“Mad Men” fans are divided. Some are calling the finale, “Person-to-Person,” brilliant, the perfect ending to a show that captured the turbulent spirit of a bygone era. Others are comparing it to having your toes run over with a lawn-mower.
First, there’s the Peggy Olson debacle. Viewers are furious because the love connection between Stan and Peggy came out of nowhere. Watching Stan profess his love over the phone, then run to Peggy’s office, sweeping her in to his arms while she grinned like a schoolgirl, left many in the audience irate: Peggy is the high-powered working woman, determined to make her mark in the business world; the last thing she needs is a man.
Or so we thought. While Stan came as a bit of a surprise, Peggy’s need for love has been percolating throughout the series, starting with Pete Campbell and winding its way through a string of failed romances. So, in a sense, her “happily ever after” doesn’t come completely out of left field.
Speaking of Pete, he gives Peggy her due, telling her, “Someday, people are going to brag that they worked for you.” So, it’s all good. Peggy gets the respect she deserves, with the added bonus of love, and her story line is tied up with a neat little bow.
The same is true for Joan Holloway, who has the feminist angle covered. She ditches her man, raises her son on her own, and starts a business out of her home. Anyone who wants to complain about Peggy’s story being a disappointment regarding equality can find satisfaction in Joan, who has risen from lowly secretary to a business owner—and she still looks fabulous.
Viewers can also be satisfied with Pete’s story. I agree with Sonny Bunch at the Free Beacon. Pete “starts off wanting everything Don Draper has in New York—business success, the adoration of his peers—and comes to realize the only thing that will make him happy is everything Don gave up in New York: his family.” Amen. Pete is probably the most transformed character, having progressed from being an entitled rich kid who thinks advertising accolades in New York City are the pinnacle of a successful life to becoming a humble man who is reconciled with his wife and moves his family to Kansas, where life is, as he says, “wholesome.”
What Happens to Don?
So what about Don? Does he reconnect with his family? Does he find peace and happiness? Is he redeemed or reinvented? Or does he fly away as D.B. Cooper or fall from a high tower to his death? Thankfully, the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, saved us from the pain of the latter. No silly D.B. Cooper finale, and Don didn’t kill himself. He did, however, take a long, slow fall into hopelessness and despair, but in the end, he landed on his feet—well, at least crossed-legged on a bluff in California.
After “retiring” and leaving behind his life in New York, along with his belongings and his car, Don heads west, passing through one town after another, doing his usual—meeting people, sleeping with women, and fixing random stuff. He’s on his way to living his life as an outcast, giving himself over to the worst of Dick Whitman. But something happens along the way. Sally, his daughter, calls him, telling him that her mother is dying of cancer. This changes everything.
Don calls Betty and tells her that he wants to come home, that he wants to be a father to his children. Those of us hoping for Don’s redemption cheered that he was willing to be a responsible dad. Betty, however, has other plans. She doesn’t want him to come home. He has been an absent father for too long, visiting his children only occasionally on the weekends. He might want to be a father to his kids, but he hasn’t been so far, and Betty wants them to have a stable home. She’s leaving them to her brother, where they will have “a family.”
Don protests, but Betty says, “I want to keep things as normal as possible, and you not being there is part of that.” “Birdie” is all Don can say through tears, an acknowledgment of his failure.
Don hangs up the phone. He’s lost. The best option is to stick with the original plan—to run away. He reconnects with the only person who refers to him as Dick Whitman—Anna’s daughter, Stephanie. Together, they go up the coast to a hippie wellness retreat, where Stephanie confesses her grief and guilt over getting pregnant and giving away her child.
Seeing her as part of his family, Don tells her he’ll go with her to Los Angeles. They can start over together.
“You can put this behind you,” Don tells her. “It will get easier as you move forward.” True to form, Don thinks you can run away from your past and reinvent yourself into a state of happiness. But Stephanie knows better, “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that,” she says, sadly.
Stephanie is right. You can’t run from your past. It haunts you. You either make peace with it, accept yourself and life for they are, or you run away in misery.
Don Can Come Home
Don stops running, and this is the point of the finale—and it’s what makes it a success, not a betrayal as some viewers think. Don calls Peggy to say goodbye. He has given up, he’s disconnected from everything around him, he’s hopeless. The love he has always sought eludes him, and he is weighed down with guilt. He wants to run, but Peggy tells him he doesn’t need to.
“I know you get sick of things and you run,” she says, “but you can come home.” Then she adds, knowing him well enough to see that advertising is part of his life, something that really does make him happy: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?”
Don shakes his head. “I can’t. I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.”
Peggy doesn’t buy it. “Don, listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?”
“I broke all my vows,” he confesses. “I scandalized my child. Took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.”
Despite Peggy assuring him that this isn’t true, that he has made something of his life, that he is worthy of love, he hangs up, overcome with despair. It takes a man pouring out his soul in a seminar at the retreat to save Don, to help him realize the truth about himself.
“I should be happier, I guess,” the man says. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I work in an office, and people walk right by me and I know they don’t see me, and I go home and I watch my wife and kids and they don’t look up when I sit down. . . . It’s like no one cares about me. They should love me, maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that 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 that 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. Then the door closes again, light goes off.”
It sounds exactly like an advertising pitch Don would make back in the days of Sterling Cooper. The words sink in, and Don hugs the man, weeping with him over the realization that he hasn’t loved, that he hasn’t even known what it is, and that he should be happier. In an environment Don has always been both attracted to and repelled by—the world of artists and hippies—he finds answers (or at least a really good advertising slogan, though I choose not to be so cynical).
Don’s Moment of Enlightenment
Next we see a montage of the rest of the characters. Peggy finds love with Stan. Joan finds empowerment in her new business. Roger finally finds a woman his own age (it’s about time!). Pete finds reconciliation with his ex-wife. And then we see Don. He’s sitting cross-legged on a bluff, with the ocean sparkling behind him. He’s with a group of hippies from the retreat, and the group leader is speaking: “The new day brings new hope, lives we’ve led, the lives we get to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.”
A new you. That’s what Don wants—to be reborn. To be connected to others, to love, to be real. He wants to be okay.
Don hums “Ommmm” as he embraces bliss, self-awareness, rebirth. He finds happiness—we hope. A ding sounds, and Don smiles. The Coke ad plays as the turmoil of the sixties fades to black, and a new world of love and harmony is ushered in—with the help of clever advertising and an enlightened mind.
Some have found the ending to be cynical, unconvincing, and shallow, a sell-out to capitalism. (Artistically speaking, the series probably should have ended here.) They don’t think Don has really found happiness or enlightenment—all he has found is an opportunity to make money. They resent Weiner stealing a page from history that belongs to Bill Backer, the real creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann Erickson, who came up with the idea for the ad while flying to London.
Backer wasn’t sitting with a bunch of hippies on a bluff in California; he was at an airport where disgruntled passengers were forced to wait on their flight because of heavy fog. They were angry about their accommodations, but Backer watched as they were brought together by a common experience, talking with one another and laughing in a cafe over bottles of Coke.
While the finale of “Mad Men” might not mesh with reality, it is fitting that a show about advertising would end with one of the best ads ever created. Tying its theme of harmony and love to Don Draper isn’t much of a stretch. After a long journey, Don finally faced his demons. He admitted his failures and chose to rise above them. He has expected people to love him, but he hasn’t really known what that is. While we don’t know the extent of Don’s “enlightenment,” he does seem to finally know that love means being real and being connected to others, and he tells that to the world through the best medium he knows: advertising.