'Mad Men' Ends, Singing A Familiar Song

Jon Hamm as Don Draper. (AMC)
Jon Hamm as Don Draper. (AMC)

[This discussion of the Mad Men finale gives away all kinds of information about the Mad Men finale, so if you don't want to know things about it, please stop reading.]

The hippies were probably inevitable.

Over the course of Mad Men's history, Don Draper's fascination with California has returned again and again — it represents something dreamlike for him, a land of endless possibility and escape. Similarly, longhaired, peasant-bloused people with good drugs and goofy, soothing words have popped up here and there in the show. They're rarely there to be humans; they're there to represent, as everything does, the way the world is shifting under Don's feet.

I must confess that the hippie and California stories have always been among the least compelling elements of the show to me personally, so my heart sank a little as I realized we were going to spend the finale with Don on a retreat, being spoken to gently about attending seminars while mellow girls say everything but "groovy." The long sequence in which another man poured out his heart during the seminar and Don eventually went over to embrace him so they could weep together didn't land for me, simply because I've seen Don supposedly break down and embrace people before, and it rarely means much. I know better than to suspect Don is ever learning anything. Indeed, the payoff — the gag? — at the end of the show is that Don has been sitting around this retreat supposedly trying to grow as a person, but (and this is implied but not shown) he just goes back to McCann and uses the experience to create the "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" Coke ad. You could theoretically believe the ad was shown at the end of the episode because someone else at McCann created it based on Don's experience, but most likely not; most likely, this means Don sat around the retreat for a while, and then he did as he always does and he went back to his life and made everything he'd learned into horse pucky.

One of the reasons I never signed on to the fan theory that Don was going to turn out to be D.B. Cooper — a theory, I should point out, that had some intriguing evidence to support it — was that it seemed like it would be too ... cute for this show. Too "ta-da!" Too much like a very long story about a regular kid who perseveres that ends: "And that young man's name ... was NEIL ARMSTRONG." For me, going out on the Coke ad had a lesser but still palpable sense of "ta-da." It was a little neat. It also made his entire road trip feel unnecessary as a narrative element, like a head fake by somebody who head fakes in every game, because the "Don Draper seems like he's going to turn things around and then he doesn't" is a story that has been told on this show over and over and over and over.

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson.
Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson.

But the hippies were easy to overlook, given how much of the rest of the episode worked really well. There was a beautiful scene on the phone between Don and Betty, in which there was coolness, then prickliness, then a collapse into a ghostly tenderness between these people who married each other and had children together and hurt each other so much. (If it's been a while since you watched the early episodes, you might be surprised how much they liked and loved and were hot for each other.) January Jones only began to get her due in the last couple of episodes as it became clear that she played Betty as shallow and brittle because she was supposed to, not because that's all she's got. She calls him "honey." He calls her "Birdie." But she tells him, "I want to keep things as normal as possible, and you not being here is part of that." And he cries, of course. As he has before.

Don and Sally, too, had their last scene on the phone, as she, perhaps inevitably, became the parent, telling him that he needed to listen and take her seriously, and that he needed to pull it together enough not to come back and take her brothers out of their home. Effectively, he needed to love them enough to leave them alone. It's been said a lot, but Mad Men got incredibly lucky with the casting of Kiernan Shipka as Sally when she was just a little kid, and while it might have been nice to imagine Don going home to take care of his kids and get serious, it's much more a natural extension of this story and these characters for Sally to take over. That is sad, but it's honest; it's fair to this story. And in a way, it's happy: These two parents, messed up as they are, have built a kid who is a better person than either of them.

Don and Peggy said goodbye on the phone as well — not a forever goodbye, as he presumably returned to McCann and they went back to working together. But they said goodbye to this relationship they've had, in which for her, looking up to him as a mentor morphed into understanding him as a friend, which morphed into the always thankless role of The One Person Who Understands Him. That role made her feel special when they danced and when they argued and when he called her on the phone and said he wanted to hear her voice, but her best friend Stan had to eventually tell her to quit it, to leave Don on his own. When Stan told Peggy that Don would be fine because he's a survivor, Don was still semi-catatonic on the ground by the phone, and it seemed like Stan was entirely wrong to tell her to let go of him. But of course, Stan was right. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, at least when it comes to Don Draper.

It was a little surprising to see Mad Men go for what seems on the surface like such an overtly romantic ending for Peggy and Stan, in which he finally declared his love and she first acted baffled and then reciprocated. And if the entire point of the story had been "Peggy gets a boyfriend," it wouldn't have meant much. But they, too, had their declaration on the phone, which tied it to her conversation with Don (as well as Don's conversations with Betty and Sally). And when it got important, he dropped everything to be there in person, as Don did not. That phone theme was so well used, because Stan began by telling her effectively that he loves her the most when they're not together, but he came back anyway. Because that's what you do if you're not an emotional vampire. (The same thing happened with Joan and Peggy — a phone call, then a follow-up in person. Roger came to see Joan in person. It's like they say: So much of life is just showing up.)

This wasn't only a story about Peggy getting a boyfriend; it was a story about Peggy getting free of trying to emotionally connect with Don Draper, which she's been trying to do since the pilot. It was a story about Peggy stepping away from a relationship from which she gets nothing to make room for a relationship from which she gets something. Stan started out as a jerk, but Don stayed a jerk. Learning to stop throwing good emotional money after bad is one of the most important elements of adulthood; despite its cinematic-swoon elements, this was more than met the eye: It wasn't just a story about getting what you've always dreamed of. It was just as much a story about when to give up.

For all the flack shows take for sweet love scenes, the really unearned love scene here would have been Peggy going to get Don and his collapsing into her arms and sobbing and thanking her. That would have been pure romantic fantasy. This was a pair of people who have flirted with each other for years and gotten to be very emotionally intimate — remember, she told Stan about the baby, and she doesn't tell anyone about the baby — finally having head space at the same time. Yes, the structure of the scene made it play like cotton candy, but to be able to make that step, she had to get her foot out of the tar pit that is trying to be friends with Don Draper.

The unlikelihood of real change in a person is what has animated most of Don's story — and that of eternal goof-off Roger Sterling — but that doesn't mean nobody changes. Mad Men began with Joan telling new secretary Peggy that if she played her cards right, she wouldn't be working for very long at all — she'd get married and move out to the country. Joan was presented in the finale with that very choice, only to realize she needs to work to be happy. Pete Campbell, too, seems to have realized he does not want to be Don Draper, divorced and divorced again and drinking and leaving a cloud of sweaty insincerity behind in every room. So he did the only thing he could: He grabbed his family and got out of town. He also had a gentle, brief, not overwrought goodbye with Peggy, which is exactly what they both needed.

"Someday, people are going to brag that they worked with you," he said easily and kindly, before acknowledging, with a total lack of bitterness, that he's not talented the way she is. The writing of that scene is so smart, because it feels effortless.

It was an uneven finale. The Don stuff was too tidy for my tastes and felt too much like a shaggy-dog story that ends with a studied joke, and I simply won't ever care about hippies who don't get past their status as props. But the Peggy stuff was great, and the Joan stuff was solid. And this is the close, after all, of seven seasons of a show that doggedly pursued its own vision. Its task is not to give you everything you want, or me everything I want. It's not a test, and the last episode isn't an answer key. It's a story that's over now.

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