This review contains spoilers.
7.14 Person To Person
Perhaps unusually for a drama so well-versed in existential despair, Mad Men has long had an impeccable sense of humour. That rich history should have been preparation for just how funny the series finale would be, but even this late in the game it seems the show is still capable of taking me by surprise.
Yes, Person To Person dealt with dying, grief and the ultimate disintegration of Don’s psyche, but that’s an average day on Mad Men. It was also a riot. When I wasn’t in emotional pieces over that “Birdie…” “I know” phone call or Sally helping Bobby to make dinner, or Leonard’s monologue, I was in bits over the gags.
It started by teasing the audience with a rip-roaringly incongruous answer to the wistful question mark left at the end of the previous episode. Where would Don Draper be when we next met him? If you say you predicted ‘speeding across the desert like Barry Newman in Vanishing Point’ then I say you’re lying. Who could have foreseen Mad Men turning into an high-thrills action movie for that split-second spin around?
The episode’s other genre transformation was easier to see coming. While we’ve all been distracted stroking our chins about the real meaning of Don’s carpet stains, Mad Men has been stealthily weaving the most satisfying rom-com of our age.
When Peggy Met Stan-ny was perfect, largely thanks to the inestimable talents of Elisabeth Moss, whose second panic attack of the finale coincided with the realisation that she’s been in love all along (“I mean I must be, because you’re always right.”) From their initial antagonism, to their growing emotional dependence on each other, to those unending phone calls, to that final run into her office, Peggy and Stan just knocked every other TV couple into a cocked hat. Hip, hip, and hooray.
Peggy’s first panic attack of course, came courtesy of Joan’s partnership offer. While Peggy started out as the poster girl for Mad Men’s feminism, these past two seasons in particular have seen Joan stride up to pose right by her side. (I fully expect to see Joan’s dismissive “I’ve been to the beach” Beyoncé hand wave used in GIF form anytime anyone needs shorthand for ‘take me seriously’ from now on).
It was a finale full of women demanding to be taken seriously, from Sally schooling her father on what’s best for her brothers, to Betty’s firm hand on Don respecting her wishes, Peggy fighting for Chevalier in the boardroom and finally, Joan telling Richard that being a pampered, coked-up Barbie doll in his Malibu dream home wasn’t her idea of fulfilment (I may be editorialising here). Richard was right about Joan’s life being undeveloped real estate, he just didn’t understand that it was up to her to build something with it.
The diminishing Betty Francis aside, happy endings were being doled out like sweets at Christmas to Mad Men’s ensemble. Holloway Harris Productions (“You need two names to make it sound real”) was Joan’s; having Stan with her on her journey to creative director was Peggy’s; Marie, unlikely as it seems, was Roger’s; while Pete and Trudy’s were finally granted their lifelong wish on that airstrip: they’re now officially Kennedys.
But what of Don Draper? Sliding to the floor after hanging up on Peggy, incapacitated with grief at his life (“I took another man’s name and made nothing of it”), was his nadir. Forget season four Thanksgiving, this was rock bottom. Leonard may have delivered that monologue about loneliness and permanent dissatisfaction, but the lines had been written for Don.
So was that the smile of enlightenment spreading across Don’s lips in that final shot?
Pull the other one.
You can choose to believe that Dick Whitman had reached nirvana by his final appearance, to swallow that all that soul-searching and fellow-feeling had enabled him to finally be achieve inner peace. Mad Men, frankly, had other ideas. Don Draper has done what Don Draper does best—he’s made an ad, and not just any ad. The most famous TV ad of all time. He’s channelled every accessory of that supposedly spiritual experience, from the hilltop setting to the ribbons in the hippy receptionist’s hair, into selling Coca-Cola.
It’s the punchline of the year, that juxtaposition of chanting Don and those bright-eyed hilltop singers. What did you really expect, it says. Answers?
To be truthful, yes, a little bit. Mad Men has been asking what life is all about so well and for so long that I’d almost come to believe its finale might actually tell us. That’s testament to how strong this show has been. It made me its disciple, lulled me to accept its all-knowing grace.
Providing a solution to life’s most pressing existential mystery was always going to be a tall order for a TV show finale. Instead, Mad Men allowed us some laughs, some sentimentality about its past, and a professional epiphany for Don, if not a spiritual one.
Along the way, the finale treated us to so much else. Peggy using Pete’s unofficial catchphrase (“A thing like that!”), Joan and Roger’s fond goodbye (“I guess somebody finally got the timing right”), Jeanie and Kevin’s first lines (“I had pancakes!”), Don’s face on being pushed around by that old lady, and a whole hour of reward structured around three increasingly emotional phone calls.
In the end then, here’s what happened. Don Draper didn’t plunge out of a skyscraper window or hijack a plane. He’s an ad man, so he made an ad. It was brilliant in its simplicity. And a fitting finale to a brilliant show.
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