It’s taken me more than a week to put fingers to keyboard about Mad Men’s ending because, for a while, to tell the truth it left me a little speechless.
I wish they hadn’t divided the final season into two. Stringing it out so far past its moment at the peak of the zeitgeist was less than the show deserved, and the break was so long I spent the first part of the concluding seven-episode run scrambling to catch up with where the plot had got to, and then it seemed to be over almost before it began. I never sank back into it, both because it all happened too quickly and also because those final episodes wandered outside of the main Mad Men world: instead of a big indulgent reprise of all our favorite characters and tropes, they gave us Don’s waitress, and Richard, Joan’s cravat-wearing paramour, and a roadtrip to California. Maybe we should have expected it. Unlike advertising, Mad Men never made its money giving us what we want.
My struggle to articulate an overall reaction to the conclusion of this eight-year epic also reflected the fact that the writers opted to forego any kind of final fanfare in favor of several smaller closings, which worked variably for me.
Don’s story culminated with an enigmatic smile while meditating on a cliffside at a hippie retreat, cutting to the seminal 1971 ‘Hilltop’ TV ad for Coca-Cola (“I’d like to give the world a Coke”), created in real life by his fictional employer, McCann Erickson. There’s no consensus about exactly how we were intended to interpret this. My first thought was that Peggy wrote the ad, inspired by Don’s account of his experience (there was a brief clip of her with Stan at the typewriter, looking like she’d just typed something profound), but the prevailing view seems to be that Don wrote the ad on returning to his life in New York, never really changing like he never really changed. Regardless, his ending felt as coy as the curling of his lips. I might rather have left him at that Utah bus stop, having traded his car for vicarious redemption, sitting in the sun and smiling a real, wide smile of something like unencumbered freedom.
If there was one abiding theme of Mad Men, it was surely the illusoriness of fairytales – or, to put it another way: getting real and growing up. In the final episodes, Joan, who had once advised Peggy that if she played her cards right she could nab a rich husband and never have to work again, came to understand the importance of work and career to her own identity and fulfilment, a revelation of self-discovery that, while not without its price, certainly felt like progress. Similarly, occasional villain Pete Campbell, who had always so envied Don’s charisma and devil-may-care attitude, not only identified his mistake in giving up his wife and child, humbling himself to ask their forgiveness, but also appeared to reach an understanding and acceptance of his own place in the world, acknowledging to Peggy that, while people would one day brag of having worked with her, the same was unlikely of him. And yet, he was always good at his job, for which he now reaped the rewards, boarding his Lear jet to Wichita, receding hairline flapping happily in the breeze. Their tearless, touchless goodbye was so wonderfully restrained and real.
Peggy’s own ending was more of a mixed bag. The two-hander between her (on rollerskates) and Roger Sterling in episode 12 felt slightly self-indulgent on the part of the program makers; the closest the show came, I think, to giving us a glimpse through the fourth wall. Her fabulously brazen, Sandy-at-the-end-of-Grease arrival at McCann almost made up for that, and again I might rather have left her at that point, but there was more to come when, in the final episode, she and Stan starred in an unexpected set-piece of pure rom-com fantasy. A fairytale in a tale about the hopelessness of fairytales, I’m afraid it didn’t land for me. In general, I’m not sure I buy the idea of falling in love without knowing about it, and, more to the point, her boss and close friend-or-whatever had just that moment dropped some very heavy hints that he might be about to do himself in. However much Stan might have been right that she needed to cut the cord with Don, now did not quite seem like the time – for detaching or for smooching. For me, it simply didn’t ring true. And I didn’t care much either way about their happy ending.
Much more satisfying was Betty, whose ending was more tangible than most. Facing advanced terminal cancer, her refusal to give in to despair or subject her children to the slow, painful death she’d lived through with her own mother – her gift, as she put it, to know when to move on – almost made it hard to remember the shallow, brittle, desperately aspirational ingénue we met in Season One. Her letter to Sally was full of raw honesty, in its implied respect and awkward affection as well as its unapologetic vanity, and her phonecall with Don, when she called him “honey” and told him, kindly but plainly, that his absence was an essential component of their children’s normality, was almost unbearably sad.
So, all in all, a messy end to Mad Men, perhaps fitting for a show that told us to embrace life’s essential messiness. “You can move past this”, Don counsels Stephanie, wracked with guilt about abandoning her child, “You always can”. No, she tells him, that’s not right. Sometimes we have to stop and deal with stuff. Back on the east coast, Henry asks Betty why she’s continuing with college following her diagnosis. “Why was I ever doing it?”, she replies, a flirty twinkle still in her eye. Because life’s for living, she’s saying, even when it’s going to end. No easy answers, no fairytales. As Matthew Weiner himself might have said: it’s all about the journey. That, Don Draper, legendary peddler of beautiful illusions, is what grown-ups come to know.