The Real Thing: The Ending and Lasting Artistic Impact of ‘Mad Men’Kyle Fewell
“Listen to me: Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
As it turns out, Don Draper’s personal hobo code works pretty well for sharks, corporate and otherwise. But TV shows? Not so much. Everyone and everything runs out of real estate eventually, from drag racers at the Bonneville Salt Flats to beloved prestige dramas. The deep dives into ambiguity inevitably come up for air. The torrid affairs with the avant-garde give way to the reliable pleasures of romantic love. The intoxicating ellipses grind to a halt in the form of a single, irrevocable period. Maybe it’s better to put it in terms Don Draper would understand: When you’re drunk, limitless possibilities seem to pop and fizz behind your eyes. When you’re sober, the only effervescence on display comes from the alkaline tablets bubbling angrily inside a water glass. “People just come and go and no one says goodbye” is Dick Whitman’s complaint, lost somewhere in the salty air of Big Sur. But that’s not entirely true. Mad Men said goodbye. That actually happened. Does it really matter what it did or didn’t say?
I wish Don-circa-1961 could have paid me a visit Sunday night — just as he did Peggy early on in Mad Men’s remarkable run. I wasn’t in a hospital, but I was feeling poorly: spread out on my couch, slack-jawed and depressed after what struck me as a particularly disappointing series finale. I needed an aggressive pep talk or maybe some liquid courage. It wasn’t just the final moments that threw me: the bizarre triptych of Don ceding the floor to an anonymous schnook, blissing out in the lotus position, and then — maybe? probably? — buying the entire world a Coke. It was everything that came before: 60-plus minutes of unexpectedly clumsy lunches, freighted phone calls, and fan service. The latter seemed particularly egregious. The brilliance of Mad Men was, to me, that everyone knew that Peggy and Stan loved each other. It was there in their codependent bellyaching, their wordless phone calls, their easy honesty. The push into full-on Ephronica was as preposterous as it was unnecessary, even with Elisabeth Moss’s exquisite performance to anchor it. A good bartender isn’t the one who keeps pouring after the glass is full. It’s the one who knows when to leave well enough alone.
It was the safety of it all that bugged me, I guess. Mad Men has always been a show that lived in the hollow, uncomfortable spaces between what we want and what we need, that perpetually dared us with visions of the most horrific things imaginable — corpses under beds, car crashes on the Thruway — only to reveal the status quo as the scariest outcome of them all. But everyone knuckled to convention Sunday night, one way or another: Roger chased his age-appropriate bliss north of the border while securing the financial future of his son. Joan chose work, her truest love, over a life of wide horizons and wider lapels. Pete, reborn after last week’s windfall, ferried his perfect family into clear blue skies. Every interaction between these people felt as staged as the cast roundtables AMC has been airing throughout this miniseason. All warm smiles and stiff drinks, throats full of the grandiloquent sentiment generally reserved for eulogies — and usually eschewed by Mad Men like the plague. Of the core ensemble, only Sally’s fate felt rough and true. She can’t fly away to Madrid, like her father would, or scoff through cigarette smoke, like her mother. She has to act like an adult because, for god’s sake, it’s about time someone did.
It’s worth remembering that the opportunity to steer a show into a carefully constructed port is a privilege, not a right. I admire and appreciate Matthew Weiner for showing us the fullness of his vision, even if I found its final hour lacking. Besides, all finales box us in like this, the good ones and the bad. It’s not often the specifics we’re raging against, it’s finality itself. The end of a beloved series doesn’t just rob us of our old friends and the fun of their future adventures. It takes the air out of the fan-inflated balloon of possibility that can keep even aging series afloat long past their sell-by date. The truth is, Mad Men will never be better than it was on Sunday afternoon, when anything could still happen. As a shell of a man once said, happiness is nothing more than “a moment before you need more happiness.” Almost everyone onscreen was happy last night. And here I am left wanting just a little more.
Does this make me nothing more than another cynical consumer, unfairly demanding satisfaction and then complaining loudly when I don’t receive it? Maybe. I keep thinking of the woman in the Burger Chef drive-through who was there because her family was hungry, not because Peggy was filling her head with images of safety, solidarity, and home. There was an enormous amount of poetry in Weiner’s writing, but television, like advertising, always stoops back down into prose. You want to inspire people, but, at the end of the day, you also have to feed them. Which is why the clever-not-brilliant conclusion left me both hungry and angry on Sunday night — so much so that I broke a personal rule and tweeted about it, which, in retrospect, seems to violate the central lesson of every account across the long history of Sterling Cooper: The first impulse is always the worst. Better to let circumstances sink in — and if they don’t, try pouring alcohol on top of them until they do.
In the harsh light of a New York morning, I still think “Person to Person” was a mess of an episode, let alone a finale. It had no style; it wandered out too close to the cliffs. The hour exposed, once and for all, the limitations of building a seven-season series around a character like Don, who, as many noted, looked like an astronaut but carried inside him an insatiable black hole. Unlike the heroes of other Mount Rushmore shows, Don isn’t a lit match; he’s a puddle of kerosene, or maybe a Molotov cocktail. He only catches fire depending on who’s around him. At the end of the country, and at the end of his fictional life, Don was stripped of his intimates and draped instead with unremarkable eccentricities like beads: Supergirl and her passive-aggressive stare; comedian Brett Gelman, reprising his role from the unmissed sitcom Go On; some guy named Leonard. It fell to Stephanie, the unknowable niece of the man whose identity Dick Whitman stole, to deliver the death blow to Don’s self-sustaining engine of reinvention: After trying out his Peggy speech on her, Don is knocked flat when she looks him dead in the eye and says, “I don’t think you’re right about that.”
This made narrative sense — leave it to an actual Draper to remind Dick Whitman who he is — but was dramatically inert. Stephanie meant a lot to Dick but very little to us. Yet, again, this is what happens when a series runs for 92 hours. There was simply no one else left to deliver the blow. Don had had his major moments with Peggy and with Sally over a year ago, but that wasn’t enough. Not for him, not for the audience, and certainly not for a network and creator eager to continue the ride. The bar’s nearly empty. All that’s left is vermouth.
So it was both easy and disheartening to think of the episode’s final fade, from Don’s enlightened smile to the corpo-frivolity of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” as one last cruel spin of fate’s hamster wheel — excuse me, carousel. It was as if Weiner, eager to distance himself from the withholding of The Sopranos finale, had the Members Only guy pull out a handgun and murder something worse than Tony or Don: our hope. That’s the cynical reading, of course, the implication that Don experienced bliss and literally tried to bottle it. There’s also a more generous interpretation, well articulated by New York magazine’s Matt Zoller Seitz, that suggests a kind of contentment through acceptance: of failure, of marketing, of being OK instead of happy. To look at it this way demands an embrace of the same sort of duality that defined Dick Whitman/Don Draper: It’s possible for something to be both slick and sincere.
Perhaps there’s a third way. The last run of Mad Men episodes, particularly everything that has happened since man walked on the moon back in “Waterloo,” has been thematically ambitious and deeply moving. I’d never before seen a series ramp up to its finale by struggling, so deeply and existentially, with the idea of finality. Ghosts flickered at the margins, main characters were, suddenly and abruptly, written out of their own stories. “This is a beginning, not an ending!” Don shouted, to no avail, as everything the series had built crashed down all around him.
But this struggle has been essential to Mad Men from the start. In an era dominated by limited or “event” series that place a premium on flashy beginnings (the better to hook viewers) and action-packed endings (the better to make them feel rewarded), Mad Men was a throwback to the beautiful, messy uncertainty of when shows were, by nature, unlimited. It’s this inspired chaos that has always drawn me to TV, a place where stories unspool at their own anarchic pace, with the subconscious as copilot and the destination unknown. It’s a process, in other words, that can be as random and risky as life itself. Which is why Don Draper’s journey through a turbulent decade was marked not by the peaks and valleys of a history book but by a dull, steady thrum of repetition. Fresh starts were as cyclical as fashion. The names and faces changed, but the hangovers remained the same.
This made for art that could be as frustrating as it was enthralling. (The entire sixth season, for example, was a punishing Möbius strip of bile and loss.) But there’s no question that Mad Men was a work of art, in no small part because of the way it often stumbled. The more I think about it, the more I reject the idea that the finale was cynical in any way, because Mad Men was, at its pickled heart, the most purely creative show in the history of television. Not in terms of the wildness of its imagination, but rather in its dogged celebration of creativity as a worthwhile, if destabilizing, pursuit. Don and Peggy weren’t tortured artists in the familiar, bright-burning supernova sort of way. They were never too good for this world. Rather, they were intensely of the world. They conformed their unpredictable urges and impulses to the structures of a rapidly changing society. They lived to work. Their work was their life.
It’s easy to stand in judgment of someone who might tear something beautiful out of himself and giddily sell it to the highest bidder. It’s much harder to realize that this is something all humans do, both to survive on a physical level (as Don says of the hippie concierge at Esalen, “She took my money — that’s a good sign”) and to bring order to the chaos that is internal life. (Don seeks beauty in advertising. I seek beauty in a television show about advertising. Who’s the hero of this story?) That Don likely went straight from enlightenment to Jim Hobart’s office is far less surprising than the alternative. The only way anyone can stay in the sunlight, frozen forever in a smile of spiritual bliss, is in the final image of a TV show, just before the credits roll. The rest of us all have to climb back down the mountain.
The ideal happiness that Don finds only in 30-second commercials is no different from what Weiner himself finds in 60-minute teleplays. And what made Mad Men special was the way it zoomed in on the disconnect between the performance of the perfect — a business-securing pitch, an Emmy-winning script — and the reality of everything else. TV defined both Don and Matt and, in many ways, it befuddled them too. The electrifying six episodes that preceded “Person to Person” felt like a man wrestling out of a straitjacket, resisting the ease of closure that only a finale can bring. The frictionless glide of that last hour felt like a man — two men, I suppose — giving in. Television can universalize emotion like nothing else (really, who didn’t want to see Peggy Olson happy?), but it can also flatten it, rob it of nuance and depth. All stories are ads for someone else’s bliss. In the end, I think we saw Weiner acknowledging the impossibility of his lifelong pursuit. Despite his unparalleled talent, he simply couldn’t communicate the full scope of Don’s final revelation through a screen. Still, he had to try. It’s ever thus: A writer making money for a larger company can never truly show you a feeling. But he can buy you a Coke.
Which is to say, it’s all commerce in one form or another: On a person-to-person call, somebody reaches out and somebody else has to accept the charges. When, a year ago, Bert Cooper sang that the best things in life are free, many of us wondered if Don would heed the advice. But now I see that we all missed the irony: It’s easy for Bert to tap-dance off the grid. He’s dead! Those of us who remain alive are consigned to battling it out in an unforgiving marketplace, perpetually chipping off bits of ourselves in search of something lasting and real. We sell sodas and try to buy smiles. We all feel like con men from time to time, desperate for someone to spark to the paltry goods we have on offer. It’s an economy of frustration and heartbreak but also, every so often, one of great beauty and joy. What Mad Men suggested, in its highly stylized, inimitable way, was that we are, all of us, in this business together. Mad Men is over. But the work goes on.