The ‘Mad Men’ Finale, Coke And Don’s Quest For Enlightenment

20 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Men’ Finale: Jon Hamm Gives His Interpretation of Final Scene, Addresses Critics of Happier Endings.

In the wake of what will likely go down as one of the best (and better received) series finales in television history, one bit of Mad Men analysis has baffled me.Jon Hamm has his interpretation of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men season finale, which closes with him hugging a stranger at a retreat and meditating with hippies, before the episode cuts to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial. “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.

So many critics have weighed in with thoughtful and insightful essays; even when I don’t particularly agree with another writer’s opinion, I’ve been floored by how eloquent and intelligent the post-finale commentary has been. And that’s the cynical take on the ending — that Don Draper didn’t experience any personal enlightenment and merely came up with a way to sell soda to hippies, end of story.

Libby Nelson: One of Mad Men’s most prominent themes has been its characters’ ambiguous relationships with motherhood, particularly in an era when having children was the default for most women. 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,” he told The New York Times. “My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is.

But I do believe it’s important to reiterate how the narrative structure, which Weiner made open-ended (I described it in-depth in the deconstruction) contributed to an ending that allowed viewers (and critics) to imagine what they wanted about the unseen future as the major characters lives moved forward. What I didn’t expect was a theory that the ending proves Don learns nothing at Esalen and goes back to his life an unchanged man — a theory that seems shortsightedly cynical and wrong. My view of “The Sopranos” has evolved a lot since that famous cut to black, and there are moments and ideas from a dozen other long-dead shows that still percolate in my brain to this day. Until Weiner says something definitive on the issue (and unlike his mentor David Chase of The Sopranos, who chose silence and then vagueness when discussing his own controversial ending, he just might), I’m a little surprised about the more cynical reading of that ending. When it comes to the closing images of “Mad Men,” I just want to add my voice to the chorus of those who have said that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a binary choice when it comes to how to view Don Draper’s smile and the famous Coca-Cola ad.

Or perhaps this is just another of his cyclical renewals, a moment of bliss and success before gravity (and women, and alcohol, and his tendency to randomly pull the ripcord on his own life) drags him downward again. Stan’s mother didn’t like him very much. “You shouldn’t have been with a lowlife, you shouldn’t have gotten pregnant, you should have loved being a mother,” Stephanie says halfway through the finale. I just knew that he had this final image in mind.” Hamm also noted that his westward journey was difficult for him to shoot. “To be set adrift for the last few weeks, really experiencing that aloneness, that self-exile that Don was experiencing, it was very disorienting, which hopefully played. I’m the kind of person who was, for many seasons, rooting for Don to remain Don to the end, not because that’s some cool way for an iconic character to “go out on his terms” but because making change in a life, any life, is difficult. The fact that Don spends even a second out West after learning Betty’s news—that he accepts her conclusion about his familial uselessness, rather than challenging it—suggests no.

Whatever the payouts from various business dealings, the money in his bank account wouldn’t support vacations, private schools and college for three children, let alone the posh lifestyle Don likes to lead when he’s not crashing in cheap motels. And when Don offers his litany of sins, it feels odd that he lists making “nothing” of the Draper name up there with breaking his vows, scandalizing his child, and stealing a man’s identity.

Joan’s decision to have and raise Kevin largely alone underlined a core theme of her character — that it’s a good thing she’s reliable, because she’s surrounded by people who can’t be relied upon. He’d get back into the ad game because he loves the thrill of the chase, and pursuing a great ad concept has always brought him more joy than any relationship. But there have been several currents in the past few episodes that suggest abandoning your children is the one form of self-expression that Mad Men can’t condone.

The “shoulds” of motherhood came up earlier this season, too — in Peggy’s stunning conversation with Stan about the stage mother she fought with that turned into her admission that she’d had a baby and given him up for adoption. So, to be on the side believing in real personal growth for Don — to be someone basking in the positive and believing the ending was, in fact, a sign of positive personal growth — is a little foreign. Everybody picks up and thinks, oh, that’s too bad — that guy had a nervous breakdown.” The last onscreen chat between Don and Peggy was a phone conversation, shot with Elisabeth Moss on the other end of the line.

He favors the endings of Joan and Peggy best, saying of the latter, “Selfishly, I think if she took anything away from being mentored by my character, it was that — her confidence in her ability to say, ‘There’s something better out there for me, and I’m going to stick it out here and try to find it.'” Though parts of the final episode drew somewhat of a mixed reaction online, Hamm is content with the showrunner’s decisions. “There’s people saying, oh, it’s so pat, and it’s rom-com-y, or whatever it is. Peggy and Stan’s grand romantic scene felt as if Nora Ephron had dropped by Matthew Weiner’s office and slipped a couple of pages into the script behind his back. This flurry of emotional or actual reunions suggests to me that Don will soon be in a kitchen with Sally, somewhere, sharing a Coke with the girl who understands him best. No one is suggesting that Stan and Peggy live happily ever after, or that Joan’s business is a rousing success, or that Roger and Marie come back from Paris together. Ultimately, he’s trying to sell himself ideas that he has been resistant to, because he is a reject, an orphan, an outsider who finds it hard to experience or accept love.

He was moved not by the political promise of the era, but by the psychodynamics of an age when men and women put themselves, rather than their obligations, first. I would argue it made for good television, a memorable ending that will get people talking, but one that may not have served the massive amount of time spent prior proving that Don had indeed come to a point in his life where he could absorb change. One day, he’ll ditch morning yoga and don (!) the power suit and floor a client with something they didn’t know they wanted but needed, once he creates that need inside them.

I lean toward this interpretation, partly because, as I said in a Twitter dialogue on Monday, the expression on his face was the satisfied smirk of a man who knew, in his bones, he was going to absolutely crush a pitch. What’s left open to interpretation — and I hail Weiner for choosing that storytelling construct of keeping the story alive — is what happens before and even after the ad is created.

Endings tend to cast everything that came before into a different light, and now I’m stringing scenes from the fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons into a conventional Peggy-and-Stan romantic comedy. (It’s actually not that hard!) And that brings us to why Mad Men is so difficult to wrap up: these characters don’t have one story that comes to a neat conclusion. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion wrote. “We live entirely … by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the ‘ideas’ with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience.” You don’t always know what story you’re watching until it’s over. My nickname for early-seasons Don Draper is “Sex Batman” — you know it’s true — but when he’s on his A-game at work, you could also think of him as the Iron Man of pitches.

The entirety of season seven is about real, absolute change to Don’s life — to his wishes and desires, in his personal and professional life, and to him, coming to terms with his past and looking at a future he can control. But we were also watching a pretty conventional romantic comedy about how she started off hating Stan’s guts and eventually realized she was in love with him. By glomming on to a cynical theory that Don just becomes Don again in the finale 60 seconds of the finale and races home to make that ad requires an unwillingness to acknowledge what Weiner labored to put in front of you. We thought we were watching Sally grow up and away from her parents, trying to become anyone but Betty, but in fact we were watching her growing stronger, growing up because she’s going to need to grow up.

Like Don’s clients, we want to believe a man can fly, and the sharp-suited, suffer-no-fools, tells-us-what’s-what Don Draper lets us believe, for a moment, that liftoff is possible. As we enter the final days of Sterling Cooper & Partners, Slate’s TV Club will celebrate the show’s retorts and rejoinders by highlighting a Mad Men Zinger of the Week for Slate Plus. Why not allow Weiner, as the storyteller, to finally after seven seasons bring those incremental and difficult changes to Don’s character and imagine a more optimistic future for him? The Don who walked into the ocean in “The Mountain King” is the Don who embraced Leonard: We are seeing Don, once again, find a few precious scraps of self-acceptance, self-awareness and compassion.

Not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make Sally or Peggy ashamed of him, and not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make him lapse into self-hatred (well, not too often). If I had a problem with the finale, it’s because throughout, I wanted Don to go home to Sally, the human being with whom he arguably has the most powerful bond.

Part of the fun of the show is that it has many different modes — heist episodes, contemplative episodes, character-driven duets like “The Suitcase,” Ingmar Bergman-esque episodes, formal stylistic experimentations, Cheever short stories, hobo episodes. Beyond that, there’s a weird acceptance that Weiner can make the other characters change in some positive way — and outside of Betty, they all do — but he can’t make Don change. You’ll accept Pete and Trudy changing, and Roger changing, and Peggy changing and Joan changing her historic reliance on men to choose to make her own dreams come true, but you won’t accept Don changing even an ounce (even if the evidence has been presented throughout season seven)?

I mean, you don’t have two deaths that impact Don’s understanding of his current life’s situation — Rachel Menken’s, and the impending loss of Betty and what that means to Don as a father — and then have him revert to the norm. Don’s life — success and money and Coke aside — will be a constant turning of the wheel, cycles of self-doubt and pain followed by halting attempts at self-awareness and connection. It’s the culmination of seven seasons of introspection, and at least a season and a half of hard truths leading up to the behavior illustrating that change.

I smiled at the child’s attempts to climb all over me as well as her mom; for the first hour, all the patience and kind feelings engendered by the retreat held sway. But that’s the great comfort of Buddhist thought: It takes it as a given that we are all stuck on the wheel of samsara, an eternal cycle of endless rebirth. That’s not only boring, it doesn’t allow for Weiner to move a character from A to B (or as I noted earlier, you’ll accept change in every other character but this one). Weiner had done so much beating of that drum that it seemed like overkill (even acknowledging that the repetition of mistakes over time is essential to show a pattern of behavior, particularly if you’re tackling the intellectually challenging aspect of unhappiness, discontent and the inability to be satisfied with your own accomplishments). But if you look at how Mad Men was negotiated as a television series, you’ll see that Weiner got that sixth season but AMC owned on option on the seventh (and there was no way Weiner wasn’t going to be involved in the ending).

Like Don, I’m a work in progress, but part of that progress is an awareness of my worst impulses, which in turn creates more opportunities to interrupt them. But credit the latter part of season six as a time when Weiner could then begin the real descent, the real end, the real change that his protagonist needed to suffer. Like “Lost,” or “Star Trek” or “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” would often take the viewer on a discrete, concrete journey within one episode, which could be about an idea, or one or two themes, or one or two people.

Matt Weiner was masterful at telling great short stories on screen and populating those richly imagined stories with believably complex, intelligent, driven people. He did it, however, like he’s done everything else — by clinging to the realism of human behavior, where we take two steps forward and then one back.

Existential dread, the questioning of whether you’re happy or whether you’re content, of whether you lived your life the way you should before you see the end rushing up on you — those are not issues most people comfortable talking about. Whether you like it or not, that’s why he ends up in California, at Esalen, made to confront the past and what brought him to this point and to be given an opportunity that’s stated very clearly in that finale — to start a new life that’s yet to be lived.

Everything I’m bringing up here — it all sounds hippie-ish and earnest and vague, and yes, the quest for self-awareness can quickly slide into a state of self-absorption (which certainly happened in the ‘70s and it undoubtedly happens now). That’s why the world of advertising has been such a fertile arena for the show: Don is pitching the world on what he wants to be true, and as consumers, we also want to edit reality into something we can cope with and possibly even enjoy.

People are receptive to great pitches, which are always double-edged swords, because being reminded that “the truth” can be malleable is scary and thrilling. This is an ancient truth.” Don is able to bring a mode of Buddhist-flavored thought to the creative process: He can make observations and evaluations that help him and his protegees — and the work — evolve and change for the better. He has his moments — the Coke ad is a genius distillation of an aspirational cultural moment — but it can be frustrating to watch Don make the same mistakes over and over again.

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