Season 7, Episode 14: "Person to Person"
Spoilers for the series finale of "Mad Men" follow.
"Mad Men" is over and Don Draper did not jump out a window, hijack an airplane or time travel to the 1980s. The frenzied fan speculation is over. There will be no more what-will-happen theories. We have seen "The Real Thing." The question, as ever, is: Did you buy it?
Over seven seasons, a decade has passed and "a lot has happened," as Don says. (Or, "a ot-lay as-hay appened-hay," as his secretary Meredith might translate into pig Latin.) The show has earned its raves, and its cast has seemed to get better every season — but we know all that. Let's get into the finale, which was an almost entirely unambiguous piece of closure, frequently verging on fan fiction, with a script that tied up so many loose threads it was practically needlepoint.
Almost as if responding to fans who have been burning votive candles for the show's most forceful female characters, Joan and Peggy get second helpings: Joan, who found love with her rich, medallion-wearing real estate tycoon, chooses a route that's even more bold by rejecting him and opting to start her own company, Holloway-Harris. She even gets the show's final drug experimentation scene, snorting cocaine. It makes her feel like "someone just gave me some very good news" and turns her on. But no matter how much her beau sweetens the deal or how much he offers a life of leisure, Joan can't help but feel like she would be giving up her very hard-earned freedom.
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In an upbeat, feminist sense, Joan, always the consummate queen of the office, loves her work and wants to blaze a new path, with her own name on the door and without a male boss to harass her, cheat her, or pimp her out. Now that Joan is extremely wealthy, it's also a reminder that, just as others might be addicted to nicotine or alcohol, Joan (like Don and Peggy) is hooked on the rush of signing an account and beating the competition.
The question of "home" hovers over this entire episode—and it's clear that Joan and her colleagues were all bonded by their workaholic passion. (As Peggy notes hilariously, they never did lunch.). Joan simply feels more at home working the phones than tanning on the beach. Her boyfriend Richard, wonderfully written, seems to have fallen for the real Joan, and not just her curves, so he gets it. He knows he's lost her. For Joan, who used to cling to men for stability, Richard is now just the fun fling she had in 1970. The finale brushes her past defeats away and suggests that Joan will be much more than fine.
Peggy also flexes her strength by rejecting an offer of partnership when Joan offers her half of her company. Instead, she chooses to fight it out at McCann Erickson on her own terms, throwing elbows to keep the Chevalier account and hanging that ecstatic octopus painting on her wall. She too, seems in command of her destiny. She talks to Don like a sister now, urging him to come home. She so untroubled by Pete's departure that she both can't manage lunch and can manage a display of grace. When Joan's alluring offer lands on her desk, she wavers in her ambition, considering an alternate path, but Stan reminds her that her dream of being a Don Draper-style legend ("Some day people are going to brag that they worked with you," says Pete) is close at hand.
But the most jarring development of the finale was the sudden romance between Stan and Peggy. They confess their love on the phone and consummate it with a very furry kiss, after Peggy tells Stan that she loves him most for his constancy and support: "You're there. And you're here. And you make everything O.K." The scenes played out like overheated melodrama (I was unconvinced). Personally, I liked the idea that Peggy didn't need to find love to earn her own happy ending. But who can argue when the show's two most lovable characters (and most charming actors) find their happiness together?
Pete is sent off in the most perfect way, with a prickly little cactus and a brush-off by two friends who can't be bothered to join him for lunch. Pete doesn't mind, though. Soon he and Trudy are flying off to their happy ending in Wichita in the company jet.
Roger, too, has found true love and even puts a ring on it. If it wasn't clear before, the obsessive mama's boy makes it clear that he's turned on by being with Marie because she is a replacement for the mother he lost, sexy, doting and hard-edged. "I met her through Megan Draper," he tells Joan. "She's old enough to be her mother. Actually she is her mother." Since Roger's getting old, he does what all creaky jokesters do: he repeats the joke ("my mother") to a waiter. He, too, seems to have found some peace.
Of course, all these happy endings wouldn't make sense on "Mad Men" without an undertow of sadness—and Weiner has always seemed to be interested in how this generation would shape the next. In references and brief shots of the children, we get a sense of how they will feel the ripple effects of their parents' drama. As Roger signs over half his inheritance to his child with Joan, it underscores the fact that this child may never know his father. Their child is filmed twice plopped in front of the television. Sally has been forced to grow up fast and compensate. Bobby, burning food in the kitchen, knows that his mother is lying about her illness and Sally must step in to play the role her father abdicated. Ken, obsessed with work again and leaving his literary career far behind, laughs about his kid, saying he's "a little weird, actually. I think there might be something wrong with him." It's a glib, minor joke, but it seems to line up with the show's constant view of how little the era expected of fathers.
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Then there's Don, stopping off in Utah, where the land-speed record was recently broken, looking like the hero in a Hollywood film or a Madison Avenue ad. He's moving fast, speeding across the country to California, but does he really arrive anywhere different? After seven seasons, does he, or anyone else, really change? In this finale, there's plenty of movement, but it seems to argue (explicitly and therapeutically) that we return to the way we were hard-wired early in life. Maybe the best any of these character can hope, after seven seasons of drama, is to take a hard look in the mirror and accept themselves. Don also gets a happy ending, but he doesn't change; he actualizes. He's becoming a more honest liar. "I broke all my vows," he tells Peggy. "I scandalized my child. I took another man's name. And made nothing of it."
The finale feinted at suicide and Manson in a way that seemed to directly poke at the show's Zapruder-level obsessive fans. But it also generously and lavishly gave the fans the kind of closure that Don himself was seeking. "People just come and go, and no one says goodbye," Don complains in the middle of a panic attack. He's discovered that Betty is dying and leaving him, just as his mother left him. He's feeling alone in a crowd, mourning his divorces and scoffing at Esalen's "Divorce: A Creative Experience" seminar. In what has to be the most pro-therapy finale in television history, his persona is metaphorically diagrammed twice in group seminars.
In the first session, a woman warns Ms. Stephanie that her child will spend "the rest of his life staring at the door" waiting for his mother to walk in, but Don traveled all the way across the country. Meanwhile, an office drone confesses that he feels like a product on a refrigerator shelf, waiting for someone to embrace him. I didn't love these blunt metaphors, and setting up such obvious parallels in group seminars felt like rather unconvincing dramatic cheats. But Jon Hamm couldn't be better in this episode. The show has pushed Don's character thousands of miles away from anyone he knows, and people do have breakthroughs in therapy all the time.
However, I was absolutely disturbed, unsettled and thrilled by the final shot — and song — that followed, which seemed to distill so much of what the show has been saying about advertising (and the other lies we tell ourselves) for seven seasons. We last see Don meditating, beatifically, on a cliffside. Then there's that slight, gorgeous smile, the chime of a bell and a cut to an utterly maudlin, corporate idealistic Coca-Cola ad. Did Don conceive of the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" spot? It seems obvious that the answer is yes, particularly given the similar details, including the location and the much-tweeted girl with braided hair, for starters.
You can read the official story of how the Coca-Cola ad was created, but it's probably worth noting that corporate mythology is not necessarily "the real thing," anyway. In the universe of "Mad Men," did Don grok the ad in a cliffside epiphany? Let's remember that's not how McCann Erickson, which created the ad, works. Even if he did come up with the concept, Don was likely one of very many men (and a few women) in a McCann conference room. Someone like Peggy might have polished the idea. Marketing and research likely tested it. Another executive probably found the songwriters.
Generally speaking, the famous Coke jingle is ironic here, in part because we now know that soda has contributed to a host of health problems, from diabetes to obesity (no matter how delicious it may be). For Don, it's darkly ironic on a personal level because, after his long journey, he's simply reverting to selling whatever sells, cigarettes or soda, using whatever method works best. "The best things in life are free," Bert Cooper sang to him from the afterlife. Don has always known how to use those free things (home, family, nostalgia) to sell things that aren't.
Can you see Don Draper sincerely believing in an ad with these lyrics? Or selling the concept because, as a pro, he thinks people will respond?
"I'd like to buy the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honeybees
And snow-white turtledoves"
The lyrics are cornier than a Ken Cosgrove short story, and just as syrupy. I can't imagine Don, the Frank O'Hara fan, wouldn't laugh out loud. But he might see their use. Don, unlike the kid who's now driving his car, is a master hustler (from Howard Johnson's to his "Why I Quit Tobacco" letter). If the final ad signals anything about where Don ends up, it's that he realizes his true home is Madison Avenue—that he has embraced the fact that he is a born salesman, a killer hustler, a flim-flam artist of the highest order. His "real things" have always been bunk. So one can imagine Don nailing a pitch by promising that Coke offers something you can't ever have: truth in a bottle. Something real and simple in a country shaken by the '60s.
What makes Lucky Strike different from other cigarettes? They're toasted. What makes Coke different from Pepsi? Coke is real. (In my fan-fic version of Mad Men's finale, the 1971 McCann Erickson jingle is smash-cut with a Les McCann and Eddie Harris 1969 hit, which says, "Trying to make it real," then asks, "Compared to what?" Don's enlightenment may indeed lead to one of the most famous ads of all time, but its corn-syrupy utopia very nearly plays like a dystopic anthem.
"A new day. New ideas. A new you," Don's Esalen teacher intones in the final shot of the series. With those six words, she could be selling enlightenment or shoes or laptops or iWatches. Don might never find real peace or a real home, whatever that means. But if there was an eighth, ninth or tenth season, maybe Don could sell yoga mats. Or health spas. Or maybe even a new brand of sugary Coca-Cola drinks rebranded as healthy, vitamin-packed elixirs.