“Is [Don] dead?” Meredith asks Roger, who’s very gently trying to let her go, early in Mad Men‘s series finale. Then: “I hope he’s in a better place.” Roger quickly becomes exasperated. “Stop saying that,” he tells her. “He’s not dead.” On one level, this is clearly Matthew Weiner poking fun at everyone who thought Don was fated to go out the office window or march into the sea or jump out of a damn airplane in the show’s final scenes. But it’s one of Mad Men‘s charms — and quirks, as well as perhaps a bit of a cliché — that its truest words are often spoken by children and fools. “There’s a lot better places than here,” Meredith replies. And wouldn’t you know it: Don Draper ends up in one of them.
In a scene that made me wonder, in the geekiest of fashions, whether Weiner had read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, the episode — titled “Person to Person,” after the form of operator-assisted phone call that Don makes to both Betty and Peggy — picks up Don’s cross-country bender at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Racing cars and hanging out in auto-body shops and talking land speed records and letting his hair fall in his face, he’s taken on yet another mini-identity — one that allows him to blur the line between ambition and suicide.
The coexisting, Freudian drives for life and death were a major theme of Mad Men‘s pilot. Back then, Don was deeply distrustful of research that suggested he use the death instinct in a Lucky Strike campaign. A decade later, with Betty dying of lung cancer and telling Don, “I want to keep things as normal as possible, and you not being here is part of that,” he’s silently embracing it.
Of course, he ends up in California, at the doorstep of the very last person who knows him as Dick Whitman: Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie. “This is bullshit,” she says, assuming he’s arrived to punish her for the life she’s living, separated from her child. But she ends up taking him with her to an Esalen-like retreat, where he stoically participates in goofy seminars and — in one of the finale’s very welcome moments of highly pointed comedy — an older woman (who may be just a decade Don’s senior) responds to an invitation to demonstrate how Don make her feel by giving him a good old shove in the chest.
It turns out that neither Esalen nor the Don Draper School of Self-Reinvention is for Stephanie. “You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things,” he tells her after she runs out of a seminar where everyone is judging her for abandoning her baby, in one of the episode’s darkest moments. After a late-night encounter, she disappears with the car, leaving Don stranded. “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye?” he asks, as though the retreat is supposed to operate under the same rules as an asylum.
It’s then that Don, seemingly on the verge of quite intentional suicide, places that person-to-person call to Peggy. “You can come home,” she tells him, after yelling for a minute about how worried everyone is. “I’m not the man you think I am,” Don counters. But she calls him on it: “What did you ever do that was so bad?” she asks. When he tells her, it’s clear she’s still more worried than shocked — while she didn’t know the specifics, Peggy understands, perhaps better than Don himself, that he’s above all a man haunted by secrets from his past. “I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you,” he tells her, before hanging up, over her protests that he shouldn’t be alone right now.
What Don doesn’t realize is that he’s doing Peggy a big favor by providing some closure to their relationship (even if, depending on how you interpret the episode’s final moments, their separation is only temporary). “You’ve got to let [Don] go,” Stan tells her — because, of course, he’s the first person she calls when they hang up. Earlier in the episode, they have a painful fight after Peggy breaks the news to him about a job offer (from Joan, no less) and he says she’d be crazy to leave.
Mad Men isn’t a show that offers much in the way of fan service, so it was important to make Stan and Peggy’s long-awaited romance feel earned. For that to happen, Peggy had to realize that Don wouldn’t always be the center of her universe; although he’s ultimately more of a mentor/father figure to her, there has been plenty of unconsummated, sometimes wholly non-sexual romance between them over the years.
In a subtler way, I think Peggy also needed to admit that she was done having to prove herself. At a meeting early in the episode, she decided to throw her weight around, earning both a project and the respect of a superior in the process. And her resolution with Pete, seven full seasons in the making, consisted of him expressing his unqualified respect for her talent.
Stan, of course, tells Peggy she’s brilliant at every opportunity. So when he gets to the end of the speech he makes to her over the phone — which, it must be said, reeks of romantic comedy, in the most tolerable way possible — and confesses, “I’m in love with you,” we know what that means. Peggy doesn’t lose anything by letting herself admit that she loves Stan too (!!!); he’s come a long way (baby) to become a man who not only accepts but straight-up can’t live without a woman whose creative genius outstrips his own.
In a sense, Peggy gets the ending we might once have wanted for Joan, and vice versa. After what very much looks like a cocaine-fueled awakening to her own potential in Florida with Richard, she meets with Ken Cosgrove, who wants her help tracking down a producer for an easy-money project. Joan immediately realizes that she’s capable of taking the job herself.
The first thing she does is nail down Peggy to write. For fans — especially those of us who saw some sort of feminist potential in the coming together of Joan and Peggy — it’s thrilling to watch them eat lunch together and fantasize about a production company Joan proposes calling “Harris Olson.” But Mad Men could only fit so much “You go girl!” into the finale without becoming a different show, and the thing is, while it’s nice to see them part on good terms, Joan and Peggy were just never going to be best friends. Their partnerships would have been a tense, competitive nightmare. And that’s fine! These are very specific characters, and the fact that they don’t work happily ever after together doesn’t necessarily say anything about the relationships between capable, high-powered women.
What’s more important, in Joan’s case, is that she loses Richard — who, let’s face it, was always a bit of creep — and finds her real passion. The production company is her greatest success ever, largely because it’s something she uses her intelligence and experience, rather than her body, to get. This wouldn’t have been an honest finale if there wasn’t some sadness mixed with the triumph, and it’s quite possible that Joan will never find the man she deserves. But she certainly doesn’t look too upset about it in the closing montage.
Let’s stop here and review that closing montage, which Twitter has already debated to death, albeit with an unsurprising lack of nuance:
- Pete and Trudy, who is rocking some excellently big hair, get on their Learjet to a lifetime of privilege. There’s no way their second go-round won’t be haunted by their first, but I can imagine them settling in to some measure of low-level happiness.
- Roger has some wine with his “mère,” Marie Calvet. Having unburdened his conscience a bit by ensuring his son with Joan would inherit his millions, he’s finally found the challenge he’s been (listlessly) looking for all these years: a feisty French-Canadian woman roughly his own age. Vive Roger et Marie, I say!
- Joan is hard at work on her production company, and even has an employee. What’s notable here is that she’s working out of her home — a very literal sign that she’s doing things on her own, unapologetically feminine, terms.
- We get just one final glimpse of Peggy and Stan; he’s rubbing her shoulders as she works. They get perhaps the happiest ending of anyone here, and they deserve it, though I have to wonder: Do they ever get to leave the office? Seems like a fair question!
- Sally and Betty’s scene in the darkened kitchen, meanwhile, is the saddest. I still hate Betty’s ending — that this is what it took for Sally to realize she loves and wants to care for her mother. But I don’t take this as anything approaching the final word on Sally’s life. We got that in Betty’s letter last week, when she told her daughter that her life would be an adventure.
All of this brings us back to Don Draper, who finally has his ding-ing revelation in the midst of — what else? — a meditation class. He has recently had what the industry calls a “breakthrough” in another session, with a man named Leonard, who “has never been interesting to anybody” and has a vision of being an item on a refrigerator shelf that no one ever picks up. Leonard is the ultimate victim of advertising, the guy who keeps expecting other people to give “it” to him without ever discovering what “it” is supposed to be. When Don hugs Leonard, I think he’s realizing — simultaneously — what harm he’s indirectly done to this man and that, as someone who also keeps fruitlessly buying into the things he’s selling, they’re basically the same person.
There are a whole lot of ways to interpret the Coca-Cola spot — perhaps the most successful advertisement of all time — that ends the series. And contrary to what Twitter would have you think, those interpretations are not mutually exclusive. It’s very possible that Don sublimates his moment of zen into a Coke ad — and the red-ribboned braids on both the retreat employee and the woman in the ad support that interpretation. If it makes us happy, we can even think of it as the most successful collaboration between Don and Peggy; maybe that’s what we see her writing at her desk, as Stan looks on with pride. (The real advertisement was, in fact, created by McCann.) Hey, there’s even a distinct chance that one of them insisted on hiring Joan’s production company to shoot it.
But I’m not convinced that any of this is nearly as important as what the ad represents — and let’s be clear: the ad doesn’t just represent one thing. For me, it’s the moment that confirms Don Draper isn’t a character so much as a metaphor. In a lot of ways, he’s barely existed in the physical plane this season, so it’s fitting that his resolution is a moment rather than any particular “future.”
And by detaching from desire for that one moment, he gains his greatest-ever insight into it. Whether he writes the ad himself or some distant copywriter, be it Peggy Olson or someone he’s never met, co-opts his revelation, the point is that Don represents advertising (and the American Dream, which basically reduces to advertising) in its purest form. Yes, it’s artificial by definition, propaganda for buying goods and services that you probably don’t need. But the best advertisements work because they’re suffused with honesty about the human need for fulfillment; and they stand in for the fact that it isn’t really possible. A genius advertisement is a monument to human tragedy.
Then there’s the meaning the Coca-Cola ad imposes on the montage that precedes it. Those final images of the characters we loved (and often loved to hate) were by far the most saccharine moments in seven seasons of Mad Men — yet, at least in my living room, we cooed and cheered and maybe even teared up a little over them anyway. Like the best Mad Men music cues, the Coke ad pokes a bit of fun at us viewers, for allowing Weiner and co. to manipulate us the same way Don Draper manipulates America (and himself). Remember, that song is saying: this is all a fiction, and you bought in to it.