Mad Men’s Series Finale: Don Draper’s Moment of Zen and the Betrayal of Peggy
As the world-weary Joan Holloway once quipped, “One minute you’re on top of the world, the next minute some secretary’s running you over with a lawn mower.”
Well, on Sunday night, a legion of fiercely loyal Mad Men fans, who’d endured 92 smoldering, seductive, finely calibrated episodes, felt like their collective toes were mangled by an errant John Deere. The show’s seventh and final season came to a close with “Person to Person,” written and directed by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. And given the deluge of operatic brilliance that preceded it this half-season, the stage was set for a monumental ending, one that cemented the show’s status on the Mount Rushmore of modern television, alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, and its sister series Breaking Bad.
Alas, it wasn’t to be. In Mad Men’s defense, series finales aren’t easy. Who can forget the infamous Seinfeld trial, Dexter’s head-scratcher of a postscript, or the Lost fiasco? Then there are the cases of Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad, two poignant finales that brought their respective series to fitting—and satisfying—ends. The series finale of Mad Men probably falls somewhere between these two polarities, but in the heat of the moment, and with Don’s ommmm still ringing in our ears, it’s very hard to not be disappointed.
That’s not to say there weren’t several fine moments in “Person to Person.”
We were treated to a stunning shot of Don racing across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, the same spot where, in 1970, Gary Gabelich’s rocket-powered Blue Flame broke the world land speed record. We had the distinct pleasure of witnessing Joan, in a Key West sundress, sniffing cocaine off her finger and cooing, “Ooooh, that’s fast…I feel like someone just gave me some very good news!” before jumping Richard’s bones. We saw Pete complete his redemption tour by delivering some touching words of encouragement to his ex-conquest Peggy: “Someday, people are going to brag that they worked for you.” Sally gave Don some real talk in breaking the Betty news to him, while Betty cautioned him not to return to his family during her last days—news that caused Don to utter, “Birdie…” before breaking down in tears. And we relished seeing Don shed his mask once more to Peggy, with the long goodbye: “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.”
The finale’s two biggest moments, however, seemed tone-deaf at best and utterly egregious at worst.
The first is the saga of Peggy and Stan, which came neatly packaged in a rom-com bow. If there was an Elizabeth Bennet character on Mad Men, it was Peggy Olson—a future-woman fighting an uphill battle against an iniquitous, sexist world. But this is not Pride & Prejudice, and while there was always an undercurrent of Bennet/Darcy to Olson/Rizzo, their coupling seems like a total, hyperventilating cop-out.
“I think about how you came into my life and how you drove me crazy, and now I don’t even know what to do with myself because all I want to do is be with you,” Stan tells Peggy over the phone. “I want to be with you...I’m in love with you...I love you, Peggy.”
“Oh my god. That’s what I thought you said. I…I don’t know what to say,” Peggy replies, channeling her inner Kate Hudson. “I feel like I can’t breathe almost. I mean…I don’t even think about you. I mean, I do all the time because you’re there, and you’re here, and you make everything OK, you always do, no matter what…I mean I must be. Because you’re always right. I can’t believe this. I think I’m in love with you, too. I really do.”
The rom-com ending wouldn’t be complete, of course, without Stan sprinting over to Peggy’s office and kissing her. And they lived happily ever after. And we all felt betrayed, because Peggy, to us, is more than a silly romantic punch line; she’s the living, breathing embodiment of all working women’s struggles. She shouldn’t need a man to make her feel whole. She’s a female crusader. She’s the woman who, just recently, strutted down the office hallway of McCann Erickson sporting fuck-off shades with a cigarette dangling from her mouth. She’s turned down Joan’s “we won’t answer to anyone” production company pitch for…Stan and his silly fashion sense. She—and we—deserve better than this.
And then there’s the matter of Don.
If you recall, during Mad Men’s fourth season, the enigmatic ad man embarks on a cross-country trip to California to visit Anna Draper. Instead, he’s greeted by her attractive hippie niece, Stephanie. Don, ever the morally bankrupt lothario, tries to put the moves on Stephanie but is stunned into silence when she tearfully confesses that Anna is dying of cancer. Callow Don, unable to face Anna, retreats to New York, promising he’ll return to the best coast with his children someday.
That same fate has befallen Betty, which apparently triggers a reflex mechanism in Don, compelling him to pay Stephanie that long-awaited visit. During the second leg of Season 7, Don’s been shedding his Draper skin and reverting to his genuine self—Dick Whitman. He’s abandoned his job and family, given away his Caddy and worldly possessions, come clean about his deserter past to a group of rowdy veterans, and hitchhiked to see the only person in the world who addresses him by his real name.
So Don accompanies Stephanie “up the coast” on a wellness retreat somewhere in Northern California. It’s set on a hippie commune of sorts by the water, and Don attends group meetings where neglectful parents—like Stephanie and Don—tell their sob stories.
“I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down,” one man says. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do? But I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you, then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is. 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. And 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.”
This tear-filled confessional really hits Don where it hurts, and he walks over, kneels down, and gives the man a hug.
Cue montage. Pete and Trudie are seen about to board a private Learjet. Joan answers a phone at her new production company, Holloway Harris, run out of her apartment. Roger—who has had nothing to do this season—orders a bottle of Champagne at a Paris bistro with Marie Calvet. Betty is puffing away at the dinner table as Sally does the dishes. Peggy takes a break from pounding out copy to receive a kiss on the forehead from Stan.
And then we see Don meditating with a group of hippies by the water. Ommmmm. Ommmmm. He cracks a smile. The action abruptly cuts to the 1971 “Buy the World a Coke” commercial depicting a group of multicultural teens singing the tune “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” on top of a hill in Manziana, Italy. Commissioned by McCann-Erickson, it came with a price tag of $250,000, making it the most expensive commercial to date, and became wildly popular.
So it truly is the end of an era. Weiner has shut the door on the “good ol’ days” of the ’60s and provided a gateway to the decades of social and political upheaval and multiculturalism that will follow. Don has transformed from a closed-minded “Master of the Universe” to one of the enlightened ones and, inspired by his retreat (ding), has returned to McCann to create one of the most celebrated ads ever. Yes, everything, even our personal moments of clarity, can be co-opted by industry and turned for profit.
Don’t believe me? Check out this little Easter egg:
It’s a puzzling eye-wink of an ending for one of television’s greatest protagonists, but it shouldn’t necessarily sully all that preceded it. When Mad Men debuted on July 19, 2007, it was the epitome of a cultural oddity. Presented by a network that induced Abe Simpson-like fits of narcolepsy in even the most manic of viewers with its stable of bygone cinema classics; starring Jon Hamm, a virile leading man best known for receiving ninth billing on the estrogen-heavy Lifetime TV series The Division; and set in a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the 1960s, the show didn’t exactly provoke House of Cards-levels of splashiness.
And yet, thanks to its talented no-name cast, lush sets and costumes, and Weiner’s deft hand, Mad Men seduced us all. Despite its finale episode’s considerable shortcomings, the show should nonetheless be recognized as a mastery of mood, a TV triumph. One day, we’ll all get over that ommmmm and remember the good times: Joan’s oh-no-you-didn’t scowl, Sally’s strength, Peggy’s resolve, Roger’s cheeky one-liners.
And Don Draper, wearing the hell out of a custom suit, giving the most fuckable, steely-eyed glare you’ve ever seen.