Dusting off the blog to give a few thoughts on the Mad Men finale. A few caveats: I stayed up way to late to read recaps and reviews, so I don’t know if I have many truly original thoughts. You simply must read Tom & Lorenzo’s “Mad Style” recap. They do such a great job. I had also seen a couple of blogs correctly predict that the Coca-Cola ad would be pitched, so it wasn’t a real shock to see it, like it might have been for some other people. Although I was shocked in the way it was used. So what do I think happened? I think Don went back to New York and pitched the ad, and of course, it went on to make history. There are a number of clues, the visual references to Coca-Cola all season (including part “A” from 2014), Peggy commanding him to come home and then offering Coke as the reward for doing so, the girl in pigtails at the retreat being spot on for a girl singing in the ad.
I am torn, however, on whether Matt Weiner could have or should have been more direct to indicate that Don actually went back to NYC and *made* the ad. He has since been more direct when asked about it. It’s an ad, that, although iconic, looks just a little square and cheesy to our modern eyes in a way that it probably didn’t in the 1970s. Cutting directly to it, without giving much context, really requires a lot from the audience. You have to know what this ad is. That it was considered historic, and people were genuinely moved by it – they called into their radio stations to request the song be played. This is more outside knowledge than we’ve ever had to know to enjoy a Mad Men pitch, or to understand what issues the characters are dealing with when they come up with something. It is easy to see how audiences could assume, just like music that plays at the end of a typical episode, that the ad is a reflective moment for the viewer, completely detached from the character’s narrative. Or that Peggy actually wrote it. Or that the actual real life McCann Erickson people made it, just like Don listened to a real Beatles song, once. And of course, I would have loved to see one final Don Draper pitch.
Yet, it is a deliciously “meta” moment to use the ad that way. It almost breaks the “fourth-wall”, providing a great cheeky wink to the audience. When you watch this show, about advertising, on first run TV, it is interrupted by actual advertising. And here, in its final moments, it ends on an ad – a real ad from real life. It is an ad that is perhaps one of the best examples of advertising being art; a bonding experience in its own silly, weird way. Some will always read the spot as a cynical subversion of 60s counterculture, but others read it as a piece that breaks through consumerism to tap into something universal and true. Whether ads can speak to truth, or just exploit it for commercial gain, has always been a central theme driving Mad Men. It’s great that the show ends the same way, and leaves the final decision to the viewer.
Notably, the Coca-Cola ad looks forward, not backwards. Although Don always said to move forward, most of his advertisement campaigns create nostalgia for a golden age that never really existed. The shift helps underscore that Don found enlightenment, a happiness of some sort. He had a real breakthrough the day before the ad is conceived. (Jon Hamm’s stunning acting sold it.) He’s always felt alone because of his wretched circumstances, but he also feels that he alone can’t be redeemed. Something in that scene suggests he has finally accepted himself for who he is, even if he doesn’t always like the man he sees, and even if he can’t change everything about himself. Through Sally and Peggy, and maybe even Betty and his sons, and Roger and Anna Draper, too, we know Don is capable of loving others. We know these people love him, in turn, but he’s never loved himself and never fully accepted their love because he thinks, deep down, he doesn’t deserve it. Regarding Megan, Betty once says, “She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.” He’s passed that now. He’s always tried to save others, without saving himself. He couldn’t save Sterling Cooper, he couldn’t save Diana, nor Stephanie, it’s too late for Betty. But I think he chooses to save himself from despair. He chooses to stop running away. He chooses to stop being sad. That’s why he goes back. And that’s something. It’s the real thing. To quote Peggy, quoting Pete, “A thing like that!”
I did find myself reaching for a Coke on Monday. And I smiled a little because I thought of Don. That’s another thing that’s genius about the ambiguous ending. It’s almost like Don becomes one with the brand. Since I’ve had a couple days to think about it, I’ve come to like that we don’t see or hear Don pitching the ad directly. Instead, we’re finally in his head. The yoga teacher says “New day, new ideas, new you.” Don’s at peace in the warm California sun. He says “om”. The perfect moment for inspiration to strike.
Some stray observations on the finale/season:
- What happened to Dawn, exactly? I feel like we didn’t get her complete story. A missed opportunity.
- As much as I loved seeing Peggy realizing she loved Stan in the most awkward monologue ever, I wish she had run to Stan’s office after he made his speech and simply kissed him without saying anything. Haters are going to hate the rom-com ending, but I don’t understand the wacky idea that Peggy should never find a man to marry.
- They defied expectations by not setting this episode after Betty’s funeral and showing Don go back to take care of his children. I can see him finally respecting Betty by staying away in her last months, but I just don’t buy that he would sign off on sending Gene and Bobby to his lousy brother and sister in law when the time actually came. I’m going to write fanfic where Henry, Don, and maybe Roger move in together to raise the kids and go on to inspire the premise of “Full House”.
- As a stand alone episode, the finale was sort of a chore. But some episodes do improve on the second viewing, when you’re not caught up in the plot, but can just appreciate the scenes. Still, I think the episode where Peggy pitches Burger Chef and Apollo lands on the moon was the best episode of season 7.