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Well, Don Draper didn’t exactly ride off into the sunset. Rather, Mad Men ended with Don sitting on a cliff as the sun rose, possibly coming up with Coke’s most iconic commercial. It also ended with everyone (save poor Betty) getting what they wanted. So many people got happy endings (yes, even Joan, despite losing Richard- someone I didn’t really think was worthy of Joan from the start), that the episode actually veered into the realm of audience pandering. Mad Men isn’t above playing fast and loose with reality and having that work great as a narrative device (Burt Cooper singing to Don in Don’s imagination as Exhibit A), but I can’t help but wish the ending hadn’t tied up the storylines so darn perfectly.
And that’s my main problem with it. It didn’t feel like a Mad Men episode. I’m sorry, but it didn’t. That doesn’t make it bad. And it’s certainly not the worst episode Mad Men has done. But it didn’t feel right. I fully admit that this might just be me and my tastes, but I was hoping for things to be a bit more open-ended across the board. There wasn’t the need to wrap things up in a little bow. I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way, but man, was this approach a complete misstep on the part of Matthew Weiner. I didn’t like the finale. There. I said it.
I’m thrilled that Joan is successful (even if it cost her Richard- I have no doubt she’ll find someone better) and that Peggy and Stan finally gave into the simmering chemistry there. But it was just so perfect. And if there’s one thing Mad Men has taught us, it is that nothing in life is perfect. Bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to awful people who don’t deserve them. But, gosh darn it, in “Person to Person,” everyone whose ending wasn’t already written in stone seemed to win. Roger is even happy in Canada (although, really, how long will that last?). Hell, we were even given the laundry list of one-on-one scenes every fan was dreaming of: Peggy and Joan speaking civilly to each other (I will always lament the loss of Harris-Olsen Productions, by the way), Don saying a real goodbye to Peggy, Pete saying goodbye to Peggy, and Don and Betty saying a truly final goodbye. Even the one item on my ultra-wish list – Caity Lotz returning as Stephanie – happened (we even got Supergirl giving advice to the Canary, in the form of Helen Slater talking to Lotz in the therapy scene). There was so much fan service in the episode that it felt like fan fiction at times.
And that’s what confuses me the most. Matthew Weiner isn’t one to coddle his characters. There’s a great story about the season one finale of Mad Men (per Alan Sepinwall’s book The Revolution Was Televised). In the first draft of the script, once Don successfully pitches to Kodak, he comes home to find his family waiting for him. It ends with Don getting everything he wants: success at work and the love of his family. When Weiner turned in the script, AMC brass told him it couldn’t end that way, it couldn’t be happy. And Weiner hung up, not wanting the ending changed. Finally, they spoke again over the phone and Weiner agreed to the change, telling the brass he cried when he realized Don needed to have an unhappy ending in season one because he loves his characters and wants them to be happy. That decision, as I think we all agree, was the right one. And “The Wheel” is one of the best of the lot when it comes to Mad Men. With “Person to Person,” it’s clear no one made a similar call to Weiner. No one told him to reign it in. There didn’t have to be unhappy endings, but there shouldn’t have been such clean endings all around. Because life isn’t like that. A group of people don’t suddenly get a round of happy endings at the same time, even if you desperately want them to be happy.
There was one Sopranos-esque element to the finale (fitting, since Weiner was a writer on that series right before beginning Mad Men), and that was the use of the Coca Cola commercial as the final shot of the series. Does it mean that Don will find his center and head back to Madison Avenue a changed man, leading to the creation of the iconic Coke commercial? Or, as I suspect, does it mean that Don has finally begun to embrace the modern era? That Don will grow and change with the times now, no longer stuck in the suits of yesteryear? As California and the ocean have always represented rebirth in the series, it’s certainly no coincidence that Don ends the series on the coast, meditating near the ocean. Perhaps this new and enlightened Don accepts that he doesn’t have to be needed to be worthy (a major theme this season, that was also driven home in the episode by Stephanie’s quick departure and Sally’s directive for Don to let Henry raise the boys). Considering everyone else who was lacking a final ending last week got what they wanted in the end, I can only assume Don did as well. He certainly looked content, whatever he ultimately decides to do in the future.
Despite my dislike of the finale, I still love Mad Men. I’ll still champion it to those who have yet to watch it, and I’m sure I’ll revisit it from time to time in the future. A disappointing finale doesn’t cheapen or invalidate all the wonderful things that came before it. Did Mad Men stick the landing? Nope. But was it seven wonderful seasons with a few tumbles as it neared the end? Yeah. And really, in the grand scheme of things, that’s pretty great.
— The storyline that felt the most forced was the Peggy-Stan love realization. It just read like a really bad romantic comedy, and Weiner, Elisabeth Moss and Jay R. Ferguson are all better than that.
— At least we know Sally Draper is going to grow up well and land on her feet. She will make sure Bobby and Gene turn out alright, and she’s pretty darn brilliant herself. And that is really the only happy ending we all needed, right?
— In fact, all those kids are going to be ok, which is really reassuring considering how messed up all their parents are.
— I will say, the fact that Mad Men has never won an acting Emmy award is something that should be rectified this year. Jon Hamm was excellent in this episode. And that phone call between Don and Peggy? I could certainly watch that on repeat for hours. Moss and Hamm really nailed that.