“You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. And you realise you don’t even know what ‘it’ is.”
Tricky things, series finales. You never quite know what you’re going to get. They range from the satisfying (Sons of Anarchy, Star Trek the Next Generation) to the absolutely perfect (MASH, Babylon 5) to the maddeningly obtuse and disappointing (The Sopranos, Lost, Quantum Leap). So what could we expect from the conclusion to one of the most critically acclaimed, understated dramas of recent times? Well, in keeping with the show’s consistent tone of understated subtlety, what we got was… an episode of Mad Men. Not showy, not spectacular, but as excellent as ever and a perfectly consistent and logical ending to a story that could never really end in a conclusive way.
It was in keeping with the show’s general trend of unsentimentality that, while some of the ensemble got the happy endings you wanted for them, it was in most cases tinged with bitterness. So Joan, courtesy of an unexpected opportunity offered by Ken Cosgrove, ended up founding, and running, her own company – in the unexpected field of corporate film production. But in the process she lost her budding relationship with freewheeling retiree Richard, who’d retired precisely to get away from running a business.
So yes, a bittersweet ending for Joan; but look at how far she’s come from the obviously capable woman who couldn’t advance further than the secretarial pool of Sterling Cooper. As we saw in her confrontation with Jim Hobart a couple of weeks ago, she’s no longer willing to just accept that she can’t progress because of her gender. She’s been painted all the way through as an incredibly strong personality with two overriding yearnings – a successful career and a family. In the end she got the former but at the expense of the latter.
What that says about the advancement of women at this point in time is interesting – could a woman become successful in business only by rejecting the traditional role of obedient wife, incomplete without a husband? Either way, Joan’s appearance in the final montage, busily answering phones with “Holloway Harris?” (“people won’t take you seriously unless you have two names on the door”) showed a woman who seemed to have got the result she wanted.
Joan’s storyline intersected with that of Roger Sterling, who popped round to explain that he was writing little Kevin into his will, properly acknowledging his son at last. It was a sweet scene that seemed to show both finally at peace with their on again, off again relationship through the years. What was brilliantly communicated without words by both John Slattery and Christina Hendricks was that these two people really do love each other, but both have come to terms with the fact that their relationship will never be more than one of extremely good friends.
Roger too had a bittersweet but mostly happy ending; yes, his career proper is over, but he’s settled down (if that’s the right way to put it) into a relationship with a woman who’s clearly perfect for him. It was a delight to see the hot-tempered Marie Calvet again, and her obviously tempestuous relationship with Roger was one of the ep’s comic highlights. Besides, Roger’s got enough money, and his attitude to his work was always devil-may-care; his final scene, arguing with Marie in a French cafe with an obvious twinkle in his eye, seemed to show a man who, on his own terms at least, had indeed got a happy ending. Roger, a man who will obviously never entirely grow up, needs a woman who can be part lover, part mother – and in Marie, that’s exactly what he’s got.
Pete Campbell too ended up with his perfect woman – his wife. All the way from the beginning, Pete’s been often dislikeable but (courtesy of the excellent Vincent Kartheiser) never entirely unsympathetic. His frequent terrible luck (usually of his own making) has been one of the show’s most blackly humorous threads throughout. Perhaps Matthew Weiner thought that he finally deserved a break, and he and Trudy got the happy ending they wanted; Alison Brie’s triumphant smile as they climbed onto their own personal Learjet was just perfect. Pete always wanted to be Don Draper, but never realised that if he was he couldn’t ever be happy; now, on his own shallow terms, he has the happy ending he always wanted. Still, this being Pete, I couldn’t help thinking it was never going to last…
Before he went though, he had one final scene with Peggy, the mother of his still unacknowledged and now adopted child. This was another scene freighted with what wasn’t said, Kartheiser and Elisabeth Moss conveying perfectly what was beneath the surface. Pete’s plainly sincere (and hitherto unspoken) admiration for Peggy as a person gave him considerably more sympathy than he might otherwise have had; it was a gem of a scene in an episode full of them.
Peggy too got a happy ending, though this one felt a little less real. She and Stan Rizzo seemed to have been transported into a Richard Curtis rom-com, with her in the role of Hugh Grant as she bumblingly realised over the phone that she’d been in love with Stan all along. It was sweet, it was funny, it was… not entirely Mad Men. But I’ll cut Weiner a little slack here; these characters have always had perfect chemistry, right from when Peggy dared Stan to play strip poker with her. In a show where even the most sympathetic characters have on occasion done horrible things, they’ve been genuinely nice throughout. When you like the characters that much, maybe there’s room for a little sentimentality.
Conversely, perhaps Betty Francis got a worse fate than she deserved, unsympathetic though she’s frequently been. Weiner could have left her at peace with her fresh start in collegiate studies a couple of weeks ago; having her suddenly diagnosed with a terminal illness was a bold and brave move. January Jones has given the character a stoic dignity in the face of adversity that could be read two ways – you could see it as courageous and uncompromising, or you could see her determination to go out on her own terms as rather selfish. It was in keeping with Mad Men’s unspectacular approach to the very dramatic that we didn’t actually see her on her death bed; instead, the final shot of her was, in one of the show’s frequent grim ironies, her smoking a cigarette while Sally took charge of the washing up.
Sally’s ending may not have been what you could call ‘happy’ given her mother’s impending death; yet it felt like her mature, levelheaded approach to this family crisis was a moment of triumph. I know that Sally has often been annoying, selfish and spoiled – just like a real adolescent. But Kiernan Shipka has kept her sympathetic throughout, and these last two episodes have shown us a likeable young woman who’s had no choice but to grow up, arguably more than either of her parents ever did. Her scene with Bobby (Mason Vale Cotton finally getting an actual character in his last episode) was both sweet and sad, both Draper children taking responsibility for keeping the family, and their little brother, on track. Bobby may not quite have mastered making toast yet, but you got the sense that with Sally in charge, he’ll do just fine.
But what of her father? The show’s resident enigma, Don Draper has always been a perfect blank slate for the show’s metaphorical musings on the hollowness of the material success at the heart of the ‘American Dream’. This final episode dealt with him perfectly. Deconstructed to the point of virtual nonexistence yet again, the crumbling Don eventually found himself in a hippie-style ‘spiritual retreat’ in California, with the daughter of the man whose identity he’d stolen all those years ago.
To get there, he had to go through the emotional wringer again, the selfishness of his self-indulgent midlife crisis road trip made evident when he learned of Betty’s cancer diagnosis. His heartfelt plea to have his children come and live with him was met by a shattering and all too accurate response from Betty – “I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.”
Not even that was enough to send him to rock bottom though. The hippie retreat (its prices an ironic comment on how the counterculture had been subsumed into the commercialism of the mainstream) managed that with the sort of encounter group discussions that were reminiscent of a college drama workshop. Paired up and asked to nonverbally demonstrate their feelings about their partners, the old woman with Don made an emphatic gesture by simply pushing him away, to his evident shock. Then later, when an office drone who seemed the very antithesis of the charismatic, successful Don tearfully explained how his work made him feel like nothing, it chimed such a chord that Don couldn’t help but get up and embrace him, Jon Hamm effectively deploying the ‘Distraught Don’ expression he’s perfected to devastating effect.
So after all these years, did Don finally ‘find himself’? It was entirely in keeping with the style of the show, and the history of the character, that we don’t actually know either way. With most of the characters having effectively dismissed him from their lives (even Stan Rizzo commented to the worried Peggy, “he always does this, and he always comes back”), his final scene showed him apparently loved up and meditating with the rest of the hippies on the majestic California coastline.
But what did that final, blissful smile on his face indicate? Had he finally found peace with himself? Or had he just had the best advertising idea in his life, signified by a smash cut to one of the most iconic ads ever? The so-called ‘Hilltop’ Coca Cola ad was indeed created by McCann Erickson, in 1971, and Don had been repeatedly dangled the carrot of the Coke account.
In the end, it could have been either. I imagine many viewers, wanting closure, may have found the ambiguity as frustrating as… say, the end of Lost. But unlike that show, which promised answers that never came, Mad Men has never offered any easy answers. And to be honest, could any concrete resolution to the mystery that is Don Draper have ever been wholly satisfying? For me, with my enthusiasm for this subtle, understated, often languidly paced drama, an ambiguous ending is about the most satisfying I could get.
With the focus so much on resolving all those character arcs, history got somewhat short shrift for this final episode. But there was still room for some intriguing snippets. On the phone to Sally, Don tried to impress her with his tale of having seen the land speed record broken at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, courtesy of Gary Gabelich’s 622mph rocket car, Blue Flame. That having taken place on 23 October 1970, we know that 1971’s just around the corner.
Before her career ambitions knocked her relationship off track, we were treated to the sight of Joan and Richard experimenting with the increasingly trendy drug that would come to be a mainstay of 70s excess – cocaine.
And that ‘spiritual retreat’ where Don had his blinding revelation may not have been named as such, but was obviously meant to be the Big Sur-based Esalen commune. Founded in 1962 to “focus on humanistic alternative education”, it’s still a going concern in a very pretty location, should you wish to visit in search of ad copy inspiration.
Oh, and that iconic Coke ad was actually created by a McCann exec called Bill Backer. Hmm, that alliterative name, that combination of syllables – sounds oddly familiar…
Dedicated Followers of Fashion
Again, not too many fashion faux pas this week – or maybe I was so absorbed in the fates of all the characters that I noticed fewer than usual. Nonetheless, Joan displayed all her normal style, even when in a robe:
Trudy Campbell seemed to be channelling Jackie Kennedy/Onassis with her pink outfit at the airport:
Plenty of hippie chic at the commune, best embodied by none other than Supergirl – ie Helen Slater:
And with fitting subtlety, one of the hippies at the commune was dressed almost exactly like one of the extras from that iconic Coke ad:
So, it’s finally over. And like Roger said a couple of weeks back, it’s been one hell of a ride. Metaphors, musings, portents, social commentary, historical context, and some of the most well-rounded, believable characters ever, all contained in what, on the surface, looked like a slick glossy soap opera about rich ad executives. Mad Men’s examination of consumerism, materialism and the elusive American Dream was, for me, up there with classics like Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Indeed, there were plenty of characters here who could easily have been Willy Loman – Freddy Rumsen, Duck Phillips, even Pete Campbell. The fact that for Pete, a happy ending was the embodiment of material success was a perfect counterpoint to Willy’s vain dreams.
At some point in the future, I may well revisit Mad Men and make a more detailed analysis of it – each episode has so much depth, in terms of script, acting, production design and direction that I’ve never felt these (admittedly lengthy) blog posts fully do them justice. For now, it’s given me a feeling like you have when you’ve just finished reading a really great novel – the chance to lie back with a satisfied smile, maybe smoke a cigarette, and ponder the depth of everything you just experienced. For that, thanks and credit are due to Matthew Weiner, Jon Hamm, Semi Chellas, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser, Robert Morse, January Jones, Kiernan Shipka, and so, so many others. Goodbye, Mad Men. You’ll be missed.