mad men big sur

I hadn’t expected to write one more word about Mad Men. I thought I’d said it all two weeks ago. Then, after the final episode, I saw one too many think-pieces coming out with a little too much snark. One more time, then, with feeling:

The last episode of Mad Men was perhaps the greatest series finale of all time, of perhaps the greatest show of all time.

Writer-director-showrunner-series creator Matthew Weiner struck just the right tone, all the way around: just enough quotidian business (Peggy and Stan in a large meeting, listening to client assignments) to feel like some kind of “normal” episode and to feel that life for the characters would go on after this, and just enough wrapping up (Roger talking about the “last chapter”) to feel that this was the conclusion of a great novel. “Person to Person” was a gift with the right amount of ribbon, gift-wrap, and substance.

Most surprising, and most welcome, the finale gave the show’s core, often criminally repressed/under-used assets – January Jones, Christina Hendricks, and Elisabeth Moss – something important to do. Frankly, Moss, as Peggy, may have been given too much to do – her culminating scene of realizing her own love for Stan was the one ham-handedly written scene of the episode, requiring Moss to do the performative equivalent of triple-back-flips just to pull it off. She earned a perfect 10.0, but the routine was less than a perfect choice. Joanie coming into her own as a businesswoman let Hendricks show off the chops she’s often suppressed, and that paired with Jones’ final, heartbreaking cry as housewife Betty…if you’re the sort of person who sees symbolism, you might say Weiner was saying goodbye to one kind of woman, hello to another.

On the other hand, the Betty doppelganger that became Don’s final (seen) liaison (the way she pursed her lips and said “that’s never worked”: it was like Betty was in the room) – could signify that there will always be Bettys, or more likely, that Don can drive faster than he ever has, but still not get away from his problems. Critics (like Andy Greenwald at Grantland) complained about “fan-servicing”; I prefer smiling at the finale doing what I’d call nose-thumbing at fans, particularly at the long-circulating theory that the “falling man” intro animation was a prelude to Don’s death, or suicide. Why bother with that extraneous shot of Don peering over the cliff in Big Sur just before the final minutes? Why have Roger say, when asked “Is he dead?”: “Don? No. I think we’d have heard about that”? The show is known for its self-reflexive dialogue, but I like the point of not killing Don: we, the audience and America, don’t get off that easy. What do I mean by that?

First let me say that the ending, with Don om-chanting on a California hillside, probably thinking up the greatest commercial of all time, was perfect. It’s the kind of ending that’s no poorer for how we’ve come to expect it: that happy-ending-with-a-twist, Inception style. Writing the last five minutes of anything good isn’t as easy as it was when Casablanca was made (the actors basically improvised that, according to Marc Norman), nor as easy as when the final M*A*S*H episode aired (spelling out “GOOD-BYE” with rocks ought to do it). These days, with a series finale, you have to be true to your characters and plotlines, and you have to reward everyone for paying attention (for the seasons, and for that episode), but at the same time – almost as a contradiction – you have to come up with some kind of twist that no one could possibly have seen coming. You need something at once surprising, inevitable, beautiful, and diabolically twisted. Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker called it a “genuinely original, resonant, and existentially brilliant ending,” and she was both correct and mostly alone in that appraisal. Why?

To read about Mad Men on Slate or THR or reddit or any other major site is to read questions about Don and his existential crisis: why can’t he be happy with any woman? Why does he keep destroying their lives and his own? Why can’t he change? Or can he change? This, for me, was always the wrong way to understand the show. The question was really: based on living in the 1960s as an advertiser, and keeping up with the social upheavals of the time, how could he not change? Don danced with the zeitgeist and tried to be – this word is exactly right – faithful. Matthew Weiner is perfectly aware that the social upheavals of the 1960s are now viewed through our Blue State-Red State lenses, either the time of civil rights movements and protests that moved the country toward justice, or a lot of hullabaloo against our bedrock traditional values that’s required defense of said values ever since. But which reading, blue state or red state, did Don’s hilltop-hippie vision really support? Is Don, in the end, more Meathead or Archie Bunker? (Kids: ask your parents what that means.) Or neither? And if Don goeth neither, whither goeth America?

Weiner’s finale brought this question back to the first episodes, when we first met superstar Don Draper, adman that re-invented Kodak. This was when it first seemed that Pete was Don ten years earlier, and Roger was Don ten years later. The show seemed to get away from that construct at times, but the last two episodes have brought it back full force, making it clear why the show’s chronology indeed extended over ten years (and not just the eight years they spent making it). Pete is officially now Don from ten years ago, the ad-man everyone wants, Mr. Lucky, Mr. Can-Convince-Anyone-of-Anything, his 5-year-old girl and wife in tow (however shakily). If Pete’s difference is that he now has his own jet, that says more about the difference between 1970 and 1960. Don in 1970 is Roger when we first met Roger: nothing and no one, granted, with buckets of charm still to spare. Of the main cast, Roger’s fate was left the most enigmatic: would he really be happy with a French brunette (a Calvet, yet) who kicks him out of bed and reminds him that the television is his real friend? Yeah, maybe he will be, maybe he won’t. And that’s as much of a sneak preview as we need of Don in 1980.

But the children, the children. Earlier this season, we saw Roger reconcile himself to his 25-year-old hippie daughter Margaret (neé Marigold) abandoning her small child. Yes, that might also be Don in ten years with Sally, but Weiner won’t let Don off that easily: instead, right now, he has to confront his feelings about both Sally and his own Marigold, who is also the last woman who might let Don save her, his namesake’s niece Stephanie. The subtext of these scenes is abandonment: how the philandering ways of the hard-drinking, hard-living men of the 1950s gave license to their daughters to abandon their own kids and create a nation of latchkey kids. Some internet snarks couldn’t get over Don choosing not to fly home the moment he heard about Betty’s cancer. But the tension that created in the rest of the episode is what made Don’s collapse on the phone to Peggy so real: he thought he’d been given license to abandon, to feel independent, only to realize that he felt trapped because he’d abandoned himself.

Crucially, before that moment, he confronts Stephanie as she’s bawling over her lost child:

“I just know how people work. You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.”

“Oh, Dick. I don’t think you’re right about that.”

She goes. She doesn’t come back. Don collapses with Peggy. Don reluctantly goes to group therapy. He looks at a person named Leonard, who seems to be taking a whole lot of precious time away from the show’s final minutes, considering we don’t know him. Don ignores most of what Leonard says about feeling anonymous, until Leonard says:

“It’s like no one cares that I’m gone.”

Don looks up, looks over at Leonard.

“They should love me. I mean, maybe they do. But I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”

Now Don is focused on Leonard like a woodpecker on a tree. At that moment Leonard describes a dream where he’s in a refrigerator and people open the door, look at you, and close the door again. Leonard cries. Don is clearly moved. And he more clearly moves himself to embrace Leonard.

These two scenes are crucial to the way Don thinks about himself, and indeed, how advertisements work, according to John Berger: an ad “steals her love of herself as she is, and offers it back to her for the price of the product.” Further, an ad is “effective precisely because it feeds on the real…but it cannot offer the real object of pleasure and there is no convincing substitute for a pleasure in that pleasure’s own terms. The more convincingly publicity conveys the pleasure of bathing in a warm, distant sea, the more the spectator-buyer will become aware that he is hundreds of miles from that sea and the more remote the chance of bathing in it will seem to him…Publicity is never a celebration of the pleasure-in-itself. Publicity is always about the future buyer. It offers him an image of himself made glamorous by the product or opportunity it is trying to sell.”

Don’s life – Dick’s new life – has been entirely premised on the notion of things being better in the future, or “easier if you move forward.” Stephanie’s words were just about the worst thing she could have said to him. The future doesn’t get better? America really ends here, in Big Sur? This is what the sixties have come to? Leonard’s words, too, were on some level about advertising, about the fakeness of a love that always seems like a carrot on a stick. Don’s peddled it for years, and he’s reaping what he’s sowed. Can he live with that, somehow? The final shot of Don saying “om,” at once preposterous and entirely foregrounded, says a sly yes.

But even that wouldn’t have squared the circle if the final ad had been for, let’s say, laxatives. The choice of Coke was ingenious, and arguably foreshadowed since season two, when Don became his own man by coming out against the ill effects of Lucky Strike cigarettes. Sure, those are bad for you, but what about everything the cast has imbibed since? Just in this final episode, Betty smokes away her lung cancer diagnosis, Don lights up the moment he learns of Betty’s diagnosis, Roger orders champagne to top off his and Marie’s White Russians, Don asks Stephanie for liquor because he’s had nothing but beer all night, Peggy and Joan do Bloody Marys, Stan warns Peggy she better be drunk for how she’s talking, and Joan tries, uh, Coke (no, Joan tries the real Real Thing). Joan smiles, “That’s fast,” in a shout-out to all the drugs tried on the show before, to the reefers that normally get shared “person to person.” In the end (yes, in the end), Coca-Cola is really a sanitized, corporate-friendly version of all these products, and Don’s final vision is in many ways making peace with not only advertising and the direction that the 1960s went, but also with addiction, and passing on your bad decisions to your kids.

Why was the ending left slightly vague, then? Well, the 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad is so iconic, so strong a candidate for Greatest TV Commercial Ever (perhaps battling it out with the “1984” commercial for the first Macintosh), that it would have been somewhat obscene for Weiner to let Draper hog exclusive credit for it. Clearly Weiner gave fans of Forrest Gump that sort of ending if they wanted it that way, but the note of ambiguity is important so that the ad doesn’t seem too capriciously part of Don’s weird fantasies. The ambiguity suggests that the ad was going to happen anyway, that it was clearly part of a larger continuity of events of the 1960s and 1970s.

You see, a decade ago, after getting the men in 1950s suits past the men in 2000s suits at AMC (after selling the idea of a show about an ad firm on the cusp of the 60s), Weiner knew how the arc would present itself: just as a hero seems more ragged, beaten-up and disillusioned in the final third of a 2-hour movie, so would his heroes seem worse at the end of the 1960s simply by growing beards and seeing America fray. So now, final episode, it’s October 1970: the bras have been burnt, the Vietnam vets have been spat on, the Panthers have replaced the SCLC, cocaine has replaced marijuana. (Dennis Hopper took blame for that on the DVD commentary of Easy Rider; he said they needed a drug that was worth a lot more than pot in saddlebag-size quantities, in order to make that story realistic.) Trick or treat? Make-love-not-war, or Nixon’s silent majority?

Both and neither, damn it. Sure, the kids on the hill could be the lunatics taking over the asylum, the baby boomers becoming the establishment. But in an Archie Bunker, Reaganesque counter-reading, these silly hippies just wanted simple pleasures like Coca-Cola all along. Either way, alienation is part of the new normal, and capitalism wins a more total victory than it ever had before. Either way, we think of Hunter Thompson’s quote from Fear and Loathing in ’71, speaking about the idealism that drove the 1960s, that “from here you could see the great wave crest, and begin to recede.” Either way, Don has returned from the far reaches of America and now very literally bottled and served the 1960s for your amusement in the 1970s…and beyond. Don is us, all of us. And no ending could have been any less final.