Last night, the much-anticipated series finale aired. I was so eager to see it that I stayed up past midnight to watch, despite having a very early morning flight to catch.
The previous two episodes to the finale were outstanding, and provided a lot of scenes with main characters that could easily have been their last. Betty’s letter to Sally, Joan exiting with her Rolodex, Peggy entering like a rock star. But it would have been so unsatisfying to never see them again.
The biggest obstacle this finale had to overcome was the fact that the central character was so far removed from everyone else. Don was off on a personal odyssey, mostly interacting with a bunch of New Age, yoga-loving hippies we’d never met before. Don’s interactions with the three most important women in his life – Sally, Betty and Peggy – had to happen over the phone. But the scenes were so good that I believe the show did overcome that obstacle. I thought this was a strong finish to one of the best dramas of all-time. It’s no “The Suitcase”, but how often is a series finale the best episode of a show’s run?
Let’s begin at the end. For a moment, I thought the show would end with Don humming “Om”, finally at peace with himself. Had it, I would have interpreted that as Don shedding his identity for a new one once again. Don running away from a life he no longer liked, once again. I wouldn’t have been dissatisfied with that ending – because even though it would suggest that Don had changed, it really wouldn’t. There would be no way to know that Don looked so happy because he was about to return to New York to finally raise his children. I absolutely would have assumed that it meant Don was starting over.
Instead, there was a smile and the show cut to one of the most famous ads of all-time. Because it’s five a.m. at the airport, I’ve already read the entire Internet of Mad Men finale think-pieces. (OK, I read three.) They all included some kind of debate over whether this means that Don created that ad.
I’m not here to wonder. I assumed that cutting from Don’s smiling face to that ad meant that he’d just gotten the idea for it. This is how I am interpreting the show’s end.
I don’t think that Don dreams up the ad and thinks “Thank god, I can use this amazing idea to buy my way back into my old life.” I think that to Don, ideas are like a drug. A good idea is an incredible high, something he’s unable to resist. It doesn’t matter whether he’s Don Draper or Dick Whitman – at the end of the day, the ideas have always been his. He can’t stop having them, and he can’t resist using them.
So Don will return to his old life, and he’ll probably return to his old ways. He won’t change, despite his conversations with Sally and with Betty – two of the most powerful scenes in the episode. Is that disheartening? Not to me. I wouldn’t have expected anything else from a show that embraces flaws as much as Mad Men does.
Just look at the other characters. There are ways that Pete, Peggy, Joan and Roger have all changed since the show began. Pete seems kinder, Peggy braver, Joan more in control and Roger happier. But there are still core elements to their personalities that can’t be changed.
Roger gets the happy ending he always wanted, by including Kevin in his will and finding love with Marie. Kevin won’t share his last name, but it gives Roger solace to think that he has a child out there (other than the screw-up), and that he’s taking care of that child. He seems more genuinely happy with Marie than he did in his past relationships, but there’s still an element of drama to their romance that Roger craves. His circumstances may have changed, but I think he’s the same old Roger.
How much has Pete changed? He’s still ambitious; he still yearns to be treated like royalty. As I said in my last review, Pete screwed up and remedied his life by hitting rewind. I wouldn’t exactly call that change. He’s living the life he always wanted – he just took a brief detour.
I loved his final goodbye with Peggy. It left so much of their personal history unsaid, because what really mattered to both of them was their professional history. (I also loved the brief, laughable appearance from the unlikable Harry Crane. “He’s acting like we’re the three musketeers. We never went for lunch!”)
Did Pete get a happy ending? He got everything he always wanted, but the ending is unwritten. He could go back to feeling trapped inside his seemingly perfect marriage. He could go back to cheating on Trudy. But Trudy’s no dope. She knew what she was getting into when she took Pete back. Maybe she’ll be happy as long as he keeps his philandering out of their neighborhood this time.
Then there’s Joan. In some ways, Joan has changed a lot. I can’t imagine the Joan of 1960 agreeing to spend her life with a man without marrying. I can imagine the Joan of 1960 feeling thrilled at the idea of settling down for a life of luxury with a handsome, interesting man. But the Joan of 1960 had no other options open to her. Joan had even fewer options open to her than Peggy did. But Joan has always been business-minded, and she’s always secretly wanted more. It wasn’t until she had the opportunity to achieve it that she let herself acknowledge it. So has Joan changed? Sure, I guess. But what changed more is the world around her, the times.
Joan wanted Richard in her life, but she wasn’t ready to retire with him. She went to the beach, and didn’t care to stay. Joan has always wanted love, and she’s always wanted what’s best for Kevin. But she came to allow herself to want a flourishing career, too. Like Pete, Joan got somewhat of a happy ending. She’s working for herself, answering to no one. But she had yet another man walk out on her, because she can’t (and shouldn’t have to) change. This is who she is. This is who she’s always been.
I loved Joan’s proposition to Peggy that they partner, even though Stan was right – Peggy’s best move was to stay put. Peggy was so flattered, both by Joan’s offer and by Pete’s parting words. It was like she finally started to see how other people saw her.
Oh, Peggy. I expected to get more of a glimpse at Peggy’s career trajectory in this episode. At brunch on Sunday morning, my friend Melanie suggested that maybe it would be Peggy to come up with the iconic Coke ad. (The theory that Don would come up with the ad was circulating on the Internet, so congrats to whoever nailed that prediction.) I thought Melanie’s suggestion was a great one, because Peggy is Don’s protégé and successor. Coke was supposed to be for him, but he left. Peggy was struggling to be taken seriously at McCann, but she’d knock their socks off with a Draper-quality pitch.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. In fact, the finale focused more on Peggy’s personal life, the part of her life that she has always put on the back burner. She gave up a child so she could pursue this career. She didn’t get on that plane to Paris.
Stan has always been around, and I think the show (especially recently) pointed at a possible romance between Stan and Peggy. Giving us that felt more like fan-service than anything else the show has ever done, but it was done so well. Peggy’s repeated responses of “What?” were perfect. I loved how she slowly came to the realization that she loves Stan, too.
By giving Peggy this particular ending, I think Matthew Weiner made Peggy one of the few characters who’ve truly changed. Don, Pete, Joan, Roger – their stories ended in places that were pretty similar to where they began. They are who they are. Peggy found a guy who loves her because of, not despite of, who she is. Her narrative is no longer that of someone who always put work before the rest of her life.
Joan told Richard that she couldn’t just “turn off” the side of her that wanted to start a business. Just like how Don couldn’t turn off that part of his brain, either. Even across the country, after hitting an emotional rock bottom, while meditating, Don cannot turn off his ability to have a good idea. It’s who he is.
At times, watching Don in this episode was tedious. He was lost and confused. He chased after Diana to try and “save” her, and then did the same thing with Anna’s daughter. He failed both times. They don’t want his help. He’s no one to them. He offered to come home and finally care for his children, only to be told by both Sally and Betty that it’s too late. What they need is normalcy, and normalcy means an absentee father.
For me, those scenes of Don in California, drifting and depressed, were worth the pay-off. They were justified by the revelations they caused Don to have, even though the payoff is not necessarily a changed man.
I’m probably not the only female fan of Mad Men who’s wondered, “Am I a Peggy, a Joan, or a Betty?” There are Buzzfeed quizzes for it all. But the character I’ve always related most to is Sally. Sally has grown up so fast in the ten or so years this show covered. She’s had to replace Betty, being the one to care for her brothers and the one to knock some sense into Don. She is as movie-star beautiful as both of her parents, and she shares a lot of other qualities with them as well. But these last few episodes indicated that Sally will probably also grow up to be a better person than both of her parents. Despite her troubled upbringing, she doesn’t seem as miserable. She’s more self-possessed. Like Betty said, her life will be an adventure.
This blog is super long, so I’ll end it now. I intend on watching this entire season a second time (and what I’d really like to do is watch the show from beginning to end again) so I might write more later. I’d love to hear from all of you. There’s plenty to talk about!