Mad Men Series Finale Review - Person to Person

You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward – Don

Oh, Dick. I don’t think you’re right about that – Stephanie

No, you’re not right about that, Don.

We’ve watched seven seasons of Don trying to move forward without looking back and it’s never really worked. When he told his long-lost brother Adam that his life only moved in one direction – forward. When he went to see Peggy in the hospital after she gave birth and told her, “It will shock you how much this never happened.” Don’s default setting has always been move full-speed ahead, but it’s never made him truly happy and “Mad Men” has always been about his journey toward finding peace. So it is fitting that by what is sure to be a polarizing conclusion to Sunday’s series finale, “Person to Person,” Don’s journey may have reached its natural resolution.

I’ll be honest my expectation/hope for the finale was Don would travel to California to see Stephanie, find out that Betty is dying and he would return to New York as the White Knight to be there for his children. Even as this outcome occurred to me though, it seemed too pat or unambiguous a resolution for a show like this and the fact that a variation on this ending was most people’s expectation throughout the past week didn’t help my confidence. If any show consistently zigs where others zag, it is “Mad Men.”

On first viewing, I can understand people’s frustration with the ending we got (and a quick scan of Twitter and message boards makes clear this will not be met with universal acclaim). It is nothing if not extremely ambiguous and pretty much the exact opposite of fan service. I’ll be the first to admit that like a lot of people probably, when Matthew Weiner’s name showed up on the credits directly after the end of the Coke commercial, I was a bit let down at first.

But even if it isn’t the exact conclusion that many of us would’ve imagined in our minds, it was a proper conclusion based on everything that has come before and I suppose staying true to your narrative is all you can ask of a series.

An ending where Don peacefully meditates on a cliffside in Big Sur followed by the iconic Coca Cola “I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial (which was produced by McCann Erickson and premiered just a few months after this episode’s October 1970 conclusion) is not the wrap up I think anyone expected, but it is fitting. We’d like to see Don come to the rescue of his children and save the day, but what “Person to Person” makes definitively clear is Don can’t fix anything until he fixes himself and who knows if it will stick, but he seems to have done that by episode’s end.

Stephanie is Don’s last hope to maintain a connection and someone who he believes needs him, so when she rejects him and leaves without notice at the retreat, it leaves Don hopeless and leads to his phone call to Peggy where he sounds nearly suicidal.

But listening to the random retreat attendee's “refrigerator” story express everything Don feels about
his own life flips a switch for him and allows him to truly connect with a person like he never has before.

And it’s left to us to imagine what Don does with this new clarity.

He very well might go back to New York and repair his relationship with his children. He might stay in California and build a new life and new career. And in what may turn out to be to similar to  the “The Sopranos” debate about whether Tony lived or died at the end of that series, Don may or may not take Peggy’s advice and return hat in hand to McCann Erickson and come up with the famous Coke campaign we see in the final moments, which the ending strongly implies.

Some will argue the chime and the image of Don peacefully smiling while meditating in the final scene followed directly by the Coke commercial is a cynical resolution, that Don has finally had an epiphany, but he uses it to create something false and corporate.

I don't know that we need to ruminate that deeply on the final two images though. Don may or may not go back to McCann and come up with one of the most famous ad campaigns of all time, but it's also clear wherever he goes from here, he's taken a step forward in his life.

An average series will use it’s ending to wrap things up in a neat bow and leave little room for interpretation, but a series like “The Sopranos” or “Mad Men” has loftier ambitions and wants to continue to challenge it’s audience right up until the end. Who knows where this version of Don Draper goes from here? I don’t know, but it’ll be fun to imagine and “Mad Men” left us with that opportunity.

While Don’s narrative conclusion was quite open-ended, for the most part, the ones for the rest of the main characters were not and if any ending was pure fan service, it was the long-anticipated coupling of Peggy and Stan.

These are two characters that have had a humorously antagonistic relationship going back to Stan’s first appearance in the fourth season, when the two of them contentiously ended up naked in a hotel room working on ideas for an account. From one perspective, it should have been clear from that moment this two were made for each other, but their relationship seemed to evolve into something of a brother-sister bond over the years. It also became clear though there has always been a romantic spark between them that was very apparent during this half season.

All of that history leads up the fantastic scene here between the two of them over the phone as they
realize that while they drive each other absolutely crazy, they are also hopelessly in love with one another. It’s a great, almost romantic-comedy movie, payoff, right down to Stan disappearing from the phone line only to appear moments later in Peggy’s office, ready to sweep her into his arms. We don’t know where Peggy goes from here – it looks like she’s staying at McCann and she may prove Pete’s prediction that she’ll be a creative director by 1980 true – but whatever happens, it’s comforting to know Stan will be by her side.

Joan gets her own happy ending of sorts, although it’s more bittersweet than Peggy’s. Now that she has left McCann, she has all the freedom in the world, vacationing in Key West with Richard and even sampling cocaine(!), but Joan is still Joan and she is not one to simply retire and count her money. She needs to work and she’ll get that chance after Ken gives her the idea to start a commercial production company. She won’t have Peggy along with her as a partner like she hoped (now THAT would’ve been fan service) and her recommitment to working means Richard is gone, but it’s pretty clear Joan is going to be OK.

Roger seems like he is going to be OK as well. His relationship with Marie is going to continue to be volatile and tenuous (I’d give it a year, tops) but he’s still a part of Kevin’s life and seems content with whatever new diminished role he has at McCann.

Out in Rye, Betty’s health is clearly worsening but her stubborness hasn’t diminished. Unsurprisingly, she forbade Sally from telling Don that she is dying even if she’s unable to keep the news from him. The subsequent phone conversation between Don and Betty is brutal and our first indication that the “Don coming to the rescue” storyline is not to be. Of course, Don’s instinct is to be there for his children, but as Betty tells him harshly, but honestly, “This way you see them exactly as much as you do now. On weekends and – oh wait, Don. When was the last time you saw them?” Don hasn’t seen his kids in a while he’s been off on his quest to find himself, but with the place he is in by episode’s end, maybe he can now be a better father, in whatever capacity that may be.

And while of course Don’s children need their father, it’s clear at this point Sally is prepared to make the move into adulthood her mother’s death will necessitate. She's the mature one on the phone with Don when she tries to convince him to let her brothers stay with Henry after Betty dies and her final scene with Betty in the kitchen is a sad but fitting one, with Sally washing the dishes and Betty at the dinner table, still smoking her cigarettes.

It’s bittersweet in the way most of the finale to this fantastic television series was and maybe that’s for the best. We in the audience hope for the best for all of the characters, but as with any outstanding serious drama, the endings were never going to be neat and tidy and all sunshine and roses. Life isn’t like that, and good drama reflects that.

Some other notes:

-Pete is the only one of the core characters without much of a storyline in the finale, but that’s probably to be expected since most of his narrative was wrapped up last week. He did get a good final scene though with Peggy (where she even threw back his oft-used phrase, “a thing like that” back at him) and we saw him happily heading off to Wichita with Trudy and Tammy on a private LearJet.

-It hadn’t been mentioned much in a while so it was good to know Roger will still be a part of Kevin’s life and his and Joan’s scene discussing his future had a great capper as Roger jokingly, but completely accurately, referred to the little boy as a “rich little bastard.” Also loved Joan's amused reaction to Roger's engagement to Marie ("That's fantastic!").

-After seasons of not saying a word to the point where it seemed like there might be something wrong with him, little Gene finally speaks, even mouthing off to Sally when she asks him to leave the room. Glad to see there isn’t something seriously screwed up with him.

So that’s it for “Mad Men.” I didn’t think I would come close to enjoying a television series as much as “The Sopranos” when it ended in 2007, but a month later this series premiered on AMC. I’m not optimistic that another all-time favorite will arrive 30 days from now, but I’m sure another one will arrive somewhere down the road. That said, “Mad Men” has earned its place as one of the greatest television series ever and its finale did nothing to change that. After obsessing over the series and how it would play out over the last few months, it’ll be nice to put “Mad Men” on the shelf for a while, but I’m sure I’ll revisit it a few years from now and start a journey all over again.

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