If you were on Twitter on Sunday night, chances are you probably noticed a ton of people posting about the #MadMenFinale. I was among this group: a devoted group of fanatics who sat around for eight years watching a quiet, thoughtful show about advertising.
The finale of Mad Men aired on AMC on Sunday to much fanfare. The ending of the show also marked the ending of a cultural phenomenon. Mad Men helped create a time where television is interesting and mindful. The finale carried this theme over with it. Warning: if you are not caught up on the show, do not read below the jump!
The iconic image the finale created is the one above: Don Draper, ad man extraordinaire, sitting cross legged atop a grassy cliff in California, chanting “Om” and slowly filling the screen with his smile. Then the screen cuts out and goes to that iconic Coca Cola ad with the iconic jingle: I’d like to buy the world a Coke…Just when we think Don has left advertising, we find that he went right back. The meditation was really just a brainstorming session, and the smile was not one of self-discovery but one where Don thought up a really, really great idea. “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” Peggy asks him earlier on a person to person call. Yes. He does.
Don figures out the seventies in that meditation. In the heart of the Vietnam War, people want peace. What better way to sell artificially sweetened water than to tap into exactly what consumers want: world peace. For all this, Don might have sacrificed his personal growth, or maybe he realized this: that he’s an ad man who is great at what he does.
Throughout the show, Don’s story is told largely how he perceives himself. In the first season, he’s a tormented married man who is deeply flawed because of his love affairs. In the fourth season, he goes into a self-destructive spiral, and we saw every minute of it. In this episode, Don is raw and open. He is wholly himself…even at the end, when he clearly wrote the Coca Cola ad after returning to McCann Erickson (who actually did create the real Coke ad).
Don’s self-revelation is interspersed with the stories of those around him (though not physically). Joan shucks off her needy boyfriend, Richard, to start her own production company–Holloway Harris. While I’m sad that Peggy didn’t join Joan in the company, I am happy that Peggy gets the romantic comedy finale that she deserves, with Stan, her often lazy but lovable colleague. (Who can forget that episode where they both worked naked in a hotel room?) It does seem a shame that Peggy will have to wait until 1980 to be a creative director, in Pete’s words. Pete, in the meantime, is reunited with Trudy and Tammy and off to become a big shot executive at Lear Jet. The scene Peggy and Pete shared was so sweet and poignant. After all these two have been through together, it hardly seems appropriate that all he’d leave her with is a cactus. Roger ends up with Marie Calvet, Megan’s mother, in a wacky turn of events.
But the sweetest, saddest moments of the episode came when Don was talking to Betty after discovering her death sentence: lung cancer. After they talk about where the children will go after her death (i.e. not with Don but with Betty’s brother and his wife), Don sweetly calls her “Birdie,” the term of affection he’s always called her. She quietly cries on the phone, knowing that even after she’s gone, her children will be better off with her brother than their own father. Betty’s story ends with her smoking at the dinner table while Sally washes dishes behind her.
Even though the show ends with Don eventually writing the Coca Cola ad, thus essentially shucking off any kind of enlightenment that he felt while at the retreat, it doesn’t seem as if Matthew Weiner (creator and show runner of Mad Men) is saying that people can’t change. You can take one look at Joan, Peggy, Pete and even Roger. None of those characters even remotely resemble what they looked like at the beginning of the series. Perhaps that’s what Don is seeking–the kind of change that those characters have experienced. None of them even had to change their names.
(Image property of AMC)