The predictable, confounding, infuriating, and ultimately satisfying Mad Men finale

Mad Men is without question one of the great television dramas of all time, and maybe one of the last purely character dramas that will gain a wide foothold of cultural significance. With seemingly every show on television obsessed with one upping itself with plot twists, Mad Men was stubbornly resistant to the trend. The show was intimately intertwined in history, but its characters remained outside observers, watching events like the Kennedy assassinations, the Chicago riots, and the moon landing on television just like everybody else. One can imagine the machinations and back flips one of the current generation of show runners might go through to insert Don, or Roger, or Peggy directly into these events, but Matthew Weiner was content to let them unfold around a cast of characters and focus instead on their reactions, everyday lives, hopes and dreams, and disappointments.

Many have speculated for years that Mad Men had only one possible ending, one that flashed before us every episode during the opening credits: Don Draper plunging to his death in imitation of the falling man silhouette. I never thought that Weiner would choose to end the show with anything so dramatic, though he certainly hinted and toyed with that result for much of the final episode. I was frankly surprised at the episode that Weiner delivered, as it bordered on an old-fashioned, upbeat ending, with each of the major characters getting a send off and the man in the middle seemingly finding redemption (until THAT commercial ran before the close). It’s probably best to mirror Weiner’s approach and take the round robin tour through the characters as we left them.

Pete & Trudy: On a show defined by shallow consumerism, it’s appropriate that the show’s two shallowest characters (well, maybe they aren’t as shallow as Harry Crane, but its a near run thing. Do NOT get in Harry’s way when he’s hungry) found each other again. Pete did show one of his occasional glimpses of humanity saying goodbye to Peggy, but she has a way of uncovering the best in everyone, even Pete. Dear Trudy, you know Pete will disappoint you eventually, but at least you get unlimited use of a private jet out of the deal, so it’s probably worth it to you. They say success is fleeting, but that has to be doubly true of any success that stems from the efforts of Duck Phillips, right? Caveat emptor, Peter.

Betty, Sally, and Bobby #what? 5?: Ah poor Betty. You gained wisdom, clarity, and a sense of self-worth finally, and all it took to cement it was a terminal cancer diagnosis. She showed admirable strength and determination during her final phone call with Don (it was fitting that Don’s final three phone calls were with Sally, Betty, and Peggy, the three women left that he truly cared about, but more on that in a minute), firmly but lovingly rejecting Don’s proposal to return and take the children. Betty, you may have been a crap mom for most of the show, but you ended well. Sally’s eventual nervous breakdown and rebirth as a self help guru in the 80s will likely be delayed for a few years thanks to you and your efforts. Well done, Birdie.

Roger Sterling: Speaking of someone who needs his own talk show, tell me you wouldn’t watch a one-hour, Dick Cavett-style talk show/variety show called Sterling’s Gold (based on the best-selling book)? Enjoy Montreal, Roger. Don summed Marie up best: You know she’s crazy, right? (Best: Joan’s reaction to Roger’s reveal of the identity of his latest, and possibly final, flame.)

Joan Harris: Let me just say this: I LOVED Joan’s final storyline. For so long she’s been defined by what she looks like and what men want to do for her/to her, good and bad, so it was really thrilling to see her cast off a seemingly dream relationship to pursue her new career. Even Peggy, seemingly her ally but someone who she has always had something of frosty relationship with, has consistently underestimated Joan and dismissed her potential based on her looks. Rock on, Joan Harris. You deserve it, and don’t let the fellas define who you are anymore, and stay away from the cocaine, m’kay? (I’m totally willing to overlook the fact that your move to independence was definitely underwritten by the generous bequest to your son from Roger, ensuring his future regardless of what happens to Harris Productions.)

Peggy (and Stan): So, the one thing I didn’t really expect from Mr. Weiner was straight up fan service. Mad Men has always been as much Peggy’s story as Don’s, but did anybody see the Nora Ephron movie ending coming for Peggy and Stan? I can see why she rejected Joan’s offer and the chance to be her own boss; she’s always wanted to succeed in advertising, and Joan’s offer, while enticing on the surface, would have been ultimately unfulfilling. (Also, see above about her refusal to take Joan seriously on a professional level.) Regardless, everybody’s thrilled to see that Peggy is seemingly happy, but little does know that by staying at McCann she’s likely steering into the path of Hurricane Draper again in he near future.

Don: First off, let say that I’m thoroughly unnerved by the sight of Don Draper in a denim jacket. It’s fitting that we get see his three phone calls with the there women left who he truly cares about, and each of them reject him in their own way. Even Peggy, who seemingly shows the most concern for him, doesn’t seem to spare him a second thought once Stan the Man comes into the picture. It slowly dawns on Don that none of these women need him, that they are truly better off and have made their own way without him. So surely here’s where Don is going to fulfill the reoccurring prophecy of the credits and hurl himself off the cliffs into the sea below, right? Well no, but at least Don’s transformation back into Dick Whitman is going to be made whole by some group therapy, self-reflection, and early morning meditation. But then we see the smile, and one of the most iconic television ads in history rolls and the meaning is clear: here is the ultimate triumph of consumerism over everything. Neither personal redemption, nor cultural ideals can stand in the way of a great Don Draper pitch, and in retrospect it should have been obvious (and it was obvious to one TV critic and his colleague). The Coke account was the bait that McCann used to try and lure Don into the fold from season 1, and presumably it finally succeeded. Mad Men has never shied away from cynicism, so it seems fitting that Don’s final moments should be a smirking, jingle-filled monument to the triumph of that cynicism to over all.

Whatever you make of the ending, Mad Men ended on Mathew Weiner’s terms, and I’ll miss it. It’s not too late, though, for Trudy to come to her senses. RUN FOR THE HILLS. TRUDY! Wait, there are no hills in Kansas.

Cheers.

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Posted on May 18, 2015, in TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I finally watched the finale last night. I was quite moved.

    Anyway, the article below nicely links your “best of…” project with the Mad Men finale.

    http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/04/07/398036767/a-nearly-comprehensive-guide-to-the-music-of-mad-men

  1. Pingback: A goodbye to Mad Men | Mundanity Podcast

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