SPOILER ALERT: This blog post discusses the final episode of “Mad Men.” If you haven’t watched it yet and don’t want any plot spoilers, do not read!
Let’s be honest: I started watching “Mad Men” for the vintage clothes. And the mid-century sets. And the retro barware. But throughout these seven years, I got hooked on the characters: Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete, Betty, Sally--and, yes, even Don.
Along the way, “Mad Men” lost a lot of viewers who saw it as too depressing. Women who lived the sexism of the ‘60s didn’t find reliving it to be a fun way to spend a Sunday night. Others realized they could get their eye candy--whether Jon Hamm or the vintage stuff--elsewhere, without having to watch Don Draper backslide into his self-destructive habits season after season.
But I’m a sucker for a character who needs redemption (perhaps because I’m so aware of my own need for it!), so I hung in there for 7.5 seasons to see how things would turn out. Don was not an overtly religious character, though there was always the possibility he’d have some sort of spiritual epiphany.
Yet I certainly did not expect the final scene to feature Don in lotus position chanting “Om” at Esalen, a famous counterculture retreat center, where coincidentally I spent a weekend a few years ago. When the final scene cut to the famous “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coke commercial, I initially thought it was just the closing credit song. (Admittedly, it was 2:30 a.m., and I was a little groggy after binge-watching three episodes to catch up.)
The next day, I read a number of commentaries and realized that most were reading the ending as implying that Don’s smile in the final seconds was evidence not of nirvana but of inspiration for the Coke jingle. Some were upset with what they saw as a cynical ending, while others chalked it up as at least consistent with Don’s character.
I don’t think anyone should be shocked that creator Matthew Weiner did not give us a “happily ever after” ending. I was surprised that he did for Peggy and Stan, Pete and his ex-wife, Roger and Marie, and even, in a weird way, Sally, who steps up to care for her cancer-ridden mother.
But Don? No, he’s too complex to ride off into the sunset on a Lear jet. Yet he does seem to find some self-understanding, some sense of love--or dare we say spiritual fulfillment--on the California cliffs, not only during a phone call with Peggy, who tells him he can “come home,” but also from a stranger who bares his soul about his inner feelings of unworthiness. (A real cynical view would be that Don hugged the man only because his refrigerator analogy was the seed for the Coke commercial.)
Like my colleague Father James Martin at America, I too saw the ending as a “both/and” rather than “either/or.” Couldn’t Don find himself, and still go back to advertising and create an iconic commercial?
Still, as the final episode (perfectly titled “Person to Person” in reference to Don’s collect calls to Betty and Peggy, but also with a deeper meaning) and indeed the whole series continues to haunt me, I’m left with some sadder insights.
Set in a decade synonymous with “change,” the series finale delivers a mixed bag of how cultural change is benefiting women--not surprising for a show with “men” in the title. While Peggy and Joan find career success (Peggy also gets romance, while Joan does not), the Betty storyline reminded me that not all women “came a long way, baby” by the 1970s. When the doctor gives Betty her cancer diagnosis, he speaks to her husband, not to her (reminiscent of the phone conversations in which her psychiatrist reported back to Don). And I only wish Joan’s experience of sexual harassment could be as “ancient history” as smoking in the boardrooms.
Finally, “Mad Men” was ultimately about the rise of an industry intended to manufacture desire--often where none existed or needed to exist--for the sole purpose of profit. While a number of the clients at Sterling Cooper were smaller brands or family companies, there’s no question that the accounts at McCann Erickson (a real-life Madison Avenue ad agency) were behemoths. As warm and fuzzy as the “Buy the world a Coke” song is, let’s remember it’s designed to sell overpriced sugar water, the overconsumption of which has led to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our country.
What initially attracted me to this series was “the stuff”--Joan’s fabulous outfits (and her glasses in her final scene!), the mid-century couches and chairs, the modern artwork, even Sally’s “flower power” notebooks. Like Don, we all continue to face the challenges of trying to find deeper meaning among a culture obsessed with the buying and selling of stuff. While “Mad Men” awakened nostalgia for the years of my youth, it also reminded me of the roots of today’s consumerist culture gone wild. Although Don may have been able to finally feel some semblance of love, his industry continues to create feelings of unworthiness (using data from our every move) and to convince us that our emptiness can only be cured with more stuff. How maddening.