A lot has happened. – Dick Whitman
The questions were wide-ranging as to what Matthew Weiner would do with his series finale. What we all knew, or should have known from the outset, is it would be completely on his terms and with no real care for what the audience either expected or desired. That’s not a bad thing. It’s somewhat rare to find the creator with a vision he sticks to against all odds. But, in this case, Matthew Weiner learned at the altar of David Chase, whose Sopranos finale still generates conversation to this day because of its open-ended nature. Last night, on Sunday, May 17, 2015, AMC said goodbye to the show that originally put it on the map. The “End of an Era” hashtag wasn’t merely a marketing tool, though that was a bonus. Television drama is alive and well, with The Americans and Game of Thrones now leading the charge. However, it was Mad Men that re-upped HBO’s turn-of-the-century ante, and in the process changed the entire face of the medium.
“Person to Person” can be boiled down to one general theme; the solitary force that has generated the concluding stanza for more works of fiction than an army could shake trees full of sticks at or a plethora of mathematicians could hope to count. From the low brow to the middle ground to the most effective and lasting commentaries on any generation, the answer has always been love.
The central truth of the Bible and the Christian faith comes down to the agape love of Jesus Christ. In the end, Harry Potter defeated Voldemort and the forces of evil because the dark side couldn’t grasp or understand love. Lost’s conclusion relied on one man or woman’s “constant,” which was a way to describe the connection of love between the right two people as well as each individual and their chosen belief structure. Just in this past television season alone, in the last few weeks, numerous season and series finales, from the heaviest drama to the lightest comedy, have completely revolved around love as the driving force that dwarfs all others.
And in Matthew Weiner’s final episode of Mad Men, it was the desire for the RIGHT love that helped define the proceedings.
Whether we’re speaking of Peggy’s realization that Stan was right, that there was “more to life than work,” or Roger’s relationship with Marie Calvet, or Joan realizing that a man who wanted her to choose between him and having any kind of professional existence wasn’t the correct version of the love she wanted, it was that connection, both as friends, spouses, and lovers, that hit home. Don Draper and Betty didn’t say those three magical words to one another on their phone call, but it was implied, and therefore much more effective. Pete and Trudy, smiling, with no sense whatsoever of the jackass Pete Campbell was when Mad Men started. The idea of the wedding ring Dick attempted to give to Stephanie was a symbol of the absence of true love in his life. Sally’s love as a sister, attempting to help her younger brother learn how to make dinner as his mother rested on her deathbed, is what many refer to as “unconditional” love.
Love conquers all, eventually. Even as the episode opened with Dick and the car, it was Jim Morrison belting out “Love me two times, I’m goin’ away.” Don was already gone, and he’d have settled for just once.
In the final minute, the Coke ad that both reflected the advertising industry, the largest imaginable account and the one Don Draper gave up on his journey west, what’s the overarching point of that campaign? It’s always been that Coke is a sign of love and camaraderie to the world. When I give you a Coke, we share a bond with one another as we spend time together. It’s one of the most popular ads of all time and it did indeed originate at McCann Erickson. The ad debuted in 1971. The episode itself mainly occurred during October of 1970. I’d like to believe Peggy and Stan helped come up with it. It was also the perfect way to end one hell of a television show.
When Dick Whitman broke down and hugged the stranger at the retreat/commune, it was out of pure empathy with that man’s struggle to believe that someone in the world could in fact love him and would “pick” him. Even when he was married, it wasn’t right. It was a heartbreaking story and the refrigerator allegory worked in two ways as it explained the situation at hand but also led to something deeper. A closed refrigerator isn’t just dark; it’s also brutally cold. Numbness can result, and while that may simply be reading too much into the idea, it does fit the scenario and the emotions of that moment.
So, what about the episode as a whole and whether it was a fitting conclusion for Mad Men, because those two questions are the ones that will be debated until the end of time. What do we deserve as viewers and loyal parishioners to a television drama for over half a decade? Doesn’t Matt Weiner owe us something solid?
The fallacy in evaluating a series finale is the failure to recognize the difference in a television show ending and a story fading to black. No one in Mad Men (short of Betty, though we didn’t see it happen) passed away in the finale, but we said goodbye to them. These people’s lives didn’t simply stop dead in their tracks; instead, we simply don’t get to watch them any longer. What Weiner did was give Peggy Olson the curveball happy ending, focused externally of work, and leave Don Draper meditating somewhere in California with a smile on his face. It was quite fulfilling to listen to Stan’s words, echoing from his soul, and Peggy’s gradual comprehension that he was right about everything. As for Don, it’s left up to the viewer to consider how long he stayed in Cali, or if he ever departed, or if he was finally at home, in a place where acceptance was the only requirement. Don didn’t die and he didn’t end up in jail and he didn’t end up hijacking an airplane. He’s still somewhat lost, but he knows who he is and maybe he understands where he’s headed, even without a specific destination. The one true love in his life, despite his mistakes, was Betty. She’s the only one. He loved Anna in a different way, but it was always Birdie. It’s that reality that explains why he ended up crying in the arms of the stranger during the seminar.
You see, Don “tried,” just like the subject of the man’s story. He didn’t show it correctly. He cheated, he was often a mean, unhealthy, hateful individual, but he wasn’t entirely oblivious to those facts. He also had many regrets. In the teary-eyed embrace, it’s likely he thought of the mistakes with Betty, the fact that she and Sally both believed the children would be best with other relatives, the treatment of Megan in the end, and even the feelings for Diana or Rachel or anyone else. He tried to love, but it just wasn’t right. People tried to love him, and again, it wasn’t always easy to see. Maybe, before it’s possible to really give yourself to someone, you first have to accept and love yourself. That’s the goal of the commune. It’s also the goal of psychology and virtually every self-help group. Dick Whitman had to understand once and for all that it was okay to be imperfect, but to learn from those blemishes of character and action.
Peggy Olson and Don Draper were older brother and younger sister, and that final “person to person” call between the two solidified it. Of all the people Dick Whitman could have called, outside of Betty or his daughter, both of whom he’d already spoken to, it was that reserved secretary he met on the same day we did to which he said his final screen goodbye. “The Suitcase” in Season 4 laid the foundation on top of the relationship between the two, and the beautiful “My Way” dance late in the first half of the final season last year made sure it was secure. It wasn’t about romance; it was about respect and caring and, occasionally, adoration. It’s sad to know that Peggy wasn’t able to celebrate with Don after she finally grew up and found the “it” we spoke about last week. Little did she know, it was in front of her all along, and it had one epic beard.
Leaving Mad Men behind is going to be difficult, but Weiner accomplished more than he ever could have dreamed of when he started thinking up the concept while writing Becker for CBS. This is a man who worked as a key contributor on two of the five most important dramas in the history of television. I didn’t agree with every decision that was made last night or any other evening watching either one of those shows, but this wasn’t my vision.
Love as the overarching theme goes all the way back to “The Wheel,” which closed the first season and still featured the best scene in series history. Don’s pitch of the Kodak carousel, which ends with the idea of pictures as memories that take us back to a place where we were loved, means even more today than it did last week. Actually, it goes all the way back to the pilot:
“The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” – Don Draper
Nothing about this show was easy. Everything twisted and wrapped its way into our brains and our hearts, leaving us all begging for something pure and stress-free. Come to think of it, so does love. It’s not easy. It requires work, attention, faith, and growth. The show wasn’t an instant ratings success, so that faith and patience also went for cast, crew, staff, and network executives who generally lack those qualities at the office. When the final season was split, the show itself had to exercise those same traits.
What I can say with no hesitation – and keeping with the theme – is this: I love Mad Men. I will always love Mad Men. It provided millions with a lifetime of memories. It was the single most stunning visual show ever put on television. The acting, from a group of people many had never laid eyes on before, exceeded even the loftiest late expectations. Jon Hamm, my god what a role and what a performance. I could write for days about so many of these people, but Hamm’s work deserves that Emmy this year. It deserves a fleet of them. These characters, created from the mind of Matthew Weiner, have left an indelible imprint on fiction. Our window into this special world ended on Sunday, but the narrative choices and the music and the costumes and the endless drinks and the yelling and the dances (from Peggy and Don to Roger in blackface), all of it stays with us.
While the finale certainly wasn’t the best Mad Men episode, which felt nearly impossible going in, it was extremely effective and did close the book in an appropriate fashion. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It would have felt cheap to satisfy and end every character’s story. Peggy and Stan might break up next month, but we can also believe they end up married and happy for eternity. Joan might fail in her new venture, but at least we know she’s doing something for herself. Roger might die of a heart attack tomorrow and Pete and Trudy might die in a plane crash, but those are just a few of innumerable possibilities, both positive and negative, for each character. Life moves on, both in their world and in ours.
And, for Don Draper, he might end up a Scientologist or he might end up running for president or he might end up in bed with every blonde at the commune. He’s still searching, but he’s finding a love for inner peace and self.
Matthew Weiner left it open for interpretation, but provided a few clues to the immediate future of his imagined world. Who am I to dispute that choice or question how he ended his vision? I can tell you this: the Coke decision was wonderful. It encompassed every facet of Mad Men, from generational to personal to professional, and said goodbye better than any additional storytelling could have done. It was a magnificent choice.
Think about the themes of the past few weeks, from discovering “it” to true freedom to lasting contentment. Then, again, look to the pilot for the completion of the circle:
“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.” – Don Draper
What’s that Coke spot really talking about? It’s about love, in any form, and the freedom of happiness as you share your life with others who are important to you.
I’ve never understood fine art or the fascination with its meaning. I do understand art today, because I’ve experienced it for the last eight years.
That’s my final takeaway and what I pulled from the finale. You may have pulled something entirely different. That’s the beauty of a story without an ending. We can all find what we needed out of it, or what mattered most to us.
Thank you Matthew. Now, finally and forever…
Shut the door and have a seat. You’ve earned it.
I’m @GuyNamedJason. Follow me there. By the way, I’d like to buy the world a Coke, but first I have to get this smoke out of my eyes.
(Here’s a link to Coca Cola’s own history of that one-of-a-kind advertisement. Reading it only strengthens what a flawless selection it was to send Mad Men into history.)