Mad Men ran from July 19, 2007 to May 17, 2015. I didn’t become a part of it until the middle, sometime after Season 4, but before Season 5. I don’t even remember why I started watching it. I don’t even know why I continued to watch it. I don’t remember feeling anything about it. I recognized its quality, of course, but it never stuck with me like Angel did, or Breaking Bad.
But that’s changed; or, maybe, it’s always been this way. Watching the last seven episodes of this final season has hurt. “The Milk and Honey Route” has been rattling around my brain every day since that episode aired. My biggest entry point into the series has been Sally, and episodes that revolve around her character have always mattered to me the most, and so to see her deal with Betty’s cancer and Henry’s brittle psyche and hold it together, only to break down, kills me.
I spent pretty much all night thinking, over and over again, about how I felt about this final episode. Finally, I just went to bed, hoping that I would wake up with a fresh perspective. When I did wake up, I realized that I was unhappy, but not with the finale; no, this finale was a wonderful, engaging piece of writing and acting and directing that had me in tears more often than I’d like to admit. What made me unhappy is that the story had a happy ending, but not the one that I wanted.
I realized that I wanted the fairy tale. I wanted Don to come back to New York and be with Sally. I wanted Peggy to take the job with Joan and still be with Stan. I wanted Richard to go to hell and to stop giving Joanie cocaine. I wanted everyone to come together and realize what they had in one another. I wanted community, not individual happiness.
So, of course, I get the Coke ad; a bunch of people standing together, a forged community bonded by a soft drink. Don Draper, in his infinite and unemployable wisdom, wanted that community happiness, too. His expressions of happiness have always been through his work; “The Wheel” being a great example of his desire to go back to when his family was happy. What Don wants now is community.
This is both achingly sad and incredibly positive. God, it’s positive. Don has always put himself into his work, and he’s used it as his jumping off point for finding contentment. His expressions of happiness have always been about these impossible things. Nostalgia is a drug that will drown you before your feet touch the water. The nuclear family is an option, not a necessity. A good career only matters if it satisfies you. Those things are fool’s gold, pyrite with legs that continually stays out of your reach. But this time, Don wants something that can be had. He wants people who understand him to be a part of his life. He’s no longer satisfied with being the man of mystery, and that is a massive change.
But we don’t get to see any of that. We get to see him on a California cliffside, meditating with a bunch of people who watched him cry. The Coke ad comes to him then, amongst the dings! of his instructor’s bell. A half smiles comes to his face, washing over us as much as him, and the ad plays. Before that, we see Sally cleaning dishes while her mother wastes away. We see Stan and Peggy get together. We see Joan become the women she always was, and Roger find a way to have his cake and eat it too. Don comes back to New York, and makes the Coke ad, and things are different but the same. But we don’t get to see any of that. We don’t get to see the best part.
Mad Men has always been about beginnings, and the fantasy in which they bring. Pete goes to Kansas with Trudy and Tammy, encased in the status that he’s always dreamed of, getting his fresh start with people he truly loves. Joan’s new business is wonderful, full of the promise of escaping the sexism and discrimination that has always held her back. Peggy and Stan are, well, Peggy and Stan.
One of the wonderful things about those new beginnings is the implication that these people are getting what they truly need. Their core desires, the people they really are under layers and layers of human condition, are being serviced and taken care of. I don’t think it’s necessarily a wrong interpretation to say that Don is still stuck on the same hamster wheel he’s always been, but I have to say that I disagree. Don has spent these last episodes stripping away the Don Draper persona, giving away his possessions and money, and looking for something more. Don was looking for the core of himself, and he found it as he sobbed into the shoulder of another man who felt exactly the same way he did. Don created that ad because it expressed what he wanted, truly and mostly, but it was also expressed through advertising. One of Don’s fears is that he’s a phony, and that everyone will find out. He’s afraid that one day he’ll fail to save the day, and they’ll see through the genius Don Draper and find that cowering kid Dick Whitman. But what Don realizes, I think, is that it’s always been Dick Whitman who made the ads. The creative expressionist has always been the core of who Don is. Don existed as a shield; that suit that lay on his broad shoulders was as much Don Draper as anything else. He’s more like Ted Chaogh than he thought; Ted was weighed down by business concerns that sapped him of his energy and sent him down the same paths of women and broken families that Don has ruts into. But Ted has always sparked up when it came to the work, and Don does too.
But god, I’m so sad. Don may have actually turned a corner, and we’ll never get to see it. The last memory I have of Sally Draper is her doing the dishes. I don’t mean to repeat myself, but I am so deeply sad. I want Don to be a good father to his daughter. I want him to be in that office and have friends. I want to see these people actually get what they want.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Fiction can only exist in conflict and the conflicts are over. We’ve come to the end of story, and everyone got what they needed. It’s so strange to think of it that way, of Matthew Weiner giving us a happy ending. But he did. The last shot of Don on that cliffside is not his grave; he will go on and do other things and be happy and unhappy. He’ll exploit real human feelings to sell products, which is what he’s always done. The difference, as always, is that this show is as much a commentary on advertising as the people who work on it, and that while we may see Don’s work as insincere, he does not. Don has always taken his work seriously, and he means what he says. The reason so many of his greatest pitches took him into the wee hours of the morning and surrounded him with liquor bottles is because he was trying to get to the uninhibited core of himself, so that he could speak from the heart.
The thing I wanted most of all was Don truly going down a path that would lead him to happiness. I didn’t think that I would get it, and for much of my thoughts on this episode, I believed that Weiner had gone the darkest route possible. But maybe he didn’t, or maybe I’m projecting; it doesn’t really matter. What I feel is that Don Draper’s endless cycle of reinvention has finally led him, Russian Roulette style, to the right chamber. What I feel is that Don is expressing his greatest desires through his work, like always, and that this thing he wants is good and true and could lead him somewhere nice. I feel that Peggy feels whole, and I am sad that she was forced to choose between love and career when she didn’t have to. I feel that Roger is going to be okay. I feel that Sally is burning up inside and that she’s miserable and wishes that she’d done things a lot differently, and been nicer. I feel that she and Bobby will bond and become too tight to break apart. I feel that Don will come back into their lives and that they’ll all be sitting together, and it’ll all come out in crashing waves, and something beautiful will be gained amidst something lost.
We’ll never know, of course. But I can go on knowing that Don Draper, my longtime proxy, has a better shot at happiness today than he did yesterday. I can go on knowing that things will be hard and then get easier for the Draper kids. I can go on knowing that there is possibility in the world, and that Peggy and Stan have a shot.
I love Mad Men. I am hurting, but it’s a good hurt. It’s a pain born out of affection and identification and desire. I’ve identified with all of these characters, one way or another, and I will miss them dearly. I hope that they’ve found what they needed.
Thank you for reading these reviews, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. The idea that Mad Men is out my life forever is not something I can process right now, and I’m sure many of you are feeling the same way.
[Photo via AMC]