‘Mad Men’ Series Finale: Where You Drink Champagne and It Tastes Just Like Coca-ColaJustina Mintz/AMC
Well I cut down women, I cut down booze,
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes,
Stopped going to work, I stopped reading the news,
I sit and twiddle my thumbs ’cause I got nothing to do,
Minimal exercise to help uncomplicate my life,
Gotta stand and face it — life is so complicated.
La di da di da da, la di da di da da,
You gotta get away from the complicated life, son,
Life is overrated, life is complicated,
Must alleviate this complicated life
—The Kinks, “Complicated Life” (Muswell Hillbillies, 1971)
“Who am I?” is a question that can never be answered definitively. One human lifespan is not nearly long enough to find out, and how can any answer be definitive when who you are depends so much on your setting? Maybe it’s impossible to escape your core flaws, but it can be freeing just to acknowledge them. Don Draper’s self is a changeable thing, a liquid that takes the form of whatever it’s poured into. Don did make his way out West after all, stopping in Utah on his way to California. He could easily have made a long go of it in Utah, reinventing himself as a grease monkey who likes to cruise the salt flats at top speeds; he already has the proto–X Gamers he’s hanging out with thinking he’s from Detroit. Don’s interest in hot rods dates back to his days visiting Anna Draper in San Pedro. The “D.D.” that stands for Don Draper now also stands for double denim.
Joan would like to buy the world some coke. She is living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle in Florida with her new dude. Because I hardly ever stop feeling like something terrible is about to happen on Mad Men, I was very concerned that Richard was going to have a coke-induced heart attack in paradise and die on the spot. A few scenes later I was sort of wishing he had, because he stomped all over Joan’s dreams yet again, this time begrudging her her career ambitions since they interfered with his own retirement fantasies. Having spent decades letting men use her as a sounding board and trampoline, Joan no longer has any illusions that devoting herself to making a man happy is the path to her own happiness. Nor does she have any fantasies about changing a man who is stubbornly set in his ways. She has been through enough by now to know better. Any man who wants to be with her has to fit into the life she’s already made for herself. They must respect her hustle to deserve her hothouse beauty.
Harry’s suggestion that he, Pete, and Peggy should have lunch is just as adorably ridiculous and out of touch as Don’s idea that he suddenly can become an involved father. Why start now? You can be nostalgic for the past, but don’t invent what was never there. Pete’s random streak of luck will carry him to the Midwest. Pete and Peggy end almost as they began: unlikely friends who secretly have a cactus together. Peggy is innately cool, but she’s also the same overly work-obsessed Lisa Simpson–style nerd that she’s always been. Pete is still hilariously self-aware, which has always been his saving grace. He knows what people think of him. He compliments her creative talent and ability to hold back from punching people in the face (even when they really deserve it).
Speaking with Don on the phone, Peggy tries to be assertive. When assertiveness fails, she generally goes for diminutiveness (and if that fails, she goes back to assertiveness). Like her mentor, she doesn’t like to take no for an answer and can phrase the question in an infinite number of ways. Over the phone, Don leans on Peggy’s shoulder, just like he’s done a million times before. Don is crazy if he thinks Peggy is only now realizing that her mentor is imperfect and fallible. Like Sally, Peggy has known for a while now that Don was not all he was cracked up to be. Sally and Peggy are the only two people in Don’s life who reliably call him out on his bullshit, and that is why he respects but also tortures them the most. It’s surprising that Don didn’t reach out to Peggy earlier, because she is generally his anchor when he starts to go off course. She’s just so goddamn sensible.
Peggy knows, Don, and also, it’s fine. All human beings are fallible. It’s actually comforting to realize once you get over the shock. Every bad thing Don has ever done seemingly stemmed from his untreated depression and postwar PTSD, which persisted because contemporary social mores of masculinity dictated that a strong man did not complain and certainly did not cry. And because he grew up in poverty, the idea of paying someone to listen to him cry about his problems certainly wasn’t on the table. It’s not just the cigarettes that were killing him, it was keeping everything inside. He buried his feelings in order to create the illusion of Don Draper, peerless alpha male. Unfortunately for Don, people loved him as a peerless alpha male so much that it left no room for sad, vulnerable, insecure Dick Whitman to exist. And because keeping feelings repressed forever is impossible, Don ventilated his sadness through anger and hedonism, booze and sex. But it never brought him any real satisfaction, just as one cigarette never quells the need for another.
Peggy’s five-year plan was to work her way up to creative director, but it sounds a long way off when she hears a potential timeline out loud. She’s been working her way toward that goal for so long now that it seems foolish to give it up and go into screenwriting for corporate films. Maybe the production firm of Harris-Olson was too much to hope for, but even having the prospect raised made my heart leap. Peggy and Joan were so often separated by their different approaches to a common enemy. Finally they are friends, or at least professional colleagues on an equal plane of power.
Don and Betty’s fights still have that same old explosive chemistry. Betty has a newly affected theatrical cough, and to make her look believably ill they tried to light January Jones unflatteringly, but it’s impossible. Betty is right: The kids might be totally weirded out if Don were suddenly around all the time. It’s better that they should go on learning to be responsible latchkey kids who can take care of themselves. Sally is not going to Madrid anymore. She will spend the summer hanging around in the Francis family house she longed to escape forever but now feels sad won’t exist soon. Sally saying she came home for the summer because “I missed you guys!” sounded a lot like Betty lying unconvincingly to the other kids. Sally has picked up some of her mom’s parenting techniques, too, such as “go watch TV.” Speaking of family situations, Roger, Joan, and Kevin are still a unit of sorts, bound by money, blood, and sentimental memories of fur coats on the floors of hotel suites.
Having lost Diana the waitress, Don finds Stephanie, presumably after running down the list of remaining women in his little black book that bears the insignia “Captain Save a Hoe.” Stephanie is familiar with Don’s pathology: He loves sleeping on couches. Stephanie takes Don to Esalen, and I was just relieved it wasn’t Peoples Temple. The self-expression class depicted in this episode is also how Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice starts (and ends). Maybe the nothingness that Don feels inside can be a Zen sort of nothingness. It’s a new decade, and the potential for reinvention is actually endless. Don, the self-appointed patron saint of comforting women for renouncing motherhood, has a swing and a miss with Stephanie. He talks about life in terms of pasts and futures when all anyone at Esalen is interested in is now. Don’s past has never mattered to others as much as he felt it did.
Stan’s earnest plea for Peggy’s love was right out of a ’70s soft rock song, and it gave Peggy her own small panic attack. Their tenderly volatile friendship has matured into Mad Men’s only potentially healthy relationship between near equals, a hopeful sign of times to come. Now she and Stan can ball on a cloud of reefer smoke. It’ll be hard, too, of course. There will be times when they’ll both be in “creative” moods. But it’s going to be worth it if they can keep from killing each other at work. Peggy is so rational that her own emotions sometimes stress her out. She and Don have the same problem with control, but Peggy has always been better at letting it ride, probably by necessity because of her gender. It’s been a secret strength for her; she can adapt to most situations, including McCann Erickson. She sees the advantage to creating visibility in a big institution like McCann, even if the place is rotting inside. Peggy’s screenplay probably would have been deemed too clever for an industrial film anyway. That’s what I’ll keep telling myself, at least.
If anyone in the show has reached full enlightenment, it’s Joan. She traveled the furthest of any character. Peggy was always ambitious, and Don was always troubled. But the Joan we met in the pilot was a self-appointed female defender of patriarchy, and by the close of the finale she is determined to burn it all down. She learned that supporting your own oppression doesn’t help you to get spared. Women and minorities are discouraged from speaking up about the systematic oppression they encounter, and often gaslit into pretending it doesn’t exist. One day Joan will meet a guy who won’t make her choose between love and her job. You can’t stop a ginger with a plan, even when one is making up that plan on the fly.
Oh, you thought Don Draper was going to die with the ’60s? He is going to live to capitalize on the Me Decade. Maybe he quit shilling nicotine (for business reasons he spun as moral), but he certainly has no reservations about selling another addictive substance: sugar. On a related note, I’m now sad we’ll never get to see any of the Mad Men characters’ coke problems. (I’m kidding, but also not?) The early ’70s were a lot like the late ’60s. Ideologies were shifting and hippie idealism may have been damaged by Altamont and the Manson Family, but the idealism certainly wasn’t dead. The silent majority may have been making a play to regain control, but there was still all that trampled ground where the old rules once stood, and the empty field was an opportunity to try out new things. Blended families, shacking up without getting married, a focus on the inner self that blurred lines between self-discovery and narcissism. The whole Me Decade thing seems Victorian compared to the Selfie Age, although it led the way.
Society was broken and people were unhappy — maybe these progressive attempts to create new modes of interpersonal relations weren’t entirely successful — but hey, it was worth a shot. America entered the ’80s just as lost as ever, prompting the Reagan-era pitch to reset to a time before counterculture, a pitch based in a fantasy of a nonexistent golden age. Don has been operating under the fantasy that happiness can be anything but ephemeral, that there are people out there who lead normal lives of pure contentment.
In an Esalen workshop, he tunes in to Leonard, a sad sack who has felt invisible his entire life, and Don suddenly understands how handsomeness made his life so much better than Leonard’s. Maybe Don rejected the so-called finest things in life — beautiful women, expensive things, high-profile jobs — because they didn’t fill the emptiness inside his soul, but at least he got to experience them in order to learn that. You could argue that his beauty only compounded his problems; everyone believed he had everything, and he felt compelled to keep up that appearance for years at the expense of his own inner peace. But like Marie and Roger’s relationship, at this point no one cares what Don’s inner life is like so long as he makes the doughnuts. All Don needed to know was that other people feel the same way he does: insignificant. Leonard cries, and Don crosses the room to hug him. Mad Men has always suggested that we are all alone on a base level, but that’s not discordant with its other main theme: ONLY CONNECT. We can all be one another’s protectors in the absence of nuclear family structures and a fatherly god. Sally does the housework and takes care of Betty. Stan rubs Peggy’s shoulders while she writes. Joan finally starts taking care of her own needs.
At Esalen, Don Draper is quiet. He’s being forced to look inward, something Dick Whitman has avoided his entire life. He’s trying to learn how to drown out the noise without talking over it, to listen directly to the void. Don wears khakis, because you can’t do yoga in jeans. He opens his mind to the idea that there is no Don Draper, but there’s no Dick Whitman either. There doesn’t have to be just one you. There can be a million yous instead. He’s in the moment at last. And then, the punch line: the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Ain’t that a kick in the head?1 Mad Men opens your chakras and then ends with one of the most cynical moments of the whole show. It’s a microcosm of the ’60s becoming the ’70s, mirroring how the counterculture was digested, depoliticized, and sold back to the kids. (The original jingle that became “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was titled “Mom, True Love, and Apple Pie,” written by Billy Davis and Roger Greenaway.) The quest for the true self became just another way to sell new accessories. Instead of selling square ideals, the ads sell freedom from square ideals, but they’re still selling something, you know, man? Enlightenment is free, but Esalen sure as hell isn’t.
As kids, my little brother and I loved to watch compilation tapes of commercials from the ’50s and ’60s, which is where I first saw the 1961 ads in which the Flintstones sell cigarettes. I wasn’t intellectualizing the commercials yet. I just enjoyed them, with their weird feeling of nostalgia for a time I hadn’t lived through. I liked seeing what the world had been like when my parents were children, and how alien it seemed. Like a lot of kids, I was also obsessed with Sesame Street, the first show that suggested TV could be an instructional tool for budding minds, counteracting conventional wisdom that TV is only mind-melting garbage. It’s true that most media is mind-melting garbage, and that mind-melting garbage also has its place, but there’s something to be said for aiming high. Mad Men has been an instructional tool in how far television can go, freed from traditional conventions of pacing and plot. Sometimes it didn’t go far enough — the racial issues of the era were only touched on fleetingly. But it was a testament to the potential of the form. Like The Sopranos, it is novelistic in scope and rich with minutely filled-in personal details.
The so-called Golden Age of TV has resembled the ’70s Golden Age in Hollywood, in which the floodgates temporarily opened for films inspired by European cinema, movies that mimicked the messy open-endedness of real life.2 With its sprawling cast, sometimes experimental sound mixing, and low-key dark sense of humor, Mad Men has always reminded me of the films of Robert Altman. I get sad when TV shows end because sometimes I do feel like TV shows, and parasocial ensemble casts in particular, are my friends. Mad Men has always held a particular appeal for me because of its cocktail of earnestness and cynicism, which feels like real life. I liked the little touches of Halloween décor in the finale, because Halloween is a holiday that dredges up feelings of melancholy nostalgia about the passage of time. I can’t watch old episodes of Mad Men without associated memories about where I was in my life when they first aired, each serving as a marker of growth. And on some dark night soon, I know I’ll revisit them, my own Kodak Carousel.
It’s a happy ending. Or is it? Peggy still has to deal with the fact that the men at the top of the operation are the execrable Jim Hobart and Ferg, and she turned down a partnership with Joan in favor of the safer option of keeping her job at McCann. Ken Cosgrove is probably never going to write that novel. We still have no idea what happened to Sal, who I maintain would have kept up a friendship with Joan. I thought about the Coke placements in the 1968 movie Head, a deconstruction of The Monkees and television written by Jack Nicholson. And then I drank a Coke, in the beautiful glass bottle that is said to resemble a voluptuous woman’s form. The “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial was a hit, but it was also dastardly in some ways. The gesture — I want to connect with you — is sincere, but also supremely cynical: I want to connect with you by sharing this consumer experience. Coca-Cola, like cigarettes, is marketed as a social tool you can buy. Maybe you’re lonely, too shy to flirt or make friends; this product does it for you. It’s a mass commercialization of the Esalen dream: Look deeply enough within yourself and you’ll find everyone else there, too. It’s the real thing.