The curtains drew on Sterling Cooper & Partners for the final time in the UK on Thursday. Coca Cola’s world-famous Perfect Harmony ad was the soundtrack that ended the bitter-sweet symphony that has been the life and times of Don Draper (Jon Hamm). It has broken records for viewership and millions of us now begin a search for the next Emmy-laden show to welcome into our living rooms. Draper’s denouement is open to interpretation and creator Matthew Weiner (The Sopranos, Becker) intended it to be so – it ranges from happy to satisfying to cynical – but it has also been open to criticism.
**Warning: With spoilers**
Mad Men has always been about two things: life and work. More specifically, how life impacts on work prospects and how work impacts the way that life pans out. Sometimes they intertwine, sometimes they are one and the same and at others they are wholly separate entities. The finale encapsulates that perfectly – both for its central character, Don, and the rest of the superb cast.
Roger’s (John Slattery) story arc reaches a satisfying climax, at least for him, as he weds the sultry Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond). The image of Don’s mentor and stand-in father/brother/uncle (at various times) in bed with the mother of Don’s ex-wife leaves a nauseating taste in the mouth but it’s fitting for the ruthless but lovable grey rogue. He’s traded in high-class wives for secretaries and now he twirls his moustache beside the woman who stole everything belonging to Don when Megan (Jessica Pare) moved out (Maybe that was for the best, in the end?). Roger maintained an on-off relationship with the one-woman masterclass that is Joan (Christina Hendricks) too and she is perhaps the only one who really knows him – and that’s why she is reluctant to accept his money for her child when Roger confesses to her about Marie. Now he’s with Marie he has someone who will give him as good as he gets in terms of mean quips and cheeky comments – Joan wouldn’t stand for that and Jane (Peyton List) couldn’t stand it, full stop. Roger is the last man standing in more ways than one – he has been resisting moving on from his beloved business as we saw when he charmingly begged Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) to stay behind, he was the last (save for Don, perhaps) to understand counter culture, and he took a while to adopt the moustache as a way of 70s life.
He is now happy to be behind a paper, making snide remarks with Marie, someone who truly fills his desires. Time and time again Slattery has immaculately delivered the piercing but funny one-liner and he does so once more. That scene in a swanky cafe is perfect for those two and the dull gold aura of the room suggests they have found love, but past their peak, and at the expense of others.
So often the middle man between Don and Roger – and not in a good way – Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) swooshes off on a private jet after swooshing in to rescue his marriage. The genuinely painful moment in episode 11 when Pete learns through his daughter’s failed test to draw a man that she had no idea who he was – just a face – leads him to seeking a route back to his wife’s heart but not at the expense of some cold hard cash that can be earned from a new job. One of Don’s most famous phrases (albeit to Peggy) was, “If you don’t like what they’re saying about you, change the conversation,” and it seems Pete is going to change the conversation about a divorced, lonely man with a job he isn’t getting the most out of to one where he is the centre of attention in remote Wichita. We wondered for a moment if our dear Peggy would confess to Pete about their baby but their culminating awkward encounter of mutual respect was just that. It was satisfying to see that as it fully summed up how their relationship had developed – from co-workers who messed around and were uneasy near one another to two colleagues who appreciated what the other did.
There is the theory that Mad Men was actually always about the women. Joan, Peggy and Betty’s lives and careers have shot up and down like the whiskeys and vodkas they force upon themselves. We don’t quite know what happens to Megan but with all that money Don gave her as severance, we can assume she is A-okay, even if she is emotionally scarred for life and won’t be quick to take another commercial role. I think there was a hope in everyone’s heart, however small, that Roger and Joan would find a way to end up together. But it was not to be. His financial gesture is all he knows but it helps, and Joan sets sail on the dominating voyage of a woman in business, continuing her rise against the tide of a male-dominated industry and expanding into something else: producing.
She’s still answering the phones at the last moment we see her but this time she has no skipper – she is the captain. She’s managed to balance her life with her work too as her mother comes on board to help with her son.
There has been an outcry over Peggy’s Hollywood rom-com ending where she finds herself giggling on the receiving end of a heart-spilling speech from bearded joker Stan, who at one point claims that every time he’s in a room with her he wants to strangle her. Many suggested that Peggy’s natural story arc should have taken her off with Joan as a partner in Harris Olsen but that wouldn’t have been true to Peggy’s dreams of becoming the first female director at an advertising agency. In her final scene she is the one at work on the typewriter and it is her man, Stan who is behind her offering a kiss. Peggy will continue to strive for something of “lasting value”.
And who made her realise that advertising was the path for her? Stan. Their relationship was always sweet and he has always admired her and now Peggy gets the fairytale ending – kinda – that she will feel she deserves. And we do too. (AND, is her piece of work of “lasting value” the tagline for the Coke ad that Don does, or doesn’t write…?)
Betty’s ending is, on the surface, depressing. She is dying. Her final, fatal phonecall to Don was emotional but it underwhelmed slightly in that it was over the phone.
But I suppose it had to be. So much of Betty and Don’s relationship was from afar – that’s why it broke down. And now, as she breaks down for the last time, “Bertie,” and Don say goodbye the only way they know. The tears from both, with a hint of repression of the past, serve as a reminder of their painful marriage (not to mention the qualities of the actors). Betty’s illness could be considered a very harsh and cynical form of karma for settling as a housewife and not pushing a career all those years but her attempts to go back to school somewhat nullify that. Some of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the episode involve Don and Betty’s daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) as she conforms to her mother’s wishes, allowing her to smoke in peace while she does the dishes. Her phonecall with Don and her actions toward her younger siblings show how she carries the Draper genes on her shoulders but she goes over and above that by acting much more mature than both of them ever could. Her line to infant brother Gene (Evan Londo), “Go watch TV,” hit me right where it hurts and was delivered impeccably. How often did Betty utter those three words to her children when she and Don needed to talk serious? Now it’s time for Sally to teach middle-child Bobby (Mason Vale Cutton), who is delightfully innocent and crestfallen in his admission of failing at making dinner, how to be half the man her father was. She is the peacemaker and she will grow into a fine woman.
Don Draper. He made us all wannabe scotch-drinking, smooth-talking and suave-walking millionaires but boy did he have his problems. He has had to abandon his second wife, his apartment and his job and, in person at least, his family. He keeps in touch, in secret, with Sally on the phone. That fact alone shows that Don knows family is important as it is all he remembers throughout his journey of reflection and internal examination across America except for a last-minute, borderline suicidal call to his protege Peggy.
Don has went from Dick Whitman – a dirt poor nobody brought up in a whorehouse – to Don Draper, war hero to Don Draper, ad man to Don Draper, who?
It takes a random, convoluted and chance encounter with a total stranger in California for him to let go of his emotions and return to sender, if you will.
Leonard (Evan Arnold) is the man who evokes empathy from Don, something rarely seen from the man with the jet black hair and grey suit. Don is not a hugger, but he embraces this stranger and holds tight, seeing some of his worthless self underneath the sky blue jumper. In a series about selling things, Leonard inadvertently sells Don something that makes him believe in himself again: Hope. Hamm is brilliant throughout and he portrays the vulnerable side of Don with class here, edging towards the stranger like an emotional shipwreck to the shore. Don finds that there is another man out there like him – alone and deeply unhappy behind a wall of normal. He’s been selling ads to strangers for years through the media and now he’s sold on Hope by a stranger through pure honesty. Leonard’s tragic tale unwinds not unlike Don’s momentous Carousel pitch from season one – a speech loaded with nostalgia and sadness and delivered from the bottom of the heart.
The final scene centres on Don as he hums through a yoga session on the Californian cliffs. There are multiple ways the ending could have went and different interpretations of the way it actually went. There was the ending that many strived to see: that Don’s life would continue to spiral out of control and he would return to Dick Whitman. A nobody, with no-one. It would have been a much more openly tragic ending. I was rooting for that sort of finale, one short of Don killing himself but a scenario where he wished he was dead; he stole Don Draper’s dog tags and thus has no control over how that life should be lived and ended (as the opening credit fall from the skyscraper suggests). There was a strong feeling that Don Draper would die in some way, either metaphorically or literally, but Weiner didn’t decide to pour that glass of tragedy upon us. (Personally, I was aching to hear a re-appearance from Don Cherry with Band of Gold, to end the series as it started, musically at least).
Back to the cliffs We have two ways of interpreting the ending and Weiner has came out and said he was deliberately ambiguous with it. On the face of it, and this was my first thought, it can be said that Don smiles because he has given up on advertising. He is essentially smiling because it’s over and the iconic Coca Cola ad that plays out to bring the show to an end signals what Don has laid to rest, and how life goes on without him (he asks repeatedly throughout the series if the agency misses him – this Coke ad going ahead would suggest they were indeed fine without him). With this ending Draper would be in “Perfect Harmony” with himself, and not the advertising world, but not caring as he closes his eyes and offers a wry smile.
Jon Hamm himself said he believes in the other theory: that Draper instead uses his experiences and encounters to go back to McCann Erickson (who produced the Coke ad in real life in 1971, and bought over Draper’s agency in the fictional world) and write the greatest ad of all time. It’s perhaps the saddest happy ending ever and it is really, really cynical when you think about it: No matter what, Don Draper is an ad man who is always searching for ideas in his own way to make money. He remains focused on “selling products, not advertising,” and uses this soul-searching retreat as a way of doing that for Coke. He offers a cunning smile and the “bing” we hear is quite literally the lightbulb going off in his head. An analogy I like is that Don is a snake: He just needs to shed his skin to begin his cynical but wonderful cycle of dominating the advertising world with a brain that works like a heart.
But don’t despair if you don’t want to view it so cynically. There is the idea that Don is indeed cleansed and he returns to McCann to write the ad with the girl in pigtails and a serene setting stored in his memory bank, but that he now he truly believes in himself and what he is selling. This is the idea I buy. He could also be smiling because he can give his apprentice Peggy the ad she always wanted, or the tagline at least (it is Don, remember).
He is in Perfect Harmony with himself and with work and trusts that he is selling something he can make others believe in. It’s no coincidence either that on that cliff doing yoga Don is chanting “Om,” which sounds a lot like “home.” And where is home? Well, when Don closes his eyes we see the ad and it confirms that the world of advertising is home – but it took a skin-shedding journey miles from that home to remind him of it.
That’s what makes a good ending – there are many interpretations; none are explicitly wrong. We might have hoped to see Peggy appointed a boss somewhere or go off on a feminist-driven business duo with Joan. Did we want to see Don and Betty frustrate us with love one last time? Why is Pete going to Kansas? Roger and Marie Calvet?
In the end, Weiner kept us guessing as he has throughout the series. He sold us something and we bought it, and now a section of us are complaining about the product. But I think everyone will concede – even John MacKay, STV anchorman, who I chatted with on Twitter – regardless of whether they liked the ending or not, they appreciate it and believe it was in good taste and in-keeping with the show.
Don Draper goes down as the coolest of the cool and his supporting team help him do that, one way or another, either at work or in life generally. And that is what Mad Men was: life and work, and work and life. Think back to the opening credits: Don, a silhouette, unsure of who or what he is, falling from a skyscraper in New York, spiralling out of control to a seemingly devastating fate.
But how does it finish? With Don sitting content on a chair, laid back, smoking: The man we want him to be.