‘Mad Men’ finale: Good for Don Draper no matter what he found

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ finale mostly satisfying.

He has been Don Draper, the singularly suave advertising executive of the 1960s (and early 1970s), whose cool and in-control exterior hid an insecure man unsure of his place in a rapidly changing world. For Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, Monday is the day to begin “officially resting on my laurels” and staying off the internet while he basks in the twilight of the television show that has occupied his life for the last eight years. “This whole thing has exceeded all of my childhood dreams, honestly,” Weiner said at a Sunday night screening of the series finale in Los Angeles, surrounded by cast, crew and fans of the AMC drama about the dark advertising man, Don Draper, against the deep changes of 1960s America. “I am expecting to wake up feeling a little different,” he said. “I am not going on the internet, I can tell you that.Seconds before “The Sopranos” ended in 2007, Tony Soprano heard a bell ring — the opening of the diner door — and looked up before the show cut to black.Now that everyone’s had time to digest last night’s “Mad Men” finale, we’ve moved into the stage of grief known as Obsessively Nitpicking Over What Happened to Don, Even Though That’s Not The Point.

Don figured out that he screwed up his life, which we could have told him 80 episodes ago, and just as all the doors looked closed, he found a little window. I made myself a promise.” Those who know the 49-year-old writer and director say that promise will probably last half an hour before he caves to the temptation of seeing the reviews of episode 92, entitled “Person to Person”. “There’s no way he won’t read them,” said Bob Levinson, a co-producer and advertising consultant for the show. “He has to know what they say.” When he does break his promise, Weiner will see lots of ink about what he was trying to say with the seminal Coca-Cola ad “I’d Like To Buy the World a Coke,” the final note of the Emmy-winning series.

You gave us so much grist for discussion and debate over the years—about identity, family and home, about race and gender and sexuality, about a nation losing its innocence, and people raising their consciousness. When [thar be spoilers] our reeling alpha-male Don Draper/Dick Whitman (Jon Hamm) is ditched at an Esalen-like California retreat, left to chant in his khakis as the bell of mindfulness gives way to a wide, satisfied smile, we are fairly led to believe that this fictional McCann ad-man has just hit upon the idea for what, back in the real world, became one of the most iconic TV spots, and culturally resonant sales-jingle-to-hit-single tunes, in advertising history. After a life of cheating, lies and way too much alcohol, Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, surprisingly finds enlightenment at a retreat in California that looks a lot like the real-life Esalen Institute in Big Sur.

And as Peggy notes to Don over the phone, this isn’t the first time he’s run away from his job and his life, and McCann would still likely take him back. “Apparently it’s been done before,” she says. But what I loved most was your thoughtful commentary on the American workplace, which you authentically portrayed as both a center of scintillating drama and a microcosm of the characters’ daily lives. As the ad ran, you could almost hear Don pitching the idea to Coke in his seductive Don voice, using the philosophy of self-help, the peace movement, and civil rights in service of selling soda as the solution to despair. Why we work, where we work, how we work—these questions were just as relevant to Don and Roger and Peggy and Joan as they are to us today, and no doubt would have been all the more confusing in Don Draper’s era, at what was essentially the dawn of America’s service-led economy.

The “Hilltop” spot, featuring hundreds of young hires on a verdant Italian slope, spoke to a Vietnam era in search of something — love and peace, or wake-of-Woodstock community, perhaps even hopeful person-to-person connection — after a decade of turmoil and violence, of assassinations and persistent Cold War threats. He was warning his younger companion Stephanie, “You don’t know what happens to people who believe in things,” and telling Peggy he couldn’t go back home because “I can’t get out of here.” Then he hugged a stranger, settled into the lotus position and poof, all the baggage floated away. Then comes the Coke ad that made waves in 1971 for its youthful, multi-ethnic invitation to share Coke and peace, in, what the episode suggests, might have been the creation of a rejuvenated Don. Backer witnessed these irate passengers later in the journey, calmer and bonding over bottles of Coke.) So the big question viewers and the millions who debated the ending around watercoolers Monday morning were left with was, did Don Draper return to McCann and create that commercial? (Peggy even mentioned in a phone call that Don could come home and work on Coke.) Or did he stay in California and become further enlightened?

Weiner won’t explain it, and neither will anyone in the group of people that wrapped up filming last summer and managed to keep all seven episodes of the second half of the seventh season a secret. Peggy convinces them to put her back on, but given that they’re hardly letting her hold onto Chevalier, it’s unlikely that they’d so quickly move her onto one of their most prized accounts. Weiner, who wrote and directed the final episode, may not have satisfied those viewers eager to see Don change completely, and become a new man, a better man.

Mad Men was was at its madcap best when it showed Sterling Cooper (as it was called at the start of the series) getting bought, sold, reshaped, or resurrected. For me, though, the ad also reflected just how much success Coca-Cola, as represented by McCann, had already had in the ’60s — as the business of peddling pop fluidly tapped into pop culture. Variety TV critic Brian Lowry had a mixed review, noting that “while the hour mixed in some wonderfully graceful notes and tied up a few loose ends, others were left dangling, starting with the cryptic question of whether meditation and peace with the universe birthed that famous ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing’ Coca-Cola campaign.” For Alessandra Stanley at the New York Times, there was no ambiguity. In the end, even though he was the lead character, Don Draper turned out to be the least interesting of the main characters in the “Mad Men” series finale, which gave viewers more reason to care about the other characters in their signature finale moments. This is especially notable in the penultimate episode, when Don is asked to fix a Coke machine at the motel he stays in for a few days while his car is being fixed.

Perhaps the best example of this was in the finale to season three, when some crafty maneuvering at the eleventh hour gave us the birth of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. In fact, Don has been coming up with real-life slogans and ads since the pilot, which ends with Don coming up with Lucky Strike’s real-life, longtime tagline, “It’s toasted.” It seems likely that Don, as he meditated on his surroundings—the grassy cliffside hilltops, the circle of hippies—imagined a locale just like this for the ad. Now, it’s worth noting that ever since its 1912 inception, McCann (which two decades later would merge with Erickson) had a particular appreciation of cartoon art. As for Weiner, he is working on a few things, “just not telling anybody”, and looking forward to spending more time with family, taking kids to school and teaching them how to drive. “I didn’t want to straddle into something else,” said Weiner. “I was back at zero when I moved out of my office in December, creatively.

And then a few seasons later, there was another transformative deal, one that led to an entire episode mainly devoted to the challenges of merger integration—and it was riveting! Those last few moments of the episode, and that transition from Draper’s bliss to the Coke commercial, has raised many questions about what it means.

He understood what both Sally and Betty —his “Birdie” — had told him, that he was not the right person to be a full-time parent to his own children. As fun as it was (or wasn’t) to watch his conquests in the bedroom, Don Draper was at his most appealing when he was conquering the American consumer.

Nast Jr. was also a gifted illustrator, and at the firm’s launch, he designed the logo for what’s touted as the world’s first advertising trademark: “Truth Told Well.” For at least a decade, the agency also employed a young Theodor Seuss Geisel, who honed his distinctive character types and animal drawings for such clients as Ford and Flit, GE and NBC, Schaefer Beer and Standard Oil — before he fully embarked on his career as children’s author “Dr. Cancer-stricken Betty Draper (January Jones), a loathsome character early in the series, matured and became something resembling sympathetic once she got her terminal cancer diagnosis and responded with dignity and concern for her death’s impact on her children.

But he also remained the dazzlingly talented man we’ve known for seven seasons, the guy who could remake himself from nothing, who drinks too much but still looks dapper. The pitch work by Don and Peggy Olson et. al. made for compelling television—in part because it forced us to think about how Americans, all these decades later, get turned on by the same ideas (and in some cases the very same brands) that spoke to our parents and grandparents. “She died like she lived: surrounded by the people she answered phones for.” How many of Roger Sterling’s best lines, like this gem about the dearly departed secretary Ida Blankenship, were delivered in, or inspired by, life at the office?

She got the first of two collect calls from Don — to, arguably, the two most important women in his life, Betty and Peggy — and while Don wanted to drop everything and be there, Betty said she wanted the status quo in as cutting but honest a way as possible. Mendelson, a lifelong San Franciscan, had won a Peabody Award for a documentary on his native city’s history, which led him to make a much-lauded early-’60s TV documentary about future Hall of Famer Willie Mays.

Joan (Christina Hendricks) ended up without her California suitor, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), who wanted her to have fun (like trying cocaine on vacation!), not be ambitious. He couldn’t escape it even when he wanted to — remember last week when the motel owner was begging Don to repair his old Coca-Cola vending machine because he didn’t want the new one?

Peggy, the character I’d always assumed would have to sacrifice love for work, found love — and it looked like a long-term thing — with the teddy bear known as Stan. Joan started her own production company, initially trying to woo Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who ultimately decided to stay at McCann, to join her in Harris Olson Productions (“You’ve got to have two names,” Joan said). If Joan got bored with living as a woman of leisure, Don probably isn’t going to make it through the rest of his life meditating, especially when he doesn’t have anyone keeping him in California since Stephanie took off with his car. It was Doris Day-Rock Hudson cute, and it was poignant; they couldn’t say they loved each other face to face, even though they were in the same offices.

Ultimately Joan went into business on her own — employing her babysitter as an assistant — and used her two last names for Holloway-Harris Productions. And if the show is, as it always has been, about how people don’t really change — except in small ways that they end up fighting anyway — then sure, it makes sense that Don would eventually return to New York.

Mendelson’s dozens of animated specials with Schulz and Melendez have attracted generations of fans — ahead of the first “Peanuts” feature film (due out in November). She has a “gift” when it comes to advertising, as Stan said, and the clear parting impression was that she would continue to ascend professionally.

Leave it to Peggy to figure out that it’s a lot easier to succeed at the office when you have a brilliant, if fallible, mentor who will steer you through the big decisions, as well as a work spouse who will get you through the daily grind. That wasn’t the last time Mendelson and his production company would work with the agency, whose creative director was Neil Reagan — brother of the future president. “A year later, we called McCann and Coca-Cola again and said we had the rights to do John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley,’ starring Henry Fonda,” Mendelson remembers. “They sponsored that as well, and it got an Emmy nomination.

With “The Sopranos,” creator David Chase chose to go his own way with an ambiguous ending (did Tony Soprano live or die?) that infuriated many viewers. “Lost” raised too many questions it didn’t answer, and when a revelation came, it proved unsatisfying for many who had stuck with the show. So as the world was buying Coke, the soft-drink firm was also buying in to the worlds of others — sponsoring creative content that helped define the culture. When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger.

Pete’s farewell to Peggy was lovely and generous: “Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.” Roger and Marie also seemed well matched, together like a pair of feisty peas in a pod. Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) had a nice farewell moment before he boarded a Learjet to his new job in Wichita and a reunion with ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie) still seeming like it will take. (And miracle of miracles, no plane crash!) Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) got the bum’s rush, but that character deserved nothing more. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led. There was a little bit of a crumb dropped earlier in the season when Ted says there are three women in every man’s life, and Don says, “You’ve been sitting on that for a while, huh?” There are, not coincidentally, three person to person phone calls that Don makes in this episode, to three women who are important to him for different reasons.

Of all the things we really dread, the top one has to be Sally missing out on her life because she becomes a mother to her two younger brothers after Betty dies. I felt a great sense of pleasure at seeing Sally, once so bratty, and later angry and “scandalized,” as Don put it, acting more mature than the adults around her. Was it odd to be shooting these scenes away from your co-stars January Jones, Kiernan Shipka and Elisabeth Moss, and disconnected from the cast members you’d worked with for so long? Everybody picks up and thinks, oh, that’s too bad — that guy had a nervous breakdown. [With January Jones and Kiernan Shipka], we shot those on set. So you can actually have the person sitting right off camera, reading the lines to you. [For Elisabeth Moss], we were three and a half hours up the [California] coast, on the edge of a cliff.

I’m sure there are other takes of that scene where I’m much more emotional, and Matthew chose to use the ones that are a little more confused and restrained. You said on Sunday, at a Television Academy event, that after “Mad Men” and after Don Draper, you will “fade into nothingness and no one will remember me.” Do you really think that? [chuckles knowingly] I think every actor thinks that when they end a job. Is my melancholy seeping through enough? [laughs] In a much more healthy sense, we all put this show to bed quite some time ago, and said our goodbyes and cried our tears.

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