In which the new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led. The lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you.
“I can’t move” (Don Draper’s final spoken dialogue)
For the past two months, some of you have been reading my essays on the first season of Mad Men, and how I used it in my curriculum for the final four years of my career as a high school English teacher. You’ve parsed over the connections I made, the extrapolations I attempted, the unbridled Pete Campbell bromance I cultivated. You’ve (possibly) enjoyed the anecdotes about student and faculty reactions to my use of the show in an academic environment. If you’ve kept up with my essays on the final seven episodes, you’ve seen me try to adapt my style to episodes for which the end game is unknown. And you’ve probably been able to tell that I’ve forged a deep emotional connection to Matt Weiner’s epic fin du siècle ‘60s drama, one which has reached beyond mere enjoyment of rampant alcoholism and goofy humor. So what I have to say next might surprise you.
I didn’t watch the Mad Men series finale last night. Or at least, I didn’t watch it until a 2am re-airing this morning, during which I was blurry eyed and semi-attentive.
Which ultimately makes perfect sense in the context of the final chapter of the story of the Sterling Cooper family. And of Don Draper himself.
I just finished rewatching “Person to Person” an hour ago, fully awake this time. When I first saw it early this morning, it seemed to be somewhat flat and strange in its execution. In an interview sometime last month (the source of which I can’t remember), John Slattery mentioned how during the table read for the finale, he was struck by how normal the script was…until Weiner pulled the key cast into his office afterward in order to show them the final ten minutes of the script. Maybe knowing this bit of information, along with my fatigue, colored my perception. Because the second time around, “Person to Person” became a much richer experience.
To be fair, ending a near-legendary show like Mad Men is a daunting proposition, so inflated are the inherent expectations surrounding it (even for a series that has never played to those expectations.) In the modern television landscape, two other cable dramas of similar water cooler stature handled this sense of expectation in vastly different ways. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Vince Gilligan hewed to the code of karmic morality that lurked beneath the surface of Breaking Bad in ending the show with a general cleaning up of the mess that Walter White created, while still giving the meth kingpin of Albuquerque a moment of pride in his death. In the Sopranos finale, David Chase famously dissected the private hell of Tony Soprano’s life, his survival of a mob war and final reunion with his family forever darkened by the paranoia that would haunt his soul until the inevitable cut to black of death, or imprisonment, or loss. (I could also go into David Chase’s Wire finale, but that now-iconic show was much more of a cult item during its run.)
If Tony Soprano and Walter White are the first two-thirds of the Holy Trinity of Anti-Heroic Middle-Aged Male Anxiety in modern television drama, then Don Draper is inarguably the final third, albeit a much pricklier proposition at that. There was always an inherent sense of wish fulfillment in Tony and Walt, if only because they were both such excellent and accessible audience surrogates. The gap between the lives of the insecure upper middle-class mob boss and the schlubby Chemistry teacher turned master criminal and the lives of those shows’ viewers was probably slim enough to make sympathizing with them, even in their worst moments, somewhat comforting. But Don’s upper class jet set lifestyle made that much more difficult. Following his exploits for seven years could often be like witnessing the secret, seedy life of Cary Grant, a mixture of old-style Hollywood screen idol worship and a complete distancing from the excesses that such a world of privilege could offer. Tony could be an emotional cipher, but his therapy sessions with Jennifer Melfi (and James Gandolfini’s charisma) gave him a sense of emotional gravitas that often seeped into his normal life. And Walt was a seemingly decent man gone horribly wrong in the name of protecting his family’s future, and one who always had a slightly more repellent group of adversaries for whom the audience could root against.
But Don? And Mad Men as a whole? It’s no coincidence that one of the most common responses I’ve heard from new viewers over the years is “I hate everyone on this show. They’re all terrible people.” David Chase may have realistically portrayed a clan of amoral New Jersey mobsters, but Matt Weiner took those lessons from his time in the Sopranos writing room and crafted a world in which emotions were submerged as a matter of form, in which business decisions trumped the personal, and in which people gave up their lives for their work. It made for a much more challenging mirror off which to bounce your interior emotional concerns. But even in its hyper-specific milieu, Mad Men managed to possibly be the most realistic and emotionally honest of these three shows (which is no knock on the other two.) People changed in many ways, but their flirtations with true, lasting psychological and spiritual renovation were often just that. Those who seemed to be on the precipice of something big often subsequently disappeared or receded into the background for several episodes. There were emotional payoffs to be had, but reaching them required a long term investment in supposed empathic futility.
And this is what threw me about watching “Person to Person” the first time. I always found the rampant theories that Don would ultimately throw himself out a window (ala the main credits) to be bordering on the parodic (although apparently, a good deal of people took that angle seriously.) To me, Weiner had laid out his cards well in advance: Mad Men would end as ambiguously as it had lived. Which was why the tidy, almost perfunctory resolutions of the show’s main storylines in this finale struck me as so strange. Well, those and the detour into the world of New Age self-help seminars (or is it a final destination? Boy, between this episode and the significant presence of the EST movement in The Americans, the ’70 alternative therapy world is really having moment, isn’t it?) A complicated moral universe didn’t deserve such things, right? (I’ve avoided reading online critics today, but out of the corner of my eye I still caught the first accusations of betrayal at the handling of Peggy’s arc.)
Or does it? Those of you who read my Mad Men Season 1 essays will recall how one of the books I connected to the series was Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods, in which senatorial candidate John Wade’s life is destroyed by the revelation of his involvement in the My Lai Massacre, and the possibility that he murdered his missing wife. The final lines of that book reverberate through my head as I write tonight’s essay:
“Can we believe that we was not a monster but a man? That he was innocent of everything except his life?
Could the truth be so simple? So terrible?”
Sometimes moral ambiguity can hold a certain tyranny over those who appreciate it in dramatic form. It can make accepting a simple answer, sans enduring mystery, a frustrating experience. I think that in his last go around with the Mad Men universe, Matt Weiner has embraced the beauty that simplicity can hold. For the most part.
Because the overarching message of this series finale seems to be the simplest one possible, and yet one that has eluded all of these characters for so long. In the end, you have to be who you are. Your true self, the one that might be hard to reconcile with the expectations of the world around you. So Betty Draper wholly embraces her death sentence, the future welfare of her children seemingly her only concern. Roger marries the mercurial Marie Calvet, an aging smartass who matches, if not succeeds, his own ornery instincts. Joan gives up the possibility of Richard providing a life of easy luxury for her in the name of starting her own production company (as she tells him, “I can’t just turn off that part of myself.”)
The long history between Pete and Peggy formed a major support beam for Mad Men’s appeal. In the beginning, they were star-crossed lovers separated by society and their own personal ambitions. In time, they forged a deep mutual respect. But their constant drive for increasing professional success above all else was always their greatest connection and greatest barrier to their individual happiness. So when Pete finally comes to term with happiness that his family can provide, he gives up the more glamorous New York trappings that he was raised to idolize in favor of a restart with Lear in Kansas. And though it may seem to go against some of the instincts she’s worked so hard to establish, when Peggy joins Stan in confessing their love, it’s a fitting resolution for a woman who carried an emotional hole in herself dating back to Season 1, when the original Sterling Cooper office culture burned out much of her youthful idealism (and the child she gave up to adoption, which still haunts her.) Sure, such a development reads as almost clichéd, but such things happen in real life. And that doesn’t automatically make them emotionally dishonest. (Is The Odd Couple playing on Don’s motel TV in Utah meant to be a foreshadowing of Stan and Peggy?)
But of course, the main thread to be resolved is that of Don’s long journey toward the redemption of his soul. At the end of my essay for “The Milk and Honey Route”, I theorized that he was finally in a good place, having shed most of his material accoutrements in favor of embracing the life he wanted. “Person to Person” initially finds him in that same state, test driving a muscle car through the Utah desert. But even though he’s abandoned his external shackles, it’s what lies inside Don that is the final destination for his grand reckoning.
This final season of Mad Men has featured many an echo of past episodes and landmark moments, often as a means of emphasizing the cyclical nature of these characters’ lives. In keeping with this sense of repetition, “Person to Person” reaches all the way back to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, the show’s pilot episode. That memorable debut masterfully set the tone for what was to come, establishing a world in which obfuscation of all kinds was the norm. “Person to Person” rips that opaque veil away in featuring a series of honest, one on one discussions between characters, all of them finally coming to terms with the more uncomfortable aspects of their relationships…even though the three major emotional conversations take place over the phone.
That pilot episode also featured Don decrying the work of Sterling Cooper’s house psychologist as borderline voodoo. So it’s only appropriate that he spends the majority of this episode at the New Age retreat, being exposed to another version of that old talking cure. But this is a different Don Draper. His one attempt at reclaiming his highly refined sense of denial, telling Stephanie “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward” after she’s crushed during a group therapy seminar, is only met by her rebuke of “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” It’s another simple beat, but it also plays as the last gasp of the old Don. When she abandons him the next day, he’s left, for the first time, with no immediate options for running away from his problems. His anguished phone call to Peggy, in which he finally confesses the ruin of his life to the one woman who has understood him, is a raw and devastating moment for Jon Hamm.
And with nowhere to run, he’s left with no option other than to attend one more group therapy session, which serves as an unexpected venue of character and audience catharsis. As fellow attendee Leonard confesses his profound feelings of inadequacy (“It’s like no one cares that I’m gone”), Don is at long last able to honestly see himself in another person. It’s not the fantasy he projected onto Rachel Menken, or Suzanne Farrell, or Megan Calvet. It’s just the pain of an ordinary, undistinctive man. His dream of being an object in a refrigerator that everyone ignores, until “the door closes, and the light goes off again” is such an aching, beautiful summary of Don’s long, long spiritual voyage, one which has seen him come so close to true change, but which has always ended with the lights going off again. And it’s this concise expression of the weight that he and the audience have carried for seven years that makes one of the simplest acts he’s ever committed so wrenching.
A hug. An embrace. A moment when Don Draper’s quest for who he is can only be fulfilled by completely empathizing with a stranger, and by subjugating his ego. By letting go. The first time I saw this scene, my fatigue made me think it was logical and expected. The second time, fully awake, tore me all up inside.
And then there’s that final scene, which so confused me in the moment, but which might be one of the more enigmatic passages in the show’s history. Don’s meditational state and the final close up on his smiling face seems to confirm that this long-lost man is now home in himself. But the placement of the famous/infamous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad as the final scene of Mad Men potentially throws all of this contentment for a loop. Does Don’s smile mean that, like at the end of Season 2, he’s found a way in exile to improve his professional life? After all, in their emotional phone call, Peggy does try to talk him down from what she thinks is a suicidal state by dangling the possibility of working with Coke in front of him. Or is Matt Weiner trying to offer a wry commentary on inner peace, that even the most genuine emotions (like what Don might be experiencing) can be co-opted by the advertising industry (even if Don has nothing to do with this commercial)? Or is this final sequence one last moment of ambiguity? After all, Weiner has stated on many occasions that Don’s desire to produce art of lasting value within the confines of the ad world is genuine. Maybe the placement of this vintage commercial is meant to show that art and commerce aren’t always mutually exclusive, that an advertisement can be simultaneously cheap and meaningful. As Don once said to Saint John Powell “I sell products, not advertising.”
No matter what the meaning, this story is over. But the meaning lives on. And thus, last night, after years of awaiting the live airing of this series finale…I was elsewhere. Embracing life. Enjoying life. Finding happiness with someone close to me. Some of you who’ve read my essays might be tired of the autobiographical slant that I’ve sometimes brought to my writing. And that’s fine. But to me, all art is personal. Mad Men has always had a great deal of resonance in my life. It’s helped me to understand quite a bit about humanity, and about myself. And so it’s been fitting that in this final season, in which Don Draper has slowly divested himself of much of the clutter in his life, I’ve been doing the same. So much so that missing the live airing of this monumental television moment last night was one of the easiest decisions that I’ve made in some time. Real life (and real happiness) called. And that was more important than even a fictional show that held such value for me. Because at a certain point, we must all face this decision: when to stop consuming life and to start living it.