I don’t want to talk about it. – (Don Draper to fellow veterans)
I don’t want to talk about it. – (Sally Draper to her brother)
Time is a funny thing. We have tons of it when we don’t need it, to the point we actually find ways to “waste” it. But, what about those moments when we wish we could freeze it, slow it down and capture a moment; regardless of its length or what we might be forced to give up in the process. Last night’s penultimate episode of Mad Men certainly fit the usual next-to-last drama formula. The reason the season finale is such a successful plot device on television is because your favorite shows find their dramatic peak the weak before and leave the audience pining to see characters get out of their straitjackets. The tears flow the week before more often than they do on that final week of the season. However, there’s an exception: The series finale.
“The Milk and Honey Route” focused on every character last week’s episode ignored. In an hour, it’s impossible for Matthew Weiner and his staff to handle each character equally and correctly during the final stretch run of Mad Men. Last Sunday, the show gave us began to tie up the loose ends in the lives of Peggy, Joan, and Roger; tonight it was Betty, Pete, and the Draper family as a whole. As with many episodes of this final season, Sunday used many examples to tell the same story, and did a beautiful job of it this time around.
Mad Men’s second to last hour was all about finding “it” and the subsequent rewards or failures of the time that has passed and the time that remains once a person achieves that discovery.
My mom made me a proud son on Mother’s Day for many reasons, as she always does, but especially this year. Two years ago, she mentioned to me that it would be unacceptable for a main character not to die due to lung cancer from egregious and overzealous smoking addictions. Her question was always whether or not the show itself would have the guts to do it, and guess what, they did. She was right. It was an angle that I never thought of and she continually stuck to that prediction and that concept week after week. Mom, you crushed it. I need to buy you another card. One wasn’t enough.
Betty Francis finally figured “it” out in her life. Her own mental issues and sensitive personality problems led her to therapy, to divorce, to remarriage and a reassessment of her role as a mother. She decided that going to school in order to help others with their own problems would be fulfilling and would give her life worth. She was truly happy in these last few January Jones appearances and seemed to have it all under her thumb, but in the right way. Unfortunately, Betty smoked one too many cigarettes alone in her kitchen, or with her husband or her friends, or at every social function, hotel, movie, school outing, and trip…you get the idea. Her lung cancer diagnosis came swiftly and her condition had advanced at a time when technology offered very little in treatment. She seems resigned to her fate; but wants to live her life as long as she can while waiting for her final breath. It may not include treatment, but she’s still going to class.
Peter Campbell has been on the path to “it” for quite some time now. It’s not coincidental that I’ve chosen his quotes more than once this season for my bold-faced openings. He was the immature, foot-in-mouth, prick of a jerk that we’ve loved to watch lose for years. This season, we have seen him not as a good father, but as an excellent father. We’ve seen him behave like the adult in the room and the man who has achieved a level of professional respect. Even after the adultery, Trudy never badmouthed him to her daughter, a truth that left her friend stunned. But, in the end, Pete realized that his unique “it” was the love of his life and the other love of his life. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t success. It wasn’t fame. It wasn’t the tailored suit or the martini or the car service. It was Trudy. It was his daughter. It was his family. He realized it fast enough to make one final gesture, and it worked. Mad Men allowed Pete Campbell (it could change, but I highly doubt it) to have a pleasant ending, because he stepped to his wife as a man with nothing but genuine adoration in his heart. It was a wonderful way to send Vincent Kartheiser and Alison Brie off, and it certainly felt like honest closure. He says “We’re not even through half of our lives and we’re entitled to something more. We’re entitled to something new.”
Speaking of honesty, I finally feel like we have a handle on how Don Draper’s story is going to end, and it took losing almost everything, the Kerouacian journey he’s on, a few phonebooks to the face, and a trip down memory lane to get us here. For Don, he still doesn’t fully grasp what “it” is, but he does know what the equal and opposite (or potentially stronger) negative “it” will mean for the boy he befriends at the hotel. The boy who hits him up for double the money for the whiskey and that same boy, who says his parents and no one else should care how he makes his dough, is in danger. That boy, who steals the veterans’ money and seemingly has no remorse, keeps cutting into Don’s respite halfway across the country from everything he knows. Why does this young man show up in the next to last episode of Mad Men? He’s Dick Whitman, that’s why.
As Don tries to convince the kid that ending up having to be someone else “isn’t what you think it is” and the hardships of never being able to return home aren’t worth the quick score, he’s speaking from obvious experience. Don was forced to look into his past around the veterans, even admitting to the mistake in Korea that led to the whole mess in the first place. He’s almost there folks, and although next week’s finale is indeed going to require tissues; it’s not going to be because our protagonist has passed away.
When Don tosses his keys to the boy, giving him a chance, telling him not to waste it, he’s trying to save that lean, dark-haired, troubled kid from becoming the next Don Draper. Sitting at the bus stop, looking positively ordinary, it suddenly became quite clear what’s coming next week. It could be wrong, but I’m going to put myself out there and just tell you what I think will occur as this epic series comes to a close.
Betty Draper’s final words were spoken in the letter to her daughter, who she treated like the adult who could handle things even her own husband couldn’t. Sally has earned her respect and her trust. Her life is going to be an adventure, but she’s equipped to handle it. Two weeks ago, when Don said “Bye Birdie,” that was Don’s goodbye to Betty and it was Jon Hamm’s goodbye to January Jones as actors in this particular story. I would be somewhat surprised if we see her again, but we will see her tombstone more than likely. The question will be whether Don Draper is standing before his first love’s final resting place or not.
It seems very likely that McCann-Erickson is about to see a mass exodus of its newest employees. Peter is headed to Wichita with his gorgeous family, Joan walked out the door last week, and Peggy has already been treated poorly. It only makes sense that Peggy’s ending â€“ a woman whose life is nothing but work – be defined by an office and a named partnership. My expectation would be Olson Sterling Holloway opening its doors in some fashion. The key will be Peggy’s name being first on the door, because it both shows the change in the world as well as Peggy’s refusal to stop pushing back against society from her very first day as a secretary. We’ll see if there’s romance, but that seems somewhat unlikely.
That leaves us with Don Draper, whose ending could be falling out of a building in a very uninspiring way, echoing the opening credits, or driving off into the middle of nowhere as the camera fades to black. He could die in a bus crash. It could be cirrhosis or any number of other final fates, but the reality is Don Draper’s “it” is his identity. Mad Men should end, and in my opinion will end, not with Don’s death, but with Dick Whitman’s rebirth. After whatever sets it up, Don Draper has to turn himself in, come clean with the authorities, and suffer the consequences. My expectation is we will see, at some point in the final minutes, a real smile on the face of Jon Hamm as he begins to walk in the front door of a government building. Don Draper dies. Dick Whitman lives. He talks about “it,” once and for all.
He’s finally free, in the only way a man can be, which has nothing to do with a cell door and bars or a wide open plain. The question we won’t ever see answered is did he figure “it” out in time?
The show’s central question internally has always been “Who is Don Draper?” The answer has always been the same: Dick Whitman.
Next week, everyone in that world finds out what we’ve known on this side of the flat screen since 2007. I look forward to talking to you all again then and reminiscing on this special piece of fiction and the end of an era.
One final note, as part of our Top Ten Drama list here at Outkick, Mad Men ranked number three on my countdown. If you have a few minutes, please take the time to read my extended thoughts on the series, composed late last year.
I’m stirring up trouble regularly @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. It’s good news; catch your breath.