Much of what I’ve loved about “Mad Men” after all these years is its unpredictability.
Seasons started and ended with curveballs I never saw coming, leaving me in the dark about what might happen to these characters I’d become so invested in.
No one’s ultimate fate intrigued me more than Don Draper’s. (If you haven’t yet seen the series finale, now’s the time to stop reading.)
Would Don (Jon Hamm) literally and/or figuratively plummet to his death like the scene in the AMC series’ opening credits? Or, like that same free-falling figure, would he manage to straighten himself out at the last minute and metaphorically land on his feet, comfortably seated on a chair, perfectly groomed and looking like the kind of self-assured guy who does the New York Times crossword in permanent marker?
In true “Mad Men” fashion, I had no idea how our antihero would fare until the very last moments of the series finale. As soon as that legendary Coca-Cola commercial played, it seemed abundantly clear that Don followed Peggy’s advice to “come home” to New York, where he would rejoin McCann Erickson and create what’s arguably the most lauded television commercial of all time.
Even more importantly, Don would come home a new man. Not a saint. Not a model citizen. Maybe not even a great dad or always sober. But he came back from that cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean as an enlightened, contented human. Someone who wasn’t always running away to chase the next thing — or the next woman. Someone who had accepted who he is and was at peace with that. To borrow an ad slogan from Coke: Don finally was The Real Thing.
Of course, we can’t be 100 percent sure what happened to Don. Matthew Weiner was bound to leave some wiggle room for interpretation. Thankfully he didn’t leave nearly as much as that infamous cut-to-black scene that capped off another show he worked on, “The Sopranos.” But barring a flash-forward that saw Don accepting a Clio for the Coke ad, it seemed pretty obvious that he once again used a painful life experience like he did in season one’s “The Wheel” and turned it into advertising gold. (Coca-Cola’s website details the true story behind the making of its 1971 “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial, a spot created by real-life McCann Erickson ad man Bill Backer.)
Even if you’re with me and believe Don returned to Madison Avenue and masterminded the Coke ad,* Weiner still left room for more interpretation.
The cynical view is that Don parlayed his kumbaya, EST-ish experience in California to get back in the advertising game, and that wry smile he gave while chanting “Ommm” in the lotus position was the equivalent of a light bulb going off in his creative head.
The more optimistic take — and the one I believe to be true — is that Don was capable of creating that moving Coke ad because he’d fundamentally changed as a human being.
Are people really capable of change? It’s a question “Mad Men” has posed from the get-go. The answer in the series finale is a resounding yes.
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In an episode titled “Person to Person,” Don has a series of gut-wrenching, long-distance phone calls with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka), his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) and his protege, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss).
After Don hung up with Peggy, he was reduced to a hot mess, slumped beneath a payphone on the other side of the country, seemingly suicidal. He’d been shedding his earthly possessions in recent episodes, writing an unnecessarily fat check to ex-wife Megan and giving away his Cadillac to a grifter.
All signs pointed to Don giving up on life, until his downward spiral of despair culminated in an emotional hug with a nondescript stranger — a person-to-person gesture that marked a turning point for Don.
Turns out the dashing Don Draper and this sad-sack of a man who have seemingly nothing in common are fundamentally the same. They’ve gone through life feeling invisible, and it’s done a hell of a number on their psyche. Don’s cathartic moment came pouring out during their sobbing embrace, allowing him to hit the reset button and once and for all, set the stage to move onward and upward.
Don wasn’t the only one to get a happy ending.
Peggy, probably the most likable of the lot, discovered her soul mate in hirsute Stan (Jay R. Ferguson). It happened over the phone in a scene that seemed more rom-com than “Mad Men,” but their pairing makes perfect sense. And if it makes Peggy happy, sign me up.
One of the most satisfying resolutions awaited Joan (Christina Hendricks), the woman who counseled Peggy in the pilot that if she dressed sexier and played her cards right, she wouldn’t have to stay in the workplace for long; she could be a kept woman with a house in the country. Joan: the woman who prostituted herself for the Jaguar account. She ended up not needing a man at all — not even needing Peggy — as she built her own production company and ran it out of her cramped apartment, looking downright giddy while doing it.
In one of the harder-to-believe developments, a reunited Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie) were the picture of familial bliss as they boarded their jet to Kansas. I don’t quite buy Pete’s metamorphosis this season from king of the creepers to stand-up guy. But I’m all in at the idea of Roger (John Slattery) swilling Champagne and spitting out witty one-liners with Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond) in Paris.
While terminal lung cancer isn’t an enviable fate, even Betty looked at peace in her kitchen, puffing on her omnipresent cigarette while her daughter did the selfless thing by coming home to care for her dying mom and hold the family together. Sally is still young, but we can rest assured that she’s broken the cycle. She isn’t about to repeat the sins of her father or mother.
Don’s story on “Mad Men” started in 1960 with him using his advertising acumen to sell cancer sticks that would eventually kill his ex-wife, not to mention countless others.
His storyline ends a little more than a decade later with him trying to convince the world to buy Coke, whose copious quantities of sugar and high-fructose corn syrup isn’t doing our health any favors, either. But this time, the message Don uses is markedly different.
So is the world. And so is the man.
Rating: (4.5 / 5)
* Lots of evidence leads us to believe that Don created the Coke ad. Not only does Peggy tell Don to come back to McCann where he can work on Coke, but the unusual hairstyle of the woman behind the desk at the retreat looks just like the braids belonging to one of the hilltop singers in the Coke commercial, as pointed out in this tweet by a copywriter at BBDO in Atlanta.
— Emily Miller (@emillersmith) May 18, 2015