Mad Men

It’s rare that a TV show’s finale is canonized because it feels like a proper ending. A lot of the time, it’s kept in the cultural zeitgeist because it’s vague or inconclusive, like the perpetual unknowing in The Sopranos’ final smash cut to black. Other times, there’s a last-minute twist that changes the meaning of everything that came before it, like the “none of it was real!” rug-pulls of St. Elsewhere and Newhart. Mad Men’s series finale, “Person to Person,” has little that’s clearly intended to be provocative, but it seems to have entered the pantheon of controversial finales regardless. There’s plenty to be said about the episode’s final moments, but reducing it to just those last couple minutes does disservice to an excellent hour of television. There’s a lot of stuff to unpack here, so let’s start at the beginning.

The episode opens with Don reenacting his favorite scene from The Master, speeding through a barren California desert in a racecar. These final seven episodes have put major emphasis on Don’s isolation, often dwelling on wide shots of him in an otherwise empty frame. Over the course of this concluding half-season, Don’s identity has been stripped away piece-by-piece. It starts when he loses his second wife, Megan; Megan then takes all the furniture out of his apartment. Not long after, he abandons his job and goes on an impromptu trip out west. The penultimate episode ends with him giving away his car, leaving him with nothing but the clothes on his back, waiting for a bus in the middle of nowhere. Don’s race through the desert is in line with this motif, but far more aggressive in its execution. Having acknowledged his loneliness, Don seems to be taking it on his own terms, or at least not wallowing in it anymore.

Don is test-driving the car for some young guys who own a garage, apparently to see if it’s capable of breaking the land-speed record. Nothing about his situation is made abundantly clear, given that we last saw him at that bus stop with no idea where he was headed. It’s a disorienting opening, one in line with Mad Men’s history of dreamlike touches. Of course, we know more about Don’s whereabouts than his co-workers. When Roger tells Meredith that he has some bad news, she assumes that Don has turned up dead. “I don’t think so,” Roger responds, “I think we would’ve heard about that.” But he might as well be dead to all the other characters, and it’s not the first time people will speak of him in those terms in the course of the episodes. Meredith goes on to say that she “hopes he’s in a better place.” Roger insists that he’s not dead, but Meredith says that “there are a lot of better places than here.”

The episode then shifts to Joan, who seems to be the last character who would agree with Meredith on that. She is wildly ambitious, with plans to open up a film production company and start a life with new lover Richard. “Your life is undeveloped property, you can turn it into whatever you want,” he tells her. And she fully intends to do so, even if it means letting Richard go so she can move forward. Joan’s arc has led her to a place of striving passion, but most of the other main characters have been led to a place of contentment with their lot in life. She approaches Peggy about going into the film business together, enticing her with the prospect of being her own boss, but Stan accuses Peggy of just wanting a better job for the sake of having a better job. “There’s more to life than work,” he says, challenging everything Peggy has spent seven seasons building. This seems like something of a repeat of Peggy’s plot two episodes back, which culminated in her slo-mo strut into McCann-Erickson, lady-pleasuring octopus painting in tow. But this time it’s more about her relationship with Stan, and the phone call scene later in the episode where they realize their love for one another had me alternately cheering and crying. Was it a little heavy on fan-service? Arguably. But I was too bowled over to care. Peggy is happy, Stan is happy, and I am indescribably happy for the two of them.

Two episodes ago, Pete told Joan that, for the first time in his life, he felt like everything was happening the way it was supposed to happen. Last week he got a great job with LearJet, but he also realized that his obsession with ladder-climbing has actually been holding him back. His constant attempts to get better things — at work or in bed — made him an unlikeable guy and an unfaithful husband. He’s even somewhat gotten over his callous disrespect for women, a far cry from his days of serial philandering. In his final scene (not counting his appearance in that montage at the end), he tells Peggy that someday people will brag that they worked with her. “I don’t know what to say to that,” she says. “Don’t ask me,” he replies, smiling. “No one’s ever said it to me before.” Pete accepting his lack of importance or stature is possibly the most significant character growth in the entire show. And as Pete’s arc always has, it parallels what Don goes through in this episode.

When Sally tells Don that Betty is dying of lung cancer, he seems fully prepared to drop his wanderlust and resume his identity for the sake of his kids. But Sally thinks it’s better for her younger brothers to live with their stepdad, to keep their lives somewhat consistent. And Betty straight-up tells him that maintaining normalcy in their lives means Don must remain absent. It’s then that the last door back to his life slams in his face. In the debate over whether or not Don goes back to New York at the end of the episode, an overlooked detail has been that he stopped at Betty and Henry’s house before starting his road trip in earnest. He asked Betty where the kids were, and looked supremely uncomfortable upon hearing that none of them were around. In retrospect, it’s clear that at that point he did not intend to return and wanted to see them one last time. Sally is the only person he kept in contact with while on his trek, the one person left who he knew he really mattered to. But much like the moment earlier this season when he confidently handed a pitch over to Peggy, here he confronts the fact that Sally is a capable young woman who has outgrown a need for him. Don Draper as an identity had been on hold, because there were still three people in the world who depended on him. When Don learns that they really don’t anymore, he no longer has any reason to hold onto that identity, and he seeks out the one person left who only knows him by his real name.

Stephanie Horton, niece of Anna Draper and reason why explaining what happened in the finale to non-viewers is so difficult, isn’t the only person who knows about Dick Whitman, but of that small group of people she’s the only one who doesn’t call him Don Draper. Her prominence in the finale is funny given that she’s only appeared in three previous episodes, but it makes sense given Don’s trajectory. He’s shed Don Draper, and found Dick Whitman underneath. What he doesn’t know is that he runs even deeper than Dick, that there are things he doesn’t yet understand about himself. Luckily, Stephanie is on her way to a hippie retreat to work out her own emotional turmoil, and Don tags along. It’s exactly the kind of place you’d never expect the Don Draper of old to find himself at, but it’s promptly established that this is exactly where he belongs. There are numerous scenes of strangers spilling their guts, finding catharsis in emotional vulnerability, and you can’t help but be reminded of the classic Don Draper pitch meeting. The first scene of the entire series has Don talking to a regular consumer, learning the best way for Lucky Strike Cigarettes to market their product. At this retreat, Don is allowed a deep look at how people think, how people feel; he’s getting an on-the-ground perspective rather than peering down from atop an ivory skyscraper. And he’s prompted to do the same for himself. An early exercise has Don paired with an older woman, the two tasked with expressing their feelings towards one another without words. The older woman shoves Don, as though he exudes pure antagonism and negativity. Perhaps Don hoped that shedding his identity would help him shake the things he hated about himself, but he starts to think that maybe there’s something wrong with him. The real him, who he hasn’t acknowledged for decades. And that notion is shattering. It doesn’t help that Stephanie rejects him, saying he’s “not family,” which strips him of his Dick Whitman identity and leaves him naked and afraid. He lies to her about starting a new life, saying it will get easier as she moves forward. “Oh, Dick,” she sobs, “I don’t think you’re right about that.” She leaves without saying goodbye, stranding Don at the retreat. That’s Don’s breaking point, the moment where he can no longer make a case for his life under Don Draper’s name. What he does then, in his hour of greatest desperation, isn’t a surprise to fans of the show.

“What did you ever do that was so bad?” Peggy means it as a reassurance, the sort of absolution he received from his fellow veterans in the previous episode, but Don is through lying to himself. The shots of him on the phone with Peggy are low to the ground and tilted up, making him look like he’s in a confessional booth. And confess he does, with language that wouldn’t be out of place in a 19th century drama: “I broke all my vows. Scandalized my child. Took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Don isn’t fishing for forgiveness here — his stated reason for calling Peggy seems to be completely honest: he realized he never said goodbye to her before leaving. He’d just been hurt by Stephanie doing the same thing, and perhaps he couldn’t bear the thought of doing Peggy harm. The importance of Don and Peggy’s relationship to Mad Men as a whole can’t be overstated, and this scene brings it home strong. The last thing that Don is left with, the last thread connecting him to the rest of the world, is Peggy. This episode is called “Person to Person,” reflecting Don’s few remaining ties to others. He makes three person-to-person long distance calls: to Sally, Betty, and Peggy. When he hangs up each time, he severs his tie with that person. His self-loathing forces him to formally bid farewell to Peggy too, lest he drag her down with him. Peggy calls Stan, worried that Don is going to kill himself. “You’ve got to let him go,” he advises. “It doesn’t mean you stop caring about him.” Much like Meredith at the beginning of the episode, Stan is talking about Don as if he were dead. And he might as well be. That conversation with Stan morphs into their declarations of love, apparently forgetting all about Don. The montage at the episode’s end revisits all the major characters, content with their lives and not lacking for Don’s absence from them. If we live on in the memories of the people who cared about us, Peggy and Stan put Don in the grave for good.

Then we move to the Leonard scene, and into the realm of personal interpretation. From this point on in the episode, people had very divergent reactions. These thoughts are obviously mine and mine alone. Leonard, another retreat attendee, starts talking about himself. He isn’t that complicated, he says, which is why he thinks he should be happier. He’s the man Don has always been afraid to become, insignificant and miserable. When he says that “it’s like no one even cares that I’m gone,” Don picks his head up, the connection to his own life being abundantly clear. Leonard’s dream about being in a refrigerator, ignored by others and cut off from the outside world, moves Don to tears and prompts him to tightly embrace Leonard. Like Peggy and Pete, Don sees how destructive and pointless it’s been to chase significance instead of fulfillment. He’s seen what an empty man he is, his shell having eroded entirely. As he hugged Leonard, an iconic line from the pilot episode flashed through my head.

“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.

A lot of people read the final moments of the episode as signifying Don’s realization that he’ll always be an ad man at heart, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think he realizes that the reassurance that “you are okay” has real value, that being okay isn’t just some construct made up to sell things to people. In another scene in the pilot, he asserts that what people call “love” was “invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” I don’t think he believes that anymore. He no longer has faith in that self-important vision of himself. The pilot opens with a title card explaining the nickname “mad men” for New York ad men, and says that the ad men gave themselves the nickname. They put themselves on a pedestal, told themselves they had power over people and believed it. The idea of that carefully crafted persona that everyone has is at the heart of Mad Men, and by the time it ends its major characters can finally let theirs drop. Peggy and Pete can live lives outside of work, Joan can be a powerful executive without having to hold back because of sexist standards, Roger can date Marie because “nobody cares,” and Don can meditate at sunrise, free of responsibilities to others. That smile in the final shot, accompanied by a triangle’s ding, is Don’s moment of enlightenment. He’s let go of all his earthly connections, and found peace in his insignificance.

At this point, I think you can see why I find the notion that Don would return to his job in New York and create the “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” ad totally absurd. I didn’t even consider it a possibility when I first watched the episode, and I was shocked when I went on Twitter and found that the consensus was that Don wrote the ad. The theory has some merit. In real life, the ad was produced by McCann-Erickson less than a year after the episode takes place, which for many people hints at Don’s involvement. But nothing in this episode or any of the episodes prior to it suggests that Don would go back there. In the scene before he leaves the office for the road trip, the head of McCann prods him to introduce himself as “Don Draper from McCann-Erickson.” His immediate departure following that moment read to me as exasperation with being forced to take on another new identity. When he sees that plane flying by outside the window, he gets the idea to just leave it all behind, and he does exactly that. There is nothing to suggest that Don would go back there, and everything to suggest that McCann-Erickson is a cynical enough agency to create an ad that co-opts ideals of peace and unity to sell soda. The man leading the meditation says the final lines of the series in voice-over: “A new day. New ideas. New you.” Don Draper is an old idea, an old “you” for Don. The idea that Don went on to write the ad is, in my view, a fundamental misreading of the episode and the final half-season. A half-season which was titled “The End of an Era,” mind you.

So what does the ad actually mean? I think it’s the show’s ultimate statement about art and commerce. It follows the aforementioned montage of all the main characters living happy lives, which initially implied to me that the show was admitting its manipulation. Yes, you feel good when you see all those people you love, but it’s only making you feel that way so it can sell you something. But when I rewatched it, I found it to be a lot less cynical. Yes, it’s making you feel good to sell you something, but you still feel good, and that’s not wrong. Just like Don realizes that emotions have meaning even if their intent is purely financial, the show wants you to realize that an advertisement can have real artistic value. Mad Men’s viewers are consumers, but that doesn’t mean their attachment to the show is somehow false. Mad Men is that Coca-Cola ad, a stirring experience that is nonetheless produced with the intent of making a profit. At first, television was seen as a crass commercial venture, a “low art.” Mad Men made a case for television as an art form for seven seasons, but it took until the finale for it to make that case in its actual text. In that sense, maybe the best thing about “Person to Person” is that it isn’t all that memorable on its own. It’s the final chapter of this story, but it’s also just another chapter. Mad Men will be remembered for the entirety of its run, not just its final hour. That’s a rarity in television history, and I’m privileged to have been around to witness it.