“Most types of enterprise never give truth a second thought, but advertising people are not like that: they keep truth in front of them all the time, brooding dreamily about it while writing the long, long drama of mouth hygiene.” – E.B. White
Mad Men is so important to me. When it ended, I comforted myself by re-watched the season three episode depicting the death of President John F. Kennedy, when all the characters to whom I was so connected were as aggrieved as I was, trying to make sense out of what they had experienced, attempting to understand how Camelot had ended in an assassination.
Mad Men‘s final moments were sour. A journey into the American wilderness found Don Draper right where he was in the pilot, materializing an idea for an ad out of the fog of crisis. Like that first ad, the Lucky Strike slogan “It’s Toasted,” the last one also existed in reality, utilizing the built-in cultural reverberations to impress upon the audience that the ad was indeed effective without having demonstrate it by showing Don earning New York Times interviews or Cleo Awards. But where the pilot had “It’s Toasted” ornament the world of Mad Men, a new world that had to be rendered as quickly and fully as possible, the ad that occupies the final moments of Mad Men overtook it.
Mad Men ends with Coca Cola’s iconic “Hilltop” commercial played in full. That a show responsible for such achievements in television writing as “The Suitcase,” “Babylon,” “Mystery Date,” and so many others dovetailed into a preexisting commercial, coasting out on something else’s prestige—prestige it earned for being a beautiful commercial, but still a thing shilling for Coke, making Mad Men a thing shilling for Coke, a fate that Don had gone on the lam to escape.
Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Phillip Maciak noted how the inclusion of the commercial inside Mad Men meant that viewers would have to contemplate television’s inextricable relationship to advertising no matter how liberated Mad Men became from its original broadcasts as viewers discover it through Netflix and the like. Every time I start to assign some merit to the use of the commercial, though, I think of Emily Nussbaum’s perspective as she recently articulated it in the New Yorker, that the medium is coming into its own as an art form, still evolving, and viewers are not cynical enough about advertising.
Throwing myself into attempts to justify the ending turned out to be an effective way of avoiding facing the loss of Mad Men. And since it premiered in 2007, the year I went away to college, in the depths of the Recession, I had come to feel like I needed it. I had no idea how to orient my drive and ambition within the context of a career. I had no models for how to negotiate the peculiar stresses of an entry level job. The town where I lived had been economically depressed before the Recession. I could not get a job, I was accruing student debt, and most of the guidance that was considered prudent to dispense at the time was that students should not be hard on themselves if things did not turn out—the way they wanted them to notwithstanding. I was prepared for nothing.
So I spent a lot of time watching Mad Men. By 2015, when I covered the final episodes of Mad Men for my job at a newspaper, I thought I would feel as far away from that self as I could imagine. But I felt prouder than ever for having found my lodestar in Peggy Olson. Getting paid to write about Mad Men was my victory lap in the shuttered Sterling Cooper & Partners offices.
It took Mad Men a year to end, and I spent the time between the airing of the midseason finale and the final episodes watching The Sopranos. I hoped the finale of Mad Men would knock me out with the force of that show’s final moments. Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner got traction for his period piece after the spec script got Sopranos creator David Chase’s attention, and Weiner worked on The Sopranos from season five until its end. Mad Men premiered only one month after The Sopranos ended.
The last moments of Mad Men‘s last episode, “Person to Person,” bore the pressure not just of the entire landmark series that came before it—all seven seasons of Mad Men that aired on AMC over the course of nearly a decade, telling the story of another decade of American life—it also bore the pressure of The Sopranos, the show that made Mad Men possible and preceded it in its quality of acclaim and innovation.
Despite the initial wallop the end of Mad Men laid unto me, it comes into a different focus when considered alongside the ending of The Sopranos, a show haunted from the outset by the words of Michael Corleone: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” (Those words also resonate peskily with me, as the kind of perpetual, immersive “binge” viewing and re-viewing of these shows I am prone to is a result of the desire to control a flow of time, the consequences of actions, when I cannot control how my own life or career is skidding or slipping. Just when I think I do not need to watch the show again, I go back to the beginning.)
The Sopranos ends with Tony Soprano hiding from a steeply escalating mob war. Almost all his friends and associates are dead and he is sleeping with a gun. He waits for his family to join him in a diner called Holstein’s in a tense scene that ends abruptly before Tony’s daughter, Meadow, can enter the restaurant. As patrons enter, a bell rings, and right after Meadow is shown approaching Holstein’s, Tony is shown hearing the bell ring—it seems as if Meadow has entered the restaurant. But after the bell rings and Tony looks up, the scene smashes to black. The music stops. The Sopranos is over.
The meaning of the cut to black dominates critical discussion about The Sopranos. One interpretation of the ending is that the cut to black means that Tony is dead, killed by another man who enters the diner. Besides all the elements of the final scene that drive suspicions that the cut to black represents that Tony’s life ends in the diner, that interpretation of the finale provides some consolation to me as a viewer who loves The Sopranos because it honors the work of the entire series and everything it did to demonstrate that Tony cannot get out. Throughout The Sopranos, Tony fears that he will lose his family, and if he dies in those final moments, they lose him. The Sopranos spent its run demonstrating what happens to the wives and children who lose their fathers to mob violence. Everything that precedes it makes that moment so rich.
Like Tony Soprano, Don Draper loses his family at the end of Mad Men. Instead of becoming a casualty to his vocation—that is really what viewers see Don doing during the entire rest of Mad Men—finally, his family no longer buys him. When Don’s ex-wife, Betty, and his daughter, Sally, appear in “Person to Person,” they do so to trace his absence in the space of their family. Don should feel very alone on that hill where he spends the final moments of “Person to Person,” but someone has reached him. The title of the episode emphasizes the communications Don attempts to have with some of the women in his life, but only one of those communications is vitally consequential. Of the people he tries to talk to, only Peggy can successfully get through to Don. But on Mad Men, getting through to Don Draper is as risky as running North Jersey.
So this is my theory, my magic bullet theory of Mad Men‘s finale and how it, like The Sopranos‘ finale, also might depict the end of something besides viewers’ time with a television show. This is my attempt to make sense of the loss of something that provided vital internal infrastructure to me during a turbulent time.
Before the end, Don has a breakdown in an encounter group that he is enticed to enter when a blonde woman asks him to accompany her. The attention of a beautiful woman could motivate Don at his bleakest, and the moment she finds him is a contender for the title: she finds him crying by the phone after having reached out to Peggy, his protégé, the girl who started her career as his secretary in 1960. In the last year, he was shown to have had little interaction with Peggy, especially compared to the years she spent as one of his sole copywriters. Besides their telephone exchange in “Person to Person,” Jon Hamm, who played Don, and Elisabeth Moss, who played Peggy, barely had scenes together in the show’s last episodes. The only other significant scene they shared was one in which Don performs Peggy’s employee evaluation.
When he asks her about her goals, she tells him she wants to have a big idea, create a big ad that transcends its effectiveness as a mere ad and becomes a moment in culture. Don laughs, and Peggy takes his laughter to be derisive. Everything she had been through with Don would substantiate her assumption. Peggy catches flack for conflating art and advertising throughout Mad Men, and shortly before her exchange with Don, she is disappointed when a photographer she hired to shoot an ad turns out to be nothing but an advertisement for herself, not someone searching for the truth. Peggy’s approach to advertising is to appeal to the clients’ desires to find a place in customers’ lives, finding those human vulnerabilities and lacks and making them as irresistible to clients as a Lucky Strike to a lifelong smoker. Unlike Don, who uses himself to tease a fantasy of the way life could be, accessing clients’ vulnerabilities, and hinting that the product could be the missing piece that would make the customer into Don Draper, Peggy believes that effective advertising is informed by the truth.
Unlike David Chase, who refuses to provide a definitive reading of The Sopranos‘ final moments, Matthew Weiner confirmed in his conversation with A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library that the end of Mad Men shows Don getting the idea for the “Hilltop.” That means it is not up for speculation that Mad Men leaves Don getting what Peggy wants the most, what she thinks he laughed at her for wanting.
As much as Mad Men‘s final moments resemble the final moments of The Sopranos—a close up of the protagonist’s face, a bell rings, a cut to black—they are not the same loss. The Sopranos‘ cut to black might have been the result of a bullet entering Tony Soprano’s skull because his daughter was not on time, did not sit next to him in the booth, and was not able to protect him and be the “guardian angel” she was portended to be in the first episode of the final season, “Members Only.” Mad Men‘s cut to black was a bullet entering Peggy’s career. Mad Men was, in its entirety, the story of Peggy’s last day in advertising.
The arrival at “Hilltop” has roots in what was almost Don’s last day in advertising. He gets back into Sterling Cooper & Partners on the basis of bureaucracy and their unwillingness to cancel the non-compete clause in his contract. In the first half of season seven, which aired as an isolated half season in 2014, the major agency-client arc did not belong to Don but to Peggy as she managed creative work on Burger Chef. After Don sowed the seeds of insecurity in the tag she had tidily settled on, he helped her engage with their similar approach to cultivating and honoring ideas, ideas that for Peggy, are based in truth, and for Don, based in fantasy.
When Don introduces Peggy in the meeting with Burger Chef, he quotes the introduction that she planned to give when the pitch was to be delivered by Don. “Every great ad tells a story,” he says. “Here to tell that story is Peggy Olson.”
Here is Peggy’s story:
“Thank you, Don. That’s a lot to live up to. Because I certainly can’t tell a better story than the one we saw last night. I don’t know what was more miraculous: the technological achievement that put our species in a new perspective, or the fact that all of us were doing the same thing at the same time.
“Sitting in this room, we can still feel the pleasure of that connection. Because, I realize now, we were starved for it. We really were. And, yes, we’ll feel it again when they all return safely. And, yes, the world will never be the same in some ways. But tonight, I’m going to go back to New York, and I’ll go back to my apartment and find a 10-year-old boy parked in front of my TV, eating dinner.
“Now, I don’t need to charge you for a research report that tells you that most television sets are not more than six feet away from the dinner table. And that dinner table is your battlefield and your prize. This is the home your customers really live in. This is your dinner table. Dad likes Sinatra, son likes the Rolling Stones. The TV’s always on, Vietnam playing in the background. The news wins every night. And you’re starving. And not just for dinner.
“What if there was another table, where everybody gets what they want when they want it? It’s bright and clean, and there’s no laundry, no telephone, and no TV. And we can have the connection that we’re hungry for. There may be chaos at home, but there’s family supper at Burger Chef.”
Peggy finds out they secured the Burger Chef business in the shadow of Don’s success in helping Roger Sterling sell their agency to McCann Erickson, tying Peggy’s triumph into the bureaucratic back-flip that enables Don to stay employed, since the partners were still trying to fire him. In terms of narrative stakes, it seems like the Burger Chef success informed the resetting of the Sterling Cooper status quo, so frequently does Mad Men depict Don reasserting his supremacy with a creative breakthrough. But Burger Chef was a win for Peggy and Peggy alone, the great moment to which all of her time on Mad Men had been building. Instead of depicting it that way, the viewer learns that the pitch worked when Peggy approaches Don after the partners’ meeting that sealed their deal with McCann to tell him simply, “We got it.” Don leaves her and goes downstairs to enter his old office when he hears the voice of Bert Cooper, who died while he and Peggy watched the moon landing in Indiana, on their way to the Burger Chef pitch. Don has a vision of ultra-capitalist Cooper doing a soft shoe routine and singing “The Best Things in Life are Free.”
Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch is a case study in her approach to advertising, reminding a business that what it is hungry for is a place in the lives of customers, a seat at their dinner table—a seat she suggests is occupied by television. The cataclysmic effectiveness of Peggy’s Burger Chef pitch is due in no small amount to the fact that she is simultaneously selling to Burger Chef this idea of a seat at the dinner table while reminding the viewer that the seat Mad Men has at their dinner table will soon be vacant, and how will they fill it?
Don cannot tell a better story than the one Peggy tells, and at the end of Mad Men, that catches up to him. At first, it is not the Burger Chef pitch that reaches Don when his table is arguably at its emptiest: the words that haunt him right out of advertising come from Peggy’s very first pitch for Belle Jolie lipsticks. Don was only in the room for two of Peggy’s pitches, and Burger Chef was the only one Peggy made. Don made the Belle Jolie pitch for her since, at the time, she was not yet a copywriter. It had been an assignment she had won based on a remark she made when the secretaries were utilized as a focus group. Looking back on that in 1965, Peggy said that was when she was “discovered” and credits the opportunity with the real beginning of her career.
Don thinks he finds the end of his career in his first meeting with McCann and a research company representative who describes the kind of person to whom they want to sell Miller’s diet beer. Where the machine of McCann wanted to mute all customers into one undistinguished, indistinguishable beer-drinking population—the population Don is undoubtedly repulsed to recognize he is a part of—Peggy did not want to be one of a hundred colors in a box. And unlike most of what Peggy says in his presence, Don could not write that observation off because he had to deliver it convincingly for a client. “She’s unique,” Don said, speaking Peggy’s words and describing her at the same time. Her words are what provide Don with the necessary contrast to see the lack of truth in McCann’s approach, and they drive Don right out the door. In the next episodes, he drives across the United States referring to his advertising career in the past tense. He believes he is out.
While Peggy has an inelegant time of starting work at McCann, “Person to Person” shows how adept she is at navigating the world of advertising. Despite her position of relative security, Peggy is still at a crossroads. Her former coworker and onetime supervisor, Joan, reaches out to her with the proposal that they launch a production studio together. When Pete bids her farewell as he leaves for a new job, the circumstances of their brief affair in 1960 feel so far away. That prepares the viewer for Pete to mention 1980—that is so far away, and that is when Pete figures Peggy will be Creative Director of some agency, somewhere.
The sound of the year destroys Peggy. For those viewers who figured that what Pete suggests is not an outrageous trajectory, Peggy is measuring herself against Don, who started his career in advertising at the same agency that made him Creative Director a mere handful of years later. The exact timeline is never established, but Don’s daughter, Sally, is only six years old in season one. He met his first wife, Betty, while working at the fur company where Roger Sterling finds him, and Sally is conceived on their honeymoon. Don was probably with Sterling Cooper for only half a decade before he became Creative Director.
By the events of “Person to Person,” Peggy had been in advertising for a decade. In that time, Peggy has seen Stan—with whom she starts a relationship in “Person to Person”—have sex with a girl who had just lost her father to cancer. She had money spitefully thrown in her face, been diminished by people she interviewed for positions under her, been called a humorless bitch, been told “boys will be boys” in reference to sexual harassment that transpired on her watch, suffered repeated insinuations that she slept with Don to get her job, been passed over for Don’s affections during the time he would have slept with anything (for which she is fortunate), become the site of Pete Campbell’s greatest shame after he exploited her sexually and romantically, had her heart broken by a superior who refused to leave his wife and family for her, and suffered innumerable petty indignities under Don and the advertising office culture he epitomized as a secretary and a copywriter.
Peggy did not put up with it blithely, though. In 1965, she got a job as copy chief at rival agency Cutler, Gleason & Chaough and left. Within the year, CGC merged with Don’s agency, and Peggy was working under Don again when he was at his beastliest. Shortly thereafter, Don had a meltdown in a meeting with Hershey that put him on leave for half a year. When he rejoined the company, Peggy had not been promoted to Creative Director in his place. She was still working as copy chief under a new Creative Director who preferred expediency and accepted mediocre work, unlike Don, who preferred laboring after great work the same way she did. That work ethic was the one thing Don could exploit on his way back to Peggy’s heart, and in no time, they were in the office in the middle of the night, dancing to “My Way,” and she had discovered the direction to take the work on Burger Chef.
Peggy’s Belle Jolie pitch drives Don out of advertising, across the country, and ultimately to Esalen, where he meditates on a hill with a few other members of the institute. He smiles, a bell rings, and he has the idea for “Hilltop,” which features a song that goes like this:
“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,
Grow apple trees and honeybees and snow-white turtledoves.
I’d like to teach the world to sing (sing with me)
In perfect harmony (perfect harmony),
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
That’s the real thing.
I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,
I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.
It’s the real thing.
Coke is what the world wants today (Coca-Cola), it’s the real thing.”
Peggy thinks Don laughed at her desire to have a big, culturally significant idea, and there on the hilltop, he has one, and it is on the basis of buying the world a home, a home where one might find Peggy’s kitchen table, where the question is not whether the product will get a seat, but if the world would accept the seat that Don has set aside for it, where he would keep it company. The best things in life are free, and he wants to provide Coca-Cola the connection that it is hungry for: a connection with the world, if they want it. This is a manipulation of Peggy’s strategy, the ultimate appropriation of her idea after Don laughed off her desire for a big, culturally significant creative breakthrough. It might be enough to move her to end her career.
“Hilltop” is the bullet, and just like The Soprano‘s cut to black, viewers do not see it in action. All they get is loss. They know how it feels—they have been watching, they have seen what Don does to Peggy. If mob violence took Tony Soprano, he never got out, he got pulled in for good, pulled away from his family. There is no question that just when Don Draper thought he was out of advertising, it pulls him back in. That is what Matthew Weiner insists viewers see at the end of “Person to Person.” But by arriving at an idea that sells Don on a way he can relate to the world and to his corporate master that incorporates his new fantasy—that the best things in life are free, that he and everybody else want to be seen as unique, that a place at the table is something he wants—he erases Peggy’s truth.
Don cannot tell a better story than Peggy can. And maybe that is why viewers got the story they got from Mad Men. They got a look at the time when Peggy and Don’s lives collided—not before and not after. When viewers saw the cut to black at the end of The Sopranos, maybe they saw Tony’s death, and maybe viewers of the end of Mad Men saw the inverse of the Kennedy assassination, when the nation woke up from the American Dream. They saw the truths that Peggy worked so hard to admit, that she used to advance her life forward in the face of invalidation and trauma, transformed into fantasies of the same sort Don let irrevocably fog his perception of reality and blind him to truth after truth.
Maybe something like that could be as sad as the loss of Mad Men. The Warren Commission Exhibit 399 this is not, but I cannot think of a better way to honor what a place Mad Men occupies in my life than to respect how what viewers see is hardly ever literal. If one takes Matthew Weiner at his word, to say Mad Men ends with Don Draper coming up with the “Hilltop” ad is not wrong, but what does it mean for him to have done that? In order to consider its ramifications, I have to go back through Peggy’s brilliant career. I have to watch the show again. To have the opportunity to experience Mad Men again, in a new context? I’m sold.
Illustrations by Kara Sheaffer