'Mad Men' Finale: Happiness Is The Real Thing
Among the many threads constantly weaved through seven seasons of "Mad Men'' by creator Matthew Weiner is, I've always believed, the concept that while during the decade of the '60's "Times They Are A-Changin'' ... people themselves don't change. Not even when he steals another man's identity and builds a glamorous new life forged of dangerous lies and constructed upon emotional quicksand does the unwanted whorehouse child Dick Whitman really ever get to be the slickly-packaged new-and-improved "It's Toasted'' Don Draper.
Except ... Let's attempt to unravel the puzzle of Don's cross-country journey of hobo-life self-exploration. This episode is replete with car racing in the Bonneville Salt Flats (Don's "getting nowhere fast'' and loving it), one last too-young prostitute (who tries to steal less money than the wealthy Draper is likely willing to offer her), the long-awaited Charles Manson reference (but no Megan) and finally a New Age retreat on a Central California beach-front hilltop (The Esalen Institute in Big Sur, it seems). As Don floats westward, let's also consider the stunningly cynicism-free endings Weiner allows all the other characters, tangled mostly only by societal touchstones, red herrings and Weiner winks.
Joan starts her own film production company after boyfriend Richard suggests they retire to a life in Key West snorting coke. (The "Other'' Real Thing, or not.) Roger Sterling finds love with sexy age-appropriate nutjob/femme fatale Marie Calvert and learns French for her. Pete Campbell (toting a symbolic little prickly cactus) reunites with estranged wife Trudy and off they go to Learjet ecstasy in lovely Wichita (with the thoughts of the Wichita State football plane crash just another Weiner mindgame). Peggy Olson accumulates power at McCann-Erickson while also finding love with Stan. She can have it all! -- including a goofy, touching, sit-com'my romance-starter conducted by phone ... as is the case with most of the important conversations in this episode entitled "Person To Person.''
Betty and the kids? Not "happiness.'' "Acceptance'' will have to do, as she awaits her death sentence from lung cancer while sitting at a kitchen table that is loaded with the non-traditional student's college textbooks. Betty smokes a cigarette while growing-up-fast daughter Sally dutifully scrubs the dishes.
All of this is happening in October 1970. The offices at McCann-Erickson are decorated for Halloween. So can a person change ... or do we just change costumes?
Weiner often addresses some of these questions, eventually. But until then, this show, like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” and "Better Call Saul'' is intentionally loaded with Easter Eggs and U-turns and "What-does-that-mean?'' symbolism. (I explore some of this in my reviews of shows collected here. All of these shows do the same magic tricks with music, too. So what would be a fitting way to musically close a show about advertising?
"Hmmm.'' ... I mean, "Ommm.''
Don is constantly trying to find "home'' and in this episode is involved in a trio of big swings at it. In the penultimate episode, "The Milk and Honey Route'' (that's hobo talk) Draper escapes the "Okie From Muskogee'' Midwest by stripping himself of expensive suits and even his Cadillac; he gives his wheels and some advice on proper English to a young grifter, a Draper redux, leaving Don with little but a bus ticket West and a blissful smile.
He seeks out Stephanie (the niece of the deceased Anna, the real Don Draper's widow) in a search for home. He proposes that she solve her problems as he's always (unsuccessfully) tried to do.
“It’ll get easier as you move forward,” Don coaches.
“Oh, Dick,” Stephanie replies. “I don’t think you’re right about that.”
(He's not. This is a version of the same “It will shock you how much it never happened” pep talk he provided Peggy years before after she gave up Pete's baby for adoption, a decision that hauntingly informs so much of what she does even at work.)
Don takes another shot at "home'' when he learns Betty is sick. He phones "Birdy'' and insists he return to New York to be the "real father'' to their children. His ex-wife orders him to respect her dying wish.
“I want to keep things as normal as possible,'' she tells him right before they both weep, "and you not being here is part of that.''
And then there is Don's real home: Advertising. And maybe the hilltop realization that a "pitch'' doesn't have to be insincere and that a salesman doesn't have to be a charlatan.
Coca-Cola is the white whale of advertising (was then, I assume still is now). Earlier in the series, when the McCann-Erickson boss mentions Coke to Don, our Mad Man almost drools. It's such an inescapable part of his being that featured on that Midwest hobo excursion is the motel owner's request that Don fix an old Coke machine. And it's Peggy's lure to him when he phones from the New Age retreat to, basically, apologize to her (and through her to the viewer) for all his misdeeds. Oh, and possibly to leave the gifted writer Peggy in charge of composing his post-suicide obit. (Big Sur has no Manhattan skyscrapers from which to plummet. But there are cliffs.)
“I messed everything up,'' Don confesses to his protege as he's existentially lost atop Big Sur. "I’m not the man you think I am. ... I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made … nothing of it. ... I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you.”
But in this same phone call, Peggy says, "Don't you want to work on Coke?'' and, in a sisterly voice, "Don, come home.''
Don, crumpled by the payphone, is rescued by one of the yogi leaders (played in a cool bit of casting by Helen Slater, who in 1984 played "Supergirl.'') She drags him to yet another dippy self-exploration circle ... except this therapy clicks. A nondescript man in a V-neck sweater named Leonard spills his reality:
"I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.''
Don struggles to his feet and hugs the stranger, sharing tears and sharing a realization, I think: The "Mad Men'' obsession with doors endlessly opening and closing doesn't symbolize a curse, but just a human reality. And Leonard's sad feeling of being "left on the shelf'' is a universal one, not just reserved for V-neck sweater nebbishes or for unwanted whorehouse kids but ... for everybody.
In an earlier scene, we see Don trying to beg/bully his way out of Esalen with no help from a retreat employee, a tall young woman with blue and red ribbons twisted into her blonde hair, who explains that it might take a week to arrange transportation. Now, presumably days (weeks?) later, having accepted his temporary fate after encountering Leonard, Don is still on the hilltop. His hair is perfect. His eyes are clear. This might be the longest he's ever gone without a smoke or a drink. His legs are crossed, and he and the group beatifically chant "Ommmmmmmmm.''
And then the most satisfying smile crosses Don's face. ... and we see the most iconic commercial in TV history. From 1971. The “Hilltop” ad. For Coca-Cola. And in that ad (in real-life a McCann-Erickson production for Coke, so popular it became a hit song) we see all those young adults from all those different countries singing lyrics that some think mawkish but that might be very sincerely delivered by a Mad Man who wishes to be true to himself by spreading love while also encouraging commerce ... and among the singers is (a very close facsimile) to that tall young woman with blue and red ribbons twisted into her blonde hair.
I am aware that there are other, more pessimistic views on what the Coca-Cola close means. "Don is still basically just a conman SOB and he's only using Leonard and Esalen to cash in back on Madison Avenue!'' But why -- having given up on being a reinvention of a fake person -- can't he have experienced a rebirth of his soul? Why can't his return to New York to work also mean a return to New York to parent his soon-to-be-motherless children (motherless children another of this show's obsessions)? Maybe he shouldn't sell cigarettes anymore, as in a karmic way his cleverness contributed to the death of his own wife (and a batch of other lovers of Don's who died of cancer) but why can't he be at peace selling peace ... and soda pop?
I imagine a New-Age, self-actualizing Don Draper sincerely doing his best to following the opening line featured in his own syrupy-sweet creation.
“I’d like to buy the world a home,'' the Coca-Cola jingle goes, "and furnish it with love.”
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