The Mad Men Finale: Advertised happiness

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I’m not even going to try and coalesce my thoughts in any rational way. In truth, I’m a blubbering mess after watching it. So let me just stream my thoughts out in fragmented sections.

Prelude:

  • What a joy to watch Kiernan Shipka mature over the course of the show.
  • I will miss Roger’s wit most of all
  • I loved how so much of the final episode was–in keeping with the title–person to person. So many scenes were just one on one moments: Don and Sally, Don and Betty, Don and Peggy, Roger and Joan, Joan and Peggy, Pete and Peggy, Peggy and Stan.
  • That whole D.B. Cooper thing. So crazy. But you have to admit, when Don started talking to the ghost of Bert Cooper (Don & Bert Cooper = D B Cooper), and when he drove west (DB jumped from the plane in Oregon), and then started heading up the California coast…toward Oregon…c’mon, you thought it. You thought it even for just a second. In the end DB Cooper was a last minute red herring for the fans, just as the waitress was for Don, and Richard was for Joan.
  • Just a few years ago, AMC had Breaking Bad, Mad Men and The Walking Dead. Then we lost Breaking Bad. Now Mad Men is history. Only The Walking Dead remains. The Beatles are dying in the wrong order.

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To start with, let’s talk about Don Draper and his compulsion to run, his quest for happiness and the fact that he’s an empty suit: A man with nothing to his name, who stole another man’s identity and then became a giant in his field, but because of the sins of his past, he feels hollow and worthless. As he tells Peggy on the phone in this episode, he’s done nothing with his name. Even if he had, he would never feel as though he did. He’d never allow himself to.

Some were surprised that Don was never “found out” in a public way over the course of the show, as though it was a shoe just waiting to drop. People were expecting some big punishment to come to Don for his sin: He stole the name of a fellow (and fallen) Korean War soldier, switched dog tags with him and used his new identity to escape from the horrors of war.  From then on he has been punishing himself. No matter what, he never allowed himself to be truly happy.

Over the course of seven seasons, Don Draper has been on the run. In stealing another man’s identity, he started a path that led him to being cynical and fearful. He feared the day would come when his secret would be exposed, the jig would be up and his life would be ruined; back to what it was when he was just Dick Whitman: Son of a whore. That constant paranoia and the self-deluded presumption that he need to live a lie turned him into a cynic, but still one heck of an advertising man. Occasionally his real emotions would seep through, such as in the season one pitch to Kodak, when his own fears of losing his wife and children led him to tearfully explain the beautiful power of the Carousel.  Watch it below:

A cynic–an unobservant viewer of the show–would say that Don was exploiting real (and raw) emotions in order to sell a product, first to executives and later to consumers. Of course that’s part of advertising (that’s almost all of advertising in fact), but that’s not what Don was about.

Don was so good at advertising because he was the only guy to do it who had something at stake. Every other ad guy out there is a perfectly ordinary person, trying to conjure up some catchphrase or slogan that will better sell some pointless product to the tired masses. Not Don. Don is looking. Like Solomon, he is seeking true happiness. His pitches are how he summarizes the ways this or that product might make someone happy…because he needs it to. So he pitches cigarettes, and lights a new one up after every other sentence. They offer no happiness, however. He pitches the Kodak Carousel, but finds the opposite of happiness; he weeps over the family that is slipping away from him. By the time he pitches to Hershey (the biggest company he stood in front of to that point), he is so defeated in his quest to find happiness that the facade of Don Draper is dropped and he tells his story. His real story.

Except he didn’t. Not at first.

At first he did what he had done for so long. He told a lie. He fabricated a story (his go-to in life) about spending a day with his dad and picking up a Hershey bar.

It was all a lie, but that’s not the point. Inside, the reality of truth was gnawing at him. He had told his advertising-lies because that’s what the executives wanted to hear. Inside, Don’s heart was telling a different story. His heart was seeking out what the product of the hour offered to him personally, to the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman, son of a whore, stealer of another man’s identity). “Could this be the product,” he’d think to himself. “Could this be the one whose story I can tell that will help me find happiness?”

It wasn’t. And after years of trying and failing, he finally broke down. Watch it below:

As a result of this meeting, Don was asked to take a sabbatical from the ad agency. His next move was to take his children to the abandoned whore house he grew up in and hint that his life was not all he fabricated it to be. Still, though, he kept his facade up. He kept the Don Draper lie going.

In time he’d return to work and eventually his ad company would be absorbed by McCann-Erickson, who viewed the well-reputed and brilliant ad man Don Draper as their white whale, their ultimate prize to acquire.

Don, meanwhile, was on a quest to find happiness. McCann’s goal and Don’s did not mesh, so he took off. Unwilling to be “real” with wife, he lost her. Unwilling to be “real” with his second wife, he lost her too. The parade of other women he had hooked up with over the years were all gone: Each one of them had been chased by him from his misguided notion that “happiness” was always just over the next hill. He’d tried to find it by being at the nexus of consumerism, hoping that one product would come along that he could pitch to himself and convince himself that finally he could stop running, settle down and be happy. It never happened. So he did what he always did: He ran.

There was a brief moment in the finale that gives us insight into Don’s thinking. At the meditation retreat, Stephanie (niece to the real Don Draper) is berated for being a mother who abandoned her child. Don tries to console her by telling her that by putting her sin behind her and moving forward (i.e. running) it will get easier over time. Without missing a beat Stephanie calls Don out on that foolishly naive thinking. She doesn’t say “that’s not true.” She doesn’t say “I don’t think so.” She says “I don’t think you’re right about that.” And she says it such a way that it puts a mirror right in Don’s face. Look at his life: He has ran from his original sin for years and he has only gotten deeper and deeper into unhappiness.

His running from New York was just another in a long line of examples of Don Draper fleeing his past. He traveled cross-country all the way to California, to the home of the real, deceased Don Draper. And he did finally find happiness, but not by running. He found it by stripping away the facade of Don Draper. He found it by first finding contentment.

The second-to-last episode of the show ends with an image of Don, sitting at the bus stop, having just given away his car, with only a sack of clothes, a few dollars and a ring in his possession. Some people remarked how that would have been a great shot for the finale:

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But had it been, the show would have been missing something. That shot shows a man who has finally stripped away every aspect of his old life. He’s now a clean slate. Something still needs to be added to it. That shot shows a man who is not happy; he is content. He’s content and at peace with the mistakes of his past and is ready to forgive himself. The final episode is the journey of this contented Don Draper finding what has always eluded him: Happiness.

And the biggest shock of the show, is that he–the real Dick Whitman–found happiness in being an ad man (the thing that Mad Men has done so well to subtly make the viewer hate), which he never was. Don Draper was. The person whose identity he–Dick Whitman–stole. THAT guy, the real Don Draper, had he lived, might have returned home from the war and gotten into advertising. He might have been the one to marry Betty, and have the children and the life that Don ended up having (and wasting). Dick Whitman was a nobody son of a whore. He saw himself as a thief who took another man’s name. He wore another man’s suits. He married another man’s wife. He had another man’s kids. He lived another man’s life.

It was only when he shed all of his layers that he found he could be Dick Whitman AND be one of the mad men. That’s his happy place. More on that in a bit.

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It’s here where I will pause and consider some other parts of the final episode, because it wasn’t just Don who found happiness. The theme for a lot of characters on this final episode was, in fact, finding a happy place…

Peggy found her happy place with Stan, and he with her. Peggy’s journey over the course of the show has been interesting. She’s often compared to Joan in a yin and yang sort of way, but that’s an oversimplification. Joan was ambitious but held back because of the workplace politics of the 50’s. By the time of the 60’s she was resigned to the cold harshness of The Way Things Are. Naturally she was miffed when Peggy sort of fell backwards into being a career woman. Joan was the head of the secretaries, Peggy was a secretary. Not long after we meet both, Joan is head of the secretaries and Peggy is working as a writer with a secretary. Peggy never really sought to become “great.” She just wanted a job as a secretary. As the show progressed she found within herself a savant-like talent for the business and devoted herself solely to her work, all the while unaware that Stan was the key to her happiness. In her final scene she didn’t just talk herself into a life with Stan, she talked herself out of a life alone with her work. She’s given a brief coda at the end of the episode, showing that she managed to have both.

Joan found her happy place with an independent career. Hers was the most straight forward and obvious character path, but because it goes where we want it to go, it’s also very satisfying. Richard, all along, was just an obstacle to tempt her away from her calling. He teased her with the empty promise of doing nothing all day long, but that’s not our Joan: She’s a doer. Series creator, Matthew Weiner said that elements from the beginning of the show would certainly come back into play at the end. In the beginning of the show, Joan told Peggy that if she played her cards right, she could marry a rich man and never have work again. At the end of the show, Joan has the chance to do exactly that but turns it down to build her own career.

Like Peggy, Joan worked her way up the ladder to being a partner at SCDP, but the way she achieved that distinction was through sex. Sure, it wasn’t in the traditional means; she didn’t sleep with her boss and get promoted tit for tat. In fact it was worse than that: She was whored out to a Jaguar executive as a way of securing the company’s ad business. Joan went along with it but on her terms, demanding partnership in return. It was one of the more controversial aspects of the show, but it was very much in keeping with Joan’s character. In the end, she was able to become her own boss, build her own career and call her own shots without having to answer to a leering man.

Roger found his happy place in the arms of a woman who wouldn’t put up with his crap and who could go round for round with his wit. That’s it. That’s all there is to it.

Even sleazeball Pete found his happy place, having a character-turnaround unlike any television has given me before. He threw away his wife and child, and stepped on (and over) anyone necessary in order to further his career ambitions. A more cliched show would have punished him for such persistent cruelty. Mad Men rose above it though, because sometimes cruel people do suddenly soften. Pete softened, begged for his wife to give him another chance and start over with the kind of career that would allow them to be together. And then he got it. No rugs pulled, no bait and switch. No plane-crash halfway to Wichita; Pete got his happy place.

In fact, just about everyone (except for Betty) was given a happy ending, which is surprisingly rare for television finales these days. People are almost disappointed when there isn’t tragedy in their final episodes. “We didn’t even see Betty die!” the blood-thirsty cynics proclaim. How refreshing for a finale to be optimistic for a change.

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It’s here where I’ll talk about the final moments of the episode and try to tie all my thoughts together:

There I was, the past few weeks, thinking Peggy would be the one to create the Coke ad, as her final way of justifying her value as one of the mad (wo)men of New York. It seemed like all the pieces were in place: The real-life McCann-Erickson ad company created the ad, our fictitious characters were now working for McCann-Erickson. Peggy had once sat down with Don and explained her desire to “make a difference” in the world. Don scoffed at her dream and replied “in advertising?”

I was convinced that Peggy would create the commercial and prove that an ad could–theoretically–change the world. The Coke ad, of course, didn’t usher in a utopia, but the message behind it (sit down, let’s have a drink and talk things out) is a good way to start one, theoretically.

That wasn’t her story though. Peggy wanted to make an ad that would make a difference, because in that moment Peggy was obsessed with her career and an ad that could change the world is essentially the holy grail in the ad business. Her motivation is capitalistic. Don mocks it because in that moment he is cynical.

The story of the episode is not Peggy’s quest to make an ad that would make the world happy; it’s Don’s quest to make the world happy with an ad.

Don is the perfect guy to dream up that ad. The whole idea behind it, if you are a cynic, is disgusting: marrying world peace with a commercial product. If you are an optimist, however, it’s beautiful. Who cares that you buy the product? What matters is what the product can do. Two people can share a bottle of coke and reconcile their differences. That’s the power of it: It’s almost religious, offering a sense of communion between the two parties.

Who better than Don to have that epiphany?

So I choose not to be a cynic. I believe Don’s tears were genuine when he wept with the unnamed loser in the “share your feelings” meeting. That person expressed what it was like to be Dick Whitman. Don Draper, the fictional persona, is the center of attention, loved and adored by all. Dick Whitman is the nobody son of a whore. He is unseen. He is ignored. He is forgotten. When he finally came to terms with that, he was able to marry his real persona with the facade of Don Draper. That’s why I believe Don’s motivation behind the unseen Coke pitch was as sincere as his pitch to Kodak way back in season one, or later, as his pitch to Hershey.

He’s not thinking about preying on people’s emotions. He’s thinking about tapping into them.

So there’s no doubt in my mind that Don went back to New York. Except he went back as a new man. He pitched to Coke and created the ad of the century.

Don had shed every bit of his old self on his little getaway. By the end, the old, cynical Don was dead. The poor kid, son of a whore, who stole another man’s identity, who made a living pitching happiness that–according to the Hershey speech–he never really believed in, finally found genuine happiness: the real thing.

He found peace. He found his happy place. And in that moment, he figured out how to help others find it too.

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The cynic sees the smile as an ad man figuring how how to exploit people who seek for peace in order to get them to buy Coke. I refuse to see it that way. Don isn’t convincing people who seek for peace to buy Coke. He’s using Coke to convince people to seek for peace.

That’s the takeaway. People online are already hating it because they say Don just ended up going back to hollow advertising. No. He went back to do something real with advertising. He went back to do what he told Peggy a few weeks ago was impossible: To make a difference “in advertising.”

That’s why I love that the pitch to Coke was never shown. In my mind it was as beautiful a speech as the Kodak pitch was from season one. But we’ll never see it. We’re left to imagine it in our own heads. And when we do, we will basically be pitching to ourselves on the real thing: Our own personal happy place.

That’s beautiful.

As Bert Cooper would say: Bravo.

 

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