SPOILERS AHEAD, if you haven’t yet watched the final season.
Now that we’ve all had a few days to chew on the Mad Men finale, and digest it via our kvetching, sighing, easter egg hunting, raising fists in victory or anger at it, tweeting about Joyce Carol Oates tweeting about it, harumphing about its product placement for both kinds of coke (and I don’t mean regular and diet), and mounting our campaigns for or against Matt Weiner and his track record as the most mercurial kind of show-ender, I’m going have a Tom Collins. And consider the ways in which this short final season, and its goodbye episode, comprised the best/worst ending for one of the great one-hour dramas television has produced (even if its success has inspired a lot of awful shows about advertising — for the love of McCann, Happy-ish, put it back in your pants).
Worst: the long and winding yawn
Let’s start at the end. I wasn’t all that surprised to see Dick Whitman/Don Draper meditating cliffside in the show’s final moments; where else had he been driving but toward enlightenment or death? His emotional phone call to Peggy as the story wound to conclusion, and the climactic breakdown that followed, was the transformative moment, surely. But the journey that led him there could have wrapped up sooner, maybe even an episode earlier, to allow this finale some breathing room.
The entire series unspooled around the successful, focused, cocksure Don Draper that emerged from his devastating start in life and the fateful opportunity that allowed him to assume a new identity, each series of events a set of hollow building blocks for a true self. The powerful persona he created, his secrets, his maddening interiority and misogyny, and his existential wandering of all varieties, has indeed been the essence the show, so this final confirmation of everything we’ve already come to realize about Dick/Don was for me less satisfying, or needed, to tie the series up.
For instance, starting with the irritating “gloomy waitress” storyline (as it has come to be known) and ending with his final conversations with Betty, Peggy, Stephanie (Anna Draper’s niece, who he considered family, though she did not), and even that charmless hippie girl who went through his wallet, those interactions seemed poised to reveal that the conditional love, carnal attractions, and fickle rejections Don/Dick doled out through the years ultimately reflected his dependence on women, not his confidence in the next skirt always being around the corner. Or the next wife (or office wife) telling him who he was, even as he refused to be known.
In that spontaneous road trip, where he confessed his sins, paid his past forward, and fully embraced his own alcoholism and soullessness, he realized a dream to be free but not much else that one can hang a life on, especially in his creeping middle age, and even with the money to fund a forever-lost-weekend existence. The full arc of the trip ate up too much time and space, especially in the finale; his catharsis and rebirth was probably less important to me in the end than the constellation of messed-up, longing, and striving characters he dragged with him though the story over the course of the series. That said…
Best: the all-too-real thing
Certain moments and scenarios from the road trip were essential, like the tension that built around the way in which Don/Dick might respond to that boozy roundtable at the podunk VFW gathering. When he revealed that he killed his CO in Korea, his brothers in arms accepted this deed without judgment, a reaction as surprising as the revelation itself. Then instant karma kicked in, as did his punishment, in a different form than we expected. Back at the motel, while sleeping soundly on the fact that he’d just released himself from the core truth that had haunted his entire adult life, he was branded a grifter of the more common sort and by mistake; suddenly it was time to take a phonebook to the face, courtesy of Detective Wojo from Barney Miller, with an assist by Roy from The Office. Priceless.
But what I really love is that Don/Dick’s transformative quest begins and ends with a speech about a refrigerator, the first a sweepstakes prize filled with beer, the last a dream filled with longing and emptiness, and a lonely man as a well-liked but forgotten condiment in a landscape where love and abundance seem so accessible to others. The latter speech, delivered so earnestly and by the most minor of characters, was easily the best moment of the finale for me. Mad Men has been full of great ancillary and one-off characters that loom larger in the story than their screen time might indicate, and modest Leonard, in his sensible sweater at the touchy-feely retreat, is now enshrined in that hall of fame.
Worst: characters in limbo
Like many fans, I really wanted to know whether the 1970’s find Megan living in a beach house in Malibu or a flophouse in Echo Park. Certainly she had the money from the divorce to keep her warm initially, but did she ever make it as an actress, really, or did her career become a series of disgusting nod-nod-wink-wink-meetings of the kind she had with Harry back in New York, always on the verge of breaking but never really happening? I fear in later years she became the west coast version of the gloomy waitress, once her looks faded and she spent all her money on acting lessons and high living, but of course that’s more than one could have hoped to know.
Also, what became of Henry, who didn’t appear in the finale? Betty’s promise that Sally’s young life wouldn’t mirror her own, watching her mother die, certainly didn’t materialize, and as we see the bedroom of the grand manse looking disheveled and Sally doing the dishes while Betty smokes her cancer stick, one could get the impression that Henry left or was sent away. Or, that Betty turned the dial on her emotional thermostat back over to cold and left the AC running permanently.
It’s not the norm to see what happens to supporting characters once they leave the agency orbit, or it leaves them, but I was kind of hoping against hope to see Sal Romano, Joyce Ramsay, Michael Ginsberg, Beth Dawes and Margaret Sterling (aka Marigold) one more time in the final season. My totally unrealistic fantasy is that the five of them get a beach house in Jersey with Sally, Meagan, Dawn, and Shirley somewhere around 1977, or maybe that they all move into the same sitcom apartment building in San Diego. One can dream.
Best: No more Harry
I miss the childish, egotistical dork that Harry Crane was before he became head of the one-person television division and got that 12% raise a few seasons back, because from that point on he grew into a maniacal jerk, at times darkly comic but in the end unbearable. Thankfully he appeared in the finale just once, in all his douchey glory. Which leads me to…
Best of the Worst: Let’s not sugar coat it, baby.
Weiner and company get credit for their efforts to present the era in some of the complicated ways it existed rather than how we may now idealize it, often refusing the viewer the arm’s-length courtesy of being able to say “it’s amazing how awful and ridiculous people were to each other in the 60s.” There’s always been a subtext to Mad Men that conspired to tell it not just as it was, but as it is.
In the beginning, it was entertaining enough just to watch the animals of advertising play out the trials-of-life scenarios of their era with spite, candor, smoke, and liquor. As it continued, the thrill and nostalgia built in satisfying ways, engaging with ad campaigns and products that went on to define American consumerism during the decades to come, and revisiting the historical milestones that changed American attitudes or consciousness. And of course there were glossy, satisfying layers of the show as a time capsule, often borne out in its comedic and aesthetic instincts (oh the fabulous mid-century furniture, the monstrous room-sized research computer, the boat-sized luxury cars, and the parade of fashions, hairstyles, and beards through the years).
However, one thing that has particularly moved and angered and struck me about the series all along really came home to roost in the closing episodes this spring. It’s in Betty’s doctor having an adult conversation with her husband about the fact she’s dying of lung cancer, off to the side and not addressing her, as she sat in the same room hearing it; after two marriages and three children she’s still treated as a child herself, who cannot understand the workings of her own body. It’s in Peggy and Joan’s early meeting with their male McCann counterparts who behaved as if they were hiring a stripper to pop out of a birthday cake instead of conferencing with professional colleagues, and also in the reactions of each woman in the elevator afterwards (Joan’s anger and Peggy’s practical acceptance). And it’s definitely in that heated exchange between Joan and the Great and Powerful McCann in his office, over her insistence that she knew best how to repair the relationship their jerkish male account executive ruined with her former SCP client.
After a few rounds of polite-but-firm declarations from each side, when McCann’s ego could stand no more, he not only advised Joan she could have nothing she wanted, he told her she was nothing, her brain, her instincts, her work, and even her status as a partner at SCP earning her no more than the right to shut up and go back to her desk, or bail out at pennies on the significant dollars she was owed in her contract.
Her defiant response is the most direct invocation of feminism in the show that I can remember, the stakes made all the more tangible by the traces of both anger and fear flickering in her eyes as the confrontations escalated (Peggy, Megan and other female characters have also exercised their options and fought for their power in various ways, but Joan’s speech finally indicates the existence of a women’s movement, and the emerging political/financial capital in the burgeoning conversation about equality that it will go on to address). I loved this aspect of the series and how it played out because this is one of the most fundamental ways in which the show isn’t just about looking back. The same scenarios and conversations are readily available for us to watch happening in real time today, in the same unfortunate language and with the same rhetorical spin about women and the value of their work in creative fields.
I only wish that some of the depictions of racial and class discrimination in the series had been more present in this same manner, and not relegated to my-god-did-he-just-say-that moments that went largely unanswered, or limited to the ways in which they intersected with the agency and its business, or Madison Avenue’s priorities (thereby leaving the deeper veins of these conversations, and the populations they addressed, mostly unexplored).
Worst of the best: love lies bleeding
Peggy, Peggy, Peggy. She’s supposedly married to her work, so it follows that the only man she could ever truly love would be at the office, right? UGH. Bastard baby boy Campbell? Closed adoption, with some lip service regret years later. Pete Campbell? Stepped into a dream job, and it’s off to Wichita in the Lear Jet with still-available Trudy and his other kid, Tammy. Ace reporter Abe Drexler? Actually seemed to appreciate and love her in a tangible way, so yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. Ted Chaough? So obsessed with her that he had to put the bulk of the United States between them, then by the time he’s finally divorced and they’re working together again, he turns into swinging mod-hair Ken and they’ve both moved on (and he didn’t even crash his plane, the form some of us were thinking his exit might take).
What about that blind date that almost ended up in Paris? Nah, too possible. Ginsberg’s parting nipple in-a-box gift was a fantastic curveball, but you know, out of sight out of mind. So the least probable candidate for Peggy’s soulmate, who did not have a plane or great hair, or a wife, or the name Don Draper, appeared to be Stan. Beardy, snarky, earthy, cranky Stan. What the hell? I didn’t find this cute at all. But then again, Peggy is all about proximity. She’d never have to leave the bubble of the office, and he could well be the only man at McCann (besides the assumedly reinstated Don) that knows her name isn’t baby or honey or sugar tits.
The missed opportunity for a better final scene for the love-hate relationship of Joan and Peggy was disappointing too. How quickly all that fuzzy, smiling, warmth between them turned awkward when they met up. So them! The crime was not showing us the rest of that I-was-glad-to-see-you-but-now-we’re-both-totally-uncomfortable-and-still-have-to-eat-this-lunch scene. Letting Joan’s wealthy beau Richard just get out of bed one morning and walk out of her life, based on a single conversation about the fact she was starting a business, was an equally flawed calculation. We never did find out what those leisure suits and neckerchiefs were all about, for starters, and besides, we already knew Joan didn’t need his money to have the life she wanted for herself.
In the end: same song, next verse
For all of its pitching that mythical “place we ache to go again,” the idea that home is ultimately with the people to whom one truly belongs, and the places where they are, is not so earthshattering. But the conclusion of Mad Men also seems to argue that persona can manifest its own destiny, and that Don’s improved shell self will be back at McCann teaching the world to sing the virtues of Coke and global harmony, producing one of the iconic campaigns in advertising history. Cynicism, enlightenment, and commerce forge the key that fits the lock on a new era of understanding — about how to sell people things and ideas — and an industry that likely hasn’t looked over its shoulder since. To paraphrase a familiar refrain from the 70’s where the series leaves us, wherever we go, here we are.