92 Episodes. Countless drinks & hangovers, all the sexism and feminism you can handle, a sly and unusually fresh approach to world events and the micro movements of a camera’s attention to the inscrutability of one salesman’s smile. A smile which is almost never authentic. From the dawn of the 1960’s to the end of that era (1970) through 7 long years of the real world spinning and long periods in between seasons as we all got older; from Jon WHO? to Jon Hamm, a man so indelible as Don Draper he might as well have been around in the 60’s ads; and in the brilliant creation of moments like the one when we all, 50 YEARS LATER stopped and reevaluated whether we were Marilyn or Jackie. Who did we want to be? And why? And who were we when they were all dead and gone? Mad Men was the show for our post-modern malaise. And it was quite often beautiful.
For those who never fell under its sway, Mad Men was a show where nothing happened. For the devoted, the world under our feet actually changed, fashion changed, design tastes were rediscovered (you’ll never find a bargain in mid-century modern again) and curves were made beautiful. We dug in deep, real deep, to feel the payoff as awkward, naive Peggy, the secretary with those terrible little bangs, changed by degrees, believably, and became powerful, a survivor and a leader. Threads were picked up and tied in the 90th hour as she revealed her deepest secret to her best friend (besides us) in a shuddering moment of emotional payoff/relief for close watchers that was uniquely thrilling, heartrending, and very, very real.
In some ways, it was Soap Opera, a serial. The classiest, most jam-packed, lovingly curated and visually satisfying Soap Opera that has ever been, and a type of program unlikely to ever exist again. The attention to period detail, ripped from now-forgotten LIFE magazine photo essays figures, the clouds of smoke, and beautiful interiors created at the same level of quality as the most beautiful period films you can name will never be forgotten by those who were there, scores of designers and artists inspired anew, and those with aspirations to own or create something like it for themselves. For those whose hearts beat to its existential, slow burning rhythm, there were many moments of dialogue and character that brought tears, shock, laughter; that loosened something in that childhood knot we all carry around, and it was goddamned beautiful. Therapy without the hugs or embarrassment. 60’s style.
Filled with a cast of mostly unknown actors with no baggage, these faces are now and forever our Don, Roger, Peggy, Joan, Pete, Betty, Sally, Bert, and more. Premiering rather quietly on AMC in late 2007, Mad Men emerged so fully formed and with such originality and confidence that it became an instant favourite for a smaller, devoted audience (usually around just 2 million) gradually building up word of mouth and repeat airings until the actors became stars and worthy of magazine covers and solid critical love. The show then fully entered the zeitgeist, hitting a popular stride at the end of its second season through season four.
Distressingly, the show faced numerous hurdles. AMC was a smaller, boutique network at that time. The show was very expensive. Reality TV dominated in ratings and the world assured us of the worst-that prestige television that was as good as Goodfellas or Unforgiven or The Shawshank Redemption or Breakfast at Tiffany’s on its best days, would never amount to a hill of ratings beans next to KUWTK, an acronym as ugly sounding as its content: Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Mad Men, one of the major television shows to really and truly signal TV’s new and unexpected last golden age, would forever compete, and lose, a rigged game against the ranting, bleating, whining, vocal fry-ing hollow plastic horses of the apocalypse. Mad Men is gone now, and KUWTK’s hooves beat on. It’s the end of days, the end of something. Light up, and pour a stiff one of whatever your poison is (Diet Coke?)
Much ink has been spilled over the finale before today, which is good for the creative minds behind the show (visionary Matthew Weiner, who invented a delicious new form of rebellion by creating clips for a mandated “On the next Mad Men” that were hopelessly, hilariously obscure and useless: “close the door.” “take a seat” “what?” and so forth) and for the actors’ future prospects. The finale, it must be said, was not totally satisfying, an opinion which most critics and viewers seem to agree on (if we’re honest) though time will tell if nostalgia and want will make us love it more, retrospectively. But for now, the ending was not satisfying in a weird, deliberate way that nags, for the show spent much of the last half season in 2015 wrapping up loose ends of all and sundry (but for Don Draper) including loose ends of loose ends. Did we need a lot of time seeing Pete reconcile with Trudy over multiple episodes? No, not really, even if it was nice. Did this require Pete having an extended dinner scene with his brother we’ve seen a couple of times, years ago? No, that was yell at the television-worthy. These minutes were precious! Peggy’s love life resolution seemed tacked on, unnecessary, undermining her professional success (because no one can have it all) in what seemed to be fan service in a show that never pandered before this and rarely wasted a frame even when it slowly spun out a narrative or time jumped according to its own master’s logic. At the ending of 90 hours and seven years of Mad Men, Don was out there, off on one of his disappearing, soul saving trips. His last trip. Gone west again, to find answers to his past, his future, and even his now. Whatever we thought of Don, we cared for him, and needed him “home” (against all odds, as he’d made himself rather homeless).
“Person to Person” the very last hour of Mad Men, includes three very important phone calls with women key to Don Draper’s life and whatever roots he’s been able to create and keep over the course of the 60’s: Betty, his ex-wife (of 11 years) and the mother of his three children; his one time golden girl, his “Birdie”. Sally, his almost grown up teen daughter. Peggy, his one time faceless secretary and years long foil, friend, kindred, prickly, prickish spirit, protege and finally, peer. All of these are quite fractured relationships, but all three love Don in their way and never refuse his calls, even as they’ve outgrown him. These scenes, a device hearkening back to another era of television (unlike modern plot devices that often involve a sudden appearance at an airport or a cliche hospital bedside reconciliation) stress the distance of that era and a bygone real disconnection possible for a man who longs to disappear, go off the grid, in a way rarely even considered today (we are, most of us, tied to our devices even if we never phone another person on them). These person to person calls in the finale remind us of a time when it was chance, fate and luck to reach your party on the other end when you need them most or when they may need you. We relied on vibes, on prayers, on psychic phenomenon, on fate. It felt like emotional life and death, that phone ring, sometimes. They’d have to answer, sight unseen, to whoever it was, there was no ignoring the phone, it was not done, it was a fact of basic courtesy and a fact that the phone was not intrusive as it later became. We considered most calls important then. We gave them the benefit of the doubt. The people who had our numbers were our friends, and our loved ones, and a call down the line from the other side of the country was a very expensive act of love and, as we see in “Person to Person”, grave import. These moments are high points of the finale with beautiful acting from Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss and even the much-maligned January Jones.
The ending is the only ending we’ve got. It wasn’t the best ever Six Feet Under ending, that wouldn’t have worked, that’s been done (and it was breathtaking). It wasn’t the retroactively legacy damaging True Detective ending. It wasn’t the people-raged-and-rioted-and-hated-for-years-and-now-we’re-to-pretend-we-got-it ending of The Sopranos (though it was a little too close for comfort). It wasn’t the Seinfeld ending (thank the old gods and the new). And thank Weiner and all common sense that it wasn’t the Mad Men beginning sequence as an ending (why would anyone think it would be so unoriginal?)
Mad Men’s final on screen moments, in style and execution, were so odd and unusual for this show, that it required a lot of internet support, discussion and helpful spoon feeding. This saddened me and will always leave me wanting more, which might just have been its intention. It really sucks to think that everything good is just advertising, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity even for something as pure as Mad Men once was. To explain (spoilers follow): Don ends up at Esalen, in California, a different California than the other slices of weird he’s discovered in his other breaks from life. This real-life then and now retreat offers scenic, expensive therapy, respite and a commune type of experience , the sort of setting that represents hell for back alley cat Don. There’s no booze, and no sex going on, just man-hugs. The Me generation is starting to cry “Me Me Me” right here at ground zero, and it repulses Don, even if it does aid him in some kind of breakdown (or breakthrough). He stops running, at least.
In a place where allegedly everyone is free to come and go as they please, Don is told he’ll have to wait several days for a car to come and get him the hell out of that oversharing mecca. So he buckles in (I’m thinking after booking that car and setting his mind to managing the rest of his sentence like a champ) attends a cliff side, early morning meditation session complete with chanting (shudder) and then the camera closes in on Don’s silent face, eyes closed, and he breaks into a big grin. Cut to a real life commercial: 1971’s “Hilltop” in which a group of multi-ethnic, ordinary, unpolished, real looking people sing about perfect harmony. Anyone alive in the 70’s and 80’s will remember this ad which seemed to run for an entire decade and was truly affecting and effective in its day. Whatever its cynical, Madison Avenue goals, it was real and communicated something around the globe, a movement based on a feeling. It was a charitable campaign. A hit record. It seemed to us kids to be thoroughly genuine and something other than (or, along with) Coca-Cola. Pepsi’s never had a moment like this (except maybe the very different Michael Jackson commercial more than a decade later and a world away, culturally).
Reportedly, Matthew Weiner had this ending envisioned since the beginning of the series, so in Weiner we trust. But at the end we are left with just Don’s grin (read as you will) then we cut to a real commercial (interpret its placement as you will) and end credits. To the impatient, this ending was indeed predicted by some online critics, insofar as we interpret it to mean that the McCann carrot of Don getting “COCA-COLA…” would, off screen be realized, that this last on-screen trip to California (and to the self, man) would result in this genius ad, right down to featuring a girl that looked just like the living slice of apple pie at the front desk in her red hair ribbons who Don meets in a prior scene. After all these years in our unhappy marriage with Don, and goddamned Betty, and Henry, even, we are asked, after all this time, to close our eyes and imagine Don getting one final light bulb idea. We, the suckers, the ones who buy the nylons, don’t get to see this one final pitch. In this scenario, we have to imagine Don returning to McCann, indulged like the valuable asset he is, and bringing a big prize back: an ad campaign that will be historic, that will secure his name and legacy (and probably that of Peggy and maybe Joan and rotten old Harry, too) a fresh California import and once in a lifetime sober dream of brilliance from the late great Don Draper, who had been quietly dying inside and creatively for the past three years on screen, who’d lost any gift he had from the days of “It’s Toasted” and “The Carousel” and had even lost the edge of the flippant, hot, meanness he displayed when he told Rachel Menken, one of his ill-gotten deep loves who would be squandered “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”
The ending tells us, rather harshly, that Don Draper is a salesman and a salesman is Don. He was always a difficult, tragic sonofabitch. Within the narrative, the man may not have ever existed, outside of the salesman selling something, to someone, for some reason (even a misguided stab at love). We bought in, 2 million of us; we fell for an empty suit. Just like Betty, Megan, Rachel, Midge and many more, we bought the lie of the man, of love, of change, of happiness. This truth didn’t change from the beginning to the end of the series, in a way that was usually, oddly enjoyable in an overwrought TV landscape of plot twists and casual deaths. But in buying the lie for so many years in such beautiful surroundings and such a pretty package, we forgot how cynical this all was. Draper was oddly classical, traditional, comfortable, awful. What Matthew Weiner did was create a show in the modern era that actually recreated some of the techniques, style, and loveliness of the bygone serials and the clean, impossible otherworldliness of the Cleavers, Rod Serling, those TV folks who’ve helped us go to sleep at night over many years. And so Don will be missed. Hell, Don is already missed. We’re all left with a Coke and a smile. I don’t know if I get it, or if I like it. But there it is. Advertising.
The internet now offers as deep of a reading as you can stomach or need but should not have been required to supplement our enjoyment of this finale. This wrings false, yet here we are. We are just the public, who are being affected by the ads whether we know it or not, one way or another, conditioned little TV babies we are, even those who’ve now, cut the cord, too late say: O.K. Mad Men. O.K. Don Draper, you got me. Maybe we’ll manufacture it as the great ending we need (because we accept no substitutes).
If you are still here, you can indulge one more close reading: look at this scene within a scene, as Betty picked up a little modeling work in Season 1 of Mad Men. This ad within the show is a striking example of the many little Easter eggs that, quite unexpectedly and perfectly weave this long narrative together. It’s a bit like grief, it comes at an inconvenient time, and like a ton of bricks: this fake family is so like Don and Betty and their picture perfect two children. It’s unsustainable and frozen just long enough for a few frames:the beautiful lie that they never were, the impossible TV family we longed for over our own messiness. Betty is captured, still young, alive, well, golden. Unhurt. Unbroken. There’s a kid like little Sally, still looking up to mom, open, innocent, with all love intact. There’s a guy just like Don, giving his beautiful wife his full attention (though he’s not really getting comfortable, and may just be passing through). There’s Duck’s dog Chauncey! There’s a chip-n-dip. There’s an embarrassing richness of Coca-Cola. There’s a kid that looks as lost as all the different Bobbys always were. And here’s me, the audience, and I’m a puddle. Wave bye bye, fade to black.
By Jacqueline Howlett: we have written several pieces on Mad Men’s final season: Half-season premiere; Midway point reflection on Don Draper as well as an earlier piece on central Mad Men themes up to the Season 5 finale.