Happiness is the Real Thing in Mad Men Series Finale
While writing the final episode of Mad Men, Matt Weiner must have been listening to some Neil Young. Given the darkness of the previous episodes in Season Seven, he decided that “this much sadness is too much sorrow”, and authored a complete tonal shift in the series’ ambience in the finale. No one falls from a skyscraper or hijacks a plane. Everyone seems to get something they either want or need; even the terminally ill Betty gets to put her affairs– and her kids– in order her way, when she dissuades a stricken Don Draper from leaving his picaresque journey that has taken him most recently to the Bonneville Salt Flats to come back to tend to Sally, Bobby and Gene.
One critic has opined that the shift from impending doom to sunshine was due to Weiner falling in love with his characters, and deciding that he wanted a better end for them than what was justified. I’m not so sure of that. While all of these characters had their issues, they also had their redeeming qualities and it was the latter that dictated the end of the series. Roger grows up just a bit and marries a woman in his age cohort who is bright, articulate and headstrong– the tempestuous Marie, who promises to make his life rich, full and turbulent. The fact that he’s willing to go so far as to learn how to say “lobster” in French is certainly a sign of personal growth—perhaps the most we can expect from Roger.
Stan and Peggy realize they’re in love with each other in one of the most stunningly romantic scenes we’ve seen in the seven years of the series’ run. Peggy’s personal arc proves that women, even back in a more unenlightened time, could be brilliant at the office and happy at home. The relationship between the two creative types has been one of the more compelling to watch as it has matured over the years. The two of them kissing in the office was a truly cathartic moment for Peggy devotees (and, let’s face it, who isn’t?).
Joan loses her man but finds herself, choosing the start-up of her own business over being an appendage to Richard, the real estate mogul. Turns out that Richard wants a traditional relationship and Joan needs more in her life. We could have predicted this relationship coming apart after Richard’s first reaction hearing that Joan had a child several episodes ago. Christina Hendricks as Joan lights up every scene she’s in during the finale. Her intensity is palpable once she meets up with Ken Cosgrove, who has come to her with the idea of her producing an industrial film for him. Joan, ever the classic networker, realizes that there’s good money in film production, and she’s got just the kind of stuffed rolodex that’s needed to be successful. The break up with Richard is brilliantly played– they both know that once she answers her phone to take a business call, they’re done. When she does pick up the receiver, her struggle to regain her composure, and then the poised way she finishes the call, puts a punctuation point on a brilliantly played scene by both Hendricks and Bruce Greenwood as Richard. Later, Peggy makes the right decision in turning Joan’s offer of a partnership down, showing the first signs of knowing herself well enough to remain true to her dream of becoming a creative director. That same sense of self-awareness allows her to realize later that she’s in love with Stan.
These are all characters learning about themselves– their limits, their foibles, but more importantly, what it will take to gain some kind of fulfillment out of their lives. Whether it’s reconciling with your ex-wife in Pete’s case or journeying across the country and into the heart of New Age narcissism to rediscover your inner ad man, as in the case of the prodigal Don Draper, seeking happiness is a legitimate human condition.
For a hot moment toward the end of the episode and the series, I thought Don might be heading for a new career as a self-help guru, and I started to panic. When he hugged Leonard, the sad sack of a guy who tearily confessed to considering himself an invisible man (Evan Arnold, hitting the character actor mother lode by taking on one of more high-risk and unexpected cameos in recent memory), it looked like Don was going to never leave the hippie grifters who “niece” Stephanie had bequeathed to him.
But Matt Weiner had one move left up his sleeve. As Don sits yoga-style, with a beatific smile spreading across his face, the screen dissolves to one of the most famous (and annoying) minutes in the history of advertising—the “I’d like to give the world a Coke” ad, featuring a group of shining, happy faces who for all the world look like the members of the Esalen-like enclave that Don has fallen in with. And leaving no mistake that, for whatever revelations Don found in the hills overlooking Carmel, at the end of the day (and the series), he’s still an advertising man, putting his life experience through his mix-master of creativity in the service of Madison Avenue. Maybe that’s what you get when you strip Dick/Don clean away—a Mad Man at the core. Hippie culture translated into Madison Avenue gold—a somewhat cynical but perfectly fitting coda to the seminal series.
Why Weiner chose to have the pivotal scene focus on a new character, and one as anonymous as Leonard (both in fiction and reality) is somewhat of a mystery. Perhaps at this point Draper/Whitman is as anonymous, and as atomized and lonely, as Leonard is. And perhaps Draper/Whitman was just waiting for a vehicle for his catharsis to come along, and this was as good as it was going to get.
The episode is called “Person to Person”, and an argument can be made that the most compelling scenes in the hour were the three person-to- person calls Don makes to the three women who are the only sources of continuity in his life. There’s his first wife, who he now affectionately calls “Birdie” while he has what he knows is going to be his last conversation with her (January Jones’ brilliance as Betty over these final episodes has had to have made at least some converts of those who have been critical of the beautiful actress’ acting chops).
That conversation is right after Sally spills the beans about Betty’s illness, in yet another great scene from Kiernan Shipka, looking older and more mature by the episode, as she takes on the adult role in her conversation with her father. As she demands to be taken seriously by her wayward dad, we can sense her assertion of authority and the likelihood of her becoming a surrogate mom to her two younger brothers.
The best phone call is the last, and it’s what we’ve waited for—Don reminding himself of his unbreakable bond with Peggy, whom he calls in the depths of his despondency, and to whom he desperately wants to confess. Don says to Peggy that he’s not the man who she thinks he is, but we know better, and so does she—Peggy knows exactly who he is, warts and all. But he has believed in her for all these years, and she tries to pay it forward now, the voice of reason and calm, urging him to get his act together and come back to New York. When he says goodbye, we think it’s for good. But then, there’s the Coke ad, and we know that at some point, Don and Peggy have reunited. That would have happened in Season Eight.
Final episodes are tricky things. Viewers want catharsis, but they often get ambiguity. When shows are wrapped up neatly, like Breaking Bad, there’s a sense of closure, but it can feel too pat and predictable, as it did with the death of Walter White. The Sopranos ending took ambiguity to the limit, as people still debate today what the meaning of the final, abrupt cut to black. The best thing you can say about the Mad Men wrap is that it was appropriate, and in character for the series. Not really an end but perhaps a new beginning, at least for Don, in a new and perhaps wiser (but still jaded) incarnation. And perhaps that’s enough. Whether or not it is, it’s going to have to be. As we leave our favorite characters, let me invoke what Marie Calvet Sterling might have said at this point—“bon chance, mon amies.” Good luck to all.
Harlan R. Teller