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Mad Men: The End of an Era

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Mad Men: The End of an Era

Last night, Sunday, May 17th, was the final installment in the seven seasons of the prolific series on AMC – “Mad Men.”  After airing on television for almost 10 years, “Mad Men”, widely regarded as one of the best dramas of all time, has turned off the lights and closed the doors with its 92 episode.  “Person to Person”, the series finale, seems to have fans in unanimously agreement that Matthew Weiner has given us a satisfactory conclusion to AMC’s prestige drama.  I’ve watched the series since the start and have regarded “Mad Men” as a cinematic level work of art airing each Sunday.  Though it was hard to watch this series end, the finale left me with a sense of happiness.  Along with Don Draper (Jon Hamm), a smirk, and a coca-cola, “Mad Men” is over.  But we could all move on.  This is it for What’cha Reading’s “Talking Mad”, but the best is yet to come.  Just as we learned with last night’s episode of “Mad Men.”

“Do you remember the times of your life?”

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“Person to Person” opens with a montage set to the Paul Anka song, “Times of Your Life.”  The song plays over a well-edited set of scenes that recapture the times of the characters of Mad Men‘s lives.  There have been high and low moments, and developments of such grey ambiguity that have consistently held a mirror to our own realities.  This has been one of the series greatest strengths as viewers could immediately get lost in the contrail of Matthew Weiner’s giant, moving art.

The actual episode begins with Don Draper.  He’s in Utah, speeding like a bat out of hell (or a man on the lam) on the Bonneville salt flats.  He’s attempting to make a land speed record as he’s currently at home with a group of young racers, whose car he’s staked.  At first, it appears as if Don is on the run in some science-fiction movie, kind of like a scene out of the original “Mad Max.”  But, he’s continuing his Kerouacian journey across America and, in the meantime, voluntarily paying for sex.  He’s bedded a new woman, one of the racer’s friends, and she attempts to rob him of his money.  She asks him if he’s ever paid before to which he responds “I have and I will.  I’d just like it to be voluntary.”  It’s an adult moment in an adult television series and a great nod to the life of Don Draper.  In fact, “Person to Person” is complete with nods to the life of Don Draper, and Matthew Weiner perfectly writes a compelling final act for a man who many theorized would become D.B. Cooper or a suicidal jumper, plummeting out of his office building.

“I hope he’s in a better place” is said to Roger in conversation with Don’s mousy secretary.  She’s been let go in Don’s absence from McCann Erickson, but she promises she will land on her feet.  Maybe with this being a combination of “Mad Men”, a script by Matthew Weiner, and the series finale, nearly every scene and dialogue I tried to scrutinize.  She says she’s always landed on her feet, managing to bounce back after her undisclosed amount of set-backs.  It may seem unimportant, but her character is another great example of a story arc that helps reflect Don’s walk of life.  While the offices at McCann Erickson ruminate over Don’s disappearance and possible death (“I think we would have heard” – Roger), Don in many ways is spiritually dead, physically broken, and mentally worn out.  His time ends with the young racers as they help him out of the room he’s been staying in.  And thank you Matt Weiner for not making this another robbery/phone book beat down!

To make matters worse, during his regular phone conversations with his daughter, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) he learns that Betty (January Jones) has six months left to live.  Sally tells him of the plan that will find the children living with Betty’s brother’s family.  Betty does not want Don to return as “[his]not being here is part of that.”  He calls his ex-wife later on, but it’s a little too late for reparations.  They tearfully say goodbye and there closes the door on Betty and Don’s relationship.  January Jones, while I’ve always felt she’s been fantastic on “Mad Men”, many have argued against her performance.  However, these last few episodes have found an audience in agreement that she’s delivered her best work.  To that, I agree.

Don, seemingly at the bottom of his journeys on the road, returns to California to visit his ersatz niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz of “Arrow” & “DC’s Legends of Tomorrow”!!!)  Stephanie allows him to stay for the night and tells him that she’s going up the coast “on retreat.”  During the middle of the night, she wakes him up and tells him “you’re coming with me.”  Where do they go?  They head off to a hippie commune which features the original Supergirl, Helen Slater.  (Way to go AMC for scoring two Team DC actors!)  While at the retreat, Stephanie recounts giving up her child and of how she feels judged by those around her.  Caity Lotz has had an amazing character arc for Stephanie Whitman throughout the years and for her to be featured prominently in the final episode is terrific.  But as much as I love Caity and her performance, too much time is spent on the commune.  While there’s an enormity and weight to the issues Matthew Weiner explores in his final script, you get the feeling as it’s nearing the end that he will have overreached for one last time.  Weiner is a spectacular writer and has created true art.  I’ve mentioned the artistry of “Mad Men” a few times and for anyone that watches, you’ll immediately recognize the tapestry of writing and quality drama being presented.  However, as with any writer, there are strengths and weaknesses.  Weiner, is known for having a tendency to sometimes overreach for a theme or concept, only to under develop it as it’s too big for one single episode or season!  The commune is where a majority of the climax happens and it’s a significant setting for the final act in Don Draper’s screen time.  It serves a rewarding purpose, but somehow squanders time that could have been devoted to fleshing out just a little bit more with the supporting players.  “Mad Men” has always been a series built on the mystery and allure of ambiguity so I suppose it is fitting for the direction the middle and latter portion of “Person to Person” took.

“I made a mistake and I just want to get it together now.”

Caity Lotz’s Stephanie delivers a poignant line that once again not only expresses her own predicament, but mirrors Don’s as well.  She ultimately leaves the commune without saying goodbye, but does glaringly point out that after all this time, Don isn’t family.  He’s just a man who took her family’s name in order to escape the Korean War.  He’s provided, but out of an obligation.  He’s cared, but not necessarily loved.  Her words trap the perpetual escape artist in a moment which services a break down of sorts for Don.  Just as Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) tells Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) that “there’s more to life than work”, Don realizes that there’s more to life than just his own sins.

Don: “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.”
Peggy: “Don. Listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?”
Don: “I broke all my vows. I scandalised my child. I took another man’s name and made … nothing of it.”
Peggy: “That’s not true.”
Don: “I only called because I realised I never said goodbye to you.”
Peggy: “I don’t think you should be alone right now.”

Don speaking with Peggy and finally confessing his sin almost as honest as it is frantic.  The idea of a last chapter is ever present during this whole conversation and by the time Matthew Weiner’s random character of Leonard appears, we get it.  The vague concept, the unspecified “it” is just that.  Don finally is able to understand and open himself to the life he’s created for himself.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper - Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 - Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Jon Hamm as Don Draper – Mad Men _ Season 7B, Episode 14 – Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC

Will Dean of The Guardian offers:

“At first Don took to the classes with a world-weariness. His inability to engage in an exercise where he had to silently communicate with a stranger earned him a violent shove. But after being stranded when Stephanie took off without him, he was persuaded to join a group therapy session.

Then, rather than give Don one last bravura speech something strange happened. As we were waiting for Don to take the speaker’s seat, a man called Leonard stood up and began to tell his story. One of being walked past, of not being noticed, not even by his own family. The opposite of Don Draper, but perhaps not of Dick Whitman. Then Leonard told us about a dream (and perhaps helped give some extra clarity as to why closing doors are so important in the show):

With that, Leonard broke down. And Don stood up, joined him, hugged him and broke down too. His peace found. At last.”

Don Draper, a man seen with graying temples, finally embraces a stranger and finds the peace he’s subconsciously longed for for so long.  It’s such a great moment and almost as immediate as Don recognizes himself in Leonard, the audience recognizes the magic of Weiner’s writing.  He’s spent a long time with these characters and the world of “Mad Men” that he’s completely perfected his craft.  The moment plays to every beat of Weiner’s drum and not one note is missed.  The show could have ended with the final shot of Don Draper at the hillside.  But it doesn’t.  It goes on for just one more scene (or advertisement).  This is the final scene:

Sophie Gilbert of The Atlantic had a few illuminating thoughts that I did not immediately pick up on. – “Don’s implied connection to the 1971 “Hilltop” ad (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke…”) was, in retrospect, pretty aggressively foreshadowed throughout the past season (in “Time & Life,” the camera dwells on Don’s face lighting up as the McCann executives mention the holy grail of the “Coca-Cola” account; in the show’s penultimate episode, last week’s “The Milk and Honey Route,” Don ingratiated himself at the quaint motel he’d found himself stranded at by fixing its broken Coke machine; there was even, in an otherwise puzzling scene earlier in this episode, Joan Harris trying cocaine). Despite all that, though, the ad’s crucial role in closing out seven seasons of Mad Men still managed to be a surprise—actually, a pleasant shock—to me. I was pretty sure the show wouldn’t end in Don’s death, but I was also pretty sure it would end with him starting over, in a classic Whitmanian/Draperian rebirth: a new life, a new style, a new woman, a new set of circumstances to create and to colonize.

Megan Garber of The Atlantic added:Is Don, om-ing on a cliff in a perfectly starched white dress shirt, a Buddhist now? Is he simply pretending to be—using his fellow meditators the way he’s used so many others, as fodder for ad copy? Did he make the Coke ad, or is the ad instead simply a kind of thematic legacy, the kind of thing that he would have created had he not chosen to hang out in the California sunshine, losing himself in a fog of designer patchouli?

Image via AMC

“Om.”

or

“New Day, New Ideas, New You.”

Pete and Trudy get on the plane to begin their new life.  Roger and Marie are married and he gets one last sarcastic quip.  Joan has success (or we hope) with her production company.  Rizzo and Peggy are in love.  Sally washes the dishes as Betty smokes a cigarette.  It’s a quick flash of scenes that work, but remind us that Matthew Weiner wrote an ambitious piece that reached too high.  Ultimately, “Person to Person” delivered a stunning finale to one of the greatest American prestige dramas in television history.  My complaint is that there was probably too much time spent at the commune as opposed to having a little more time with Pete and Trudy, Rizzo and Peggy…  But because of the length of the time spent at the commune, we get a flash of the times of their lives.  It works, but also leads to the much talked about ending.  While “Mad Men” didn’t conclude as teasingly as “The Sopranos” or as definitively as “Breaking Bad”, it did manage to provide a last scene that has divided much of its audience.  In speaking immediately with friends afterwards, I had this to say – “Thinking of our past seven seasons “together” and talking mad.  I loved the ending, but felt Weiner undercut a nearly perfect moment with the commercial [for Coca Cola].  Lyrically, it was genius [as it helped elaborate on the exact sentiment expressed with Don], but I just felt it was unnecessary to tell the audience that message as we already got it with Don’s smile.”  My friend, Emily responded with “I’m so sad it’s over!  I really liked the ending with the commercial to hint that he had been behind it since it was such a famous ad.  I thought it really tied everything together and showed Don went back at it and was able to produce possibly his masterpiece as a result of his near breakdown.”

Mike Giordano of Royal Collectibles of Queens, NY had this to say: “Yes!  Don took his hippy lessons and turned it into a real winner for Coke!”

But was this really the intention of Matthew Weiner with the addition of the Coca Cola commercial at the end of “Person to Person”?  I don’t think so.  As I’ve watched the series since the beginning and have become a fan who understands that Weiner’s niche is presenting audiences with material that can’t always be taken as a literal meaning, I believe that the ending isn’t as straight-forward as many thought.  I don’t agree that Don returns to McCann Erickson with the yogi’s “new ideas” and brings a winning ad campaign that signifies a new brand and a “new you” for Don Draper.  How could it?  He disappeared!  He isn’t the titan that he used to be.  Arguably, he hasn’t been the Don Draper we’ve known from season one since he went on “love leave” according to Robert Morse’s Bert Cooper.  After Jim Hobart of McCann Erickson forced out Joan, reduced Peggy’s responsibilities, relocated Roger to the old age floor, allowed Pete to leave, and included Ted in a pool of creative directors making him a mere cog in the machine, why would he take Don back?  Despite Peggy’s insistence that McCann would take back Don, it would seemingly be unprofessional of such a company to allow such a deserter back into the fold.  More importantly, it would seem counter productive to bring Don back and allow him to be the sheer driving force behind such a prolific ad campaign.  We do remember all of the rules SCP enforced on Don when he made his return after the outrageous Hershey’s pitch that led him to be unofficially fired.  So why would a bigger company and arguably more prestigious company act with more lax and apathetic conditions towards a figure that could potentially harm their reputation.  (“Why I’m Quitting Tobacco”)

Outside of the business and potential legal ramifications of bringing Don back to such a prominent place withing McCann Erickson, it does not seem like Don would even wish to return.  Even with his healthier, more optimistic, and hopeful outlook as learned through his time at the commune, you would think that the suit and tie would be retired.  It was a skin that would be shed by the chameleon known as Dick Whitman/Don Draper.  Would he have any ultimate motivation to return to the place he left?  No.  Especially after his goodbye phone call to Peggy, the idea of his return would be hypocritical of his entire reasons for walking out and beginning his journey on the road.  He’s come to a place of acceptance (he acknowledges his time in the Korean War to strangers, if only partially) to his alluding to his life as a con man/fraud to the young thief he encountered.  Oh wait, and let’s not even forget that the first episode of this final season opens with him recounting his childhood to strangers (something he would never have been candid about in the past – HE KEPT A LITERAL BOX OF SECRETS!)  So, if he’s accepted his life and found truth and forgiveness in those around him, it would only be him regressing in turning back to advertising.  I know Don Draper and I know that this is something he would not do.  He tells Peggy early in season one after she gives up her child (something that is mirrored in his talk with Stephanie) about moving forward.  That wouldn’t necessarily change with his new found lease on life.  If anything, the idea of moving forward would only amplify the necessity of forging a brand new path.

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The “om”, smirk, and sound of a bell was a perfect way to conclude our time spent watching the life of Don Draper play out over seven seasons on Sunday nights.

Will Dean of The Guardian said: “We cut from Don meditating in California to McCann’s most famous advert for the world’s most famous company. In Time and Life, I suggested that if California was Don’s Jerusalem, Coke was an ad’s man’s paradise.  I’d love for that to be the reason why we were played out by I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke but you suspect it’s less our man finding advertising nirvana (he couldn’t care less now) than Weiner coyly pointing out that even as Don found peace, the ideas of love and understanding – the hippy dream by which he did so – would soon be co-opted by the biggest of big businesses. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose … as Roger might say.”

The idea of the mad men dying and going to heaven according to Jim Hobart is expressed and backed by Will Dean’s words.  Hobart rattles off clients with Coke being the ad man’s paradise.  Figuratively, how beautiful would it be for Matthew Weiner to express Don’s journey through the inferno and his arrival into heaven by using the ideas of our own reality and advertising history.  If Coca Cola is the figurative paradise, maybe that end is signification that Don Draper has found his own paradise.

And to that I say “Om.”

And to those that don’t agree I remind you that Don once said “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.”

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About Author

Mild mannered reporter, Steven Biscotti, has an avid interest in all things comic books, movies, and music (especially pertaining to Coldplay.) Always ready, professional, and on the scene, those closest to him may suspect he's actually from another planet. @ReggieMantleIII

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