‘Mad Men’ Finale: What Was Awesome, What Was Frustrating And Why It’s Hard …

18 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ Finale: What Was Awesome, What Was Frustrating And Why It’s Hard To Let Go.

Seeing Mad Men through its ads: Every week, WIRED takes a look at the latest episode of Mad Men through the lens of the latest media campaign by the staff of the agency formerly known as Sterling Cooper & Partners. On the series finale Sunday, Don Draper was shown finding inner peace and contentment at a California retreat, only for the final scene to be the iconic “Buy the World a Coke” TV ad that actually debuted in 1971. After all the people Don Draper has rolled through over seven seasons of “Mad Men,” who knew the key to his potential redemption was an insecure schlub named Leonard?

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. It’s hard to write about series finales, because whatever I say here might be taken as the final word regarding my assessment of the show in question. Yes, Ken Cosgrove hired Joan to help produce an in-house industrial film for his wing of DuPont, which Joan hired Peggy to write, but there were no specifics offered, and at any rate the utilitarian nature of industrials would have meant that the hopes and fears that are advertising’s stock in trade were irrelevant there.

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. Since it premiered eight years ago, I could count on several things where “Mad Men” was concerned: The show would surprise me, it would confound me, it would make me laugh and make me think, it would frequently look amazing and it would experiment with storytelling and have top-notch aesthetic elements. Betty’s death and her children’s future; the end of Joan’s relationship and the start of her business; various versions of domestic bliss featuring Pete and Trudy, Roger and Marie, and the crown prince of crowdpleasers, Peggy and Stan; the specter of parental abandonment and the promise of new lives and new loves; and, of course, Don Draper’s rock bottom—these were the drivers of this show’s last hour. This Leonard person starts talking about how he dreamed he was inside a refrigerator when someone opened the door and the light came on, but no one wanted him, so they shut the door and the light went out again.

Not until a meditative Don rose from that rock bottom with a smile on his face and a smash cut to Coca-Cola’s seismic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial did the selling of products with a message people want to hear take up so much as a second of screentime. 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. If we view it in light of Mad Men’s characterization of advertising history, it’s the ad where the industry has its Carousel moment: having traveled around and around, it goes “back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” Over the course of the decade the show chronicled, ads migrated from promises of comfort, security, and luxury to counterculture-tinged, irony-driven paeans to youth. In Madison Avenue’s version of the Hegelian Dialectic, thesis and antithesis led to this soft-drink synthesis, in which hippies celebrate their unique vision of the home and hearth they spent the past ten years supplanting.

After he admitted he was in love with her, Peggy only managed to pretend she didn’t feel the same way for a minute or two, and then he ran into her office to kiss her and it was all we ever really wanted (aside from Peggy also being the boss of everyone in the world, but we guess beggars can’t be choosers). Call it another Matthew Weiner wink at all those fans who were sure there’d be a Manson subplot somewhere. “Where?” he replied. “I messed everything up.

I broke all my vows, I scandalized my children, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” The episode started with Don continuing his campaign to give away his worldly possessions – in this case bankrolling a couple of kids who were building a race car. Of course, their in-person relationship has had many terrific moments too, but on the phone, Stan and Peggy both let down their guards, or maybe it’s more accurate to say they let down their hair (and in Stan’s case, that is a lot of hair). Peggy’s more relaxed and open when she’s half-distracted by the work on her desk, and she never felt pressured or tense during her phone chats with Stan.

The engine of commerce churns on regardless of the hard-fought happiness secured by Peggy, Pete, Joan, and Stan, or even the fallen-into-bass-ackwards variety Roger wound up with. “There’s more to life than work,” Stan says. It’ll get easier as you move forward,” Don says to his ersatz niece Stephanie, a summary of a life of leaving things behind that has obviously failed. “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that,” she replies, correctly. Don went on parental autopilot, saying, “Grownups make these decisions.” Sally didn’t bother to explain that’s an earned right, not an automatic privilege.

On my first viewing I saw it as a sort of deflation of Don’s final enlightened smile, as well as a riposte to the episode’s many personal triumphs, as described above. Only when I saw the emerging Twitter consensus did the connection between’s Don om-induced grin at the commune and the similarly communal ad finally click. This would certainly be a grimly comic capstone to Don Draper’s long journey, which at last saw him completely empty of hope and refilled with a momentary happiness he winds up using to create the World’s Greatest Commercial. (And the joke is when he awoke his body was covered in Coke fizz.) But I remain agnostic about whether Don made the ad, as I believe the show intends. No doubt she’ll need to keep those walls up to survive in a harsh environment like McCann, as we saw in an early finale scene, in which she had to fight to keep an account.

We’ve spent seven seasons watching Don grow, shrink, succeed, fail, move forward, stagger back, and generally struggle with his inability to fill the void inside him with things pulled in from outside, whether that’s money, sex, love, wanderlust, creativity, or industrial quantities of alcohol. There’s no reason, really, to assume the struggle would end when the show does — that Don’s grin marks, for certain, the beginning of a more grounded, more centered new life completely separate from the old one.

What’s more, an uncomfortable overlap between his current self and his ad-man past would in no way wipe out the losses and gains he experiences here. Don’s grief over Betty’s diagnosis and his subsequent realization that his absence from his children’s life is, to them, “normal life” is real.

Here’s one of my problems with the Joan situation: We haven’t known Richard all that long, not long enough for any issues that couple might have to seem believably complex. Sitting in the encounter group, he listens to a man named Leonard, a square in every respect, describe a life that’s very much like the ideal all-American one Don himself had at first tried to create before going on to constantly undermine and eventually destroy it.

Not only does that not track with what we know of him — earlier, he’d realized that he’d do anything to keep a great woman like Joan in his life — it does not track with what he said in this episode. This, Leonard hasn’t done; it doesn’t matter. “I’ve never been interesting to anybody,” he says. “I work in an office—people walk right by me. He was excited about Joan’s prospects and called her entire life “undeveloped property,” and he didn’t say that in any way that indicated that he expected her to join the country club, enjoy her windfall and leave it at that. Sure, his excitement might have partly been the cocaine talking, but his comments were in line with his previous behavior: Richard has been generally supportive of her career and has always prized Joan’s intelligence and drive. But it didn’t quite track for me; honestly, it felt as though creator Matthew Weiner wanted Joan to have a sad ending, so he jury-rigged one at the last minute.

It’s because the show made me so very interested in their fates that how things actually worked out in some arenas was, frankly, irritating. “Mad Men” boasts plenty of intellectual firepower, aesthetic ambition and shiny structural experimentation. I kept expecting him to go back to New York, or to at least try to head east, at some point, and the fact that he did not left me in a state of suspended animation.

It’s one thing for an episode to thrum with a secret that the audience knows but certain characters don’t — that’s a tension-building strategy “Mad Men” has employed very well in the past. That tipped into irritation once I realized that Don was going to keep on hobo-ing, even as his neglected children risked a fire in an attempt to cook dinner. Don and Sally have one of the key relationships on the show, and the last we saw of them was a difficult phone call that Sally cut off at an awkward moment.

We got multiple scenes of Don and Stephanie, but the last time we saw Don and Peggy have a real conversation, it was a few episodes ago, and Peggy was mad at Don for dumping all over her dreams. In all seriousness, I absolutely get that “Mad Men” loves to play around with ambiguity, grey areas and doubt — and I’ve reveled in that fact for eight years. The show has been dropping hints about Coke since Season 1, and the Coke references have come thick and fast in the last stretch of episodes (Peggy even mentioned it in her phone call with Don). I know that that’s how the show operates — the revelations Don encounters in his personal life often inform his work, which is really the only way he can consistently communicate with the world. Who knows where Gene and Bobby ended up (maybe they will get lost in transit between the homes of various caregivers and nobody will notice for months).

Talking to a distraught Stephanie, he still clung to that belief — that the past can be shed and its pain minimized — but we in the audience know it’s not true and I can’t quite bring myself to believe that the man who worked so hard to embrace his past truly believed that anymore. Go ahead and be your idiosyncratic self, “Mad Men.” “Person to Person” has some good moments and some lovely grace notes, but it’s not a great series finale, nor is it an episode I’ll eagerly look forward to revisiting (except for the Stan-Peggy parts).

When I got into the TV critic game more than a decade ago, back in the Elder Days, “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica” were on the air. My sentimentality about the early aughts is not so blinding that I fail see how amazing the TV scene is now — I truly love where the evolution of the medium has brought us.

It might be tied with “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica,” but the truth is, I have probably expended more words, more mental energy and more time on “Mad Men” than any other show I’ve ever written about. January Jones has also been really wonderful in these final two episodes. “Keep it up and you’ll be a creative director by 1980!” Way to make a compliment sound incredibly depressing, which is such a Pete Campbell thing to do. It was nice to seek Ken and even Harry again, and I did enjoy the lyrical montage near the end, in which the show checked in on several main characters. I had a theory before the finale that we’d see Don Draper working under the name Dick Whitman as a mechanic somewhere out west, and his grease-monkey racing antics partly fulfilled that prediction, sort of.

I didn’t necessarily predict he’d get rolled by a working girl again, but I can’t say I was surprised at that either. “All I got was ‘suitcase’ — yell at me slower or in English!” I’m so glad we got one more classic Roger Sterling quip. We got a final Joan-Peggy scene, which was another bonus. “The partnership is just for you.” I knew Peggy would never take it, but I love that their friendship had come that far. He also frequently appeared in group-therapy scenes in “Go On,” but he didn’t wear a bright red jumpsuit on that cancelled ABC show, so “Mad Men” gets the win in that department. If you want more “Mad Men” talk, I was on WDCB Public Radio last week talking for a full hour about the show’s history and context, and I thought that conversation turned out really well.

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