I’m glad that, despite what it felt like from the last few episodes, we didn’t just hone in on a long goodbye of just Don. I’m glad that we got to see the beginning of a real future for everyone that answers the question of who are these people – are they MAD men (and women), or are they something more? Is there something more they’re missing than just the ad life? And, above all, I’m glad we have probably the most fitting close to a character arc that finally answers the question “Who is Don Draper?” Nothing felt totally a surprise, honestly, but this episode and the conclusions it brought us to were wonderfully crafted, showcasing all the things the Mad Men crew have been able to do right in the making of great television.
I had initially lost some hope for Joan’s happiness from when we last left off with her. And her conclusion was probably one of the more surprising, even though it all totally is in line with her character. What’s a woman with a lot of money left to do without a job? Gallivanting around with her post-retired new boyfriend. Richard is definitely aiming for the sense of adventure, and we see her in sunned bliss in Florida, trying cocaine for the first time (maybe) with Richard. This is clearly the life he wants to lead – something aimless, something where he can run off wherever. (Sounds a little too Don-like to me) To the man who’s already had it all, this is enough. But here, in Joan’s conclusion story, we get wonderful little layers not just about her, but about the future of women in the workplace. Despite her rise to power and her earning a partnership, there was very much still a glass ceiling. She and Peggy are friends, comrades, because they are both trying to overcome the same things. It was such a powerful, feminist, camaraderie moment for the two most powerful women in the ad world to come together to lunch and discuss launching and co-owning a business together. Confident Joan, productive Joan, is the best kind of Joan, and the only Joan she knows to be. Despite being without love, despite disliking hating her mother, despite maybe resenting being a mother, Joan owns and accepts her place in life, and knows she can still make the most of her self worth by being a working woman, running her own business. Ken’s lunch with Joan about Dow opens a wonderful door for her to launch a production company for advertising.
I’m going to pause a moment from just a simple recap of Joan’s conclusion to begin dropping in the motif about phones. Technology has always played a role in the series, being a source of the action, irony, movement. The show glamorized all the budding new technology of the 60s. Without the rise of the television, Harry Crane would be nothing. Without the computer, Ginsberg would never have gone crazy. But we come back to basics here in this final episode, with the telephone – the most basic, personal form of communication – become a symbol of defining moments for each of our characters (except maybe Roger) in this finale. For Joan, her defining phone moment really happens when she is breaking up with Richard. Richard complains about her budding new business potentially taking up more of her time, immediately realizing that Joan’s love really lies in her work and she really will make more time for that than for anyone outside her life she isn’t tied to by blood. The phone rings in the middle of this momentous conversation, and Richard even butts in, “You want to pick that up.” Ultimately, Joan does, and she stands in her kitchen doorway, alone, standing tall, phone in hand. Though this is one of the few instances of phone use in this episode where we don’t see who’s on the other side of the line, we know that Joan’s strong point was personal interaction, client communication, working with people. Richard leaves, and though Joan has a moment of lost composure, she still stands tall, and embraces the working woman she always is. And it’s a beautiful, satisfying moment to see her babysitter answer the phone for her, “Holloway Harris Productions,” and Joan serenely, happily accept the next client call in her home office.
Let me launch now into the next set of wonderfully composed goodbyes, even if they were a bit cheesy. Pete and Peggy’s last exchange brimmed with some of the old tension, but with time and growth enough between them. It was a funny yet heartwarming exchange, another sort of feminist acknowledgement that Peggy has always been the one who can rise above, who has the option to choose and carve her own destiny. This is one of the few non-phone moments, but there’s still wonderful moments in this. I mean, Pete’s gift to Peggy is a rejected cactus plant one of the girls at McCann gave him! His reason to leave it behind? “I have a five-year-old.” Nothing could be more strangely symbolic of their relationship. It’s always been a bit prickly. Though she doesn’t indulge his final wish to join for lunch (she has a lot of work to do – echoing Joan), they still share encouraging words about their now separate futures. Pete showers Peggy with compliments, and you actually believe him. He’s been far more sincere with Peggy, and even tells her, in so many words, “No one has ever said to me what I’m saying to you.” This peaceful recognition is huge for Pete, in that the jealous, always-second-place Pete can let that go and has found his own sense of value in Wichita. And it’s encouraging words for Peggy, who in this episode particularly is showered with tons of encouraging words about her bright future, and her innate talent.
The walk out of the car into the private jet with the reunited Campbell family was a little cornball, but again – this is the ending for Pete he always dreamed of. He was never THE guy, and now he finally is. He’s the fulfillment of the Don Draper he always thought was and tried to be ever since his early days at Sterling Cooper. He’s the ad guy, the family man, the one people are asking for.
The other moment that was so oddly corny in this episode, but again a little forgiveable because it fits the ultimate conclusion for this character, is Peggy’s. We’ve been dropped many a hint in the last two seasons that there is something missing in Peggy’s life – love, family. She and Joan carved similar paths for themselves, in that they always chose the work over their personal life. Peggy refused a man who was clearly ready to romance her in the earlier part of this season – she could’ve gone to France and been whisked away, but she chose to stay behind, stay with her work. In back to back symbolic phone moments, Peggy has a defining conversation with the two most important men in her life. First, Peggy’s conversation with Don becomes a catalyst for a major life decision for both Don and Peggy. Don’s always been a little bit real with Peggy, but he finally sort of lays out the skeletons in his closet over the phone. They’ve always been each other’s bail out call (Peggy when she was pregnant, Don when he needed to get out of jail with Bobbie Barrett, etc. etc.) and Peggy’s sadness and caring words and push to come back (“Don’t you want Coke?”) ultimately set off Don to the completion of his journey, but more on that later. Anyway, Peggy is so shaken up by Don’s distress, she immediately calls Stan to talk about it.
Ever since Stan’s introduction to the show, there’s been a very clear chemistry between Peggy and Stan. They’re a pair of creative geniuses, if you will. He puts down the imagery to her ideas. They’ve always demonstrated a closeness between them, even if they were very different personalities. He was one of the few men who always had a respect for Peggy, always treated her as sort of an equal. He even made a move on her once before while drunk, but Peggy refused. Now, finally, with the dream job, and an offer of yet another one (over which Stan and Peggy had an in-real-life person to person fight about), what does Peggy have left to gain in this life than love? Her immediate call of comfort to Stan in his office is humorous, even if predictable, but again, largely symbolic. She goes literally from one phone call to the next for some life changing moments. The humor here is that they’re otherwise able to just get up and talk to each other – there’s something about the swallowed up in a company so huge you have to go through all these hurdles to connect that makes a phone call between two already close people, especially geographically, comical. What’s symbolic here is that it is through this other vessel that Stan, as with Don, is able to make the ultimate confession to Peggy. The next best thing to saying these words in person is a phone conversation, where it’s just the words, the voice, isolated, leaving you only in wonder. Of course, in a romantic gesture, Stan runs off the phone as Peggy sort of comes to her own realization that she shares Stan’s feelings, and they consummate their romance. Well, it’s only fitting that for Peggy, the only place she can find love is at work, which is where her real love is anyway. At least the love she finds at work is one of the better ones she can find. That’s her leg up on Joan, I guess.
Let me backtrack a moment before I really hone in on the closer with Don. Roger is one of the few who has a non-phone-call related revelation closure. He actually has in-real-life person to person closures with two pivotal women in his life. He’s gone full force into a relationship with Megan Calvet’s mother (the always lovely Julia Ormond), who, upon Megan’s own divorce with Don, reveals to her daughters she’s having a serious affair with Roger. It’s funny that she comes along at the same time Joan finds Richard – these two have, within the span of a few short episodes, shown that they can meet their match. Joan’s real love is the work. Roger’s real love? The women. Megan’s mother is someone who can call Roger out on his shit, without Roger disrespecting it. Maybe it’s the fact she’s actually age appropriate for him that allows him to finally settle (yes, I know he had an ex-wife, but that side of his family is totally shattered and broken, as demonstrated in Waterloo). But of course, Roger needs a moment of closure with Joan, his workplace feminine/romantic equal. He spends some time with his biological son, and in an intimate conversation with Joan, reveals that he is leaving part of his estate to his son. No matter what, he will maintain the connection to Joan. But they both acknowledge they’ve moved on, and are happy for themselves and for each other. They never were a right fit for each other, so I’m glad there wasn’t any sort of fan service here to bring them back together. I think the child between them is enough to solidify that these two are meant to be connected. The biggest thing here for Roger is to admit such full commitments not only to his biological son, but to another woman, another love in his life – he marries Megan’s mother, and it’s a sweet moment where he shows off his French while on a day date in, presumably, Montreal. Roger has settled into a totally new life, in McCann and with a new woman. He may not be leading the charge, but he has a place.
And now, Don. The show has all along been a prolonged meditation on life, but specifically through the eyes of Don. Don has always been a troubled man, with a troubled past he’s constantly fought to overcome. He’s a natural-born escapist when times are rough, and is always on the search to redefine himself. We see him in this finale in the last cusp of his endless cycle of running away transformations. He walked out on McCann, deciding that being another cog in the machine just wasn’t enough, and decided upon an unofficial early retirement. He tries to get back in touch with his roots, with nature, with life outside the confines of the ad world. He chooses to live dangerously, and it’s fitting that in our first moments with him in this episode, he’s testing out a car for a race. He’s concentrated, speeding along, a total zone out and escape from his life. Where is he racing to? He’s not even sure at that moment. But the running away starts to come to an end upon his next phone call with Sally, where she reveals to him Betty is dying of lung cancer.
I’ll weave in and out of Betty here briefly. Betty and Don will always have a connection between them, much like Roger and Joan, much like Peggy and Pete, even though all have clear and separate paths in life to live. After a defining phone call with Sally, who both demands respect from her father to treat her as an adult and obviously drops the news bomb, Don immediately calls Betty. Much like Peggy, Don goes back to back in revelatory phone call moments here with his blood connections. This phone call is just as defining a moment for Betty as it is for Don, where Betty finally lays the law and asks Don to respect her dying wishes to a) not be made a big deal of, and b) have the boys grow up with her brother in a stable, nuclear-family environment, as opposed to with Henry Francis. Don actually relents, but not without a final cry out to his old Birdy. The moment is so bittersweet, and so raw, and so fitting for both to have asked for what they asked for out of this conversation. Of course Don tries a feigned call to action for what he thinks is his responsibility – be the father again. (Perhaps he was grasping at new purpose by reclaiming a fatherhood identity?) And of course Betty’s vision of what’s best for her kids is the same ideology she’s lived her life to uphold – the typical nuclear family, mother and father present in the children’s lives. Don’s goodbye to Betty is another shedding of himself – having lost Anna Draper, lost Megan, lost his home, he’s now about to lose his first wife and custody of his own kids. With not much to return to in New York yet again, it’s easy to connect the dots here and find Don once again grasping at straws for his prior connections – Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie.
A totally stripped down Don (no longer in a suit, no longer with a car, all his clothes are in a paper shopping bag) heads off to California, now running away to something more concrete: his last non-advertising human connection. Stephanie takes him in, re-instating Don’s former identity as Dick, and suggests he join her on a yoga/meditation retreat. Though of course she begs him to be open, it turns out that it’s she who has a lot more personal stuff to work out that she’s not ready to face. During a confrontational session, where Stephanie tries to be open about herself, she becomes too afraid to face the real issue. Don tries to call bullshit on it all, and attempts to comfort Stephanie. Of course, this isn’t enough. He can’t understand the pain of Stephanie’s own abandonment / banishment from her child’s life (eerily like Peggy, huh?) The thing that makes Stephanie a lot like Don is her inclination to run away from her problems – the next morning, she’s gone without a trace, leaving Don totally stranded, totally disconnected. He tries to hire a cab out and can’t have an immediate escape himself – though the receptionist at the retreat center says people can “come and go as they please,” he cannot leave or even hitchhike. What does a man with nowhere to go do when he’s completely stuck?
Don makes his bailout call to Peggy, again, the phone representing the only thing permitting him any other real human connection. It’s telling that his bailout call is back to his advertising life. Peggy tries to tempt him back with “Coke,” but in this moment of total loss and insecurity, Don reveals he doesn’t think he’s made much of the person he tried to invent. How can he be anyone or anything if he has no identity to embrace? Don/Dick is totally helpless, and hopeless. His blank stares off into the distance at the end of this phone call are haunting. He is the falling man in the opening sequence.
For Don, though, the answers come without technology, and with connecting… person to person.
One of the leaders of the retreat pulls in Don for a group session. A very plain, homely man has a breakthrough, and paints a sad and beautiful metaphor, mirroring exactly all of Don’s insecurities. This is a man who walks through life totally unnoticed, totally unappreciated. Basically someone who may as well have no identity. He describes a symbolic dream about being a constantly rejected item in a refrigerator, and this calls out to Don/Dick. In a way, Don is the person who gets to open the refrigerator door with the privilege to choose what he wants to eat or use out of the fridge. But Dick is the person who gets constantly pushed away, turned away. Both sides need to reconcile, and Don/Dick has this moment of embracing himself by embracing this total stranger, in a total act out of character. Instead of running away and rejecting the confrontation, Don/Dick finally comes together and recognizes his own self, his own problems in someone else, and comes to understand who he was, is, and must become.
We watch him throughout this episode morph outfit to outfit, ebbing in and out of all these blues, greens, and khaki pants. We end on him in pure white, reborn, actually participating in a morning yoga meditation, reaching that ultimate moment of peace, humming OM. And, would you believe it, in this moment of total acceptance, it also becomes clear to him his ultimate destiny: he is the ad man. He can be the ad man as both Don and Dick. He may have tried and failed before, but that’s because he was never fully resolved in who either person was. Now that he’s come to terms with his identity, he can finally re-embrace the advertising life, and as the hippie Coke ad plays on, we are led to presume he was inspired by his experiences to create one of the most iconic ads for one of the most iconic brands in the world.
Now, there’s a part of me that wants to believe that it’s all of our Mad Men people who have had some part in the Coke, given their own ability to come to their conclusions and accept their talents. I can easily imagine this being equally a Peggy success, a Roger success, it could even have been a Joan success if they hired out her services to produce the commercial. The Coke ad is like the ultimate feel-good culmination of our Mad Men crew’s fate as born to be part of this world, born to be in advertising. The ad is both cheery, but ironic. Rarely do we get to see the culmination of the mad men-er’s work, and we end seeing what we presume is one of their greatest creations.
For a show that’s been so mired in darkness, we needed hope. The meditation on life Mad Men has presented to us over the course of seven seasons is complex. Everyone’s roads are shaped with struggles and triumphs. For as much as death played a huge part across the whole series run, it fits that our advertising crew doesn’t have to meet such a dark fate. It’s not so much that everyone has to have a happy ending – I mean, Betty is facing her death – but the biggest struggle in life is to come to understand your place in the world, your identity, and we leave everyone in moments where they realize what this is. Don’s identity is one he had to come to terms with completely by himself – he’s lost much of his own connections to his past, but his problem has always been accepting these things without just hiding or taking off. Joan won’t have a steady love in her life, but she’ll always have the fulfillment of work. Peggy happens to get the best of both worlds. It’s a universe I’m sad to leave, but at least I walk away with a sense of peace, knowing that what I had expected of these people’s lives is exactly that. And we got to see this in a beautifully shot, beautifully designed, beautifully crafted finale. Minds weren’t blown, but they don’t need to be to recognize destiny. But maybe recognizing destiny isn’t this insane epiphany – maybe it’s just something that happens, in the ordinary flow of life.