Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men's Brilliant, Ambiguous Finale: It's the Real Thing. Or Is It?


***SPOILER ALERT. Don't read if you haven't watched last night's episode yet and don't want to know how it ended!***

I'm still feeling verklempt this morning. Mad Men is now television history. It's been a long time since the ending of a series made me weepy, but I admit that's exactly how I felt last night, mostly because the 77 minute-long episode, "Person to Person", ended on a satisfying note. 

For the most part, last night's series finale brought "apple trees and honey bees" to every major character. 

Pete and his family were seen existing a limo and entering a private jet on route to their new lives in Kansas--or perhaps they were already settled in and taking their first luxury vacation. God love him, Roger married his "mother"--or rather, Megan's mother, Marie Calvet. Even a disagreement in bed with Marie screaming at Roger in French ("All I got was 'suitcase.' Yell at me slower or in English!") couldn't squelch the romance. They celebrated over a meal of the rich food we always assumed would kill the show's resident bon vivant. Shine on, you crazy diamond, you!



Speaking of romance, fans who have been routing for a "Steggy" coupling finally got their wish last night when Stan and Peggy had a beautiful, revealing office phone conversation which culminated with Stan rushing into Peggy's office and into her arms. Stan had told Peggy that he was in love with her, and Peggy realized that she in turn was in love with a friend--a guy she's had some disagreements with in the past, but only because he always had her best interests at heart. Finally, Peggy got the good guy she deserved after suffering through a string of disappointing relationships with mostly losers. Score for the working woman who can have it all. 

Things didn't work out so well for Joan in the guy department. Her businessman boyfriend Richard turned out to be "a cad" after all, doing a 180 after Joan revealed her plans to start her own business. This after he had previously told her he'd do anything to be with a woman like her and that her life was "undeveloped property." Eh, who needs the coke sniffer anyway? (Coke as in cocaine, not Coca-Cola, which I'll get to in a minute.) 

Joan still made out well. Her new advertising/media production company was off to a strong start in last night's episode (she even met with Peggy and offered her partnership, and I'm a little disappointed Peggy turned it down, even if Stan wasn't.) Her little boy Kevin is also set for life, after Roger paid a visit to announce that he was leaving half of his estate to his son. 

And that leaves us with Don, who found himself on a spiritual retreat in what I assume was the gorgeous Big Sur region of California (an area Bobby Darin hightailed it to in search of inner peace when he was going through his own identity crisis.) He is accompanied by Stephanie, the niece of the real Don Draper, the man whose identity he stole. She's had her baby, but doesn't make the child a part of her life, something she is chastised for by another guest during one of the sessions at the retreat. 

Emotions run high for Don during this episode. He practically has a nervous breakdown, calling Peggy at one point and revealing all of the bad things he's done during his life that he's ashamed of. Peggy is very concerned by his state of mind after the call and indeed, for a fleeting moment I thought that the Don Draper death rumors were going to prove true. Thankfully they didn't. Stan tells her that she needs to "let him go", which is the harsh reality all of us viewers are facing this morning after as well. 

After the phone call Don has a panic attack and one of the retreat's teachers finds him slumped on the ground and encourages him to join her next session. There, he listens to a story by one of the other attendees--an average looking man who says that he is a very uninteresting person and that he feels that other people look right through him, including his wife and kids. In a very kumbaya moment, Don is moved to cross the room and embrace the stranger, and begins sobbing along with him. Either Don relates to the man's story for feeling invisible himself, or he suddenly feels grateful that he was, at least in his career at one time, never overlooked by other people. 



The next morning, Don is sitting cross legged with the other members on a mountaintop overlooking the Pacific ocean. As the instructor reminds everyone that it's the beginning of a new day and leads everyone into an "ommmm" chant, a smirk slowly emerges across Don's--or Dick's face. Has he finally achieved inner peace, or has he found...

His next big, glorious advertising idea? Because right after that image of Don's zen-like bliss, we're treated to the highly iconic 1971 Coca-Cola commercial that featured a plethora of young people representing various races and cultures singing, "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)."

We'll never know for sure, but there were clues throughout the show that seemed to indicate that fate. Coke was mentioned several times in previous seasons, and in last week's episode, "The Milk and Honey Route", Don is seen staring at a motel's Coke dispenser in need of repair (a metaphor, perhaps, for a broken brand that needs a refresh.)



Even more mysterious is that the real ad exec who conceived the commercial was Bill Backer (a name that sounds an awful lot like Don Draper, right down to the same number of syllables...dun dun dun!) He worked for McCann Erickson at the time and was inspired by the idea while he found himself stuck in an Irish airport and witnessed previously irritated travelers bonding over Coke during the layover. 

And did you notice how the girl at the front office of the retreat was sporting the same braided hairstyle with red ribbons as one of the girls in the commercial? 

In Don's case, the bonding and coming together of various people during the retreat would have inspired the commercial. It is feasible that he could have made a return to New York and McCann and pitched this in an effort to save his job.

Or maybe not. Don--or Dick--seemed to have finally found his authentic self as the series drew to a close. Everything about his former life--with perhaps the exception of his kids and friendships with coworkers--had eventually left him unfulfilled. He had declared to his daughter (or was it Peggy?) he was now retired. As I and other fans had predicted, Don Draper pretty much died and Dick Whitman was being embraced. It seems that final (or second to final) message Bert Cooper delivered--that "the best things in life are free" was now fully realized by Dick Whitman. 

Whatever we are supposed to believe, it's brilliant. Congratulations to Matthew Weiner and everyone who wrote, produced, directed, acted and otherwise contributed to such a fine, thought-provoking series--the likes of which we will not experience again for a long time. Adieu, friends. I think to celebrate, I'm going to go have a Coke. 

3 comments:

  1. I didn't find it super satisfying. Peggy's romance seemed so haphazardly thrown together, and she's in a job she's not sure she likes? I appreciate Joan forging ahead with her business and being successful but I just really, really wanted a happy romance with her. I actually kinda liked the scene with her doing coke. It was a spontaneous side of Joan we didn't see that much of. Trudy and Pete seem so farfetched...it's child of divorce wish fulfillment. And I'm still not sure that Don learned any lasting lessons.

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  2. When I watched the show live, I was a little disappointed with it...especially the ending. But for a week afterwards, I thought about it a lot. For me personally, I like to think that Don went back to NY and created that Coke commercial and reigned at the top of the advertising world because of it. Vindicating himself after what seemed to be a lot of second guessing of himself in the final season. That's how I choose to think of Don beyond the finale.

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  3. The more I think about it, the more I feel the ending meant Don returned to McCann with the idea for the Coke commercial. The clues were there. I agree that the minor characters were strong and likable, too. I forgot to give a nod to Freddy Rumsen in Never an Say Goodbye. He'd surely be proud of Peggy, his "ballerina." I loved the part where Pete said "Good morning" to Trudy as he left after making his plea to her. I think Weiner easily could have extended the show for another 1-2 seasons, but it seems wiser to end it with people wanting more.

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