Mad Men, the finale: what happened?

18 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

History as Seen on Mad Men: A Timeline.

Over the course of seven seasons, Mad Men—which came to a close on Sunday night—followed Don, Peggy and the rest of Sterling Cooper through a raucous decade. In Mad Men’s very first episode, all the way back in 2007, Don Draper laid out the philosophy that defined his basic approach to both work and life. “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” he said. “And you know what happiness is?

But, though its meticulous attention to period detail has often been praised, the show has always been more about character than events: Assassinations were met with quiet crying scenes; characters’ politics changed slowly over time; entire years were skipped. That might sound way too much like Matthew Weiner had tied everything up in neat bows, and maybe he was trying a little too hard to give us what we all secretly wanted, but there was a coda that made it all seem right.

Not for the first time, we had a premonition of his death. “I got a hell of a shake around 130,” he tells the young mechanics before casting a longing, if rather wary, eye over the car. It’s the philosophy of a man who reinvented himself, filling all his empty spaces by seeking out the powerful, emotional experiences that unite all human beings — and then reshaping those experiences into cute, commercial little packages that could be hawked to any sucker with a wallet full of cash. Death, be my mistress. “There are a lot of better places than here,” she says, and I’m more than ever convinced that she’s going to involve into that hilarious and crabby-faced TV executive from Episodes. Peggy has been dealt out of an account she’d been working on, and maybe it’s just that she’s inspired by the slogan hanging on the boardroom wall – “Truth well told” – but she decides to stand up for herself even though she’s the new kid on the block. As he meditates in the middle of a spiritual retreat, at the end of a desperate, soul-searching road trip, he finally smiles, achieving the moment of peace and fulfillment he traveled thousands of miles to find.

He seeks fulfillment in relationships with his ex-wife (Betty), his actual daughter (Sally), his surrogate daughter (Stephanie), and his protégé (Peggy). We know it’s the 1970s because Joan and her real estate mogul beau Richard (Bruce Greenwood) are snorting coke. “It’s everywhere in Malibu,” he says, though not on the Mad Men set, we’re sure. Joan likes it. “It feels like I’ve just been given some very good news,” she says. “You know we could live like this all the time,” he says, and if this weren’t the final episode you’d swear we were about to head off on some weird Boogie Nights trajectory in which Joan squanders everything because of the blow.

But we’re not, thankfully; Richard is talking about sharing a future together. “Do you want to get married,” Joan asks, looking half-excited, half-shocked, and all coke-frazzled. Sure, he says, if you want, but he’s actually way more interested in subdividing her rather formidable assets and building some boutique apartments on them. “It seems to me your life is undeveloped property,” he says. “You can turn it into anything you want. This is all ambiguous by design. “Person to Person” implies that Don created that famed “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad, but it doesn’t say it outright. If Mad Men wanted us to know the definitive, unequivocal answer, it would have shown Don pitching the Coke commercial, or rolling his eyes at the Coke commercial once he caught it on the air. It’s just Peggy’s brain wrestling with its greatest fear – letting someone get close – before admitting it might actually be her heart’s greatest desire.

But the fan-fiction fodder is, indeed, too good to be true; Peggy is too committed to the career she’s building at McCann Erickson to cash out and strike out on her own. Much of the episode’s dialogue is loaded with symbolic meaning hearkening back to the themes and stories Mad Men has grappled with since its premiere. “Are you trying to kill me?” says Roger after a particularly intense round in bed with Marie. “I’m trying to make you happy,” she replies, as if those are the only two options.”People just come and go, and no one says goodbye,” complains Don — the pot who’s calling the kettle black — to a woman at the retreat. “I’m sorry, but people are free to come and go as they please,” she replies. “I just know how people work. You can put this behind you,” says Don to Stephanie, in a near-identical variation on the advice he gave Peggy after she gave up her child. “It will get easier as you move forward.” But this time, someone calls him out on the wrongheadedness of his fundamental approach to life: “Oh, Dick. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Peggy tries to console him, but as usual, he can’t be consoled by a person who actually knows him. (“You only like the beginning of things,” as Don’s onetime lover Faye Miller prophetically warned.) In an ensuing scene, Don only reaches emotional catharsis when he hears a total stranger confess to his own feelings of alienation and loneliness, hugging him and crying along with him.

In Los Angeles, he knocks on the door of his “niece”, Stephanie (Caity Lotz), the hippy daughter of Anna Draper who once turned up on Megan’s doorstep broke and heavily pregnant. She greets him as Dick; she knows him in ways few others do and for one horrible moment (well, several horrible moments) it looks like the Draper family relations are going to head into some very “woe is me, shame and scandal in the family” directions.

A lonely man bares his soul in a group therapy session, describing a crushing dream in which he was a picked-over item in a refrigerator; within 24 hours, Don’s subconscious warps it into a Coca-Cola commercial. A new you”; in an instant, Don instantly reverts to the old version of himself, whose version of a “new idea” is a new way to exploit people’s emotions as a shortcut to their wallets. She puts him to sleep on the couch and then takes him to a hippy retreat that offers 57 varieties of therapy, a kind of Heinz of healing. “Roger, this is an expensive way to mark your territory,” Joan says.

Mad Men — a show with at least a half-dozen previous episodes that could have served as series finales — is smart enough to know that in real life, there’s no such thing as a true ending. Was Matthew Weiner just waiting to get his leading man to somewhere suitably picturesque – a clifftop in Carmel, for instance – before pushing him over the edge? Joan is running her new production company, Holloway Harris (two names, her maiden and her married) from her apartment, having decided that any man who can only be with her if she ditches her career is no man she could ever be with.

That means the final, unflinchingly honest story Mad Men’s series finale wants to leave us with is this: Don Draper will be a man whose instincts push him away from what’s actually real in life, and toward the things he can simplify, commercialize, and sell — and there will always be an audience for it. And this is Weiner’s masterstroke, the moment that saves it all from some “happily ever after” that would have been a fundamental breach of faith for those of us who’ve come this far. That famous TV commercial is masterful and manipulative, the work of some evil ad man who took the hippy dream and reduced it to one syrupy 60-second spot in the service of commerce.

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