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If you’re a Mad Men fan, you SHOULD HAVE joined us here regularly for Mad Men Musings – a space to discuss selected highlights, low points, or just plain water-cooler worthy moments of each episode. You would have liked it, I promise.
“What the World Wants Today is the Real Thing”—(2nd chorus from I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke)
There were lots of “real things” in the series finale: real love, real growth and real sorrow. Joan, Peggy, Stan, Pete, and Roger are riding that last Carousel reel into a bright future, while Betty and Sally parcel out Betty’s last days. And Don…Don was never going to land the happy ending, and that’s completely apropos, isn’t it? Let’s do this, one last time.
Don’s last pitch:
We begin with Don continuing his great adventure; he’s in Utah now, helping stake a race entry fee for some young drivers. We also get to see the LAST DON DRAPER BEDROOM SCENE EVER (and tellingly, it’s an awkward one, where the young lady is more than happy to sleep with him but also helps herself to a little bonus). When he calls Sally to check in, the figurative distance between them is painfully vast: he’s telling her about races and cars that look like jet planes, while she’s carrying the secret burden of Betty’s encroaching death.
Equally as heartbreaking is the conversation between Sally and Bobby; Sally comes home to just the boys by themselves in a smoky kitchen, with Henry at work and Betty laying down upstairs. Bobby knows what’s going on, and Sally reassures him as best she can. This poignant moment between them—Bobby’s burnt attempt to feed himself and Gene, and Sally’s calm “Get the frying pan. I’ll show you how to do it” response–illustrates how Sally will do in her new role. The very last time we see Betty and Sally, they are together in silence; Sally scrubs the dishes while Betty smokes and reads the paper.
When Don calls Betty, (person to person, of course,) the most important parts of the conversation are the things that go unsaid. Don initially insists that he will take the children—“the kids need me”—but Betty has it all plotted out: Bobby and Gene will go to live with Uncle William and Aunt Judy so they have “a woman in their life.” When Don protests, Betty responds: “You’ll see as much of them as you do now, on weekends, and…wait, Don, when was the last time you saw them?” It’s a harsh rebuke, but it’s true, and the last gift Don can give to Betty is to acquiesce to her wishes.
The beating heart of their talk, though, is what they can’t say: Don simply utters “Birdie”, that simple word transmitting all that lies between them, and all Betty can say in response is “I know.” It’s the most important conversation they will ever have.
Reeling from this news, Don heads for California and Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie—the only remaining North Star for the Dick Whitman part of Don. Stephanie has her own problems—her son is living with his father, not her, and her family is judging her for it. Don tries to give her Anna’s wedding ring but Stephanie doesn’t want it; eventually she takes pity on him and convinces him to come to a spiritual retreat on the coast.
Don doesn’t fare too well amongst the hippies, but he grudgingly participates in the group sessions. During a communication exercise, his partner abruptly gives him a shove, and I cheered at this—don’t we all, deep down, want to shove Don?
Stephanie, too, has difficulties; she feels judged by the group members and flees. Don attempts to pull the good old reinvention speech on her; he says he can move out to LA and help her move on. It’s the millionth iteration of this trope, this conceit that one can shed their skin and transform into something new—this time, it’s further complicated by the Dick Whitman-ness of it all. But Stephanie, no matter how much Don wants her to be, is not Anna’s proxy: “You’re not my family. What’s the matter with you?” She sneaks out, leaving Don literally stranded at the retreat with no way to leave.
A broken Don calls Peggy, and her initial anger turns to confusion and concern at his tone. She tells him to just come home, back to McCann. The conversation that follows is starkly, horrifying fraught with foreboding—I honestly thought that there was a good possibility of Don committing suicide here.
“I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am,” Don tells Peggy.
“Don. Listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?” Peggy asks.
“I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it,” Don says.
When Don hangs up, his whole body is contorted with shame and grief; it looks like he is going to vomit up poison, or is in the throes of a heart attack. And let’s take stock here: Betty is dying; his absence as a father means his children will not even live with him after Betty’s death; he is incapable of truly loving a partner and building a life with them; the only woman he revered and respected, Anna, is dead, and his last connection to her via Stephanie has fled; he stole a man’s life and created an empty version of it, one where his greatest achievements are the vacuous promises of advertising campaigns.
And to top it all off, he’s stuck in the purgatorial land of group sessions; the irony of sharing confidences with strangers, exposing one’s secrets, is sharply limned here. When he ends up in yet another session, though, things get weird: the expectation is that Don might rally one last time and share with the group, and yet it’s a total stranger that cracks Don open. A participant named Leonard confesses that he feels invisible, that no one, not his coworkers or his own family, actually sees him.
And then he explains a dream he had: “I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”
Funnily enough, this almost sounds reminiscent of a Don Draper pitch, except no one would believe him: everyone sees Don, but no one sees Dick Whitman. This connection breaks down whatever was left of Don; he embraces Leonard and the two sob together. The last time we see Don, he’s crossed legged in a mediation session; as the instructor intones “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to live. A new day. New ideas. A new you.”
Don smiles ever so slightly, om-ing away, and then the cornily familiar strains of the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign start up and we’re plunged into that famous ad. And here’s where opinions may divide: did Don find actual, lasting peace on that cliff? Did his lockbox of a psyche finally break open, cleaving his broken selves together, and if so, was the Coke commercial an ironic statement, the commodification of peace and love sentiments? Or, as I interpret it, was Don left with one thing and one thing only: he may have lost everything, but dammit, he can still ply that silver tongue and he used it to sell the hell out of Coke.
I mulled over these possibilities for a while. It’s too facile for Don to have found true peace, and that campaign seems so faux-earnest, so company-capitalizing-on-social-themes-to-make-bank that it’s a perfect fit for Don’s wily mind. I don’t think Don believes in peace and love and fellowship, but he does believe in using it to his advantage.
In the end, I ended up firmly on the Don-creating-the-Coke-campaign idea. It’s admittedly dark—all Don has, in the end, is his ability to create beautiful lies and sell them; it’s his spiritual “home”—but that seems incredibly apropos, and I can live with that version.
Don doesn’t get his happy ending, but it’s a different story for everyone else.
Last glimpse of Pete’s receding hairline:
Pete and Peggy have a touching goodbye; he regifts her a cactus (it’s prickly and can survive anything, just like Pete) and tells her she’ll be running McCann someday. We already got our closure regarding their child, so we’re just free to enjoy the moment. We last see Pete, Trudy and Tammy boarding their personal Lear Jet to Kansas, and I wasn’t even that mad about it, guys. Godspeed on that milk and honey route, Campbells.
Joan and Roger’s last stand:
Joanie is living the life of Riley—she’s trying the other kind of coke with Richard in Key West and thoroughly enjoying herself. She even has a lovely moment with Roger, wherein Roger asks permission to leave a large portion of his will to their son, Kevin. She accepts, and is charmingly adorable when Roger confesses he’s marrying Megan’s mother, Marie: “That’s spectacular…what a mess!”
Roger and Marie will clearly have a fiery relationship, but I think it’s going to work—Roger’s semi-charmed life will continue on, it seems. Of all the MM characters, he’s the one that we don’t have to worry about (well, with the exception of his heart). A huge toast to Roger en francais: santé!
Joan, meanwhile, receives a fascinating proposition from Ken Cosgrove—he wants her help in producing a short film for Dow. That rolodex sure comes in handy, and Joan has Peggy write a script, which snowballs into good fortune for Ken and the girls. It goes so well, in fact, that Joan hits upon the perfect idea: Harris Olsen, a production company helmed by she and Peggy. OMG PLEASE LET THIS BE A THING. As Joan says, “We won’t answer to anyone—it’d be something of our own, with our names on it.”
The fly in this ointment? Richard. As it turns out, he wants Joan free and clear to travel with and cater to him; when she makes it clear she is definitely invested in starting the business, he abruptly cuts things off. Joan is hurt, but she soldiers on and gets a much, much happier ending: she starts the business solo, runs it out of her apartment, and names that bad boy Holloway Harris. This is the realization of Joan’s ultimate dream: to work for herself and be respected. (And obviously, if she wants a hot dude later on, that won’t be a problem). I am teasing my hair so it’s big and full of secrets in Joan’s honor.
Peggy’s last relationship because she and Stan are 4eva:
Okay, before we get to the juicy part, the business: Peggy decides to stay at McCann, and it seems like she will continue to cultivate her talent and drive there. We were never that worried about it; clearly, Peggy’s octopus-pleasuring-a-woman-print, plus her general acumen, ensure her career success. Though Peggy is incredibly flattered by Joan’s proposal, she decided her best bet is to stick with what she knows. Working through this decision, she says some nasty things to Stan, calling him a failure with no ambition.
After she has that depressing talk with Don, though, Peggy calls Stan for comfort, and winds up apologizing. And then the most magical thing happens; Stan tells Peggy every time he’s in front of her he wants to strangle her. This is such Stan-code for “I love you”, and eventually he tells her just that. Peggy, in typical fashion, is all “What? What did you just say?” After mulling through it awkwardly, she gradually realizes that she might just love Stan too, and then he runs into her office and they kiss and it’s like, ridiculously perfect.
One nitpicky note: it’s almost too perfect. I almost wish they had just confessed their deep liking for one another, rather than TRUE LOVE, but I’m probably being a bit cynical. The seeds for their relationship have been planted ages ago, and they do make a lot of sense together. Stan will love Peggy and balance out her work-work-work mentality, and she’ll spur him on to greater things. It’s literally the best of both worlds for Peggy, and she deserves it more than anyone. A huge basket of kisses to Pegs!
It’s been so much fun to recap Mad Men, and I’ll miss it—and the insightful and clever observations of you all—so much. Old fashioneds and martinis for everyone! Now, did you scream when Stan confessed his love? How great is Holloway Harris? And what’s your interpretation of Don’s last moments and the Coke ad?
all photos: via AMC
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