‘Mad Men’ finale recap: There’s no place like om

19 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ finale recap: There’s no place like om.

It feels like there’s a Rorschach test hidden in that Coke ad — one of the few ads that’s truly famous, now even moreso as the final image of our best ever reckoning with the world that creates and is created by advertising. The series finale of the highly acclaimed AMC drama “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper meditating at a hillside spiritual retreat in California, a hint of a smile on his lips.Sometime around the end of Season One, Mad Men creator Matt Weiner said in an interview that the two questions every character on the show was seeking to answer were “Is this all there is?” and “Why am I not enough?” In last night’s largely satisfactory series finale, those two questions go unanswered, but Weiner ties up a lot of plot points, even if Don Draper’s future remains ambiguous…as, like the man, it must.

Rather than focus on the hippie left or the civil rights movement, as documentaries and feature films have done in the past, “Mad Men” focused on the corporate elite, sparking an appreciation for midcentury style if not exactly for midcentury substance. Maybe it’s as cynical as the (also real) ad pitch that kicked off the series, Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted.” That was pure advertising, spinning up an advantage from a standard operating procedure, pretence and figment as truth; the hilltop singing might be even darker, not whipping up nonsense (which Don these therapies were, when he started) but using a personal epiphany, an earned truth, to get people drinking soda. In reality, Bill Backer of the McCann Erickson advertising agency thought up the idea for “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” in 1971 after being stranded at an airport in Ireland due to heavy fog.

He’s now a guy who’s happy in a commune doing yoga on the ground and crying with other grown men, which made a weird amount of sense for a guy who’s lived such a guilt-filled life. In “Mad Men,” the 1960s come off as transformative, a decade in which the radical left looks a bit foolish (those silly Greenwich Village ne’er do wells!), country club Republicans look increasing out of step, and the confidence of one era is fading into the uncertainty of another.

That is, after all, Don Draper’s standard procedure: locate the deep yearnings and hidden truths of his life, and sell them to others with a brand name attached. After a strange interlude in the Midwest in last week’s episode in which angry veterans accused Don of stealing and beat him – which he accepted meekly, in a kind of atonement for the guilt behind his theft of the identity of his commander in the Korean War, a choice that has haunted him throughout the series – he hit the road. He tried to make some amends in a way as he tried to get Betty to allow him to come back to be with the kids when she died, but she refused his help, saying that everything needed to stay as normal as possible.

Superimposing a fictional character onto a real-life historical event like this feels more “Forrest Gump” than “Mad Men,” which is why I’m inclined to think (or hope) we’re not meant to take Don’s cliff-side “a-ha!” moment literally. Mad Men has frequently been a show about creativity, how it coils around and unwinds through people who need to employ it, but it’s always been ambivalent about what its characters actually use it for. The final episode opened in Utah, where he raced cars in the Salt Flats, but when he spoke to his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) back in New York and learned that his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) was dying of lung cancer, he headed, not for home to console his children, but for California. For eight years, Don Draper has explored how much freedom a person can have and still feel valuable, able to find fulfillment without encountering limitations.

Instead, we can take it to mean that Don will always be an ad man, that even after what appears to be a cathartic emotional breakthrough, he is ready to pitch a fantasy, to sell a lie. I watched the finale three times in a row because I wanted to see it again since I always notice things I missed upon the first airing, but also because I knew once I turned off my television very early this morning that Mad Men would really be over and that notion felt too unbearably sad for me. He said he saw the beverage “not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.” Backer was en route to London to write radio commercials with Billy Davis, the Coca-Cola account’s music director, and British songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. As a man forever finding new freedoms — from his childhood, his background, his wives — Don Draper still knows the intractability of being grounded. Literal or not, the ending certainly isn’t a hopeful one for Don, particularly coming at the tail end of a journey that has propelled him cross-country — at top speed! — to find himself, to outrun his past, or a little bit of both.

Anna, the widow of the man whose identity he stole, lived there until her death from cancer, and he has always maintained a tenuous connection to her family, mainly Stephanie, her hippie niece who was still living in Anna’s home. She may have stormed off after a group therapy session went wrong, but Don seems to have found his place there, and ended the episode meditating in khakis. In the series’ most memorable moment, Don wins the Kodak account by using a freedom-creating technology — a rotary slide projector — to tell the story of a life, of a courtship, a marriage, parenthood. The finale’s title, “Person to Person,” refers to the numerous operator-assisted phone calls that happen over the course of the hour but also, more symbolically, to Don’s attempt to find personal connection. Davis told Backer that if he could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke. “I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love,” he said.

After watching for the third time, I went from not connecting the dots between Don’s slight smile after what is surely only the second time he’s uttered “Om” in his life to his creation of the Coca Cola ad to being 90% convinced it was his work. There, he hit a low point, and actually started to connect to the kind of encounter sessions which set the tone for the Seventies, and which Tom Wolfe speared mercilessly in his essay, The Me Decade. Don’s pitches — for carousels of nostalgia, but even for suicidal plane getaways and Hershey’s that rescued him from life in a whore house — helped him understand himself, and certainly brought things into focus for coworkers and executives and moms mopping floors. He did speak to Peggy, the character with whom he had the closest and most interesting relationship, by phone, and she tried to lure him back to advertising, asking, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” (shades of Liz and Jack). Seeing the decade as a time when Americans were demanding not only liberation from age-old authorities but also free markets in a Free World, historians have left behind old interpretations of the decade, finding focus in the same question that Weiner settled on, a focus that may, finally, give us a way to move beyond arguing about the decade we can’t seem to leave behind.

A week before the “Mad Men” finale, Vox hinted that the show could possibly end with the 1970’s most famous ad, noting that Coca-Cola was popping up in episodes throughout the final season. Clark said Coca-Cola was not planning to run the “Hilltop” ad as a stand-alone commercial. “We believe it should be viewed by anyone whenever they want to see it,” she said. In a phone call that plays like a micro-version of “The Suitcase,” Don confesses all his sins to Peggy: “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Note the religious language here; Don has fully reverted to Dick. Its accounts men and copywriters disparage it (especially this half-season) but can’t quite get out of it; its main characters find their meaning through it, but never seem to settle on that meaning for long; the show itself fetishizes some of the greatest ads of its era.

So as The Hillside Singers in the Coke jingle sing “that’s the real thing,” viewers are left hanging over the show’s final message: Has Don Draper truly found peace and harmony or are peace and harmony merely products that can be sold like everything else? The only consolation is that he did listen to Peggy, just as Jack listened to Liz in 30 Rock. (For the record, there have been several references to Mad Men on 30 Rock and vice versa, and Jon Hamm appeared on several episodes of 30 Rock as Liz’s boyfriend and in another cameo). Well, not every character’s conclusion may have been fulfilling, but at least we got to see where (and with whom) Don, Betty, Peggy, Richard, Joan and the rest of the AMC series’ gang ended up. (And one particular declaration of love had us jumping off our couches.) After “Person to Person” aired, we asked you to weigh in on whether you loved or loathed Mad Men’s swan song, and now, we can officially add the show into our ranking of the best and worst TV series finales of all time. Two episodes ago (‘Lost Horizon”), they have a lovely moment where he’s rubbing her shoulders— neither he, nor she, nor the viewer yet knows that her pain is from cancer, not from carrying her school books—and we witness the true warmth they now feel for each other.

And when, with eight minutes left in the entire series, we’re introduced to yet another new character — an ordinary schmo named Leonard who, in a lengthy monologue, complains of feeling invisible to his wife, family and co-workers — I became, well, distinctly irritated. Whereas those words would have been said with a very sharp tongue only a year or two before, they are said with a sad, unsentimental clarity here that is heartbreaking in its truth and its, in an odd way, kindness. Still, I appreciated on an intellectual level, that by hugging it out with someone who was so clearly intended to be his antithesis, Don was having a major breakthrough. Pete’s Combover: While I would have liked a little more recognition of their personal past in Pete and Peggy’s fine, sweet final goodbye, I couldn’t stop laughing at his combover.

One aspect of this frenzy of both speculation and leave-taking was that many people wrote personal articles about how the series mirrored their lives: I counted three pieces with the theme “I am Sally Draper.” Not to belabor the point, but that goes for me as well, although I am several years younger than the character of Don Draper’s spirited, rebellious and confused daughter. Part of Mad Men’s charm has been its humor, sometimes delightfully absurd (Peggy roller skating in the empty SCDP office accompanied by Roger’s previously unrevealed organ-playing skills two episodes ago) and sometimes subtle. Later, my father worked at Fortune Magazine, which was located in the rather portentously named Time & Life building (an episode in Season Seven was named Time & Life), where the Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce Agency was situated for many years. Thus their frustration when the Vietnam War didn’t end as quickly as they wished, when civil rights legislation didn’t address persistent economic disparities, when women weren’t quite elevated to the status of equal.

Maybe Don, more aware than ever of the acute lack of consistent, meaningful relationships in his own life, is inspired to sell the frankly ridiculous idea that Coke is the “real thing,” a balm capable of bringing disparate people together even at a time of war and social revolution. Like Sally, I visited my father in that building, and also sneaked looks at the New York Post to read about grisly murders, as she did in the creepy Mystery Date episode on Season 5.

Mad Men was a Proustian return to childhood for people who grew up in the Sixties, an era that has never been captured on film or video so evocatively. In the midst of the Reagan Revolution, scholars began to examine the origins of the New Right, and, lo and behold, they found its origins in the 1960s as well.

Stephanie’s comeback to Don’t words of wisdom: After Stephanie runs out of an Esalen session after she is shamed for not wanting to reunite with her child, Don tries to comfort her, saying, “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” His words worked with Peggy in Season 1 when he visited her after she gave birth and he urged her to move on, telling her “You will be shocked how much this never happened.” But he was wrong then and he’s wrong now and Stephanie, unlike Peggy, calls him out on it. Rather than dismiss Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential run as a brief moment when Republicans went a little crazy before falling back on its patrician heritage, historians began to understand Goldwater as an early voice forging the way for the libertarianism that reverberates today in the Tea Party. In this so-called Golden Age of TV, the burden of expectation going into a series finale can be excruciating, and there is by definition no way to please everyone. It’s a beautiful subtle full-circle moment for everyone who’s watched from the beginning and a reminder that your past travels inescapably with you, right by your side, whether you call yourself Don Draper or Dick Whitman.

For me, the most resonant image from this final season was Bert Cooper’s posthumous song-and-dance routine, reminding Don (and us) that “the best things in life are free.” Even a Coke will cost you a dollar, adjusted for inflation. Leonard’s speech: I’m not really sure fully I bought into Don’s Kumbaya moment as he embraced the decidedly un-Hippie-ish Leonard in their therapy session.

As Don said, “Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is.” We can look at that world now, where drinking, smoking, sexual harassment and napping were accepted parts of office life, with anger, disgust, envy or fascination, but we can never go back. To be sure, Leonard’s Refrigerator Speech will become a classic, but the key is what Leonard said right before that about believing that for his whole life people didn’t love him and he resented them, but then realizing that they were trying and he just didn’t know what love is. Betty Draper’s inimitable parenting style – in one of her earliest scenes, she catches her five-year-old daughter with a drying cleaning bag over her head and is only concerned that the girl may have left the clothes on the floor – can make us shudder, but it was an era where parents did not worry as much about their children, for better and worse, and where the children had much more freedom. After a string of comically awful relationships, Peggy winds up with Stan, the Harry to her Sally, the guy she once detested but who gradually became her confidante and, ultimately, her soulmate. The show details the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism of the era, and while we long for the women to shatter the glass ceiling, and for the Jewish and African-American characters to come into their own, we can also learn a great deal about where we are now from taking an honest look at where we were not so long ago.

Well, it turns out both answers are right, a truth that makes sense only when we adjust our frame of reference, using as the chief interpretive focus the question of freedom. It’s a very rom-com twist, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, particularly when the performances are as wonderful as they are here. (Mark my words, people years from now will be reciting Peggy’s delightfully fumbling “I don’t even think about you. I mean, I do, because you’re there” speech the same way they recite lines from Nora Ephron movies.) Meanwhile, Joan completes her unlikely journey from semi-tragic bombshell to feminist heroine. What binds the more formal and repressed era of the early Sixties to the later, freewheeling period is still the capitalism that held the country together.

As the hour begins, she’s enjoying a post-McCann life of leisure with Richard, lounging in Key West and indulging in a little coke (the other kind) for his birthday. The formation of Holloway Harris: After choosing so many wrong men and being treated abominably at McCann-Erickson, Joan finally starts her own production company (thanks, in part, to Ken). Using the two men as stand-ins for the left and the right in the early 1960s, both Mailer and Buckley made their arguments on behalf of increasing freedom for Americans. It looks fun and makes for great postcards home, but a call from Ken sparks the realization that she’s interested in being more than “an undeveloped piece of real estate with a nice view,” to borrow Richard’s words.

Buckley thought the United States should exert unlimited energy in fighting the Cold War, because to lose the battle against the Soviets would be to jeopardize American freedoms. She also recognizes she’ll be just fine jettisoning the selfish Richard who wants a carefree playmate he can mold to his whims more than he ever wanted a person with her own thoughts and desires. She’s gone from pencil skirts to jumpsuits.) Men not named Don don’t get quite as much airtime as Peggy or Joan, but their stories at least end happily. But their confessional phone call and Stan’s subsequent running into his office played out like a Lifetime movie or every other treacly rom com complete with sappy music.

For a show that plays almost all the notes right, this one fell flat… especially given that Peggy went from being terrified, justifiably, that Don was suicidal to completely forgetting her fears as soon as Stan said he was in love with her two minutes later. Now, in the spirit of the emotional voyage that drove Don across the country to the cliffs of Big Sur and into the arms of a stranger named Leonard, I’d just like to say very sincerely how much I have loved writing about this show, how much it has meant to me and how much I am going to miss it.

For a finale that reveled in its ambiguity in so many ways, this felt way too heavy-handed. *No Sal: The second half of Season 7 had done a wonderful job of tying up some loose ends, even revealing the sad new that Rachel had died of cancer (what is it about Don and the women he loved getting cancer?). Mailer, meanwhile, thought the students were making a powerful case about the limitations of a conformist culture, which was, of course, the opposite of freedom. When Ken tells Joan he’s looking for writers and directors, it was the perfect chance to bring back Sal, who, despite the client’s reaction, did a beautiful job of directing the Patio soft drink commercial. There were some new civil rights laws, and we still question authority while wearing shirtsleeves or short skirts, not afraid to call an adult by his or her first name or even to use curse words. And, looking back from the perspective of fifty years, it’s apparent that the cost extracted was the sensibility that we all have a responsibility to work toward the common good, that we are part of a collective whole.

Without finding that balance, we risk turning out like Don Draper, forever searching, embodying that haunting image that began each episode, of a tragic figure falling to his death, all alone.

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