‘Mad Men’ ends on unexpected sweet note, and I buy it

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in the series finale of "Mad Men." | Photo courtesy AMC

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.

LISTEN: I talk about the ‘Mad Men’ finale with WGN Radio’s Justin Kaufmann

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 (Jon Hamm) hugs a suffering stranger at the California retreat. | Justina Mintz/AMC

Don (Jon Hamm) hugs a suffering stranger at the California retreat. | Justina Mintz/AMC

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.

Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). | Michael Yarish/AMC

Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) and Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). | Michael Yarish/AMC

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.

Joan Holloway-Harris (Christina Hendricks) in her home office. | Michael Yarish/AMC

Joan Holloway-Harris (Christina Hendricks) in her home office. | Michael Yarish/AMC

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.

24 Comments

  • Lisa says:

    Loved it – Saw the Braids and hit the rewind several times to double check!!

    Love the new site!

  • Jim says:

    Did you notice the Post-it notes in Joan’s apartment? They weren’t invented yet in 1970.

  • Mad Men is one of the very few TV shows I watch, so I was sad to see it end (also relieved because when you only watch one TV show, you get really invested in the characters, and everybody on this show stressed me out so much!). I thought the endings for Peggy and Joan were the most satisfying, even if I would’ve loved a a Harris-Olsen spinoff. 😉 I’m definitely with you on Don going back and creating the Coke ad, which feels a little anticlimactic – after all that, Don creates an ad? – except that I do hope he goes back a somewhat-changed human being.

    I’m looking forward to reading more from you on the new website. It looks great!

    • Lori Rackl says:

      I too would’ve loved to have seen Peggy and Joan partner up. I thought that’s where it was headed but, alas, another curveball. Happy to see they both landed in good places. I loved the ending for Don. He got his mojo back but more importantly I think he finally shed those demons and can be comfortable in his own skin.

  • Steve Huntley says:

    Lori,

    Glad to see your valuable insights are back for us to read. Great review, though I tend to take the darker view, or as you put it cynical view, of Don. Also to me, one of the great uncommented on aspects of the last-half season was the transformation of the once creepy Pete into a good guy. — Steve

    • Lori Rackl says:

      Thanks, Steve. Did you buy the transformation of Pete into a good guy? I’m not sure I did (although I think Weiner wanted us to buy it). I found the scene when he gave Peggy the cactus a nice touch until I thought about it some more. “I have a 5-year-old,” he tells her. Note to Pete: You also have a kid with Peggy that she ended up giving away, partly because you were a massive jerk.

      • Hallie says:

        Thank you. Is there any way for me to properly say, Thank you. Love, Hugs, Kisses and Smiling grtduaite from a thousand thousand miles but less than a second away.

  • Steve Huntley says:

    No, I’m not sure I bought Pete’s transformation either. I found his farewell scene with Peggy bordering on unbelievable and disturbing, given their history.

  • Judy Rackl says:

    Nice article

  • Bob Goldsbury says:

    Lori, This was a great review of the Mad Men finale! so insightful! I look forward to reading from your new site!

  • Jo Ann O'Brien says:

    Lori, I am so happy that you have this website! I always enjoyed Lori’s List.
    I had to watch the ending of Mad Men twice before I was “sure” of how it ended..or at least how I think it ended. I chose to take the optimistic point of view! The only unsatisfying element was “creepy” Pete… I found that reunion a little hard to believe… I kept thinking I missed something or an episode somewhere …when did he change?
    Thanks for the great review!

    • Lori Rackl says:

      Thanks so much, Jo Ann. I agree that the new-and-improved Pete is a tough one to swallow. I can buy Don’s transformation because we watched him hit rock bottom. Pete’s change of heart seemed to come out of nowhere with not much to explain its origins. Oh well. Maybe some of those scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Anyway, thanks for taking the time to comment.

  • Kara Spak says:

    I finally watched this and logged on to see what you thought. I wasn’t sure I bought Don’s transformation…I hope it is true! Loved the Peggy and Stan scene, and Joan’s line to the boyfriend about how she can’t just turn off the business part of herself.

    Steve’s reaction at one point – Roger is the father of Joan’s child?

    • Lori Rackl says:

      I don’t think Don is 100 percent, permanently changed. But I think he turned a corner he’s never turned in the series’ seven seasons — I think he’s at peace with who he really is, and that will make him a better person. And yeah, Joan’s baby is a result of the rendezvous those two had shortly after Joan and Roger were mugged.

      • Steve Huntley says:

        I’m still mystified about why Betty — and by extension Sally and her brothers — were the only ones denied a happy ending.

        • Kara Spak says:

          It wasn’t a happy ending but I really liked that Betty’s character was true to the end, letting Sally now how she wanted her hair done in the casket.

  • John Vrabec says:

    Enjoy your new website and love talking about Mad Men.

    I don’t think Don became enlightened, if I am not mistaken, while he was “ommmming” and then a split second before he smiles, you hear the “ding” of the bell. A new ad campaign has been born! Don will always be Don. He is “THE Ad Man”, period.

    I think we were all supposed to be led down the path of potential suicide/reconciliation/rebirth/etc. Don will always worry about himself and that next great idea. He is a master of taking advantage of the situation. He was on the precipice but the Universe extended its hand and he used it to pull himself up.

    He’s a liar, a womanizer and a drunk, but dammit, he’s the best ad man on the planet.

    • Lori Rackl says:

      Very well said, John. I still think Don experienced some englightenment in the finale, but I completely agree that he hatched the Coke ad at the same time. Pretty brilliant ending, I must say.

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