“What you call love,” Don Draper once said, “was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” And so Mad Men ended with Don trading his singular pitches for a collective “Om,” and his spiritual rebirth bleeding into a Coca-Cola commercial. That final cut to a TV spot (produced, in 1971, by none other than McCann Erickson) felt unkind, even glib at first, a joke at the expense of Don’s “new you.” But Matthew Weiner’s show has spent 92 episodes showing us how advertising at it best, or at least its most effective, matches products with real emotions — whether it was slide projectors with the fear of death, or carbonated sugar water with the ache for communion.
The series finale — “Person to Person” — took its title from the phone calls between Don and the most important women in his life: Betty, Sally and Peggy. It covered his change of identity, from Dick Whitman to Don Draper to the unnamed newborn who sat cross-legged in the California dawn, a hint of a smile just beginning to take hold. But more than either of those, it was about our (anti)hero’s ability to finally find a true connection with another human being, one that had nothing to do with sex or money or being able to spin a good line — one accomplished, in fact, without Don saying anything at all. His soulmate, as is turns out, is not a doomed brunette but a man in a pale blue sweater, one so nondescript that his wife and kids don’t even notice when he takes a seat. Don has always been able to change the atmosphere in a room just by walking into it. But the man inside that perfectly groomed shell? Unseen, because he never let anyone get close. So he rises and embraces this man whose name we never learn and never need to, their chest-heaving sobs fill the soundtrack as the others in their encounter-group circle look on dispassionately.
For all the tumult in Mad Men‘s final stretch, Weiner guided his characters to surprisingly soft landings. Peggy and Stan‘s long-‘shipped Big Moment was the kind of thing you could only pull off in the last minutes of a finale, where the audience’s desire for closure overwhelms the concession to romcom stock. Having the show’s resident beardo confess his love over the phone was perfection, as was her coming to the realization that she shared his feelings with the elegance of a bear riding a unicycle down a flight of stairs. (She’s a wonderful woman, our Peggy Olson, but emotional intelligence is not high on her list of qualifications.) Him showing up at her door, and them coming in for a smooch? We’ll take it, and let a thousand Tumblrs bloom.
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Joan lost out on romance because of her career, again — screw you, 1970 — but she turned her Rolodex into the foundation of a commercial production company, and managed to work her maiden name into the logo as well. Pete and Trudy embarked on their fabulous life in Wichita; Roger and Marie fought and made up; Harry Crane got stood up for lunch. And Sally Draper became the woman of the house, cooking while her dying mother smoked a fresh cancer stick and flipped through the paper, her psychology books open and ignored on the table nearby. She found her peace not by changing but by being who she is. People don’t change — or do they?
Is the Don we see in the last shot here any different that the one we see in the first? If you accept the reading that Don took his brief Californian epiphany back to McCann and gave them “I want to buy to buy the world a Coke,” then he’s the same man he always was. (D.B. Cooper theorists will note that the woman at the retreat’s front desk wears her hair like one of the women in the ad.)
But it’s not true that Don Draper hasn’t changed over the course of the show. It’s just that most of that change has been for the worse. He’s been bottoming out in slow motion for years, burning down marriages and coasting on past triumphs, watching his relationships with his children wither — Betty asks him not to come home, even though she’s dying; she wants to keep things normal, which means him not being around. “I broke my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name… and I made nothing of it,” he says to an uncomprehending Peggy, before slumping to the ground like Jack Nicholson at the end of The Shining. He’s stripped to the bone, his worldly possessions reduced to Anna Draper’s wedding ring, Don Draper’s Social Security card and a steadily dwindling stack of cash. Could he really go from that to peddling his wares at McCann again?
Ultimately, of course, Don does neither — or rather, precisely what he does next is left up to us. The finale’s ambiguity wasn’t as stark as The Sopranos‘, but it was there. Does he stay retired, or has he merely gotten his advertising groove back? Don’t expect Weiner to ever answer the inevitable questions. If he’s smart, he’ll just give whoever is asking an enigmatic, satisfied smile just like Don’s — and then hand them a Coke. It’s the real thing.
Previously: Veteran’s Day