Emotional. Brilliant. Poignant. Significant. Fun. Beautiful. Relevant. These are the words I would use to describe Mad Men. In its final ever season, Mad Men ends on a high and left me with a huge smile on my face.
It’s sad when a show comes to end. It’s like saying goodbye to a friend (who happens to appear on your TV screen on a particular and regular day in your schedule). Mad Men is not a Game of Thrones or a Breaking Bad. Man Men‘s influence and appeal has always been about the characters and the impact they make in their daily lives, set against the backdrop of the 60s. Their hopes and dreams offset against real and historical life events. The assassination of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King for example brought the country down to their knees with shock, anger and fear. Contrast that to something monumental and inspiration such as the world standing still to watch the moon landing in 1969, showcasing what human beings can achieve.
Mad Men is a show that is one of a kind. It’s a drama not afraid to explore sexism, homosexuality and racism in the workforce. It’s a true art and examination of a character drama in the highest quality. It’s a show I will definitely miss. As my title suggests, it really is the end of an era.
Season 7 part 2 may be the closing chapter but it’s a season embarking on new beginnings and life changes at the start of the 70s. One thing is for sure – at least Roger (John Slattery) is dating someone his own age!
As much as Mad Men will always be about Don (Jon Hamm) and his life, the female characters on the show have their fare share. It’s equally Peggy’s story as well as Don’s, their lives often mirroring each other. Yet even in the new decade, sexism was still rampart and for someone who didn’t live in that period, I found it appalling. In the episode “Severance”, Peggy (Elizabeth Moss) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) are verbally disrespected by a client who couldn’t take them seriously with their pitch. The poor, condescending attitudes are an ongoing theme throughout the season, stretching into the full takeover of Sterling Cooper from McCann-Erickson.
But one of Mad Men‘s growing strengths with each passing season was showing women taking control of their own destiny. It wasn’t quite burning bras but there was enough defiance and courage to rise up against the stereotypes.
Joan and Peggy use their own individual merits to handle the negativity. Joan quits her role at McCann-Erickson and independently starts her own business. It also keeps her busy and active, not depending on a man for help or comfort. Joan has come a long way and had one big questionable moment during season 5 (Jaguar deal) but by starting her own business, she can be taken seriously for her work and not her beauty.
If Pete Campbell’s prediction comes true, Peggy will be head of creative by 1980 and they’ll be lucky to have known her. If anyone deserves that kind of accreditation, then it would be Peggy. Ever since the brilliant episode “The Suitcase” from season 4, Peggy has always been looking for recognition and approval, especially when female copywriters were few and far between. Peggy is like the female Don Draper, learning all the important aspects from him in the world of advertising. She’s completely dedicated to the work and her non-work life has always been trying to find the balance between the two. I’m glad she ended up with Stan – it was a bit cliché but couldn’t help but laugh. Here was Stan, confessing his deep love for Peggy over the phone and the only rational thing she could respond with was “what?” But when you think about it more, their attraction didn’t come out of the blue. It was almost unsuspecting. They have been friends and work colleagues for a long time and they both have qualities that makes them effective, challenging and re-assuring.
Speaking of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) aka the Don Draper wannabe, he got the ending he wanted. For a character you’re meant to despise, you end up being happy for them when something good comes along. It was the realisation that he had finally grown up. He didn’t need to chase the next fad or pretend to be a big shot. Pete was always talented and he needed to trust it and believe it. When a new opportunity presented itself, he used that as a motivation to get his life back on track.
One of the defining moments from this season has to be Betty (January Jones) finding out that she was dying from lung cancer in “The Milk and Honey Route”. It’s often joked about amongst fans that with all the smoking and alcohol intake on the show that someone was bound to get some bad news one day. To my surprise, I didn’t suspect Betty. What follows is the most heartbreaking and moving episode in Mad Men‘s history. I was moved to tears when Sally (Kiernan Shipka) read her mother’s letter. It was supposed to be opened on the day her mother had passed away but she ignored the request. Betty didn’t want any special treatment, she wanted everything to be normal. Betty has always been a polarizing character. She’s like marmite – you either love her or hate her. Yet the last couple of seasons, she started to relax. The reassurances she wrote for Sally showcase that despite being harsh at times, she always loved her children. In terms of character closure, it was emotionally spot on for someone who showed courage by going out on their own terms.
So how does the show end? I think whilst it feels obvious yet at the same time the ending is left up to interpretation.
It’s still within the realms of possibility that Don left the retreat, went back to the ad business and created the greatest and most recognisable advert of a generation. I was born in the 80s and I know about that Coca-Cola ad! The clues are littered throughout the episode, “Person to Person” – Joan does coke, Peggy mentions Coca-Cola as Don’s dream during a phone conversation, to the girl in the reception with pigtails just like the girl in the actual ad. He was offered to fix a coke machine in the previous episode, therefore it’s easy to draw those comparisons.
But here’s what I think…
I think Don FINALLY found peace. Peace with himself and who he is.
Don Draper as a character has always been tormented. He didn’t have a great upbringing, stole another person’s identity during the Korean War and had more affairs than your hands can count! He can be a dick as well – I remember when he threw money in Peggy’s face when she wanted credit and a trip to Paris for her work on Chevalier Blanc or how he handled Lane Pryce with his money troubles. It’s enough of a reason to hate the man but with good looks, he gets away with it or is excused from it – certainly in the eyes of others. Don Draper = baggage.
I always knew that Don Draper would not die – call me an optimist. But I wanted him to grow up and to stop using excuses to justify his means. To stop running and to be content with himself. To be happy. The finale provided that.
I wished the finale was longer, but beggars can’t be choosers! But what it was evidently clear leading up to the finale that Don’s baggage was being removed in each episode. Don’s divorce, coming back home to find all his furniture had been removed and going AWOL, leaving his new post at McCann-Erickson to hit the road are clear examples of this. I even genuinely thought he was going to get caught out during the veteran party in “The Milk and Honey Route” but even army vets cared more about missing money than Don’s chequered past.
Don may prefer to be a stranger but in the end, his search for happiness is someone else’s pain. He was married twice and both ended in divorce – Betty and Megan (Jessica Paré) having enough reasons between each other at why the relationship didn’t work. Don’s affairs was like him being a kid in a sweet shop – he could take his pick at whatever he wanted. But like all sweets, they are a brief moment of happiness.
Don trapped at the retreat left him broken and lost, not sure how to start again, until he heard the words of a another struggler with a familiar, heartbreaking story.
I look at the ending as a little more symbolic than literal. Don has always been compassionate even when the morality of it doesn’t justify it. That moment in the retreat was a genuine reach out to another human soul. He realised he wasn’t alone. The final scenes of “Person to Person” was Don accepting who he is. He IS Don Draper, not pretending to be him or to sell his ideal lifestyle.
Don has always been stuck in the past, rigid and refusing to accept change. Ok it may feel a little cliché that he ended up at a retreat to find himself but in order to move forward, you have to accept your past and who you are. Of course, it’s still perfectly reasonable that he left that retreat as a new man and went back to create that iconic ad because as I found out recently, the man who created that ad did actually work at McCann-Erickson! Further justification and proof at reality and fiction blending together. But symbolically, I think Mad Men went full circle, reminding us what he said about happiness back season one:
“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.”
Don’s life on the show perfectly mirrors the opening credits – a man who had it all until the floor crumbles beneath him, falling into into the abyss but was reborn. Don is okay and he found his happiness. It’s either that or he’s still there at the retreat, well into his 80s and goes by the name of Guru Draper…
The fact that the show ended on a ad is genius. It’s optimistic and feel good, stretching into a new decade of new possibilities and liberties, especially for the characters. Despite the troubles of life, life inevitably moves on which has been at the show’s core since day one. It may not be an ending that everyone wanted, but it is an ending that I respect, love and applaud.
Goodbye Mad Men – the most iconic, cultural and rewarding TV show you’ll ever watch.