(aka: What the hell am I gonna do with my life now? Overanalyze Game of Thrones? Yeah, right. Okay, whatever.)
So that took a few days to digest. I’ve been drinking heavily ever since. I’m glad Monday was a holiday here in Canada.
Naturally, I’ve been pouring over reviews of the finale, unable to really let it go. It’s been a bitch of a hangover. I still have the Coke jingle in my head.
Generally, the initial reaction of the masses to the Mad Men finale, “Person to Person” was positive. But as a few days kicked by, there was a bit of a backlash. The nitpicking started.
This is why we can’t have nice things, Internet.
Going into the finale, I told Husband that with series finales they end up either emotionally satisfying or intellectually satisfying. I was afraid it would be the latter. I wanted closure, damn it. Very rarely we get both.
Emotional satisfaction comes immediately; we get so caught up in the moment, we’re swept away. Intellectual satisfaction takes time; we need to mull things over; we need to parse out the intricacies and give it an in-depth analysis.
But the Mad Men finale was very emotionally satisfying, and left everyone with a stupid grin on their face. I think that’s what prompted the initial good reviews. A thing like that!
The thing is Mad Men is pretty much never emotionally satisfying. We’ve watched people make the same mistakes year in and year out because that’s usually what people are like. That was the refreshing beauty of Mad Men compared to the rest of television.
After few day of mulling it over, the emotional satisfaction was starting to wane and people began to analyze it intellectually. Wait, a million voices cried in unison, Man Men isn’t about happy endings! Mad Men is about the futility of self-betterment, the dying light of hope in a cynical world, and the true banality of existence that lies beneath the nostalgic vision we’ve created of the past! How dare the characters be happy!
I found the ending—a future classic, I believe—to be perfect. Emotional and intellectual. The Coca-Cola Hilltop ad was genius. In retrospect, the show could not have ended with anything else. The reason it was so perfect, to me, was the way it cast a sense of ambiguity over the entire series. It was not meant to mean one thing.
I don’t just mean as in how you interpret it plot-wise. It makes no difference whether or not Don would leave Big Sur and go on to write the most famous ad ever. That’s not the point. What that ad meant thematically, that is the point.
And the theme in this case is a little like the ending of Inception: the fact that we don’t know is the point.
The point is what that ad represented to America in 1971. Mad Men is not a show about people taking action and causing change; it is about people reacting to change. The Coca-Cola ad shows the way the counter-culture of the Sixties became mainstream, and what that means.
What it means, exactly, is up to us to decide. The ad is like a Rorschach test.
I immediately saw it through the eyes of a cynic. I saw it as the ultimate sign that the “good vibes” of the counter-culture had been co-opted by that totality that is The Man: McCann-Erickson, advertising as a whole, capitalism itself.
I was Sally criticising the Moon Landing.
When I talked to my mom on the phone afterwards, she saw the Coca-Cola ad as wonderfully uplifting. She saw it as Don connecting with a human being and passing that message onto the world. She remembers that ad in 1971 and how positive its message was.
Furthermore, she remembers how necessary it was.
As was made so apparent in the previous episode, “The Milk and Honey Route,” America in 1970 was a divided nation. Think of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” playing in the car and Don’s tragic adventures in Middle America. Think of how much the offices of McCann-Erickson reminded you of 1960 Sterling-Cooper. It seems cute at first, as if some people were stuck in a time-warp, oblivious to the changes the world had undergone.
But they weren’t oblivious; they were fighting those changes.
The end of the Sixties wasn’t just the “great wave” clawing its way back that Hunter S. Thompson wrote about. It was people paralyzed by change, not knowing how to react. Peace and love, my mom said, was what Coca-Cola realized everyone needed. That ad was a message of hope. That ad told people not to fear the future. It was a bridge between the divisions in America.
My mom was Don as he told Sally, “Don’t be cynical.”
What kind of loaded symbol is Coca-Cola? In and of itself, as product, it is completely useless. It’s fizzy sugar water, for Christ’s sake. That ad, all by itself—with or without Don Draper—is a one of those potent metaphors that real life occasionally throws out. If you were to put it in a novel, it would be too on the nose. If Mad Men created that ad and it didn’t actually exist in real life, it would be too obvious.
But it did happen. Because sometimes life is like that. Sometimes life is full of symbols and metaphors. Sometimes life is cloying. That may not be “realistic,” but it’s real.
That ad, when putting a cap on the entire series, can be seen as mainstream culture’s final victory against the counter-culture (castrating them by co-opting their message, just like records companies had been doing to rebellious music for years and would continue to do for many more), or it can be seen as mainstream culture at last truly understanding what the counter-culture had been preaching all this time.
So, thus, Don’s story—the lens through which we view Mad Men as a whole—ended ambiguously.
But everyone else seemed to get perfect little happy endings. It was too neat. It was too idyllic. It was like fan fiction. But I disagree.
I think these “perfect little happy endings” were earned. Consider how far these characters have come since 1960.
These endings seem too pat when taking into consideration who these characters are now, but when we consider who they were when their stories began, we realize that none of them got what they wanted.
Instead, they learned what they needed.
In 1960, Pete loved Manhattan and all the entitlements that came with it because of who his family was. He wanted to die in Manhattan.
In 1970, Pete gives up Manhattan for Wichita, Kansas.
Sure, here he’ll be given the royal treatment he always thought was his due, but in giving up Manhattan, Pete is actually giving up very much of what defined him. He’ll be a big fish in Wichita, but that won’t carry any weight in Manhattan. He knows this, and this is why he had to be forced into it by Duck Phillips. This seems to be such a great move for Pete’s career, but what he is really doing is giving up his idyllic vision of Manhattan for something more realistic and substantial.
In the last shot of the Campbells, Pete is the one carrying Tammy. Tammy, who couldn’t even draw a picture of a man, whose father was so awkward he never took the opportunity to say goodnight to her, who never saw her father, is now being carried by him. It’s a small touch, but a powerful one.
In 1960, Joan was telling Peggy that the best thing a woman could do in this job is to find a wealthy husband and not have to work at all. Even as late as 1969, Joan insists she wants love over “some arrangement.”
In 1970, she dismisses from her life a rich man she loves because he doesn’t want her to work. Joan knows that her work is a fundamental part of who she is and she will not give it up.
The last shot we see of Joan, she is still in that little apartment she has had for over ten years. Her mother and child are with her, and she’s made her own home her business, a business that represents Joan’s totality: Holloway-Harris. This job is her life.
In 1960, Roger was undergoing a classic mid-life crisis, unable to accept the fact that he was aging. There was always someone older to pick up after him: Bert Cooper. He had his name on the building, a wife and child, but all he wanted to do was have three-martini lunches and cat around with younger women. Remember the twins? Remember the two heart attacks? Then there’s his marriage to Jane, his dalliances with LSD and orgies, and his mother’s death and his terrified cry of “It’s my funeral!”
In 1970, Roger accepts that his name is no longer on the building. After a drunken, organ-riddled night with Peggy—which is both exactly what it sounds like and nothing what it sounds like—he accepts that he is on the “nursing home” floor of McCann-Erickson, he makes an honest commitment to a woman his own age, and he actively starts planning for his death by writing his will.
In Roger’s last scene, he cracks jokes about how old they are, showing his acceptance. He is learning French for Marie, which is a definite sign of commitment. Learning a language is not easy. They are also in Paris.*
In 1960, Betty and Sally were at odds. Betty was a naïve housewife, Sally was a child. Think of how wrought with tension and bickering their relationship has been. Think of the Sally who said she’d stay at boarding school “until 1975 if it put Betty in the ground.”
In 1970, they understand one another, and value one another, even if it comes at such a cost. Sally has lived up to responsibility; Betty at last is focusing on herself. But then again, there never was a hint of a happy ending here. At best, we all made peace with it.
In 1960, Peggy wanted a career. She wanted one so badly, in fact, that she was so focused and single-minded that she didn’t even realize she was pregnant.
Peggy had relationships, but each one was so obviously not going to work out from the start. And Peggy seemed to know this. It was as if she was sabotaging her personal life.
At least until Ted.
Ted was a sign of Peggy’s growing maturity, but not independence. There was a sense that Peggy learned from her relationship with Abe—and its epic conclusion—that she would need to be with someone who understood her job.
And Ted understood her job, but not in the healthiest way. Did you cringe too when he admitted to her that he was in love with his “protégé”? That word choice felt so wrong, like he didn’t truly value her as an equal. Ted was like a shadow of Don, in a way. Peggy saw their differences, and that made Ted attractive to her. He was in a role above Peggy, and she saw value in rising to his challenges. It was tied to her career in the way she thought best: it kept pushing her forward.
But Peggy failed to see the similarities between Ted and Don. She always thought she needed that push for her career, but that push was far too often antagonistic. It never let Peggy separate herself from her career ambitions. This separation wasn’t what she wanted, but was what she needed.
Peggy was never able to let go of Don and the career ambitions he symbolized until her last phone call with Stan. She calls him, worried about Don, but Stan tells her to let him go.
There’s a small moment—a subtle but important one—as she thinks about this and realizes it is true. She needs to let go of the pressure Don has put on her life, and when she finally does, that’s when she apologizes to Stan and he’s at last honest with her about his feelings. It’s a more complicated than a simple lesson learnt that “there’s more to life than work.”
The previous scene with Stan and Peggy, the fight scene, was important because it set up their differing perspectives. Stan has made peace with the idea that there is more to life. Peggy immediately frames it in black and white: you either succeed or you fail.
The now-famous Steggy scene had been both celebrated and criticized for the rom-com-iness of it. I even said to Husband during it, “This is a total rom-com, but I don’t care, I love it.”
But this scene is not really about Stan and Peggy getting together, or even about our little advertising robot learning to love, it is about Peggy discovering all those shades of grey beyond the black and white of success and failure. Stan is upfront about his feelings. We get a sense he’s known how he feels for a while. But Peggy has to dig it out of herself. That’s how deeply she’s buried any real feelings. We know they’re there, but Peggy represses.
Her emotions always come out in tragic bursts, like the moment she collapses in tears, alone in her apartment. Even in the way she told Stan the truth about the child she gave up for adoption, she even tells the story in third person, distancing herself from the reality, as if it is not her story, but someone else’s.
So, in 1970, Peggy gives up the single-mindedness of her ambition, the shortcut to having her name on the building. Because, as Stan points out, will that alone really make her happy? No, she’s staying the course laid out to her: put in three years with McCann-Erickson and then she’s golden. Because by 1980, as Pete says, she’ll be creative director.
The framing of Peggy’s last shot seemed too perfect, but it was perfect. It’s a late night in the office, not home. She’s typing: working or writing something for Joan, it doesn’t matter. And Stan is— literally and figuratively—behind her. Stan understands her job, but more importantly, he knows not only when to push her, but when to pull her back, or when to just be there.
I think, on a larger scale, series finales have changed in recent years. There is tremendous difficulty in having a both intellectually and emotionally satisfying ending. The take-away seems to be that if you have to err in one direction, err on the side of emotionally satisfying.
So many finales that are now infamous were ones that didn’t provide closure on the characters, even if they were artistically astute (The Sopranos), or tried to shoe-horn both the plot and character arcs into a neat package, which inevitably comes off as unfair to the characters and leaves the seams apparent (How I Met Your Mother, Lost).
This is what made Parks and Recreation’s finale so good. It was like the Stan and Peggy scene: it was saccharine, but it felt earned. At the end of the day, the audience cares about the characters and we want closure for them, but we also want the intellectual satisfaction of being able to ponder the subtleties and nuances for the rest of our lives.
Because, what the hell else am I gonna do now? Watch it all over again?
Thanks, Mad Men.
*Side note: after Peggy’s date with Stevie earlier this season, I just knew that SOMEONE was going to go to Paris. OF COURSE, it was Roger and Marie.