Mad Men: A New Day, a New You

In the AMC series finale, some characters said their goodbyes, while others embarked on fresh beginnings.

Jaimie Trueblood / AMC

Megan Garber and Lenika Cruz discuss the series finale of AMC's hit period-drama Mad Men and the fates of Don Draper and those in his orbit. (David Sims and Sophie Gilbert are away this week.)

Garber: That ending! THAT ENDING. I guess we should start at the beginning of the episode, but I can't stop thinking about its conclusion—the one that had one foot in the fictional universe of Mad Men, and the other in the very non-fictional universe of American history. Don's implied connection to the 1971 “Hilltop” ad (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke ...”) was, in retrospect, pretty aggressively foreshadowed throughout the past season (in "Time & Life," the camera dwells on Don's face lighting up as the McCann executives mention the holy grail of the Coca Cola account; in the show's penultimate episode, last week's "The Milk and Honey Route," Don ingratiated himself at the quaint motel he'd found himself stranded at by fixing its broken Coke machine; there was even, in an otherwise puzzling scene earlier in this episode, Joan Harris trying cocaine). Despite all that, though, the ad's crucial role in closing out seven seasons of Mad Men still managed to be a surprise—actually, a pleasant shock—to me. I was pretty sure the show wouldn't end in Don's death, but I was also pretty sure it would end with him starting over, in a classic Whitmanian/Draperian rebirth: a new life, a new style, a new woman, a new set of circumstances to create and to colonize.

The shocker here was that instead of moving on, Don doubled down: on (ostensibly) New York, on his family, on his career in advertising, on his role as an exploiter of human desire. I kept thinking, watching Don meditate (or pretend to meditate?) on that pristine coastal cliff, of that early scene in California, when Don was escaping New York by spending time with the first Mrs. Draper; reading his tarot cards, she drew "The Soul of the World." Which at the time seemed like it might foreshadow Don’s eventual ability to experience empathy, or his death ... but which now seems to have presaged something more basic: his participation in a TV commercial that used ideals of world peace and human connection to sell gas-filled sugar-water.

Which: appropriate! The conclusion-by-way-of-Coke makes a fitting close, I think, for a show that has functioned as, among so much else, historical fan fiction. This was worlds colliding, ours and Don’s; it was reality becoming part of Mad Men’s mythology. It was taking the name of the episode, “Person to Person,” and implying that the connections being made here were not just among characters, but among cosmologies. There was something nicely transcendent and “Soul of the World”-y about all of that.

What I love most about the Coke-ad ending, though—and the more I think about it, the more I actually do love it—was how neatly it resolved one of the most persistent themes of Mad Men: the tension between materialism and meaning, between stuff and all the things we think we are getting ourselves when we buy stuff. Don’s path to California found him shedding his possessions like a snake sheds skin—the last of these being his car, which he gave to a Dick Whitmanesque con artist, and Megan’s engagement ring, which he gave to Stephanie—until all he had was a tattered envelope full of money. And then he ended up at a Buddhist retreat (the scenes of which, I believe, were filmed at the Esalen Institute, which still operates in Big Sur), and, for once, his circumstances fit his environment. The guy who got his stuff by making other people want stuff got rid of his stuff. And ended up in a place that claims to hate stuff.

For a show so preoccupied with the pernicious effects of material desire to close out at a Buddhist retreat is definitely ... a little on-the-nose. But the whole thing worked, I thought, in part because of the irony baked into the storyline (even the Buddhist retreat is a capitalistic enterprise, a fact Don comments on after a guide happily accepts a tip from his envelope), but in part, too, because the ending the retreat setting enabled was so wonderfully ambiguous. Is Don, om-ing on a cliff in a perfectly starched white dress shirt, a Buddhist now? Is he simply pretending to be—using his fellow meditators the way he’s used so many others, as fodder for ad copy? Did he make the Coke ad, or is the ad instead simply a kind of thematic legacy, the kind of thing that he would have created had he not chosen to hang out in the California sunshine, losing himself in a fog of designer patchouli? Lenika, what do you think?

Cruz: I think some would see that ending as completely straightforward, or at least as straightforward as anything on Mad Men gets. After all, would that ending have made any sense to viewers without the ad playing out Don’s knowing smile and the dinging of a mindfulness bell? But I think the show, fittingly, wanted to summon both of those possibilities to the viewers’ minds without committing to either. I’d add to those you mentioned a third possibility: That the show’s mythology and U.S. history remained self-contained systems, and the Coke ad wasn’t something he’d create, but something that would have existed even without him. In other words, it was a kind of postscript signal of how even the truest, most personal of experiences can just be used to sell things to a bunch of people.

Like the other choices, it’d be a simultaneously optimistic and cynical reading. On one hand, Don gets a happy ending and never goes back to advertising, on the other, no human experience is above being brainstormed, workshopped, pitched, produced, and sold. Certainly, Don’s personal pains had long inspired his pitches (Kodak, Hershey). But even if this was an experience the “new” Don would have left untouched, his self-fulfillment could nonetheless be ironically stripped from him. There’s just something about a harmonizing crowd of multicultural youths on a hill in Italy that screams, “Coke, it’s the Real Thing.”

But I also can’t deny the historical fan-fiction nature of the show either, as you pointed out, Megan. Mad Men was always obsessively aware of the specific era and place into which it was imagined. And yet the show’s finale paid even closer attention, it seems, to its own fans today. I envision a chortling Matthew Weiner writing the exchange between Roger and Meredith about Don’s fate (“I hope he’s in a better place.” “He’s not dead!”); or inserting one last Charlie Manson reference for conspiracy theorists; or making dreams come true for Peggy-Stan shippers everywhere; or having Joan casually dismiss her rapist ex-husband as “just a terrible person.” Or Don’s inner-peace seminar partner abruptly shoving him while everyone else hugged or caressed each other’s faces. It’s moments like these that keep a finale from feeling too alien and unreal, too clinical and self-serious, the latter of which the eight-year-old show could have easily fallen into.

Even more so than with Don, I found myself pleasantly surprised and satisfied by the final arcs of each character. Joan started her own firm (the only name better than Harris-Olson is Holloway-Harris) and ditched her terrible boyfriend because no one should have to date a guy who says things like “Your life is undeveloped property.” Stephanie found herself a Draperian situation, emotionally paralyzed by self-loathing and running from her past. Pete, Trudy, and Tammy moved to Kansas. Roger and Marie continued their beautiful, age-appropriate romance. Peggy and Stan pulled a late night at work with the help of encouraging back rubs. Maybe saddest of all was Betty’s reversal from the last episode, which had me thinking that she had found some kind of peace after her diagnosis. But the show's final shot of her indicated otherwise: a glum and in-pain Betty sitting at the kitchen table as smoke from her cigarette wafted toward a dutiful Sally washing the dishes. So much for lessons learned.

But I’m hesitant to say whether any ending was good, bad, happy, or depressing, just because I don’t think the show intended them as “endings.” “The Milk and Honey Route” seemed like a perfect “ending” for Betty. But rather than coasting on that same tone through the finale, Mad Men gave her a fairly bleak sendoff, complete with a lost-looking Bobby burning his dinner-toast in a morbid callback to the Lucky Strike “It’s toasted” tagline of the pilot. It’s as if the show wanted fans to imagine the next hypothetical episode, the next stage of each of these characters’ lives, rather than just basking in their last scenes. Maybe Stephanie will be the one to toss herself off a cliff? Maybe she’ll go home to her baby; maybe she’ll start a new life. Maybe Peggy and Stan will get married, maybe she’ll leave after all to join Joan. Maybe Betty will fade away in agony, maybe she’ll go full Walter White. It’s less what might happen that matters, and more that something else will (and has to) happen. For someone who still can’t quite believe the show’s over, it’s a comforting thought. What do you think, Megan? Did Mad Men really want to gesture at an infinite array of possible futures, or am I just in denial?

Garber: Not at all; I love putting it that way! There was definitely a sense of hovering possibility over the whole thing, which I really appreciated, too. So many finales try to be too neat about their arc-ending and bow-tying ... this, though, was poignantly open-ended. The untidiness of the characters' conclusions also felt, thematically, true to the show's final scenes, and to its obsession with the Pacific Ocean as this place of promise, this place where the inertias of life (“The Wheel,” etc.) can be shaken up and shaken off. Some of the theories about the show's ending involved Don falling/walking into the sea, but in fact it was all of the characters, in some sense, who were taking on that sense of the epic unknown. Even Pete! Lear-jetting, mutton-chopped Pete!

You mentioned how awesome the Holloway-Harris twist was, Lenika, and: YES. Joan is my favorite character on the show, and that ending for her was satisfying in so many ways. Her dumping of smarmy Captain Pike—a guy you just know will eagerly avail himself of the gold-chains-with-open-chested-shirt trend when disco gets big in a few years—was unsurprising but also necessary: It was work, and her ability to do it on her own terms, that had come to mean the most to her at that point in her life. There was so much talk, between Joan and Richard, of the difference between wanting to work and having to work—an echo of the show’s taxonomic distinctions between “jobs” and “careers” ... Joan, rich on her own, and with Kevin provided for by Roger, doesn’t have to work. But she needs to.

For her to realize that, in every sense of the word, is a wonderful thing. For most of Mad Men, it’s Peggy who has been portrayed, and seen by fans, as the feminist icon, while Joan has (generally) hewed to more traditional gender roles; the finale, though, in some ways flipped that dynamic. While the show has loved hinting that Peggy would become Don, for better and probably for worse, “Person to Person” suggested that it’s Joan, actually, who will take on the Draperian mantle: Joan whose life will revolve around advertising, Joan who will make her mark through the media. Whether that’s good for her as a person—she is, after all, trading the exploitation of sexual desire for the exploitation of commercial—is unclear. But considering where Joan started—a red-headed Regina George, pretty much, who defined herself via 1) guys and 2) her ability to terrorize other women—a conclusion that finds her running her own firm, named for her past self and her future one, seems a fitting tribute to her.

And so did Peggy’s conclusion! Which did feel a bit whiplash-y in its speed, but which also was satisfyingly rom-comic for a character who has had such ridiculously terrible luck with romance (to be broken up with in an ambulance, after having been the agent of an accidental boyfriend-stabbing, makes Sex and the City’s breakup-via-Post-It note look quaint). My favorite detail of the Peggy finale was the fact that the color-blocked dress she wore during that instantly iconic walk-down-corridor scene was hanging, in a drycleaner’s bag, on the door in her office as everything else went down. Peggy may have rejected Joan, and she may have accepted Stan, but that dress, and everything it represents, will be there waiting for her. Whatever else happens, she’s still going to be Peggy Olson.

Cruz: I didn’t even notice the hallway-swagger dress! Just more of a reason to indulge in multiple rewatches now that the series has ended—not so much to treat the show like it’s a puzzle meant to be solved, but because finally Mad Men as a Work of Art is now a complete whole, and fans can draw all the wildest, tiniest (but meaningful) connections to their hearts’ content. (It occurred to me that the finale’s last shot of Don hearkened back to the end of “Public Relations,” the first episode of season four, where Don broke out into a smug smile while spilling some juicy company scoop to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Oh, how much changed!)

And how much didn’t change? In Don’s final exchange with Stephanie, he essentially tried to give her the same pep talk he gave Peggy in season two: “You can put this behind you.” (Remember: “It will shock you how much this never happened.”) Only Stephanie was more skeptical, more afraid, even more unmoored than Peggy was. Even though it was the year 1970, dungaree-d meditation-seminar classmates still judge people for leaving their kids, women creative directors were rare, and sexual harassment pervaded upper management. When Don told Stephanie, “You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things,” it felt like a reminder of the new kinds of ideologies and cultural values being ushered in with the new decade, many equally as rigid or self-assured as those that governed the 60s, and the 50s before that.

And the wheel kept turning. The show’s mastery lay in the way it viewed both evolution and stagnation—of people, institutions, and history—as equally rich and worthy of examination. Joan, Peggy, Pete, and Stephanie were all the “new” Don, in different ways. Joan was  the new Peggy. Roger and Marie were the new Don and Megan. Sally was the new Betty, watching her beautiful mother die. Same characters, different roles. Everything changed, but everything stayed the same. It’s a trick no other show has pulled off quite so well.

Going back to Peggy, and to end on a lighter note, what does a cactus have to do with Kansas? I’ll settle for even a sophomoric Intro-to-Lit interpretation of how cacti can thrive under the most hostile of conditions, much like Peggy, if only because the plant prompted her to use Pete’s old catchphrase as her parting words. It’s what I’ll say to myself, with a kind of suspended awe, when I think of Mad Men in the coming days, months, years.

A thing like that.