A full week has passed since Mad Men concluded its seven-season run on AMC. Since then, countless viewers have weighed in on the show’s divisive final moments, generating an overwhelming amount of online discussion. If you’re anything like me, you probably read upwards of fifty articles on the finale within the first 24 hours alone. Yet amidst all the clickbait and cast interviews and in-depth think pieces, one thing remains abundantly clear—not everybody agrees on what those final moments mean.
The End Is Not The End
Although tidy, the finale was far from conclusive, ending multiple character arcs while leaving a good amount to the viewer’s imagination. Pete, having reunited with his ex-wife Trudy, boards a Lear Jet to start a new life with his family in Wichita. Joan puts Richard behind her to start a new business venture called Holloway-Harris. Roger seems to have picked up a little French, which he uses to order for his soon-to-be wife Marie as they dine together.
Betty accepts her approaching death, though for different reasons than she might have back in season one. Sally backs out of her Madrid trip, returning home instead to be with her dying mother and to take care of Bobby and Gene. Peggy and Stan even get their big rom-com moment when they realize they’re in love with each other.
There are a lot of new beginnings, all of which could pull complete one-eighties at any moment. That’s probably my favorite thing about the finale—it provides happy endings for all of the central characters without coming across as insincere or idealistic.Roger’s relationship with Marie, for example, is almost definitely not going to work out, but I’m glad to have had those last few moments of him enjoying himself (as short-lived as they may be). And though Joan gets an ending that shows her on her own two feet, it’s safe to say that she hasn’t experienced the last of sexist discrimination in her life. All this to say the finale is optimistic, but nonetheless real.
Don Draper, Yoga Level: Expert
Then there’s Don. Having found himself stranded at a hippie retreat on the West Coast and grappling with his perceived failures, he encounters Leonard. Unlike Don, there isn’t much that’s especially remarkable about Leonard. Yet he and Don nevertheless share the same issue of being blinded to the love that surrounds them. In one of the show’s greatest moments, Leonard opens up in a group therapy session and provides a show-defining monologue:
“I had a dream I was on the shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating. And they open the door and you see everyone smiling and they are 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 reacts with a tearful embrace. Later, we find Don meditating on a cliffside as a cryptic smile spreads across his face. The show concludes with the famous “Hillside” Coke commercial, which features a song about Coke being “the real thing.” The song goes: “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony!/I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” It isn’t explicitly stated in the show, but most will agree this scene implies that Don eventually travels back to New York to create this iconic ad.So what does it all mean, exactly? Depending on who you ask, you’re going to hear a number of different answers (something which has prompted several critics to describe the finale as a sort of Rorschach test for viewers).
My initial reaction was to see the Coke ad as ironic. I didn’t think Don’s change was “the real thing,” in the same way I don’t think Coke is the answer to world peace. After all, Don has made countless attempts to get his life back on track—just look at his reaction in the wake of Anna Draper’s death, making an effort to drink less and get back into shape. And yet none of it lasted. He wound up in exactly the same place he was before, repeating the same cycle as always. If you believe that Don is responsible for creating the “Hillside” commercial, you might see his eventual return to advertising as proof that his change was not genuine.
I wasn’t the only one who thought this, either. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker saw the Coke ad in fairly cynical light, saying:
To me, spiritual bliss & making the ad are in tension: he can’t be a new Don AND create an ad that sells Coke with images of world peace.
— emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) May 18, 2015
So I see the cynical take as the LESS off-putting one—it would be more disturbing to imagine an enlightened Don creating an ad like that. — emilynussbaum (@emilynussbaum) May 18, 2015
So while Don’s revelation may have been sincere at the time, it probably wasn’t lasting. (You can read more of Nussbaum’s brilliant ideas on the finale here.) Other critics, such as Todd VanDerWerff of Vox and Molly Lambert of Grantland, aligned themselves with #teamcynic. The latter of these two writes, “The gesture—I want to connect with you—is sincere, but also supremely cynical: I want to connect with you by sharing this consumer experience. Coca-Cola, like cigarettes, is marketed as a social tool you can buy. Maybe you’re lonely, too shy to flirt or make friends; this product does it for you. It’s a mass commercialization of the Esalen dream: Look deeply enough within yourself and you’ll find everyone else there, too. It’s the real thing.”
Not everyone saw Weiner and Co.’s use of the Coke ad as a contradiction to Don’s forward progress. Matt Zoller Seitz, all-supreme king of Mad Men recaps, notes, “Series creator Matthew Weiner . . . is not a cynical artist.” Sure enough, Weiner supported this analysis in an interview with AM Holmes just days after the finale. He seemed surprised that anyone would view the Coke ad as having anything less than the purest intentions. “It comes from a very good place,” he said. “I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”
So if it’s not intended to be cynical, how should viewers reconcile Weiner’s intentions with what we know of Don Draper’s character? Are we meant to believe that Don has achieved happiness once and for all, therefore removing himself from his habitual cycle of despair and rebirth altogether? Does that seem honest to his character in the same way that Roger’s and Joan’s stories were?
Could It Be Both?
Perhaps my favorite interpretation thus far allows a little room for cynicism while also fitting with Weiner’s intent. Todd VanDerWerff describes the show’s overall tone as “deeply cynical but essentially hopeful,” something I think sums up its final moments well. Maureen Ryan fleshes out this idea beautifully in her analysis for the Huffington Post, an article that is well worth the read. She writes that, though Don is still bound to make similar mistakes in the future, he’s come to terms with the cycle he’s found himself in, of constantly falling short and needing to be reborn again and again. After all, isn’t that how it is for all of us?
My friend Dan pointed out to me how Draper’s job as an ad man has always been reinvention—taking the old and making it new, repackaging tired ideas with a shiny wrapping. It’s something he’s tried to do countless times in both his work and his life. As Jon Hamm pointed out in a recent interview, “[Don] wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man.” He’s become reconciled with this cycle of reinvention, an understanding that he’s embarked on a journey rather than arrived somewhere new or special. So while Don ultimately ends up “happy,” it pays to ask what he’s so happy about in the first place.
Draper’s job as an ad man has always been reinvention—taking the old and making it new, repackaging tired ideas with a shiny wrapping.
As John Teti writes for The AV Club, Don is indeed the falling man in the show’s opening sequence—but he is also the one seated calmly at the conclusion, the one who exits the fall with a newfound perspective. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. He is both. Regardless of how you viewed Don’s final revelation, it says a lot about the show’s brilliance that the conversation is ongoing. The show could have easily ended with the plummeting death of Don Draper (as many predicted). . . but we wouldn’t be having this discussion right now.
Instead, the Mad Men finale did exactly what a finale ought to. With near-perfect execution and an incredibly insightful look into human behavior, Matthew Weiner has provided viewers with just enough nuance and ambiguity to keep us talking long past the show’s final moments. My only complaint? It might be a while before I find a show to rival this one.