This past Sunday, 3.3 million people across America, myself included, tuned in to AMC for the Mad Men series finale and witnessed Don Draper Ommm-ing cliffside in Big Sur, smiling as that final chime went off to wrap the series. Days later as I write this, I look back fondly on what, in retrospect, was a brilliantly moving hour of television. At the time the credits rolled, however, my impressions were admittedly a mixed bag.
Before I dive into analysis, I’ve come to notice that the biggest thing any finale has going against it is the clock on the front of almost every cable box. It just sits there, constantly serving as a reminder that there is only so much time left for the show to hit every point you’d ideally like it to hit. Everyone has expectations and predictions of where a series might go in its final hour and Mad Men was that way to an extreme. Fans on the Internet ran wild with theories that ranged anywhere from sensible and surprising to downright conspiratorial.
As that clock ticked down towards the end of the hour and Don was still sitting in some random Buddhist retreat therapy session, it was only natural that those 3.3 million people, not one of whom presumably predicted that Don would find himself in a Buddhist retreat therapy session (let alone two!) at any point during the finale, could be a little ticked offthat this is what they had tuned in for. If you were anything like me, you kept glancing with one eye at that clock (“Shit! Only 10 minutes to go… what the hell is going on here?”), taking your full attention away from what was really happening on screen. Finally, when time ran out, the show was over, and everyone was left to digest what they had just immediately finished watching, it was easy to be upset that the show didn’t cover what you explicitly hoped it would and take to Twitter to immediately publish those feelings of dissatisfaction. Once those thoughts are published, it becomes even easier to let those immediate reactions leave their residue on the thoughts that further develop over time as you mentally re-digest the episode. After all, don’t they say that first impressions are everything?
That’s how I felt about the Mad Men finale. My original hope going into that last hour was that Don would realize that working at an advertising giant like McCann-Erickson (or really any advertising firm at that point) wasn’t what was going to make him a happy person – which is the outcome we all wanted for Don: happiness. In addition, I wanted him to take responsibility as a father for the first time in his life and go be with his kids now that they soon would be without a mother.
So when the famous 1971 “Hilltop” ad rolled and the implication became clearer and clearer to me that Don had just conceived quite possibly the most famous TV commercial ever, I was pretty confused. Had Dick Whitman not learned anything? Was he really just going to return to McCann and go back to being Don Draper? Sure it truly appeared that Don had finally found his happiness and inner peace, which was wonderful, but what would he do with that inner peace? Why wouldn’t they show us how this supposed “new Don” alters his behavior? Can we trust this epiphany? Does he ever see his kids again??? Naturally, my intention was to knock the finale for leaving us with all that confusion. But Mad Men deserved more. I needed to let everything sink in and sleep on it.
The next day I read pretty much everything on the Internet that focused on the finale. Seriously, I challenge anyone to dig up an article I may have missed. It appeared that the general Internet reaction was similar to mine: had Don learned nothing? But through the time I spent sleeping on my reactions and digesting those of the Mad Men fan community, I’ve since come to realize that the ambiguity that Matt Weiner left baked into the show’s ending was most definitely the best thing for this series.
Of all of the recaps I read on Black Monday, the one I appreciated the most came from Vox, which gave the finale rave reviews. Todd VanDerWerff, who wrote it, essentially surmised that the final sequence was up to us to ascribe meaning to. Did Don write the ad? No one truly knows… and he’s on the money about that. In fact, my first thought (and what I still choose to believe) is that Peggy created it. And you know what? There’s nothing, I repeat, nothing in that final sequence that explicitly tells me I’m wrong. Isn’t that awesome?! Moreover, it’s possible that no one in the world of Mad Men wrote it. It could simply serve as a neat tie in that embodied the show’s themes to wrap everything up. That’s a very common storytelling device – almost like an apropos credits song, but with visuals. Again, there is NOTHING in that final sequence that disproves this theory. I, for one, love that.
The reality of the matter, however, is that Weiner’s intention was indeed to suggest that Don wrote the ad. There are far too many clues suggesting that this is the case and even Jon Hamm himself has explicitly stated that this was what happened (I think he’s a solid person to trust on the subject). The ambiguity of that sequence necessitates certain leaps to be made in order to draw definitive connections about the meaning of the “Hilltop”commercial. Assuming that Don wrote it, given all the clues, requires the shortest leap. Thus, we adhere to Occam’s Razor and attribute it to Donny Drapes. But why is that such a bad thing? As VanDerWerff also wrote, the audience is allowed to consider that ending as a hopeful or cynical statement on Don and advertising in general.
Unfortunately, it appears that too many Internet commenters and recappers chose to dwell on the cynical and run with it. In fact, a few of them went so far as to claim that Don hadn’t learned anything. They pounded away at their keyboards about how the last 7 seasons have been a waste that showed no growth of its main character; that Don observed and experienced real pain and human growth at the retreat then leveraged it to pawn sugary death water (It’s the real thing!) and even suggested that Don was faking it when he went through his final meditation (I know… madness). You can’t help but feel sorry for those reviews. They’re reductive and void of nuance. Do we really think that this is what Matt Weiner conceived for his richly complex characters? To honestly believe that does a grave disservice to the art that this show has created since its premiere.
This Internet cynicism is seemingly fueled by what I previously wrote about when it comes to managing your expectations in the wake of what actually happens over the course of a finale. A great deal of people, myself included, wanted Don to leave the advertising game in the end and be with his kids. Based on the previous 7 seasons, they’ve made up their minds about the destructive nature of the business and how it has no place in Don’s future happiness. Thus, when it becomes evident that he doesn’t leave advertising after all, the tendency is to throw their arms up in the air and consider everything a failure.
But why does it have to be that way? Despite what we may claim to know, Don’s end game isn’t his profession. He’s still a human being, you know? His personal, inner happiness is what’s ultimately at stake, not his industry. To that end, how could you not be immensely satisfied with this ending? That Don wrote an iconic ad after finding inner peace doesn’t negate the transformation. You might tell me you’ve seen this movie before with Don and you’d be half right. After all, Don has had many an enlightening moment over the course of the series only to find himself reverting back to his old, destructive ways. But the growth we saw in the finale is unlike any we’ve seen before. Don really did achieve true personal redemption because he hit rock bottom like he’s never hit before and responded in a similarly unprecedented fashion.
Once again, I have to credit Todd VanDerWerff of Vox for helping me to see the next point that I’m about to make. The thematic motif of “pushing away vs. coming closer” is rampant throughout the final episode – as well as the entire series, really. Don has spent his entire adult life pushing away from those closest to him. The examples are countless; everything from his affairs to his lack of any true friends. That action has come to define him, even so far as in the finale when his partner in the therapy group chose to push him away from her as her way of physically expressing the aura he gave off.
Throughout the series, however, he always had a place to go back to, whether it was his family in Ossining in the earlier seasons, his position of power and status at the office through the middle chapters, or even all the money that he had made towards the end of the show, there was still always something left for him. Over the course of the finale, however, all of those things had finally pushed back and abandoned him for truly the first time in his life (at least the Don Draper life). He seemingly gave away all of his money and possessions over the last couple of episodes (no apartment, no car, giving away cash left and right, etc.), he found himself with no job for the first time (or at least no job he wanted), and, in what included possibly the most stunningly heartbreaking scene in the show’s entire run, his family had finally told him that they didn’t want him near them when they ostensibly needed him the most. Those are tough pills to swallow.
To compound that personal emptiness, he began to hear out loud, one after the other, all of his personal faults that led him to where he currently was. It began in the group, when he got pushed. It continued when Stephanie admitted that she abandoned her child because she couldn’t feel a true motherly connection to it only to be shamed by a former abandoned child who assured her that her daughter will spend the rest of her life tragically wondering if she’ll ever come back. When Don tries to comfort Stephanie, using his own adage of, “it will get easier as you move forward.” she bluntly calls out his bullshit. When Don calls Peggy and finally says out loud his deepest, darkest transgressions, we come to see that Don truly has nothing. We’ve never seen him with nothing.
After all this, Don is finally stripped down to the bone when Leonard (poor Leonard) delivers his heartrending refrigerator metaphor. Leonard weepily laments the fact that he never found “it” (aka true happiness and love) but it’s his continuing thought that perhaps he had “it” all along but was too blind to recognize “it” or even know what “it” was in the first place that really hits Don right in the feels. It finally – finally – struck Don that his problems and faults aren’t unique to him. He realizes that nobody hands you happiness or points it out to you. You never simply stumble across it. You need to know what you want and then make the effort to achieve it. It takes exertion and personal responsibility to find peace. You need to meet the people who can give you happiness halfway and give them something in return for it to have any real value. If you expect love, you must in turn give love, which Don hasn’t done since the days of Anna Draper.
So how do we know that Don finally understands this? Well, as opposed to returning to his old habits of pushing away, he stands up, crosses the room, and embraces Leonard as the two share a good old healthy cry. Don has never embraced anyone like he embraced Leonard – not Betty, not Megan, not Sally or Peggy, not even Anna Draper. Don has finally come closer to not only someone else, but also to himself and his sense of inner peace.
This realization is further strengthened through the words of the meditation leader in the final scene. He speaks of a new day, new opportunities, a new you. Just then as Don Ommms, we sense that peace that he’s finally bought into and we see him flash the now-iconic smile. That smile is there to either to confirm his inner happiness or mark the inspiration of his next great ad (or why not both?). If we are to believe that Don created the ad; why should that upset us? The man clearly found his inner peace and paid his price, so is he not allowed to have a career afterwards? Or are we to make the lazy, blanket statement that all advertising executives are inherently evil people furthering a destructively capitalistic society?
It’s been written as a failure that Don turned his spiritual enlightenment into an advertisement for Coca-Cola, but why? Is Don not allowed to take his newfound sense of self and use it to positively inspire new, uplifting work? After all, the “Hilltop” ad provides a happy message of inclusion and togetherness, even if it is for the purpose of selling cola. It’s about people and harmony and teaching the world to sing – could you ever imagine the old Don pitching that?! If anything, this ending is the ultimate for a character like him. Not only did he finally find his inner happiness, but he also came away with possibly the greatest advertisement of his time. He’s Don fucking Draper. Of course he did!
All of this having been said; I still choose to believe that Peggy created “Hilltop”. Why? For one, no one can definitively tell me that she didn’t. Furthermore, Peggy deserved it more than Don did. Peggy was the one who stuck around to “do the work” (Don’s favorite motto). Peggy was the one waxing philosophical in the second episode of the last stretch of season 7 about her ambition to create “something of lasting value” while Don scoffed “in advertising?!”. The “Hilltop” ad is certainly one of lasting value; it’s as iconic as they come. Thus, the Mad Men lover in me chooses to believe that Peggy was buying the world a Coke during that final shot of her at the typewriter as Stan lovingly rubbed her shoulders.
Maybe Don helped; I’ll allow that. Joan probably produced it.
The ultimate reason this finale was so brilliant is because Weiner achieved everything that he had originally set out to. According to Jon Hamm, Weiner once told him of the finale, “I just want my characters to be a little more happy than they were in the beginning.” I think it’s safe to say he accomplished this for everyone and, to that end, ambiguity does Weiner’s wish a wonderful service. Sure these characters seem happy for now, but the onus is on us as an audience to ponder if they’ll stay that way. Mad Men was never a show that aimed to spoon-feed us the entire future for anyone. It was always simply a story about a collection of characters living through the 60’s. What happens after that is up to us to decide.
I’ll end this piece wondering myself about what happens to Don the Father. As I’ve previously stated, the basis for my (flawed) initial sense of dissatisfaction at the finale was the fact that Weiner never told me explicitly about this. My personal idea of true redemption for Don is him finally seizing his responsibility as a parent and being there for his kids as their mother dies of lung cancer. Once again, though, Weiner’s ambiguity works superbly here. While it may not appear that that will happen, I’m free to wonder if it does. I like to think that Don would respect Betty’s wish to stay away, while always remaining close by so that after she passes, he can be there for his children. I feel that that’s what New Don would be obligated to do. However, if that is not to be the case, I’ve now come to think I’m OK with that too. Not for Don, but for Sally. Her growth throughout the show was arguably the most comprehensive. It says something beautiful that two deeply flawed parents could raise a child that turns out to be more stable than they ever were.
In that vain, I’m pleased with Sally sticking around to do the dishes and raise her brothers. She earned that through the emotional maturity she flexed in the final episodes of the series. If Don is never again a father to his kids, as Todd VanDerWerff put it, “the boys will be just fine with their older sister around.”