Artwork by Charlotte Southall
*SPOILERS FOR FINAL EPISODE*
Since its premiere in 2007, Mad Men has proven itself to be one of the finest television dramas of our time. Mad Men takes place over a decade, from 1960 to 1970. Each character goes on an amazing journey. Mad Men was equal parts an office drama that dissected the art of advertising, an exploration of the most turbulent and changing decades in American history, but a deep exploration of fully realized characters that navigate the quandaries of humanity. The series finale ended the show May 17, 2015 to a great general consensus. Many anticipated the often cryptic Matthew Weiner to give us a The Sopranos-esque ambiguously frustrating ending, and while the ending is debated it is it not nearly as frustrating. For the most part all of the characters got very satisfying and poignant conclusions.
Pete Campbell gets to be the king he always dreamed of, getting a high-class job with a private jet, together with his family that he strayed from in the past. Joan, who spent so much of her life being dictated by what men wanted from her, or by men who never saw beyond her looks, is finally able to do business on her own terms by running a production company. Peggy and Stan shippers rejoiced for their OTP officially (and surprisingly!) became true, in the most adorably rom-com-esque way. But a relationship is not Peggy’s only satisfaction or ending, for it becomes clear that Peggy is doing very well at McCann. As much as the show has been about Don, it has equally been about Peggy. She is probably the one the most changed from the beginning, from a shy and mousy secretary to a fearless leader. The one with the most tragic ending has to be Betty Draper, whose cancer is rapidly getting worse and will likely pass away very soon. Sally is left in the wake to help her younger brothers. All of this family turmoil circles back to Don’s journey, who has been on the road travelling cross country.
But fans were most speculative about our main character’s fate, the enigmatic and tortured Don Draper. Throughout the second half of the season, Don has been slowly shedding all of his possessions. He loses his home, leaves his job, and gives away his car. Making his way across country, we catch up with Don Draper (in JEANS!!)) riding hot rods in Utah. We see Don make a phone call to Sally, where reluctantly tells tells him that Betty is dying. In an incredibly moving scene, Don calls Betty. Not only is he utterly bereft of this news, Betty also tells him that she does not want him with the kids, that it is normal from them for him not to be there. It’s like a shot to the heart, and Don immediately crumples. Deep down Don knows it’s the truth, but he’s never faced it until now. This is just the first of breakdowns he experiences throughout the episode. Don has hit several bottoms before, but this is truly his rock bottom.
Don makes his way to California and drunkenly returns to Stephanie, who whisks him off to the Esalen Institute, a kind of hippie retreat. (But it’s not all hippies there). I had always wondered if Mad Men would end with some sort of Don therapy session, maybe him joining AA. It became clear that this was the direction it was heading in, but Don was never going to go there on his own. Having Stephanie bring him there, and eventually trapped when she leaves with the car, was the only way he was ever going to confront his demons. When there’s nowhere else to run, Don has no choice.
Don starts out feeling out of place and against the touchy-feely exercises and interpersonal connections. Stephanie reveals in a group therapy session that she has left her child due to being unhappy as a mother, but feels judged and runs out crying. Don goes out to comfort her, and doles out a light version of the advice he gave to Peggy all those years ago “You can put this behind you. It’s easier if you move forward.” Stephanie replies, “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” Don’s mantra had always been that he was moving forward. Moving beyond and forgetting what was behind him. Don told Peggy after having her baby, “It will shock you how much it never happened.” Don wanted to believe that he could completely leave his past behind; but he hadn’t, it was always scratching at him. Peggy never forgot what happened, it echoed in all the children and mothers she saw. Don’s past was always finding a way to seep through. It’s impossible to move forward without acknowledging and making peace with your past. You cannot just forget it.
Thankfully, we get a final scene between Don and Peggy, when he calls her in the middle of his nervous breakdown. Peggy has been so important to Don. His protégé, his confidant. They have hated each other at times but have always loved to and turned to each other. They will always be there for each other, and it was nice to have a scene that cemented that. Don realized he never said goodbye, but he also knows that Peggy is the one woman in his life that understands him and he can speak freely with, “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am. I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Don admits. Peggy assures him that he didn’t, asks him to come home. Don ends the phone call and slumps onto the ground, unable to move, paralysed in his panic attack.
Then, we have the scene of Don’s final catharsis. A kind woman notices Don and brings him into another group therapy session. Don can only sit in a trance. A waif-ish man Leonard sits in the chair and begins his monologue: “My name’s Leonard and I don’t know if there’s anything that complicated about me. And so I should be happier, I guess. I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I, um– I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down.” “How does it feel to say that?” “I don’t know. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. And they’re happy to see you, but maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you. And then the door closes again. The light goes off.”
Don, who has been staring off into the distance, turns when he hears Leonard say this. It hits him like a brick, for this man is saying exactly what Don has felt all these years. Don sees a kindred spirit in Leonard. As Anna Draper said many episodes ago, “The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.” When you go through emotional turmoil, the one common denominator is the feeling that you are going it alone. When you realize others are experiencing the same feelings, the going does not seem as difficult. Don is able to shed that hyper-masculine and guarded persona to reach out and hug a stranger.
While Leonard may feel invisible, Don Draper was visible to everyone. He was the centre of attention, the man on top for so many years. But the real Don Draper- the Dick Whitman inside, who he really was- was invisible to everyone. Leonard’s dream is an embodiment of Don’s struggles. Don has spent his life surrounded by tantalizing images of a happy, fulfilled life but maddened by the impossibility of making them real. Don can describe the happiness that he envisions, the image he has tried to build up by assuming the Don Draper name and escaping his old life, but he can’t have it for himself. He’s built his entire career out of describing it, without ever having it be a reality. Don once described himself to Anna as merely “watching” his life. “I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.” The man trapped inside the refrigerator.
“You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you.” Leonard says of love. “Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” This particularly touches Don because it’s what has been haunting him all these years. Don grew up with no one loving him. He professes to Rachel in the pilot episode that the reason she hasn’t felt love is “because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.” But it does exist, and many people have felt it for Don, he has just been unable to recognize it. The lyrics in one of the closing songs, “Where Is Love” especially pertains to Don’s endless search, “Where is love? Does it fall from skies above? Will I ever know the sweet hello that’s meant for only me?”
The ending of Don’s journey has divided some audiences, believing either two outcomes. We see Don on a hilltop meditating, as the camera zooms in on his peaceful smile. Cut to the famous 1971 Coca-Cola ad “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” People have taken the ending one of two ways. Either A) Don thought of the Coca-Cola ad as he smiles on the hilltop and returned to McCann to pitch it B) Don found inner happiness and left the advertising world. For me, there’s no question that Don has left the advertising world. I can see why many feel Don created the Coca-Cola ad. There is some compelling evidence. For one, an attendant at the Esalen institute that looks just like the girl in the commercial. One could interpret the opening credits as being the story of the show, an advertising man’s curated world crumbles and falls around him, he hits rock bottom but emerges out on top again. But I don’t feel that’s the point of Don’s journey.
The yoga master that Don is meditating with says, “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led,, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you.” Don has shed himself of all the physical remnants of his former life. Don explicitly says to others “I’m retired. I was in advertising.” In seasons past he even said if he ever left it would not be for more advertising. Most of all, Don hates McCann. He spent the last ten years trying not to work there. He doesn’t want to be a cog in a machine, as he felt during the Miller Lite research meeting. He hates Jim Hobart. Why would he ever want to go back there? Let alone give them a winning idea for Coca-Cola. McCann absorbing SC&P was the perfect push for Don to have no more loyalty to the company. Don doesn’t have any deep ties to McCann, as he did with SC&P.
Don left at the height of his career because he realized that he had nothing and life was passing him by. The smile at the end signifies that Don was finished lying to people, especially himself. Coke was to be his baby at McCann but he chose to find peace within himself. Don was a fake person who created nice stories and lies about the thing he sells in order to convince people that they should buy them. He sold himself as Don Draper when he was really Dick Whitman. But now Don has let that old life go, why would he want to return and go back to advertising to sell people fake dreams? Think back to that beautiful sequence where Don watches Peggy give the speech on Burger Chef. That’s Don passing the torch. It’s time for Peggy to shine.
So if I don’t believe Don wrote the Coca-Cola ad, why is it shown? Essentially, I believe it is to show that while Don was experiencing a real sense of peace while McCann was out there selling fake peace. I don’t believe at all that Don would go back to McCann and peddle that experience for money. He doesn’t need or care about money anymore. He doesn’t want to create something famous that was Peggy’s dream. Don is chasing after some form of peace and essentially finds it in a form of hippie spirituality. Coke seeks the same, find it in a clever strategy of diluted hippie-dom. The ad stands in contrast of the real happiness Don felt. The ad is fake but Don finally found “the real thing.”
I felt the Mad Men finale was perfect, completely encompassing the struggles and questions of all characters, tying together the threads that have been woven for the past seven seasons. I feel that Don’s journey is clear, that he has truly changed and let the old Don Draper go, finding some sense of peace. I’m not saying he doesn’t return to New York, but I don’t think it’s for advertising. I feel Don creating the Coke ad is too cynical, but it is fun debate about the ending, and I welcome the ambiguity. I just personally don’t feel that fits with the point of Don’s journey. Mad Men was an absolutely amazing show, it is sad to see it end but wonderful that it ended in the finest way possible.
Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.