Not how it ended, but I would have been into that
It’s a sad inevitability that all good things must come to an end. This old adage does indeed apply to our favourite TV series, and that day came around for Mad Men fans worldwide earlier this week. We farewelled Don Draper and the various characters connected to him through his personal life or the the advertising world and received resolutions (of sorts) for most of the people we’ve come to feel as if we know over the last seven seasons.
If you’re still reading, and you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men, and you do intend to watch it, stop now. It’s great and I don’t want it to be spoiled for you.
If you’re still with me, then I’m going to guess that you HAVE watched episode fourteen, or you don’t care about spoilers. This would make you one of about three people on the internet who don’t. It seems right now that spoilers are basically the worst thing you could do to another person. The actual worst. And maybe it’s got something to do with how little surprise we have in our lives these days. You can discover anything you want to know by pushing some buttons on your smart phone, everything you might want to do has probably been done by someone before and they’ve written about it online, and access to this information plays to our love of immediacy and knowing everything that is happening RIGHT NOW. Good entertainment promises the allure of a decent surprise or big reveal, so I guess when someone takes that away from you it’s probably understandable that it makes you want to hit them with a chair. There’s so little opportunity to experience it anywhere else.
Mad Men has been a story not only about the incredible characters, but also about the 1960s, so I was pleased to see that we ended around October 1970, rather than heading any further into the next decade. Yes, ending in 1969 would have made it a good clean ten years, but I think it was necessary to see these characters begin their transitions into the 1970s, and I think it also served as a wonderful backdrop for the change that began in Don during this year. It made me think that Don started the 70s right, and that if he stays on the same path of self discovery, and indeed self acceptance, he’ll be okay.
There have been so many theories floated about the fate that would await Don Draper at the end of the story. Many people subscribed to the idea that Don would literally become the falling man from the credit sequence and plunge to his death from a New York City skyscraper. But I never went for that one. Aside from it being an obvious metaphor for Don’s fall from grace throughout the series, I just don’t think Matthew Weiner would tell a story where the ending has been spelled out to the audience since the first moment the show debuted.
Some people believed Don was going to turn out to be DB Cooper, and I have to say I LOVED this as an idea, and a part of me really wanted it to be true, but in the end I knew it didn’t really make sense. Others thought we might see flash forward to the 2000s, and see Don as an old man, but honestly, with the abuse Don’s body has endured, there’s no way he’s living that long.
There are, as is to be expected, very mixed opinions on the end of Don’s story; some people believe it wasn’t definitive enough, other’s believe it was too constrained. You cannot please everyone. I’m somewhere in the middle. I believe the ending was appropriate to the story that had been told, especially in the back half of this final season. We’ve seen Don take this Kerouac-esque great American Road Trip of self discovery to make small progress towards being able to live with himself, but without any real results until the dying moments. I believe one of the core messages that Matt Weiner has communicated through Mad Men is that people never change. Sometimes this has been subtle, and at other times spelled out to us. One of my favourite quotes from the series is from Episode 8 of Season 4, The Summer Man:
“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it. Because we want them to be who we want them to be.” – Don Draper
The irony in this is of course, Don tells very few people who he actually is, but as time passed he became less and less willing or able to continue to put up a front about the kind of person he was.
I’ve always enjoyed the titles of Man Men episodes, and making the connections between them and the story lines. In Person to Person it was really quite straightforward, referring to the 3 person to person phone calls that Don makes throughout the episode. Each of these calls to Sally, Betty and Peggy confirm to Don that through his decision to take this trip where he has been shedding himself of his physical belongings, the rest of the world he knew has shed themselves of him; his children, his ex-wife and even his profession, as Peggy tiptoes around the fact that the walls of McCann Erickson haven’t fallen down without him there. Even when he finally arrives on Stephanie’s doorstop in California, she makes it clear to him that she doesn’t need him either.
Can we just have a moment here for the phone call between Don and Betty. The first time I watched the episode I felt Betty was being unfair to Don, in a situation where he was trying to do the right thing. Betty has been a character I’ve loved to hate (I think January Jones is brilliant by the way, it’s Betty that is insufferable), but in these last episodes I’ve found a new respect for her as she faces her impending death with as much dignity as possible. She’s also taken control over what she still has left, like the fate of her children, and the procedures she wants followed once she has passed. I think she was right to tell Don to stay away, as his absence really was the normality his children had come to know. I’ve always thought that even though they’ve been divorced for some time, that Don still cares for Betty, that there is definitely a tenderness between them (the episode at the camp with Bobby anyone?!) but his simple “Birdie” down the telephone was heartbreaking, and said what Don could never say in other words. Just one example of what a fine actor Jon Hamm is.
Don’s major breakthrough moment comes in the form of the stranger sharing his fears and anxieties during a seminar at the Big Sur ‘retreat’. He tells the room that he essentially feels insignificant, like people are happy he’s there but they never actually look right at him, and, here’s the big one for Don, that they’re trying to love him but he can’t recognise it. Don’s greatest difficulty in life has been his inability to recognise or accept love. He was not loved as a child, and one has to conclude that it might be related. Don turned away from love from his brother Adam, from both his ex-wives and any other woman who tried to get close to him, and also to a degree the love from his children because he simply just did not know how to be loved. Don spent his professional life selling a concept to people that he himself could not connect with. He thinks love is something invented by guys like him to sell nylons (see what I did there?).
Don recognised his own life in the man sharing with the group and the moment that he embraces him and begins to cry with him was truly poignant. I don’t believe this means that Don was miraculously changed and would suddenly know how to have real and functioning relationships, but I do believe it means he would be able to at least know that he is not alone in feeling that way, and come to place of self acceptance.
Don has been a picture of self loathing and it was really during that phone call to Peggy where he said out loud, all of the terrible things he’d done throughout his life (although the line about scandalising his child, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about, so feel free to enlighten me). I think as far as break throughs go for Don Draper, this was definitely one of them.
Matthew Weiner has also come out in the last couple of days and confirmed that yes, the implication of running that very iconic Coke ad from 1971 is that Don returned to thing he knows best, advertising, and DOES create something of lasting value. Something he laughed at Peggy for wanting during her last performance review at SC&P. I think initially I was a bit on the fence about what the commercial meant, but the more I thought about it, the more it was clear that Don did create it, there was also the subtle hint with the girl at the front desk having the same style of braids as the girl in the ad. Perhaps it meant that Don was able to go back to the only place he really belonged, with a new perspective on the world and finally started to believe in the things he was selling.
Whenever we’re talking about Mad Men, I think it’s important to remember that while it is the story of Don Draper/Dick Whitman, it is as much the story of Peggy Olsen. Season one began on Peggy’s first day at Stirling Cooper. We’ve witnessed Peggy’s incredible rise through the ranks from secretary to copy chief, in a time where whilst not impossible, was no mean feat for a woman. We’ve seen the sacrifices she’s made (hint: always at the expense of her personal life) and we’ve seen the immense rewards she’s reaped. Maybe it was planned, maybe it was a nice case of fan service, but seeing Stan and Peggy finally admit their feelings to each other was exceptionally satisfying. Not only because it resolved five years of sexual tension between them, but Stan has been the most obvious choice for Peggy for a long while. Stan stands up where her other partners have fallen down. He loves that she works, and loves that she is brilliant at her job. He respects her for who she is and he’s not afraid to call her on her BS.
The end of the story for Peggy left me feeling incredibly optimistic for her, although I would have liked to have seen the last interaction between Peggy and Don as something different. The relationship between the two of them has been, in my opinion, the most interesting in the series (see The Suitcase from Season 4 in case you disagree with me). But if you consider that life is random and we have unexpected exchanges with people then it makes sense to leave their relationship where it is.
In terms of the rest of the characters, each of their stories have been left in a good place. Joan finally got the freedom she deserved, and put her middle finger up to the men who wronged her by using both her acquired surnames as the name of her company. Rodger Stirling just continued to live life as Rodger Stirling, but this time with an age appropriate wife. Betty was defiant to the end, and Sally proved once and for all she would turn out to be a far better person than people who raised her. Pete got ‘everything all at once’ like he always wished for, which seemed little unfair for a guy who has been a grade A twat most of his life. Pete actually ended up being one of my favourite characters in the last few seasons, purely for his entertainment value. After all, he did deliver us this golden moment.
When it comes down to it, this is my favourite show of all time, and I wish Matthew Weiner would make another 50 bazillion seasons (although truth be told it might have gotten old at that point), but I feel like it ended the best way it could. I’m glad we didn’t see some strange left turn that made us rethink the whole series. But I do have one burning question that I’ve wanted to know for a long while but I guess I’ll never find out. Why does Don Draper see dead people? Think about it: Adam, Uncle Mack, Anna, Bert, Rachael…maybe it’s a certain level of alcoholism you need to reach achieve it, but I always thought it was a weird little quirk that I would loved to have known more about.
Thanks for seven seasons of brilliant characters and stories Mr Weiner. I’m feeling pretty ‘Zen Don’ about it, and quietly sad that this really is the end.