This finale was not at ALL what I was expecting. The preceding episodes seemed like vignettes, small finales for each of our favorite characters. I expected ‘Person to Person’ to be an episode focused exclusively on Don, so I was immediately thrown for a loop when we begin to bounce around between Don in Utah and Joan in Florida and Sally at boarding school… and that disoriented feeling pervaded through the entire episode.
I have to be perfectly honest: though I’ve always been one to relentlessly praise Mad Men, my initial reaction to this series finale was one more of confusion and slight dissatisfaction. However, after a couple of viewings and having the episode stuck in my head for the last week I’ve come to appreciate what a beautiful ending it really was.
Let us dissect.
Early in the episode Don calls Sally and she confesses the truth of Betty’s diagnosis to Don. She also explains why she believes that it is best for her younger brothers to remain with Henry after Betty’s passing. The two momentarily exchange roles with Don reacting like the child, demanding that he gets custody of the boys. However, Sally has begun to adopt the sensibilities and maturity of a young woman, insisting on what is best for her brothers. It’s an important moment for the development of Sally’s character and one that is echoed later in the episode as she helps Bobby make dinner and is seen tending to the household chores when Betty cannot in the final scenes.
Immediately following this is the final conversation between Don and Betty, when he confronts Betty about hiding her cancer diagnosis from him. If anyone has ever doubted that January Jones was a talented actress, their doubts should be completely erased by this scene (and her performance in ‘The Milk & Honey Route’). As they confront the tragic end that Betty’s life is coming to and what it means for their family and their relationship, it is clear that there is a tenderness and love between Don and Betty that never fades despite the hostile terms of their divorce. Watching them say good-bye to one another was devastating.
After going on a bender in Utah, Don arrives at the doorstep of his ‘niece’, Stephanie, in California. We learn that she has walked away from motherhood and plans to attend a retreat in northern California the next day. After seeing Don’s pathetic state, she decides to take him with her.
Meanwhile, Ken has come to Joan for help in producing a video. Joan’s connections and knowledge in the business lead her to the idea to form her own production company, in which she offers Peggy a partnership. Joan was really put through hell in these final episodes; what was done to her at McCann-Erickson was deplorable and having to watch her more or less buy her way out of it was heart-breaking. However, her victorious nature here in this final episode makes up for all of it. Joan is confident and comfortable with herself, she is comfortable in her relationship with Roger, she is ambitious enough to start her own company, she is secure in her role as a mother. Joan has been completed vindicated. The end of her relationship with Richard was an emotionally challenging moment for her, but Joan comes out of all of this a stronger woman for it.
Don and Stephanie are attending a group therapy session where Stephanie explains her anguish about giving up her child and her fear of being judged for the decision she’s made. She confesses feelings of being a failure and after some brutally honest comments from other individuals in the group she storms out of the room sobbing. Don follows her to give her some of the same advice he gives to Peggy at the end of season one: he insists that she can move on from this, put all of this behind her. It’s the same mantra that Don has been living his life by and for the first time he hears a heartfelt contradiction to that statement “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that”.
At the office, Stan joins Peggy for a drink at the end of the day. This is the scene I affectionately refer to as ‘Classic Drunk Andrea’. Peggy is several drinks deep as she is contemplating Joan’s offer to join her as a partner. Stan gives his honest opinion that she should stay and Peggy immediately gets overly defensive and aggressively bitchy toward someone who is actually on her side of the argument. After Peggy verbally berates him and calls him a failure Stan storms out of her office and says “there’s more to life than work” leaving Peggy looking as if she’d just been punched in the gut. Peggy feels successful in her work; it is the things outside of her job where she feels she has failed. Stan’s implication that work is not the most important thing in her life stirs up more feelings of insecurity and the fuels her fear of falling short.
Back at the hippie ranch, Don awakens to discover that Stephanie has fled during the night and taken the car with her, leaving him stranded and abandoned. This pushes Don to his absolute emotional limit and he begins to have one of the most beautiful unravelings I’ve ever seen on television. In his fragile state Don turns to the only person that he’s ever felt even a shred of comfort exposing his vulnerability to: Peggy. Peggy receives his phone call in the office and the two have a tumultuous, revealing conversation. So much of this series has been built around the Don & Peggy relationship and in this scene I think we finally understand the role that Peggy has filled in Don’s life. If you listen to her tone more than the words that she says while she talks with Don on the phone, you notice that it is strikingly maternal. She opens with rage about Don disappearing and closes the phone call in tears. Peggy musters as much of her calm as possible to communicate to Don ‘you can come home’, a profoundly maternal sentiment: no matter what trouble you’ve gotten into, you can always come home. In some ways, Peggy was something of the maternal figure that Don never had, someone to calm him, someone he could go to in his hour of need. Peggy serves this purpose one last time as Don says his good byes.
One of the most popular theories about how Weiner would choose to end Mad Men was that Don would commit suicide. I have always been an avid defender of the idea that there was no way that Weiner would end the series with something that obvious. However, as he confesses to Peggy on the phone about his short comings, his inability to be a good father (“I scandalized my child”), and his failure to be a person of conviction (“I took a good man’s name and made nothing of it”) I began to seriously wonder if maybe this was where we were headed – and for a moment, I think this was Don’s next course of action. After hanging up with Peggy Don physically collapses onto the ground under the weight of his own turmoil.
After Don hangs up on Peggy, she immediately calls Stan to discuss the conversation she has just had with Don. This leads to her apologizing for the way she treated him while she was drunk the day before. This kicks off what is definitely the most saccharine and slightly cheesy moment of this finale, but somehow it totally works. Weiner completely embraced the rom-com tone and created a hilarious moment when Peggy realizes her mutual love for Stan while exchanging an incredibly awkward phone conversation. A lot of people thought Stan and Peggy pairing up came completely out of left field, but I’d urge those people to revisit the last few seasons, I’ve been rooting for this since the nudist episode in season 4 (“Waldorf Stories).
Back in California a therapist from one of the earlier sessions discovers Don nearly comatose next to the phone booth. She insists that he come with her to her next group therapy session and Don obliges. This leads us to the most important moment of the episode and arguably the most important moment of the entire series. After the two arrive there is a beat of silence in which the facilitator waits for the next volunteer to share. The woman who brought Don to the meeting gives him a knowing look as if to suggest that he goes next. However, another man who looks equally out of place steps up to talk. We learn that the man’s name is Leonard and that he feels as if he has never been interesting to anyone, most painfully, his family. Don begins to perk up and pay closer attention to Leonard’s comments after he explains that it feels as if ‘no one cares when he’s gone’. He goes on to say about his family “They should love me, maybe they do. I don’t know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you and then you realize they are trying to and you don’t even know what it is”. The source of so much of Don’s angst has been his resistance to allow others to love him. The years of building up his callused exterior have prevented Don from physically articulating these insecurities that he harbors on such a molecular level. Don Draper, the man who is so brilliant with words, could not get these out of his mouth, so Leonard serves as his proxy; he speaks the things that Don cannot say. Leonard then begins to sob uncontrollably in front of the group. Don, who has always kept people at such a distance, opens himself up enough to connect with this stranger who has just spoken as if the words were coming from Don himself. Don stands and crosses the room to embrace Leonard as the two break down.
This is a pivotal moment in the character progression of Don Draper. I believe I heard this on the Bald Move Mad Men Happy Hour podcast, so I cannot take credit for this interpretation: this is the closest we will ever get to seeing Don Draper hug and comfort Dick Whitman. Leonard is representative of the fragile man that lives within Don Draper, the man he has so diligently tried to squash and forget. In this moment, the man of armor is separated from the tender core he has spent a lifetime trying to suppress. Don’s world crumbles at his feet offering him the fresh opportunity to start anew with only the best parts of each Don Draper and Dick Whitman to live a more honest and intentional life.
This leads us to the final montage of happy endings: Pete & Trudy flying off into the sunset, Joan successfully running her business
Roger and Marie in Montreal
Betty smoking at the kitchen table, embracing death on her own terms
Peggy typing at McCann with Stan at her side
and finally, Don at morning meditation.
Don closes his eyes and begins to meditate with the group. Slowly, a smirk grows across his face and we cut to the iconic Coke Commercial of 1971, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” suggesting that Don goes back to New York to work for McCann-Erickson (who actually did create that commercial in real life) and uses his experiences as inspiration for his next great piece of work. What I love SO much about this finale is the ambiguity of that ending: it’s fairly clear that Don’s future includes writing this Coke commercial…does that make this a happy ending for Don or a crushingly tragic one? Much of the series has been dedicated to solving the question ‘will Don ever be able to change?’. Will he ever stop serial-cheating on the women in his life, will he stop attempting to drink himself to death in a stupor of self-hatred? Will Don move forward and make something of his life that he finds virtuous? You cannot give a definitive answer to any of those questions. One could interpret this ending as one that is undeniably positive for Don: after his experiences in California he takes his new-found understanding and acceptance of self, moves back to New York, and goes back to McCann-Erickson to work on the Coke account. Perhaps Don’s epiphany truly allowed him to shed as much of his ‘Dick Whitman’ baggage as possible and Don goes forward with his life as a good father, maybe a good husband, and an excellent career man…OR you can read it in a more cynical way: the smirk that crosses Don’s face is a realization of his brilliant idea for a Coke ad. Rather than absorbing these valuable experiences and applying them to his future, Don sees a way in which his experience at this hippy camp can be a commodity; he perverts a beautiful truth by turning it into a sale. Perhaps Don returns to New York and continues to drink, smoke, sleep with and dispose of women. In this way Weiner is suggesting that people never really do change. It is the nature of the human condition that we revert back to our lifelong habits, regardless of how destructive they may be.
The Verdict: After spending more time with it, I am now 100% on board with this episode and wholeheartedly believe this was an excellent way to end the show. Matthew Weiner crafted a finale that was true to the series’ narrative structure and philosophical themes, true to its visual integrity, and faithful to the viewers that have been so devoted to this program for 7+ years. I’m also pretty confident in declaring that Mad Men is one of the best (if not the best) show of its time. Breaking Bad certainly gave it a run for its money but I think Weiner has shown us that the breadth and depth of Mad Men accompanied with the impeccable production design and acting performances put Mad Men a step above the rest.