In the “Mad Men” finale, Don Draper finally proved himself as the show’s protagonist, making his place at center stage seem not just inevitable and logical but also deeply original.
The last time I wrote a column about “Mad Men” was midway through Season 4, and I was worried that the show—one of my favorites—was being weighed down by its own main character, Don Draper. At the time, we were deep into the hillbilly-flashback era and, despite Jon Hamm’s spectacular performance, Don seemed to me to be degenerating into a grating Freudian symbol—of America, mostly, but also of late-twentieth-century masculinity and capitalism, as if he were a thesis statement for some graduate student in semiotics. While the other characters felt richly idiosyncratic, Don was a brand. Naturally, soon after that column was published, the show picked up the pace, turning fleet and funny, undermining all my biases. It swerved into comic strangeness (Ken Cosgrove tap dancing!), and I was right back in its smoky, boozy thrall. That’s the way it has always been with Matthew Weiner’s great series, a seducer unlike any other—it always came back and it was always forgiven.
This seductive pattern certainly paid off with the finale, which may not have been a perfect episode of “Mad Men” but which had a genuinely original, resonant, and existentially brilliant ending, one that revolved around an image that was, at first sight, both cloying and inconceivable: Don Draper, blissed out at California’s Esalen Institute, his legs crossed in yogic meditation, purring, “Om.” A bell rang--ding!—and filling the TV screen, Don’s grin began to stretch wide, like a rubber band, in seeming mystic revelation. When the screen cut out, we were watching that incredible and iconic Coca-Cola TV ad that became a hit in 1971, a clip flooded with nostalgia on so many levels. On a grassy hilltop, beautiful youths of all races, creeds, and nations swayed, singing, “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony!/I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” The tagline: “It’s the Real Thing.” Last night, it took a moment for this to sink in, but once it did, that dinging bell seemed to resonate back through the whole series, finding echoes everywhere. What appeared to be Buddhist meditation was an advertising brainstorm. What looked like hippie revelation, punctuated by a yogi saying, “A new day, new ideas, a new you,” was Don tapping into the seventies Zeitgeist, hitting on the genius tagline that he would present to his new bosses, the cretinous advertising conglomerate McCann Erickson (who in real life actually did create the Coke ad, although not under these circumstances). In tension with Don’s supposed personal growth was perhaps the most cynical vision imaginable: our hero had hit on a way to sell sugar water by linking it with global peace.
The rest of the episode was a simpler matter, made up of happy endings and goodbyes and lunches and phone calls for the many characters whom “Mad Men” fans had come to love. Some of these scenarios were satisfying: Joan giving up her sugar daddy and starting her own business. Some were satisfying but also borderline cornball: Stan confessing his love to Peggy, a scene that was well acted, but which also felt like the final scene of every romantic comedy that has ever been filmed (“He was standing right in front of me!”)—a perverse, but possibly irresistible, outcome for one of TV’s more iconoclastic single-gal characters. Some endings were romantic but with obvious cracks (Roger’s wacky, likely doomed romance with Marie) or romantic with a nicely disturbing undercurrent, once you thought about them (Pete, that raper of nannies and lifelong weasel, is emotionally whole, wealthy, reunited with his wife and family, and flying off to the perfect job, although one that’s bound to end with a skyjacking, given the time period). One story was sad in a way that was bluntly powerful: Sally Draper standing at the sink, doing dishes, as her mother, Betty, sits smoking, silently, at the kitchen table, dying of lung cancer (“It’s Toasted!”).
There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times. (My favorite ending was probably the nastiest of the bunch: Ken Cosgrove has become a cheerful suit working for Dow Chemical, having refused to step through the open door in his own life to pursue his creative dreams. Ken, you missed your chance to write the Don Draper story!) But after all my anxiety about Mr. Big Shot, the great Don Draper, with his beef-red face and exasperating alcoholic relapses, with his attraction to an endless stream of beauty-marked Death Brunettes, he finally proved himself as the show’s protagonist, making his place at center stage, as both man and brand, seem not just inevitable and logical but also deeply original—a risk that paid off in full.
That doesn’t mean that Draper’s scenes always felt great when they aired, mind you. For the past several episodes, Don has been on a shambolic, Jack Kerouac-inflected trip into America, following the trail of a waitress ominously named Di. This was nothing new for Don, as Stan pointed out to Peggy, who was at once Don’s professional mentee and his designated workplace codependent. “He always does this and he always comes back,” Stan said. “You’ve got to let him go.” In Kansas and Utah, Don tumbled through the motel trysts, a run-in with an aspiring junior grifter, a confrontation with an angry Christian family, a dangerous night out drinking with some veterans whose stories seemed just about to tilt into cannibalism, a week or so with some handsome race-car drivers who hired him as a mechanic, until finally, at last, Draper ended up in California, with those hippies at Esalen. He’d been brought by the child-abandoning Stephanie, the niece of Anna Draper, who was his long-dead surrogate mother figure. Esalen was an unusual setting for Don Draper, a man who, even as fashions went Day-Glo around him, maintained his fifties-style masculine manner, his wariness about counterculture affectations. Throughout the sixties, he never pulled on a paisley necktie or grew a handlebar mustache, like some characters I could name. One wouldn’t expect him to go Full Hippie. He opened up, for sure, but he always closed again.
At Esalen, Don opened up one more time. He’d taken a suicidal journey into the dark heart of America, hunting for obliteration and escape. But in the end that road trip becomes the world’s seediest brainstorm, the elements of which would coalesce into the “Hilltop” ad. Don had fixed a Coke machine for those creepy hicks. At Esalen, the wholesome receptionist wore red ribbons in her braids, just like one of the girls in the commercial. And then there was that speech by Don’s Esalen encounter-group companion Leonard, which was all about feeling invisible, like his connection to other people wasn’t real. Leonard told his companions about a dream in which he was inside an ice-cold refrigerator; the door would open, revealing happy people, only to close, again and again, leaving him in darkness. As Leonard broke down, Don embraced him, weeping. It seemed sincere at the time—and I’m sure it was sincere, at the time. Like Tony Soprano, the anti-heroic star of the show Matthew Weiner used to write for, Don has always been capable of strong feeling, of insight and empathy, especially for social outsiders. This isn’t Don’s first moment of radical honesty. By now, everyone knows that he was Dick Whitman, at home and at work. When he remarried Megan, he found a woman with whom he could be honest (but wasn’t). Don came clean about his past with his daughter Sally, too. By the final season, he was using his most painful childhood stories as pick-up lines with girls. But as with many addicts—and Don is a work addict, not just a sexual compulsive and an alcoholic—these epiphanies don’t stick. Was this epiphany any different? I don’t think so. In fact, it seems like a perfectly seventies moment: Don may think he’s reached enlightenment, but really he’s just hit on a bold new form of selfishness—he’s entered the “Me” generation, in which any type of sybaritic behavior can be justified, as long you’re being honest about it.
And yet, I don’t think the show was saying that real change is impossible. In fact, nearly everyone around Don changed quite a lot, and in ways that ring true for people living through decades—a real rarity in a TV show. Pete and Peggy and Joan, in particular, barely resemble the people they were at the beginning of the show. They’re stronger, clearer, and also more ethical. Their relationships are authentic. (Roger not so much, but that’s why we love Roger.) But if Don Draper is as much a symbol as a person, maybe that’s the point. He’s a perfect avatar for the cultural anxieties around him, from avoidance of death (Lucky Strike) to fear of family dissolution (Kodak). Now, with Coca-Cola, Don has built his masterpiece, a fantasy of American innocence, of a world purged of the late sixties, one that erases the painful aftermath of the civil-rights movement and Vietnam and violent assassinations. (And, by nature, the show itself also occludes the real history of the ad.) In the “Hillside” ad, the future appears as a beautiful young Californian white woman, her face free of makeup, trilling about “apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtledoves.” As a child about the age of Baby Gene, I adored that advertisement, without reservation and without irony. It suggested a vision of empathy and love that was very pure. And naturally, I loved Coca-Cola, too.
We could talk endlessly about this show and this episode; this is a day-after recap, though, which has its limits. Has Don become the “Real Thing”? My Magic 8-Ball says, “Very Doubtful.” Who knows who Don Draper will be in the eighties—he seems like just the guy to make sweater-dresses the sexy choice. But if Don didn’t change, the viewers did. “Mad Men” has always been about nostalgia: how easily it can be exploited; how looking back can operate as both a drug and a mirror, a sedative and something that can illuminate the present. Now that Matt Weiner’s story has ended, the episodes will become our own place to revisit, to seek out new things over time. You can’t ask for more from a TV series than that.