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'Mad Men' Series Finale Review: It's the Real Thing

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 18, 2015 |

By Sarah Carlson | TV | May 18, 2015 |

Nothing about the Mad Men series finale, “Person to Person,” was surprising. That doesn’t mean it ended how I thought it would, however, and that’s a good thing.

Creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote and directed the episode, has always known the story he was telling, and he has always stayed true to his characters. The outcomes of “Person to Person” had been in the works for years, and even as so many viewers tried to predict the ending, or “solve” it — a habit that’s hard to break in these days of Internet sleuthing and TV Red Wedding shocker one-upmanship — we had the answers, so to speak, all along. We hoped for change, as we asked ourselves along with the characters if people are capable of change. But as much as I or anyone would like it to be, the tale of Donald Draper is not one of about-face redemption; few stories are. Most of us live somewhere in the middle, growing bit by bit, taking steps forward and then steps back. We learn, and that informs who we are, but not everyone fully changes.

That final shot of Don meditating at the California retreat, a sly smile spreading on his face, may just be Weiner’s own Sopranos moment — “Did Tony get whacked?” is now “Did Don make that Coke ad?” Perhaps; it’s intimated as much, and it fits. Don, beaten down first from hearing the news of Betty having terminal cancer and then by his interactions with Stephanie, is at a low point, and he’s been at this point before. In a heartbreaking Person to Person phone call, Peggy does her best to turn him around, telling him he can come home. “I messed everything up,” he says. “I’m not the man you think I am.” “Don, listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?,” she asks. “I broke all my vows, scandalized my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it,” he says. “That’s not true,” she replies. But her efforts don’t work like Freddie Rumsen’s did in this season’s fourth episode, “The Monolith,” where we also saw Don hitting what we assumed was rock bottom as he drank his way through the day once back at SC&P. It takes a group sharing/therapy session at the retreat, which Stephanie had already abandoned, for something to click inside Don.

MMS7 Don Therapy 2 smaller.pngA stranger shared his own story of feeling alone and invisible in his life. “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting ‘it’; people aren’t giving ‘it’ to you,” he said. “Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what ‘it’ is.” He breaks down sobbing, and Don, connecting with his pain, goes to him and holds him. That’s how Don has always felt: Alone. And it’s dawning on him that that’s how everyone feels to one degree or another. It’s no coincidence the last shot of each of this season’s final eight episodes shows Don alone.

Don may be an easy character to write off, but remember his — Dick Whitman’s — roots: His mother, a prostitute, died after giving birth to him; he was raised in poverty during the Depression by his drunkard father and abusive stepmother, Abigail; his father died (kicked in the face by a horse) when Dick was 10; he lived in his aunt’s care, who turned to her sister and brother-in-law, Mack, for shelter in their brothel; he is raped there as a young teen by one of the prostitutes; he is unloved and unwanted, and he gets out by joining the Army; in Korea, he accidentally sets of an explosion that kills his commanding officer, Lieutenant Donald Draper, and realizing Draper’s body is burned beyond recognition, switches his dog tags with Don’s and eventually assumes his identity. He starts over in New York and talks his way into a job in advertising. He plays the part of a well-bred man and fools everyone, but the toll of the lie eventually weighs too heavy and he begins to become exposed. He’s a hobo in a suit, an outsider looking in on society who, while accurately assessing it, never feels like he belongs within it. He’s no saint, but he ain’t no devil, either. This man is damaged.

“The only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone,” Anna Draper tells him in Season Two’s “The Mountain King.” He is told this many times, but not until the therapy session does it sink in. “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget… I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, ‘cause there isn’t one,” he tells Rachel Menken in the series pilot. We all feel alone, but what happens when we’re told that we’re not alone? More importantly, what happens when we believe it? There is power in that sentiment, and hope. Whether Don truly comes to believe that he isn’t alone is unclear; his using this realization about people to create a huge ad campaign for Coke — “Buy the World a Coke,” in real life thought up by McCann executive Bill Backer — is a little more certain. But it makes sense; it is quintessential Don Draper. (And one of the girls in the ad looks an awful lot like one of the girls from the retreat.) “I just know how people work,” he tells Stephanie, and that’s true. Like any great artist, he knows which emotions to tap into, which emotions to manipulate, to get a response from a consumer. That smile on his face at the end could be the dawning of another new beginning for Don. He’s full of them.

“You can put this behind you,” he tells Stephanie, who is upset at feeling judgment from others for not raising her child. “It will get easier as you move forward.” “Oh Dick,” she says, “I don’t think you’re right about that.” She’s right; constant reinvention will only get a person so far. But maybe it will get Don wherever he needs to go, over and over again. Maybe he’s the one who gets away with it. Don has to work, and it isn’t hard to believe he’d head back to New York and McCann (where he surely would be taken back, like Peggy said) with a mega-hit ad idea in his pocket. His words to Stephanie recalled his interaction with Peggy in Season Two’s “The New Girl,” when he visits her at the hospital after she’s given birth to her and Pete’s son. “Peggy, listen to me: Get out of here and move forward,” he tells her. “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Thankfully, Peggy only listened to him for so long, as through the years she has come to terms with her decision and, instead of hiding it, is beginning to address it with others such as Stan in this season’s “Time & Life.” Like Don, she too has to work, but unlike Don, when people (Stan!) tell her “There’s more to life than work,” she listens.

Peggy and Stan: A couple so obvious you almost didn’t see it coming. But there they’ve been in each other’s lives, through most of the ’60s, through different jobs and different lovers, and through many a spat. (Their naked showdown in Season Four’s “Waldorf Stories” is a personal favorite.) They get under each other’s skin because they know each other so well, and love like that can be easy to misdiagnose. Once Stan confesses his love for her, Peggy’s realization that she’s in love with him is one of the sweetest scenes Weiner has ever given us. And sweet is great — life can be sweet! Moments like this happen, and Peggy being stubborn and often short-sighted needs them pointed out to her in neon lights:

Stan: “… I didn’t want you to leave.”
Peggy: “Then why didn’t you just say that?
S: “Because every time I’m face to face with you I want to strangle you, and then I miss you when I go away, and I miss you and I call you on the phone and I get the person I want to talk to.”
P: “That’s not true.”
S: “Yeah, well, I don’t know what it is, but when I’m standing in front of you, I bring out something terrible. Think about how you came into my life, how you drove me crazy. Now, I don’t know what to do with myself because all I want to do is be with you.”
P: “What? What’d you just say?”
S: “I want to be with you. I’m in love with you.”
P: “What?”
S: “I love you, Peggy.”
P: “Oh my God. That’s what I thought you said. I … I don’t know what to say. I feel like I can’t breathe almost. I don’t even think about you. I mean I do, all the time, because you’re there, and you’re here [holds hand over heart], and you make everything OK. You always do. No matter what. I mean I must be. Because you’re always right. I can’t believe this. I think I’m in love with you, too. I really do. Stan? Are you there? Stan?”
S: [runs into her office] “What were you sayin’?”
P: “I love you.”

Peggy’s success doesn’t come with getting a great boyfriend, though. It comes with her being true to herself and being willing to take the hard road if it means doing the work she loves. Joan’s offer to her was flattering, but Stan is right: She belongs in advertising. And Joan belongs in a role in which she’s calling the shots. Like everything else this finale, this development was there all along. Joan opening her own production company is perfect for her, considering all we’ve seen of her managerial skills and her ability to sweet-talk deals and match creative needs with business needs. Too bad Richard quickly flaked on her the minute he saw she wasn’t interested in being his beach-hopping, cocaine-snorting, at-his-beck-and-call plaything but wanted to work — wanted something of her own. Going back to Season Two’s “A Night to Remember” when she helped Harry read TV scripts, reviewing plot points to ensure none present a conflict of interest with the ads marketed during the commercials. She was great at it, and she juggled multiple roles at work so well even Jim Cutler took notice in this season’s “A Day’s Work,” telling her she should grab the empty account person’s office. She’s out of the advertising world, but she’s not out of the game. She likes the rush of accomplishments — she needs it right now. She’s still out to prove herself, and all the Richards and Jim Hobarts of the world can walk.

Roger and Pete are starting fresh as well, with the former finally settling down with a woman his own age and temperament, Marie, and the latter jetting off to riches in Wichita with restored family in tow. Pete definitely has been a “grimy little pimp” in the past, but just like Don and Peggy, he’s growing bit by bit. Pete and Peggy’s warm goodbye was touching, as the two of them help form with Don the triangle of key characters of the series. They are the family at the center, the three who feel perhaps the most isolated and who bury it in their drive for success in their careers. They, especially Peggy and Pete, are part of the first generation realizing that family is what you make of it. Sometimes it’s traditional; sometimes it’s not. Pete took the time to say goodbye to Peggy; Don called Peggy and told her he realized he’d never said goodbye to her. They’re all connected now. They’ve all been through too much to leave each other’s lives without a farewell. Yet it is doubtful any of those goodbyes were permanent.

Don and Betty’s tearful Person to Person call had more of a feeling of finality to it, as Betty remained determined not to dwell on her sickness for the sake of her children. But while Gene may be too young to understand, Bobby has already picked up on the vibe and tells Sally, visiting from school, he heard Betty and Henry fighting about her cancer and treatment or lack thereof. Sally finds him trying to make dinner and burning toast in the process; already, he’s being forced to grow up as he learns adults don’t magically have everything together just because they’re older. Sally learned this long ago, and her handling of Don in their phone call showed how she may be the most adult of them all. “Sally, grownups make these decisions,” Don tells her. “Do you understand I’m betraying her confidence?,” she replies. “I’m not being dramatic, now please take me seriously.” You can tell Sally and Bobby are going to band together to care for each other and Gene (and Henry). Just as Don isn’t worried about Peggy, though, I’m not worried about Sally. And for Betty’s part, she has a point: If she wants to maintain a sense of normalcy, Don not being around is a part of that. Of course he retired and went off on a road trip; he gets to make that choice. Betty doesn’t. So her choice of having the kids live with her brother and sister-in-law is wise. Even if Don gets to swoop back into McCann, he doesn’t get to do so in the Francis household.

“Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness,” Don says in the Mad Men pilot. “And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is OK. You are OK.” Did he ever learn that for himself — that he’s OK, and that he’s not alone? Maybe. Weiner kept the ending open to interpretation, fitting for a show that has sparked countless theories. Will Pete’s new Kansas setup last? Will Peggy and Stan? Will Joan’s company, Holloway Harris (you need two names to make it sound real)? No telling. But our last glimpse of their story shows us them making a go for it, no matter what “it” is for them. Will Dick Whitman, at peace and enlightened, stay in California, or will Don Draper head back to New York? We’re not supposed to know. He and the others will try until they can’t anymore and hopefully remember they aren’t alone in doing so. It’s about believing one can change, whether or not they do.

That’s about as good as it gets — that’s the real thing.

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I’ve enjoyed writing about this wonderful series for the past five years, starting with Season Four, and revisiting the entire series through the Not Great, Pod! podcast rewatch. This is the longest gig I’ve ever had, writing way too many words and thinking way too much about Mad Men, and I’ve loved it. I hope you have, too. Thanks for reading.

Sarah Carlson is Television Editor for Pajiba. You can find her on Twitter.

Want more Mad Men discussion? Check out our podcast Not Great, Pod! on our website, iTunes, and Twitter.