If you’ve never seen Mad Men, don’t read this. Not that you’d want to. If you’ve never seen the show it won’t interest you or make sense to you anyway. But Mad Men is one of the greatest TV shows in history and if you haven’t watched it yet, you should at some point in the future. So don’t read this because it contains SPOILERS (I think there’s a law that says that word always has to be in all caps now).
Quick notes I jotted down around midnight or so after watching the episode twice. Not an essay but late-at-night jumbled thoughts I cut and pasted into a post, with grammatical errors. Hopefully it makes sense.
They say that people can be divided into two groups: PC/Mac, morning person/evening person, Coke/Pepsi, Letterman/Leno. And I think there’s another two to add to that list: people who thought last night’s Mad Men series finale was lame and cynical and those who think it was fantastic and deeply satisfying.
I’m in the latter group.
I don’t really see how anyone can think that Don’s ending was cynical. Maybe it’s an age thing. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t like that he comes up with the classic Coke commercial after such an emotional personal journey and goes back to NYC and works for “the man” again. Maybe it’s because I love advertising and don’t see it as “bad” or “selling out.”. What other ending would have been as satisfying? Don jumping off those Northern Cal cliffs to his death (death for Don would have been the lazy, easy way out, thinking that a show is more important or has more gravitas because the lead character dies)? Changing his name yet again and leaving his kids/friends/work forever? Or something even worse than a disappearance or death, becoming a… hippie?!?
No, this was a beautiful ending because we see Don having the breakthrough (which should please the fans who wanted Don to grow and learn and change) and then realizing that his “real” life actually is back in NYC. He’s going back to work and he’ll be in his kids’ lives again and everything’s back to normal. He’s found peace, with the world, with advertising, and especially with who he is/was.
I’ll admit that when I saw that Don wasn’t back in NYC when the episode started (testing a car at the Bonneville Salt Flats??) and the whole episode takes place in a commune with Stephanie, I wondered where the hell is this going. I thought it was going to go in a direction I didn’t want to see. But everything tied together and those last 10 minutes were perfect.
When you think of the entire episode and its structure, it’s amazing what Matthew Weiner and company were able to do. They got a lot of characters in there and they all got endings, but they’re endings that weren’t all “endings” as in death (well, except for Betty, but that made sense) or firing or OMG moments, endings that showed a continuation, because in the real world life does go on. They actually pulled off a neat trick: completely fooling us with a zig and a zag here (the show was always two steps ahead of fans and reviewers and people on social media) while still giving ‘shippers who wanted to see certain things happen actually see those things happen. Peggy and Stan got together! Pete and Trudy and Tammy flew off into the sunset (literally) together and happy! Roger and Marie are getting married (come on, they’re perfect for each other)! Joan is starting her own business!
We even got to see nice moments that wrapped things up between certain characters. I was afraid Don and Betty had had their last conversation in the kitchen and Don wouldn’t know she’s dying, but he got to say goodbye to her on the phone (even if the goodbye was “I’ll see you soon”). That was a really well-acted scene by Hamm and Jones. I was really impressed – and this may sound odd but it stood out – by the acting that Hamm and Jones did with their breathing and crying on the phone. It was real and emotional (noticed the same thing when Moss was on the phone with Jay Ferguson, her breathing and how she comically kept saying “What?” – what a terrific acting job). Don and Betty made peace with their relationship at the end and it all felt real.
Sally, after being sort of a typical teenager who rolled her eyes and couldn’t stand her parents and had seen/heard so much, finally came home and, well, became one of the more responsible people on the show. She’s going to be just fine (nice scene with Bobby too, and it’s great that Gene finally got a line!)
Meredith is let go by Roger and says she always ends up OK (and we know she will) and Pete and Peggy…just great. I’ll even say that Pete completely redeemed himself at the end. A thing like that!
We even got to see Ken again, in a scene that at was both odd – when did Ken and Joan really do anything together? – but also made beautiful sense. They’re going to be working together and this is the start of Joan’s business. Sure, Peggy decided to stay at McCann and not partner with Joan but at least she and Joan were close at the end and she’s probably at least going to work on that script and their friendship is solid.
And I was glad to see Harry get a good send-off too. He was only in the episode for a minute but the scene was funny – Harry getting a tin of cookies and Peggy mentioning to Pete that Harry thinks they’re the Three Musketeers when they’ve never even had lunch together before. This was a very quick scene but it redeemed Harry a bit because he wanted the three of them to go out to lunch together and he couldn’t understand why Peggy couldn’t go. He’s sleazy but this showed a heart (much like the time he lied to Paul about the Star Trek script and gave him money to leave for L.A.).
Some people will say that some characters didn’t get final “ending” scenes with each other. I personally think everyone did, but you also have to remember that Don comes back to NYC and gets to continue life with Peggy and Joan and his kids.
I think a lot of us saw the Coke commercial coming – though not in the way it came – because there were so many references to Coke in the past few episodes. Jim Hobart telling Don he was going to work on the account, Don fixing the Coke machine at the motel. Hell, Joan even did coke in this episode (side note: glad she and Richard didn’t work out. I think a lot of people thought he was going to be the knight in shining armor Joan deserved, and while he wasn’t a cad, they just weren’t right for each other, and I’m going to assume he took his coke with him and that was a one-time experiment for Joan and she’s never going to try it again).
Not every series finale can be perfect – and I think shows like The Sopranos and Lost have kind of screwed up our expectations of what a finale is supposed to be – but wasn’t this pretty much perfect? I have a theory that all pop culture is personal. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been drifting away from being a TV critic. No matter how “good” or “bad” something is, we take a TV show or movie or song or book a certain way because we like the things that we like and we don’t like the things we don’t like. We bring into everything our tastes and interests and biases and that’s how we ultimately judge something. Mad Men was deeply personal for me for many reasons, but I think we can universally say it’s one of the great TV dramas of all-time. One that somehow fused character journeys and pop culture in a way that wasn’t really done before. And unlike a lot of series finales lately (*cough* Lost *cough*), we can go back and watch the episodes again without thinking it’s a waste of time because it eventually falls apart. This was perfect. It put a period on the story but one that shows that the characters and story continue (again, that’s a neat trick for a writer to pull off).
Thank you Matt Weiner for not only creating a brilliant TV show but also a work of art.