Monday, May 18, 2015
Mad Men Series Finale: "Person to Person"
Finales. They can make or break how a show continues to be perceived in the public consciousness, long after the show has ended. The Sopranos took fans through one of the deepest journeys of a man’s psyche that has ever been shown on television, but bring up the show to a fan now and the first question they’ll ask you is, “What did you think of that ending?” Your answer will pretty much sum up for the other person whether or not they want to continue discussing it with you. Showrunners know you can never satisfy everyone. If the finale is too open-ended, you’ll be called lazy. If you come down on one side, you’ll estrange all the fans on the other. And I haven’t even begun to talk about the death threats aimed at showrunners through social media.
Into this fraught territory wades Matthew Weiner with Mad Men. Perhaps the most stylized show I’ve ever seen, this is the series that inspired further antiheroes with dark pasts, that stimulated the gorgeous art direction of Hannibal, that demonstrated fans are interested in period pieces that don’t involve Victorian corsets. The show premiered in the summer of 2007 by setting the first episode in 1959, and eight years later the series ends with a glimpse of a commercial we know was released in 1971. The big question is: how did the penultimate scene — of Don Draper meditating on a cliff side — tie into the commercial that fades us out of the series?
The obvious answer is that Don Draper finally finds peace, and, in typical Don Draper fashion, monetizes it. When Don goes to a therapy session at the retreat, he hears a man tell a story of how he feels no one sees him anymore, that he’s just an item sitting inside a refrigerator door wanting to be chosen, but people open the door, shine the light, and close the door again, never choosing him. He’s invisible, and unwanted, and eventually his expiry date will pass and he’ll be thrown in the trash. Don, overcome with emotion and empathy, stands from his chair, strides across the room, and throws his arms around this desolate man as they both break down and cry. He knows what it feels like. In a beautiful final scene with Betty, he calls her after finding out the news she has six months to live, and tells her that he’ll take the children. She begs him not to, and says that she doesn’t want to spend her last moments on earth fighting with him, but that their lives would be so much easier if it were just the way it is now, with him in it only on the occasional weekend.
Suddenly he’s the mustard sitting inside the fridge door... and everyone in his family wants ketchup.
But is Don entirely unwanted? In the final scene between he and Peggy — and if I got nothing else out of this finale, I desperately wanted one final scene between Don and Peggy, because their scenes together are sublime — he calls her on the phone and she tells him to just come back, that they’ll take him with open arms and they need him. Here he’s wanted. This is a company full of people who prefer mustard. The problem is, he doesn’t know if he wants them.
So after the epiphany at the retreat, we see him sitting on a hill, in lotus position, oming his way to peace, and suddenly a smile comes across his face and we see the legendary Coke commercial, with people dressed much like the hippies at the retreat, standing on a very familiar-looking cliff, singing “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing,” that super long commercial that, even though I wasn’t even born when it began airing, I still remember on TV and singing along (I think it was one of those commercials that kept being brought back for nostalgic purposes).
So Don goes to the retreat, has an epiphany, clears his head, comes home and rejoins McCann-Erickson, and brings to them the dazzling commercial for which they will forever be known.
The thing is, that’s not my preferred reading of that final scene.
There have been three major fan theories as to how this series will end.
One: Don will turn out to be DB Cooper, jumping from a plane and escaping into the air, and history books, as the man who couldn’t be traced. It seems like a fitting end for Dick Whitman. Matthew Weiner is obviously aware of this fan theory, and toyed with it a couple of episodes ago, when Don, ensconced in a meeting (where everyone is, incidentally, drinking Coke), stares out the window for a long time at a plane going by. Will he see this as his way out?
Two: Don will jump out of the window of McCann-Erickson, thereby reenacting the opening credits. I’ve never given much credence to this theory... would he be landing comfortably in a couch and flicking on the TV at the end of it? Nonetheless, Weiner played with that expectation as well, where, in the same episode as the previous one, Don pushes on the window and notices that it’s not airtight, and could be easily opened. Will Don jump?
Three: The idea that the final image would be the “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial has been one that’s been floating around for a while, because McCann-Erickson is not a fictional agency, but a very real one that is famous for that commercial. So, naturally, since McCann has been headhunting Don since season one, fans have long wondered if Don will jump ship, go to McCann, and put Coke on top.
The question is, is it possible Weiner is just messing with fans again?
Mad Men has not only been the story of Dick Whitman/Don Draper, but the rise of feminism and the importance of women in the workplace. And that has always been embodied in Peggy and Joan. In the very first episode, Peggy comes to Sterling-Cooper with her little-girl bangs and fresh face, listens to Joan’s chauvinistic instructions — which include making sure her boss is always happy, if you know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink — and when she caresses Don’s hand in a ham-fisted way, he immediately sets her straight. And that’s when the mutual respect between the two of them begins. She knows she’s a good writer, and he encourages her. In the centrepiece of the entire series — the phenomenal episode “The Suitcase” — we get a set-piece with just the two characters, like they’re in a play, working through their issues and with Don opening up to her in a way he never did to the romantic women in his life. She refused to let him cut her down, and he rarely did.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, you have Joan, the stunningly beautiful head of the secretary pool, who works her way up to partner. There’s always tension between Joan and Peggy — Peggy is eminently jealous of Joan, whom she believes slept her way to the top, who has men falling at the feet of that voluptuous body, who never has to actually work to get men to respect her; while Joan eyes Peggy with envy, as Peggy doesn’t have the classical good looks to get anything handed to her, whom people pay attention to because of her mind and not the size of her breasts, who might not have a steady man in her life, but who has the respect of the other men around her. In the season two episode, “Maidenform,” the question raised in one of Don Draper’s ad pitches is, who do women want to be: Jackie or Marilyn?
The answer: Both. They want to be sexy and beautiful and envied, but they also want people to love them for their minds, to believe they’re smart and capable and got to where they are based on their intelligence, not their looks.
And now, in the finale, Joan realizes that Peggy is everything she ever wanted in a business partner, and asks her to join forces with her in a production company, pumping out the TV commercials that ad agencies hire them for. Peggy turns her down, because she sees it as an easy way out, and not necessarily everything she wants to do. She doesn’t want to jump in as head of a firm — she still wants to work at it, to build up that resumé and earn that position and respect. Joan, undaunted, heads out on her own, being dumped by a man who wanted to support her, not have her be independent in any way (good riddance), and claims her place in the advertising world by calling her new company Holloway Harris — using her maiden name first, as if to trump her married name.
And what of Peggy? After receiving a phone call from Don, where she becomes worried he might actually kill himself, she calls Stan in a panic, and he finally vows his love for her. It might seem like a trite ending to that character — Joan eschews men to become a businesswoman; Peggy ends up with the man — but it’s not that simple, because Stan has always been a hippie, a freer soul who sees Peggy as an equal, sometimes even a superior. On first viewing, I felt like adding that love scene in there seemed almost pat, but maybe it’s something more: is it possible she’s found the way to be the Jackie and the Marilyn? That she’s proof that in the 1970s men WOULD see her for her mind and fall in love with her because of it? The last shot we get of Peggy is her furiously typing out something that seems to be pleasing her, while Stan stands behind her, supporting her but not standing in her way. Meanwhile, Joan is manning the phones, giving orders to a secretary — a position she once had, and likely never will again — and seems excited about what she’s working on.
Is it possible the two of them are working on the Coke ad?
We know that Joan respects Peggy enough to offer her a partnership and then tell her it’s for her only; there’s no one else she wants to partner with. And we also know that Peggy is Don Jr. in many ways — she’s ambitious, clever, and has a great creative sense. We’ve seen a ton of Don Draper pitches, and more recently, we see Peggy handling the pitches. She has a similar sense of gravitas and drama when she pitches one of her ideas — the only thing missing is the cigarette that Don would often light and use as a prop.
And finally, we know that when Don is at his lowest moments, he calls Peggy. This final episode was called “Person to Person,” referring to the person-to-person phone calls that Don makes through the episode, to Sally, Betty, and Peggy. Why do we think he’ll stop calling her? What if he calls her to tell her about the retreat he’s on? What if he calls her to cry when Betty dies? And what if Peggy put those thoughts together, and saw a Coke commercial in it?
Coca-Cola has been one of those recurring motifs throughout the series. When McCann is head-hunting Don at the beginning of the series, they keep using the little incentive that they have Coke. When Betty decides the children are now old enough they don’t need a stay-at-home mom, and perhaps she could make something of herself by returning to her life as a model, she models for McCann’s Coke ads. And Don, horrified by the idea that his wife would be stared at and adored by millions, that she might actually be able to set out on her own and become independent, quashes it. Now that Birdie is dying, but still going to college in a last-ditch effort to make something of her life, could Don be eaten up by that terrible thing he did? Would he tell Peggy about it?
Yes, Don is the one who came up with the campaign for the Kodak carousel, in that beautiful, touching moment where he saw the beginning of his picture-perfect life slipping away. His campaign is deep, tinged with the idea of nostalgia for lost things, dark and heavy with the idea that we must take photos of our happy lives, for some day, displaying those slides on a carousel will be the only happiness we have.
Peggy, on the other hand, came up with the Popsicle campaign, filled with love, hope, and immediacy. A mother smiles at her two children playing outside and then brings them a Popsicle. And they “take it, break it, share it, love it,” as Peggy pitches. It’s sweet, but bright and sunny, an optimistic look at the world where everyone shares things in perfect harmony. It’s the sort of creative vision you see in that Coke commercial. The sort of commercial that Joan’s company could have produced after Peggy wrote it for them.
What I love about open-ended finales is the breadth of possibility. Some fans would say it’s lazy, but I think it can be clever if done right. And Mad Men did it right. Perhaps Don Draper finds peace, rejoins McCann-Erickson, and reinvents himself once again. Perhaps Peggy is a huge influence on him, and her optimism combined with his sense of peace creates that commercial. I love that idea. Or maybe he stays away; in a final episode with very little time in which to wrap up everything, Matt Weiner included a scene where Roger finally fires Don’s secretary, the last thread that was still holding him to that company, and maybe that was our hint that Don’s not coming back. Instead he talks to Peggy, and she is the one who writes the legendary commercial — not because he came up with the idea, but that SHE saw the possibility of turning his experience into a commercial.
In either case, I know we’re meant to believe that someone we care about on that show came up with that commercial. And regardless of who it was, it was everyone else who played into it. Roger’s wit, Pete’s mistakes, Stan’s free-spiritedness, Betty’s sacrifices, Sally’s potential, Joan’s determination, Peggy’s ambition, Bert’s Zen-like influence, and Don. Everything about Don, the ups, the downs, his struggle to find himself in this world. All of these people came together, and that commercial was born.
I know fans will no doubt be divided on this one as they always are, but I thought it was divine, and showed the perfect harmony that this incredible show created.