By Mike Visconti
It has been maybe 15 minutes since the final scene of Mad Men rolled off my tv screen. My thoughts on the series finale and the series as a whole seem like too much to express in a singular post. So Part I will be about my thoughts on the finale. Part II will be about the series and that will be out later this week.
Part I-The Finale
In many ways this finale was not what I expected. In many series finales we see the series come full circle, to end up where we saw many of our beloved characters begin. That did not happen. This finale ended up as opposite it could be from that fateful pilot in 2007. But not every series can do a Six Feet Under and show how everybody goes on. The series creator Matthew Weiner has said that the end of season 6, with Don’s breakdown in the Hershey’s pitch about how he divulged how really grew up, and him showing Sally the house he lived in was how the series was supposed to end. These last 14 episodes have been more of an epilogue. Life after Sterling Cooper.
What grabbed me immediately in Person to Person was the raw emotion portrayed by a lot of our characters. It certainly was a lot to take in. The bombshell that Betty was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer was dropped in the penultimate episode. All the while what was left of Sterling Cooper had been stripped away, piece by piece. Roger had no company, no place in it after being acquired by McCann Erikson. Pete had taken a bigger job with more pay and prestige. What he had always wanted, and Trudy was going with him. Peggy, Stan and Harry Crane were some of the few left standing at McCann. Meanwhile, our leading man, Don Draper was in the midst of some mid-life crisis expedition out west, completely dropping all responsibilities in both his job and family. Until Sally called with the news of Betty.
I was wondering all week how Don would react to the news that his ex-wife and mother of his three children, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. How he would go back and be there for his kids, help them through this incredibly hard time. Until Betty and Don had that phone call. Don wasn’t going back, Betty didn’t want him back, even if he was the father of her kids. Because in reality, he wasn’t. Betty told Don the cold hard truth, he had no family. The kids needed normalcy, and that meant Don not being around because he never was in the first place. Betty even asked Don when the last time he had seen them, he couldn’t answer. And that realization, that emotion of that truth hitting both Don and Betty while on the phone made my heart sink. No happing ending in Mad Men, no going back east, Don was going to be alone the rest of his life and both partners broke down on the phone once the realization hit. For what we saw in the very end of the pilot episode in 2007, Don with his perfectly blonde wife, tucking his adorable children, would never happen again, not even a little part of that.For much of Mad Men, Don has always been on a quest to put Dick Whitman behind him. He has counseled other people to forget the past and move forward. Each time he echoes the same sentiment, you will be amazed at how easy it is to forget about this. He said it to his half-brother Adam in season 1. Said it to Peggy in season 2 about her unplanned pregnancy. Even in the finale, he says it to Stephanie about leaving her son behind. But Don has been lying to himself the whole time. As much as the façade of Don Draper seemed so perfect, he could never fill the black hole of secrets he tried to leave behind. He could never be happy with what he had. He cheated, lied and manipulated his way to his false happiness, women and power. Don Draper perhaps summed up his whole persona with one line during a pitch several season ago, “What is happiness? It is the moment before you decide you need more happiness”. And he could never satisfy that hole.
At his core, Don is a liar and a conman with no family and no friends. Even his friend Stephanie had left him at the hippie retreat for mental wellness. With no one left, with nothing to go back to he called one person to say goodbye. Peggy. In a scene that made my bottom lip quiver, Don came clean. He spoke from the heart and said his earnest goodbye to the one person that wasn’t tied to him romantically or by family. Perhaps his one true friend who knew Donald Draper perhaps better than anyone in the show. All of Don’s sins were confessed and Peggy begged him to come back home. But Don knew that there was nothing there for him. Not his ex-wife, his kids or his job. In many ways, Don’s goodbye to Peggy were in fact the last words spoken by Donald Draper. He himself was like Sterling Cooper office building, stripped down to its core with nothing left but its soul exposed.I wasn’t really sure what Don was going to do after that. Peggy feared for his life, I did too for a second. She called Stan and told him about the conversation with Don. Stan mentioned that she needed to let him go. And as she realized that he was right, she apologized for the hurtful words she had said to Stan earlier in the finale about being a failure for not wanting more. Stan didn’t have to be like Don, he knew what he wanted and was happy with what he had. Peggy let him know that she was staying at McCann. In one of the lighter moments of this finale, Stan finally expressed his true feelings for Peggy, something that we as an audience had always rooted for but thought that Peggy was the kind of person who would never find love, work consumed her too much. I found it ironic that Stan, in telling her that he loved her and Peggy’s initial reaction of disbelief and self-doubt, was very much like one of the many pitches we had seen Peggy do. Eventually Peggy knew, deep down, Stan had sold her, she just needed the right person to bring it out. She loved him too. And just like in the movies, Stan rushes into her office as they embrace. For as much as Peggy has looked up to Don in business and persona, this is one way where she deviates and good for her. She deserves the chance of true happiness. We see Don on the ground after the phone call with Peggy, disheartened and broken, he is convinced to a join a group therapy session. With no place to go, he accepts. A disinterested and dazed Don stares into nothing, until a speaker characterized the song of Don’s life word by word. He was a man, with a job, with a family but nobody saw him. Sure they tried to acknowledge him but each time it was like they saw right past him. He was for all intent and purposes the invisible man. Even the speakers dream about being in a fridge, everybody smiling, you think it’s for you but they’re not looking at you, the fridge door closes and the light goes out. The man broke down but Don rose from his chair to comfort him, and then cried the same tears as this man. It might has well been called the ballad of Dick Whitman. Sure everybody acknowledged Don but no one really knew him because deep down inside, Don was just an empty fridge with the lights out. As Don sat in a meditative pose with his group of refugees seeking spiritual and mental well-being, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This was Don Draper, the Madison Ave ad man. The man worth over a million dollars. He married models, drank whiskey and smoked Lucky Strikes as he pleased. He answered to no one. He was in complete control of everything and everyone. How could this person succumb to this type of life? I was going to be pissed if one of the greatest TV series ever ends with a close up of Don Draper meditating…… but then I remembered, Don Draper is dead, this is Dick Whitman and he smiled.