[Warning: Spoilers for Mad Men.]
Of course it ended with a commercial.
In retrospect, it’s obvious and the only way to do it, but I applaud Matt Weiner for picking the absolute perfect commercial, one that is not merely famous and well-known, but that specifically has emotional and cognitive resonance for the audience. (People who watch Mad Men are mostly olds, like me — we remember that commercial very well.)
I arrived home late last night, with the series finale already in progress. I watched it on a half-hour delay, then crashed after midnight. I haven’t read any thoughts about it, so maybe what I’m about to say is obvious or disproven. But I figured I would pound out some simple notions while I have a moment and the finale is fresh in my mind.
Asked once to describe his seminal comic book masterwork Sandman in a single sentence, Neil Gaiman allegedly replied, “The King of Dreams is told he must change or die…and makes his decision.”
Don Draper is never threatened with death at the end of Mad Men, but similarly has what seems like a simple choice — peace and happiness or returning to the rat race — and chooses wrong.
I suppose, depending on your own view of life, he made the right choice by returning to McCann and taking on the Coke account and creating that famous ad. But I don’t see it that way. And I think it’s pretty brave of Matt Weiner to say to his audience, “Look, some people don’t change. Not in any real way, in any way that matters.” Especially given that even a cursory perusal of Mad Men criticism has leaned heavily on the notion that Don would change in the finale, that he must change, that this is whole point of fiction, for God’s sake!
Not so much.
I keep thinking of that final shot of Don in Lotus position on the cliff overlooking the ocean. Everyone else is bearded, scraggly haired, dressed in comfortable flowing clothes. Don is clean-shaven, in khakis and a buttoned shirt. Like the famous werewolf, his hair is perfect.
This is important. In California, Don has been tested for one last time.
Everyone else on the show has gone through the crucible and come out changed. Joan has finally transitioned from a “Marilyn” to, well, not quite a Gloria, but at least a woman who has identified what she wants and is going to get it. Peggy has learned to open herself up and has figured out what she wants: the same stability Joan once craved, but at a higher level of independence and at a fraction of the cost. Roger has finally figured out that happiness does not require a woman young enough to be his daughter. And Pete has deduced how to put away the man he had to be and become the man he wants to be.
Don goes through the crucible, too. Like the hoboes he obsessed over as a kid, he travels the country aimlessly. He learns some things about people and about himself. He is betrayed by the closest thing to blood kin he has in the world. He loses the woman he convinced himself he loved. He loses his children. He confronts his own mortality, nearly begs Peggy for absolution, sees himself mirrored in a fellow human being, takes his first steps on the path to inner peace…
And then returns to the world to use his newfound knowledge to sell more sugar water.
That final moment with Don shows that no matter how much he thinks he’s changed, no matter how much he thinks he’s grown, he’s the same. He’s a man out of time. He can’t connect to the people around him. Don’s one great change in his life came in Korea, when he invented Don Draper from the remnants of his C.O. and Dick Whitman. Since then, he’s been stuck, caught in a rut of his own making. Don Draper can’t change because Don Draper isn’t real. He isn’t a person. He’s an invention, a mask designed and created by a terrified kid named Dick Whitman. Masks are frozen in place. They don’t express. They don’t change.
Don can experience the world, but he can’t be a part of it. He can notice its rhythms, but he can’t move to them. He can understand that people are seeking peace and tranquility, but when he tries to grab some for himself, it only makes him a better ad man. A more enlightened and effective shill.
Don is a dream king who can only dream of what other people want and need. It makes him a great ad man and a lousy human being. Just like in the very first episode of the show.
What a gloriously cynical ending, co-opting a moment of peace and brotherhood. As a diverse cluster of people sing for their common love of Coke in a commercial tugging at the heartstrings of Boomers and GenXers everywhere, Weiner reminds us, “Yeah, peace and brotherhood and people of all kinds coming together…all in the name of profits for a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate.”
[Update: If you’re interested, here’s the real-world story of the creation of that Coke ad.]