'Mad Men' Finale: A Love Letter To Fans Filled With Mostly Happy Endings
From the earliest beginnings of the Mad Men phenomenon, some fans have wondered if superstar '60s and '70s-era adman Don Draper was destined to write one of the iconic advertising catchphrases of the time.
So it's kind of a testament to the misdirectional skills of show creator Matt Weiner that some regular viewers were surprised by the show's series finale Sunday – in which Don is shown to have concluded a long, soul searching trip through America with a trip to a California yoga retreat, which inspired him to invent the classic 1971 Coca Cola campaign "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."
Like much of the developments in Mad Men's finale episode, "Person to Person," that conclusion – that Draper shrugged off all the self-discovery he'd achieved to go back to being his old self in his old job – is a presumed one. Because show creator Matt Weiner isn't one to spoon feed the audience key plot points; even one that puts a button on eight years of tortured self-examination by one of the most compelling lead characters in modern TV.
As a fan, I was a little heartened by the show's finale. Weiner resolved nearly every character's story in a mostly positive fashion that close watchers of the show will likely love. Joan Harris finally got to start her company and be her own boss after getting pushed out of McCann Erickson; frumpy, repressed copywriter Peggy Olson found love with her longtime art director Stan Rizzo; weasely striver Pete Campbell got to be a big shot as a top executive at Lear jet and Draper did what we all expected – crafting one of modern advertising's most iconic campaigns.
But as a critic, I was a bit underwhelmed by much in these this final spate of seven episodes which closed out Mad Men's seventh season (the last season was stretched over last year and this year). Whole characters and storylines seemed unnecessary, like Elizabeth Reaser's tragically damaged waitress who briefly romanced Don. And Don's cross-country sojourn felt suspiciously like a Weiner-generated head fake to keep us from guessing that he might still wind up back in the ad business – this time, with his finger firmly on the pulse of the '70s zeitgeist.
Fittingly for an episode titled after a long distance phone connection, the best elements of this finale were the phone conversations. Don gets a scolding from his daughter Sally by telephone after she tells him his ex-wife Betty has terminal cancer; turns out, he's such a bad dad, the kids wouldn't be better off with him even after their mother is dead.
When Don calls Betty to confirm the news, he is again told that she would rather go to her grave not seeing him again and he realizes how much they have lost. And when Don calls former protégé Olson to say goodbye to her, he's so broken up, we actually think he's never again coming east of the Mississippi (once more, great head fake, Weiner).
Because this is Mad Men, few characters get everything they want. Joan loses another self-centered clueless boyfriend when she reveals she wants to build a business instead of spend every waking hour with him; Peggy may have to wait a decade before she gets a shot at a creative director job; and fans don't get to see Peggy and Joan team up to run their own business as partners.
Still, it was good to see Weiner actually end the series, because he worked on another show – HBO's The Sopranos – which didn't really end. In a move which sparked one of the biggest series finale controversies in recent TV history, Sopranos creator David Chase simply cut to black in the middle of the show's final scene, not so much ending the series as stopping it cold. In Mad Men's case, Weiner left viewers with a good sense of where every major character was headed in their life as the show closed out. That's important when you're ending a show that people have obsessed over for so long. And I think when a series ends, that close attention has to be rewarded with a finale that gives fans some closure and yet lets them connect the dots a little bit themselves.
Mad Men will be remembered as a show which challenged audiences with its attention to detail and subtlety; it helped spark a rush of great cable series which include sibling AMC series Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. Thanks to its stylish look and note-perfect casting, the show also moved into the pop culture conversation, touching lots of people who may know Don Draper's name but have never watched moment of the series itself.
The show's biggest blind spot, curiously, has always been centered on race. It still mystifies me that a cable channel could spend eight years exploring the lives of characters throughout the 1960s and mostly disregard events that involved the civil rights movements, the end of segregation, the establishments of voting rights for black people or the end of laws against interracial marriage.
Weiner has said that the characters he focuses on in Mad Men are the type of people who wouldn't be closely connected to black people or those issues. But several writers have pointed out there were black people involved in advertising in New York during the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, a black man, Billy Davis, is credited as co-writer on the song "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," which provided the soundtrack for the Coke campaign Don is supposed to have invented.
I concluded a long time ago that Weiner simply didn't want to write about race much on Mad Men Which is a shame, because it makes the show feel a little less real and a little less relevant than it could have been.
It's truism that period pieces are often as much about the time in which they are made. And what Mad Men really did well was communicate our modern discomfort with the future, our continuing struggles with sexism and how difficult it can be to change, even when you know you must (e.g. global warming; wearing crocs)..
That last point was exemplified by Don Draper, who couldn't help using his midlife crisis as research for his next big idea in the finale – the same way he chatted up a black waiter in the show's pilot to figure out how to sell Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Even with all the great dramas now on TV, I think Mad Men will be missed.
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