Mad Men ended in a soft focus, feel-good, post-hippie haze, a heart-warming rendition of “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” in the form of a real-life 1971 Coke commercial that presaged globalism and—because it was an ad—globalization, too.
“It’s the real thing,” sings an ensemble of “young people from all over the world.” It’s “what the world wants today.” The crux of advertising in that one sentence, a beautiful sentiment and as cynical and pandering as can be: the finale laid plain that the entire series had been about the connection between advertising and spirituality, how similar they can be, as embodied in Don Draper.
The American dream deferred in Mad Men’s estimation was essentially the breakdown of Don’s belief system. Bereft, broken, he abandoned Dick Whitman’s identity as a measure of self-preservation—not just to escape Korea, but to erase the ghosts of his past. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” goes that oft-quoted Didion line. Don Draper’s infractions violated Dick Whitman’s moral barometer, perhaps, and he began losing himself in the form of broken vows, traumatized children, empty promises, but most substantially in the form of alcoholism, the primary heirloom his father passed down. (Dishonesty, too, but alcohol was more useful in the short term.) In the first season, Mad Men felt like a spy story, an uncovering of secrets and the ways we ferret them away, but in the final season, Don just seemed like a porcelain doll who’d been left out on front street, in the rain—the manifestation of how lies warp us over time.
The best he looked all episode, actually, was in his element—racing cars across the vast Utah plains, dressed as Speed Racer (no, kiss my ass, Lou Avery!), wearing double-denim and exhibiting the working-class swag of a masculine Midwesterner whose first post-war job was at a car dealership. It was a strange scene that could have been in any era—the handsome drag-racer, the bewildered younger fans, the cheering blonde, the little boy in awe—except The Doors were bleating from the transistor radio, 1968’s “Hello, I Love You,” the lyrics of which are a good summation of Don’s libido. He ends up in bed with the blonde later, which we all knew would happen the second we saw her in the frame.
Don’s road trip was about searching for a new perspective—to open his doors of perception, if you cornily will. Advertising lost its luster the moment he realized McCann was essentially a factory farm, all those similar white man-hands flipping the same briefings he had, e pluribus unum. But more than that, he was running away from the inevitable, the concept that Don Draper, great man, was an illusion. On the phone with dying Betty, she tells him in no uncertain terms she never wants to see him again, and that since he hasn’t seen the kids in god knows how long, he would not retain their custody. “Please don’t let your pride interfere with my wishes,” she tells him, coldly but utterly correct. He’s a terrible man, a terrible father, and he deals with it by plunging into a binge-drink, so pathetic he can’t even stand.
Therein, he starts to let himself see the cold truth: Sally hates him, Megan hates him, Peggy thinks he is a shithead, and all he ever wanted was women’s attention, harking back to his mother. His only daughter begins sacrificing her own life to make up for his shortcomings, canceling her Spain trip, cooking for her brothers, perhaps more like Betty than she ever hoped. Meanwhile, Don’s on a goddamn spiritual retreat with Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece. Group therapy at a hippie resort was spectacular—also, rehab by proxy—insofar that Don Draper’s entire existence has been seeing others as a reflection of his own sunshiney glory as a handsome straight rich white man. Everyone in the room embodied some facet of his pathos.
With the Coke commercial, the implication was that Don Draper, having stood on a hilltop in Northern California and gazed into the sunset, meeting caftan’d earth moms and free-born, lopsided-smiling girls with ribbons in their hair at a retreat, had finally figured out How to Be in 1971. Having spent his career fixated on the notion of “what the world wants today,” and more microcosmically ignoring what he needed emotionally, by having a breakthrough with Peggy on the pay phone—admitting that he’s “not the man you think I am,” perhaps the most raw emotion he’s emitted in the whole series—he is able to shed the entirety of his past in a series of “oms” and emerge anew in a changed world.
And, thank god, the world finally changed enough that Joan got some goddamn redemption, hyphenating her name and starting her own business in a cornerstone feminist act. She lets her tanboy lover leave when she realizes he doesn’t want her to express her newfound agency, to finally have some control over her career. Tanboy lover wants to get married and to tour the world, to buy two homes, to live a second youth, but Joan already has a baby son, and besides, they’re on coke. Sniffing cocaine and making grand plans for the future is the oldest story in the book, and Joan is smart enough not to fall for it.
In retrospect, Joan gave up her quest for love because, after a lifetime of admirers, she found work the most fulfilling. She never looked happier than when she told tanboy-lover she was starting a company. She wasn’t wearing any make-up; not a coincidence. Peggy turned her down because love is exactly what Peggy wanted all along—ugh, we’ll get to that in a minute—but the new proprietor of Holloway-Harris found an assistant in the form of her cool babysitter with the Steinem glasses and figured out how to thrive. For the whole series, I thought Peg would end up as the future of feminism, but I’m glad as hell it’s Joan—in a way, letting the Jaguar guy have her was her own working-at-the-Playboy-club, a rude awakening that led her to this moment of freedom and breadth. She deserves something this good for putting up with eight years of boob jokes. I hope someday down the road she meets Bella Abzug.
Actually, though, fuck the way that Peggy and Stan’s narrative played out. Allowing Peggy some kind of happiness was a generous thing for Mad Men’s writers—and something we all wanted—but did it have to manifest in a meet-cute echoing a Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks vehicle? Perhaps the writers have been leading us here all along—their late-night phone calls from the room next door, their fiery arguments, their awkward tension when the Annie Liebowitz character seduced Stan and tried to do the same to Peggy. But the way this was handled was just intensely uncharacteristic for a show that brilliantly straddled the line between cynicism and optimism, even to the very end. Of course they were in love, but the wacky way they told each other seemed rushed and pandering. If this scene was a callback/reference to an old film, it would make more sense—is it?—but even still, to drop mushy, googly-eyed love at the end of a series about coldness and spiritual death and tamped-down emotions and the limits of human evil was deeply obnoxious. Give me evil! They could have at least turned it into a musical, a la Cooper’s surrealist love scene. GOD.
But, you know, these people are about to teach the world to sing. The ending is supposedly ambiguous, though not all that ambiguous: the people at Don’s retreat are wearing clothing very similar to the clothes worn by the people in the Coke ad, so we can potentially surmise that after a dalliance with yoga and meditation, Mr. Draper returned to McCann to work on Coke and crafted this very spot. Others thought that the commercial was the result of a collaboration between Peggy and Stan, lovers extraordinaire. But why not all of them, working together again, with Joan as producer? It’s the most fulfilling closure, the gang back in action under the auspices of Holloway-Harris—HHDO&R—selling us a dream for a dollar, ad infinitum.
Image via Justina Mintz/AMC
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