We start with a prelude of sorts, in this review of a finale: Is it possible to think too much about Mad Men? I’ve never thought so.
Yet, as I began to think about how to shape the review of the final episode of this series, it dawned on me that I might have become part of the contradictions and complexities at the heart of the show.
Mad Men is about a million different things — too many for one article, or a stack of five articles, or even 100 articles written over a full calendar year. One thing the show has always displayed is a constant focus on people’s blind spots. On a very simplified and general level, the show’s various characters (with a few exceptions) are so busy pursuing power, wealth, and various kinds of conquests that they neglect relationships and fail to read the matters of the heart and spirit.
The thought which occurred to me as I digested Sunday night’s finale is that I was enmeshed in a Mad Men-style contradiction: In writing about the blind spots of Matthew Weiner’s characters, I risked revealing blind spots in the way I viewed the show. That’s certainly the risk which accompanies TV criticism: One set of eyes, one brain, one heart, one perspective, will not see everything. Can the critic offer an honest appraisal, or do the blind spots get in the way?
Mad Men deserves such complete and extensive treatment from a critical perspective that it feels like I’m showing my blind spots when I say this: I could not have imagined a better finale to the show I’ve loved more than any other television series I’ve ever seen.
Praising everything about a finale? That feels too clear-cut, too happy, too unambiguously positive… which is not in step with the way Mad Men portrayed its characters or the situations in which they lived.
Yet, if I felt that the finale was remarkably good, that’s all I can try to explain. I can’t own a viewpoint I don’t believe in… even if it has plenty of blind spots and reads like an apologia for the show.
When the penultimate episode of Mad Men —”The Milk and Honey Route” — concluded, Don Draper had offered an indication that he could learn from his past. His willingness to help a young man who evoked Dick Whitman’s hobo history showed that Don was capable of recognizing a need to change patterns. This felt like an authentic — yet not certain — turning-point moment for Don because Mad Men has shown that people don’t easily change (bad) patterns in their lives, and sometimes not at all.
More needs to be said about this idea of repeating bad life patterns and failing to break them. For many people — particularly, those who grew tired of the show as it moved into seasons four and five—- this was a bug in the series.
For me and for Matt Weiner, it was and is a feature.
Patterns don’t get broken easily. That’s real life. That’s the difficulty of being human. If one episode of Mad Men would show Don or any other character in a moment of self-awareness and self-actualization, the next episode would not automatically reveal an even more advanced state of being. The character in question would regress in a different context, failing to put together larger pillars of a complete life architecture.
It was therefore not too surprising that despite the hopeful ending of “The Milk and Honey Route,” Sunday’s finale — “Person to Person” — started with Don going down the same… depressing… familiar… empty… road.
The reality of the recurring pattern — wandering like a hobo, having empty sex, getting mixed up with complete strangers (recall “Seven Twenty-Three” from season three) — is once again in evidence. More than halfway through the episode, one wondered whether Don was ever going to encounter a decisive epiphany… and if said epiphany was going to be (and feel) authentic to his character.
We’ve seen Don Draper brought low so many times throughout Mad Men — having to reveal Dick Whitman to Betty Draper; having to move out of Betty’s house in humiliation, knowing he failed his wife and kids; having to live alone; putting himself in mortal danger by taking drugs (in California) he wasn’t ready to handle, and waking up drenched at poolside as a result; having to work for Lou Avery; divorcing Megan and acknowledging his immense failure in that relationship; being set up and ambushed in Oklahoma, getting whacked a few times… and various other instances throughout the series.
Did this mean the finale would give us an ascendant Don and nothing but? Of course not — it wouldn’t be Mad Men to do that. Don still hadn’t hit the absolute rock-bottom point in his life, and it’s only when you really hit the bottom — the point of no return — that you can make your way back up.
This is the stuff of spirituality, of therapy, of counseling, of honest truth-telling. As I’m going to mention in another piece on Mad Men this week, MM is — for me — a deeply spiritual show, beneath the veneer of the fancy costumes and the ravenous desires which are often acted upon by the central characters, Don most of all.
What does healthy spirituality — seen at great length in this finale — promote? A few core tenets exist, and one of those tenets is total, honest, significant, revelatory truth-telling. There’s a very “Alcoholics Anonymous” flavor to this episode, just with problems other than alcoholism involved.
Don has to confront wrenching, searing truths as posed by Sally and Betty, then by Stephanie and, ultimately, by the office worker whose expression of emptiness mirrors what Don’s life has come to.
These assorted truths — being as weighty as they are — reduce Don to the point where he says he can’t move. They make his voice so utterly defeated in his phone call with Peggy, in which he gives a trusted friend a hint of his Dick Whitman identity. They reduce him to throbbing sobs in an embrace with the anonymous office worker he can relate to on such a powerful level.
Yes, Don has been brought low and humiliated so many times before, but those occasions almost always emerged within the context of failed marriages, drunken nights, or corporate failures, and situations which brought any or all of those things together.
This — THIS — is different. This is a case in which Don Draper, the man with the answer for everything, is rendered speechless for much of the final 15 minutes of the episode. He’s never hugged anyone more fiercely or with more genuine emotion than he hugged a person he’d never met in that retreat center, in the sharing circle. This scene — with Don hugging a total stranger — is a window into how utterly he’s failed to love the people he knew, the people he was always supposed to care for. This inversion of situations — at once so obvious and yet so incredibly, emotionally, complicated — suggests that this form of humiliation comes with the cleansing dimension of spiritual awakening, of truly learning how (and where) to see.
If anyone wanted Don Draper to arrive at the end of Mad Men on an upward trajectory, it had to come only after hitting the absolute bottom, and also after responding to “rock bottom” in a truly heartfelt way, for reasons removed from the next ad campaign or piece of female flesh. If Mad Men really was to end with Don gaining enlightenment, Don had to be able to look within himself and love himself, to internalize the words Anna Draper gave to him in season four, before she died: “I know everything about you, and I still love you.”
Plenty of commentators and critics will say — with genuine legitimacy and intellectual consistency — that the Coca-Cola ad-and-jingle which closes the series is an indicator that Don’s resurrection on the bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean is a commercial and professional one, not really a personal one. That’s fair, and of course, if that’s the epiphany Don has, it’s the darkest possible commentary one could make about Dick Whitman, still the hobo who runs from the most central truths in life.
However, the argument that Don is personally and spiritually transformed — which represents the best possible commentary one could make about Don (and no longer Dick Whitman) — is buttressed not just by the fierce hug of the anonymous office worker or the cathartically confessional phone call to Peggy, but by the showing of Don’s silhouetted figure, looking out over the ocean.
Here is the concluding reason why the argument for a transformed Don — as portrayed by Matthew Weiner — not only makes sense, but should win the day: In season two, episode 11 — “The Jet Set” — Don goes to California for the first time in the life of Mad Men. He goes to the Pacific Ocean and lets the waters run through his body.
In literature, the image of the person being immersed in the sea is a death image. In Christianity, the waters sweeping over a human body conjure the image of baptism, which — sacramentally and liturgically — offers spiritual rebirth as a new follower of Jesus, forgiven by God and viewed as a new creation.
I watched portions of the Mad Men marathon on AMC (from Wednesday evening all the way up to this finale), and I’m very happy I caught the replay of the season six finale, “In Care Of.”
Before Don takes Sally, Bobby and Gene to see the house where he grew up (a moment of particularly honest truth-telling for Don), he flashes back to that childhood, when Uncle Mack kicks a preacher out of the brothel he is essentially running. The preacher looks at young Dick Whitman and tells him, “The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.” It is not an idle coincidence that Don shares his painful past with his kids (Sally, in particular) later on in that episode.
Back to the finale and that scene of silhouetted Don looking over the ocean: Don is back where he was in season two, but now he’s standing on higher ground. Showing the water is enough to convey the image of baptism and the deeper reality of transformation it points to. Don standing at a more elevated place shows that he has new understanding. His face is happy in that iconic image just before the Coke song plays, but it is a happiness without swagger. It’s a happiness manifesting inner peace… which has eluded Don for 91.95 episodes out of 92. It’s in that final 0.05 of the final episode that Don finally finds safe harbor. He’s been scratching at his life, trying to get into it. For the longest time, he couldn’t… but he finally does.
Yet, because he was put through absolute desolation and misery in the previous 73 minutes of this 74-minute finale, that final minute of discovery feels real, not false.
Much as Don’s epiphany felt authentic, Peggy and Stan connecting the way they did felt real as well. That relationship was substantially built to the point where Sunday’s big payoff seemed honest.
Moreover, it’s not as though everything about the finale is happy… which is also honest and real, and true to Mad Men‘s identity.
Betty, sitting in the dark, is quietly resigned to her fate. Joan gets her business off the ground, but the reality of Richard’s departure at a time when Joan wanted to be with him is yet another gut-punch in Ms. Harris’s life — she’s had more than enough of them.
Roger and Marie might be happy with each other, but that’s going to be a chaotic marriage — enough of the finale showed that flamethrowers will be exchanged between the two (in French). Keep in mind as well that a number of characters not seen in the finale (Megan Draper and Henry Francis, for instance) are left without happy resolutions. They might not be beyond the point of salvation, but those points weren’t disclosed, and so we’re left to worry about them instead of thinking they’ll be all right. We’re left to deal with the ambiguity of the situations they face in late 1970. That’s the way Mad Men should end for most of its characters.
To bring things full-circle, back to Don:
As transformed as he might seem to be in that final scene — with the words “It’s the real thing, what the world wants today” representing the personal authenticity Don has pursued for so long — it would not be too shocking to find, in 1975, Dick Whitman immersed in another hobo-like journey, back to his same old tricks and “growing bullshit.”
Mad Men, after all, was never supposed to tell us how the rest of Don Draper’s life would turn out, in 1983 or 1997 or 2015, in his golden years. Mad Men was only supposed to give us a hint as to where Don’s life was headed at the end of the 1960s — as it turned out, the autumn of 1970.
If we’ve learned anything from Mad Men, we know that no paths are smooth and linear and tidy. Don could arrive at the middle of the 1970s, needing more “Meditations in an Emergency.”
However, as this show ends in late 1970, the verdict is that Don has made the kinds of journeys which have led him to self-love and self-forgiveness. We can have confidence that Don has new hope on New Year’s Day of 1971… but it’s up to him to apply the life lessons he learned in California, the place where Anna Draper told him that he never had to believe he was alone.
Don Draper has the real thing, what the world needs today: Authentic and compassionate self-love, which will give him the chance to love others for the first time in his life.