[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from the series finale of AMC's Mad Men. Read at your own risk.]
In the end, Mad Men's Don Draper just wanted to buy the world a Coke. Or give a random dude a hug. Or something.
The thing that made Mad Men such a fascinating show to watch for the better part of the last decade was how impossible it was to predict what would happen next. (Creator Matthew Weiner's well-documented distaste for spoilers certainly played a role.) And while I'm not sure anyone could have guessed the series would end with Don (Jon Hamm) meditating on a sunny hillside in California, the most unpredictable aspect of the show's final hour was perhaps just how much it felt like a series finale.
Weiner, who got a master class in upending TV conventions at the feet of Sopranos creator David Chase, rarely traded in fan service. Though he would happily admit knowing what the audience wanted, he rarely gave it to them in the way they desired or expected. But perhaps Weiner learned along the way that it's possible to both give the audience what they want and still serve your characters and their story. For proof, look no further than Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) and their glorious final phone conversation.
Sure, on paper it could have been another pat ending of a rom-com, but what's always made Mad Men work is the history we as viewers have with the show. We know Peggy is too obsessed with work to focus on her personal life, and we know Stan is right when he tells Peggy there's more to life than climbing the ladder. And given how many amazing scenes the pair has shared over a phone line, it's only fitting that Stan's admission of love — and Peggy's shocked but eventually understanding return of said admission --didn't happen face-to-face, at least not at first.
Though others also got their happy endings — Roger (John Slattery) seemed pretty cozy in that café with Marie (Julia Ormond), despite being kicked to the couch earlier in the episode and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie) flew off in a LearJet to their future --the finale didn't lose all sense of reality. It instantly rang false to me that, after mostly sparring through the course of the series, Joan (Christina Hendricks) would want to partner with Peggy in launching her production company. And even though it was heartbreaking to see Joan once again miss out on love, it was more fitting that the "two names" needed to make Joan's company sound real were Holloway and Harris, not Olson.
Similarly, I was relieved that Don didn't rush back to New York to be Father of the Year when he learned that Betty (January Jones) was dying. "Please don't let your pride interfere with my wishes," Betty says. "I want to keep things as normal as possible and you not being here is part of that." Indeed, for the most part, Don passed on the terrible parenting he received to his children and him coming back to save them now wouldn't have been true to the show. But Don's final conversation with Betty? I'll just say the tears weren't just on-screen. (Also, no matter how sad, you kind of have to admire Betty's defiance to sit at her kitchen table smoking even as she's dying because of cigarettes.)
While Betty's death didn't turn Don into Super-Dad, it did send him into an alcoholic downward spiral that ended with him in California with Anna Draper's niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz), who eventually takes Don "up the coast" to a New Age retreat. When Stephanie opens up about abandoning her baby during a group session and is run out of the room by another group member's judgment, Don tries to give Stephanie the same pep talk he once gave Peggy. "You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward," Don says. But Stephanie doesn't buy into being the hobo on the run from her past. And with his life's M.O. spat back in his face as a lie, Don begins to unravel.
After Stephanie leaves without saying goodbye, Don calls the only person he has left: Peggy. Although Peggy understands Don's impulse to run, she urges him to come home. "I can't. I messed everything up. I'm not the man you think I am," Don says. Peggy tries to comfort her mentor, and asks him what he ever did that was so bad. Although it's a long list, Don hits the highlights. "I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it," he says, before adding the ominously suicidal final line, "I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you."
But unlike many have predicted since the first time they watched the show's opening credits, this story does not end with Don taking his own life. Instead he goes into full-on panic attack and later seems to be almost catatonic until he's pulled into another group therapy session. There, another man talks of his inconsequential life at the office and more importantly at home. And while telling a story about a recurring dream that encapsulates his isolation from the world, he pinpoints the ailment that afflicts Don. It's not that the people in Don's life aren't trying to love him, it's that Don doesn't really know what that love is. As the man bursts into tears, Don snaps out of his walking coma and hugs the man, perhaps at last making a meaningful connection.
Which brings us to what is sure to be a controversial ending. Don, having achieved his breakthrough, seems content to stay at the retreat. The closing shot shows him soaking in the sun while chanting "om" and sinking into a newfound zen peacefulness. But with the voice of the group leader in our heads ("New day. New ideas. A new you."), we see Don crack a slight smile as the show fades into the famous "I Want to Buy the World a Coke" commercial, which was actually produced by the real McCann Erickson in 1971. Twitter has already pointed out that the setting and styling of the clip seems awfully reminiscent of the retreat where Don had his epiphany.
So, did Don take his enlightenment back to New York to make one of the most famous commercials ever? I'm not sure this ending will quite reach a "Did Tony Soprano get whacked?" level of debate, but two camps are already forming: those who, like me, feel the finale mostly worked as a place to leave these characters who have meant so much to me for years. And then there will be those who ask, just as the first episode of this final half-season did: "Is that all there is?"
A show should neither be validated nor undone by its closing chapter. For me, Mad Men feels like it has ended several times before already, including last week's penultimate episode. Could I watch three more seasons of these characters having conversations? Absolutely, and I am sorry I won't get that chance again. But for the story of Mad Men,this is all there is. But in no way does that feel like something insignificant.
A few final thoughts:
-- Anyone else think Weiner was poking at the conspiracy theorists one last time in this episode? Not only was there the Roger-Meredith riff about Don dying ("I hope he's in a better place," Meredith said), but one of the workers at the retreat told Don to "blame Charlie Manson" for the fact that no one would pick up a hitchhiker.
— Loved Pete and Peggy's final scene. The show already did right by them earlier in the season, but hearing Pete speak highly of Peggy on his way out the door — and seeing how much it meant to her --was a nice touch.
--Speaking of Pete, does anyone else not find it a little odd that Pete's big move at the end is to work for a jetliner? I mean his father died in a plane crash after all. Just me?
— Harry Crane, a douchebag to the end. Kind of hilarious that our last image of Harry is of him stuffing his face with a cookie.
--"I only got suitcase. Yell at me slower or in English!" God, I am going to miss Roger Sterling's one-liners.
What did you think of Mad Men's series finale?