Salon's Sonia Saraiya weighs in on the "Mad Men" finale here. She gives it a hesitant thumbs-up: mixed, ambiguous, bittersweet. Go read her great piece, then come back here, where we've collected some of the other smart "Mad Men" recappers' thoughts on the finale.
Mad Men has never cared much about delivering on the expectations of its audience — and it really didn't in its final episode. Yes, Peggy wound up with Stan and might be a creative director by 1980; Roger rewrote his will and is probably marrying Marie; Meredith translated Roger's speech into Pig Latin; Pete and family flew away on a Lear jet; Betty is still smoking; and cocaine finally gave Joan the strength to dump Richard and start her own production company. But Don spent the finale cavorting around an ashram with hippies we've never met before, and then, during a TM session, redeeming himself at McCann by composing Coke's "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" jingle, an ending which — though predicted by all of the conspiracy theorists who didn't think Don was D.B. Cooper — was kinda pat and would also seem to screw with the show's internal logic: has Don written many real-life ads before?
The Coke ad at the end is funny and ironic. It packages hippie sensibilities for a TV commercial, and Don starts the series selling cigarettes and ends selling stomach-and-tooth-rotting soda. But the tone of that ad is uncharacteristic of Don, whose most striking campaigns tended to have a melancholy, self-aware vibe, bordering on meta. The Coke ad is all about making the viewer feel good. It’s a Pollyannaish ad that befits a smiley-faced episode. I don’t have a problem with that. These characters have made mistakes and learned from them while remaining the same flawed people they always were. Any happiness they receive in this finale isn’t an unmotivated, unrealistic, out-of-nowhere gift. They worked for it.
So last things first: that ending. As a tag on Don’s story it was both incredibly clever and emotionally underwhelming–the opposite, really, of what I might have expected from Mad Men‘s finale. It does a brilliant, instantaneous double-twist, suggesting in one moment that Don has finally, through being stripped down, reached a moment of spiritual growth–and then that, really, he’s simply seen it as all b.s. and come up with one more way to sell product. He has looked into the eye of eternity and seen a Clio.
Ingenious? Yes. But it’s also, at first blush, much more bleak and cynical about Don’s ability to change and grow–much more Sopranos-like, in other words–than you would expect from a series that gave us the moving end moments of “In Care of” at the end of season 6. If that’s what happened in that instant, Mad Men has given TV its most cheerful, upbeat, miserable ending in the history of finales.
Why did Leonard’s tale move Don so? I think the milquetoastery of Leonard is crucial here. Don has long assumed that his dark past, his family, his sins, account for his vast hunger for love. But here’s an office drone in a V-neck who can articulate his precise emotional state with more power than Don has ever pulled off in a pitch. Understanding that his loneliness and lovelornness are universal is, somehow, just what Don needs. (This scene also so flagrantly violates Seinfeld’s “no hugging, no lessons” rule of television that it seems almost intentional.) Finally at peace, Don can stop running, return to New York, live his life, and make a few more ads—including one for Coke. (Someone buy Todd VanDerWerff a Coke for nailing that prediction.)
I didn’t love these blunt metaphors, and setting up such obvious parallels in group seminars felt like rather unconvincing dramatic cheats. But Jon Hamm couldn’t be better in this episode. The show has pushed Don’s character thousands of miles away from anyone he knows, and people do have breakthroughs in therapy all the time.
However, I was absolutely disturbed, unsettled and thrilled by the final shot — and song — that followed, which seemed to distill so much of what the show has been saying about advertising (and the other lies we tell ourselves) for seven seasons. We last see Don meditating, beatifically, on a cliffside. Then there’s that slight, gorgeous smile, the chime of a bell and a cut to an utterly maudlin, corporate Utopian Coca-Cola ad.
Is this a depressing ending? A happy one? Your answer probably comes down to whether you believe, as Stan does, that there’s more to life than work. No one really gets to have both tonight. Back in the very first episode of Mad Men, Rachel Menken pointed out that women never get to be happy in both their personal and professional lives, and now that seems true. Joan triumphs by starting her own production company, but Richard balks at the move, accusing her of choosing her job over him. Right when Peggy starts to get excited about partnering with Joan, Stan admits that he wants her to stay at McCann because… he loves her. It’s a very sweet moment, one that will explode the already thriving Stan/Peggy (Steggy?) fan fiction market. And even though it comes a little out of nowhere, it makes sense for workaholic Peggy to see her office husband as a potential real husband, too. So why did Peggy’s final scene still feel like a slight letdown? It’s nice that she ends up both personally and professionally fulfilled, but I guess I wanted her big moment to involve something more than love. I’m still waiting for the moment when she gets to deliver her own version of “The Wheel” speech.
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.
But I think the real ambiguity here is the tenor of that scene. It's a happy ending. Don finds a measure of connection, calm, and peace. "Buy the World" is one of those beautiful ads people remember. And the characters all find ways to move forward with grace and maybe even hope.
But it's also a cynical, despairing ending, another moment of genuine emotion commodified and made into something that can be put on a shelf and sold. Life stumbles on. The moments of truth and beauty you are privy to are quickly made shallow by the imperfections of memory. Comforting a man in his hour of need becomes buying the world a Coke. It's all mixed up together.
Don is the embodiment of a process by which our consumerist system creates, sustains, and ultimately discards visions of a better world. Does this cycle lead anywhere? Mad Men remains agnostic on that question. But Don smiles in that closing shot because, if nothing else, the routine of aspiration, disappointment, and rebirth gives him a sense of purpose. There is an essential reward in the circular struggle to create a better self, even if—like Don—we’re making up that better self as we go along.
This is a cycle we've seen Don undergo before, and there's no reason to suspect it would ever change. Mad Men — a show with at least a half-dozen previous episodes that could have served as series finales — is smart enough to know that in real life, there's no such thing as a true ending. We leave the characters here, because this is where Mad Men ends — but for the characters, this is just another beginning. Peggy and Stan are beginning their relationship, with all the personal and professional complications it will bring. Roger is embracing the joyful chaos of his new life with Marie. Joan is launching a company on her own. Pete and Trudy are beginning a new life together in Kansas. It's not hard to imagine an eighth season of Mad Men, picking up where "Person to Person" ends.
If Don really traversed this great land of ours, threw away all the trappings of Don Draper-hood, learned of Betty's impending death and the shaky future of their three children, and finally heard someone articulate his own deepest feelings of unlovability, and he came out the other side having only acquired the inspiration needed to buy his way back into McCann and write that Coke ad — and cutting straight from the look of pure bliss on Don's face to the ad, without giving us hints of anything else he might do upon returning to New York, suggests that this is the only thing that ultimately matters to him — then that is a very cynical and dark take on a man I wanted better from.
But it also seems like an honest take on who that man actually was, and what "Mad Men" has been about.