his wandering, which after joyriding through the Bonneville Salt Flats, leads to the first of three calls in the episode. First, Sally brings him up to speed and tells him flat out that the kids are to stay with Henry. Then after a second call to Betty (which she wants the kids to live with her brother and that she doesn’t want Don to come home to disrupt the boys’ lives), he ends up in California with Stephanie, the niece of the late Anna Draper. Both are going through their troubles; he’s slowly shedding every attachment to his old life, and she’s grieving over giving up her child. To help with her grieving, and in a way his, she takes him to Shangri-La (or in this case, the Esalen Institute). And it’s here that Don finally finds peace, thanks to being abandoned by Stephanie with no escape (after she is shunned for her choices and rejects Don’s idea of trying to forget and move on).
But what turned the tide was an encounter with Leonard, a man so ignored by the world that his own family doesn’t acknowledge him. As he tells his story, he talks about the dream he had:
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. 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.
As he breaks down, Don – or is it Dick at this point – breaks down too, and has a truly genuine connection with this man, who gives voice to the real pain and loneliness that Don feels. And there’s hope that Don has found his bliss. “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led. The lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you.”
Which then cross-fades to this…
And damn me for a fucking fool for not seeing this sooner! The clues were there throughout the series, the biggest one being the last episode trailer itself. That Paul Anka song was originally used for a Kodak commercial in the 1970s. So instead of being D.B. Cooper, he’s now another legendary ad man, this time Bill Backer of (you guessed it) McCann Erickson, who would go on to create the infamous “The Hill” commercial for Coca-Cola.
When I first saw it, I had the same reaction I did when Weiner’s former boss David Chase ended The Sopranos; namely blood-curdling rage. This is what we’ve waited seven seasons for? To misquote Joan “So we went through all of that for nothing?”
It’s taken me all day to come to peace with this ending. It can be read as a hopeful synthesis of Don Draper and Dick Whitman, and hopefully this will lead to happier things in his life. Or you could be cynical and see that all of Don’s growth has been nothing more than him finding a new pitch (after all, Jim Hobart does describe Coca-Cola as advertising paradise). Or you could take a third view; that ultimately every experience we have is nothing more than a set up for an ad that reaches out to us and pulls on our emotions, both good and ill, to sell whatever it is we need or think we need. My take is splintered among all of these views with one more spin. Don’s entire career in advertising (and Peggy’s too for that matter, because they think so alike that she can predict his responses and what he needs to hear, as she did in his phone call to her), has been taking whatever emotional mishegoss that is around him and turning it into compelling advertising. If the great theme of Mad Men is that while people do not fundamentally change who they are, the corollary is that they can have some growth by learning how to navigate the world around them the best they can with what they have at their disposal. Who knows whether or not Don Draper or Dick Whitman or whoever has any real change. Who knows what will happen now. Who knows if he returns to advertising. But there is one thing that he will always be, whether he admits it or not…
A mad man.
– “You’ll land on your feet.” “I always do.” God I’m going to miss Meredith.
– Evan Arnold should practice his guest appearance Emmy speech. His performance as Leonard was that fully realized.
Finally, thank you for joining me on this mad little journey through the 1960s.
Photo Credits: AMC Television / Lionsgate Television