**Note: This post contains major spoilers for the final season and finale episode of Mad Men.**
Oh, Mad Men. I didn’t watch you from the beginning, but rather chose to start watching right before season three, when AMC ran a weekend marathon of the first two seasons. Immediately, I fell in love with the mid-century aesthetic and saga of characters like Peggy, Joan, and Don. I have enjoyed the journey immensely, and I see myself revisiting the gang at Sterling Cooper/Sterling Cooper Price/Sterling Cooper Draper Price/McCann from time to time, especially the final season.
This morning, while taking a shower, I thought about the finale, which aired this past Sunday, and what it meant. Overall I found it to be a satisfying end to the saga, as this entire final season has been. I’ll expand on my thoughts a bit here.
Let’s start with Joan. Joan Harris is a fascinating woman, especially when you track her life through the eye of the show. She’s always been a leader, but it wasn’t really until the past couple of seasons that we see Joan fully embrace what it means to be a modern woman. In the beginning, she operated within the confines of a man’s world: anticipate men’s needs at all cost to her own happiness. Her endgame in the later seasons remained the same: get what she deserves for her and her family. Sometimes it meant getting out of a horrible marriage; other times it meant doing things for her career that no woman should have to do, but it was a means to an end. When Bob proposed a marriage of convenience, she could easily have accepted, but refused, saying that she deserves more than comfort–she deserves to be adored.
Joan’s final moments in the last few episodes were among my favorite in the entire series. She threw down the gauntlet of girl power, whether to Peggy, who tried too hard to be a bro and tell Joan it was her fault she was harassed by men, or to the leadership at McCann. Yes, it’s true, she had to enlist some help from Roger to get her money, but when she met Richard, who seemed to promise a primrose path, she realized what she really wanted. It wasn’t financial security or to be swept off her feet. It was to take what is hers in the world. (And in the case of accepting Roger’s offer to secure their son’s financial future, taking what is her family’s as well.) To see Joan become an independent businesswoman is perhaps one of the most satisfying moments of the finale. If anyone deserves immense success, it’s Joan Harris.
Ah, Betty. I’ll be honest. I was not a fan of Betty at first. I’d go so far as to say I hated Betty Draper/Betty Draper Francis. She just seemed waspish and awful. (I realize now that’s the point.) Betty loved Don. Betty loves her children. Betty is selfish sometimes, but at the same time, she sacrifices a great deal to be a wife and mother.
It wasn’t until Betty and Don divorced that (at least in my mind), Betty stopped being a stumbling block for Don and started being her own character. When Henry reprimands her for offering an opinion about the war (and then told her he would tell her what she thinks about it), she fought back. She asserted herself as being more than someone’s wife, even going back to school. I started to really like her. And then she got sick.
For many personal reasons, Betty’s treatment of her illness as her business (as she tells Don), is heartbreaking. She doesn’t want anyone to change their routine for her or treat her differently, because then it hurts someone other than her. She puts the burden on Sally to be the woman of the house and take charge of the funeral arrangements. (Betty’s letter to Sally reduced me to ugly crying.)
Which brings me to Sally–Sally Draper is in many ways one of my favorite women of Mad Men. She is every bit her father’s daughter (and her mother’s, but I see a lot of Don in her). She’s making her way in a world that’s really hers for the taking–she’s going to become an adult in the 1970s. Who knows what Sally will be?
As the finale wears on, we see Sally in a few poignant scenes. She decides to tell her father about her mother’s illness, even though she herself isn’t supposed to know. She shows incredible maturity in those scenes, telling Don not to come home, knowing it will upset her mother. She comes home from school to a chaotic scene in the kitchen, with Bobby trying to make dinner, and she takes charge after telling Bobby the sad news. And in the final scenes, we see Sally taking care of dishes, as Betty sits at the kitchen table, reading and smoking. One can only speculate that Sally will be spending a lot more time at home during Betty’s final days.
Now we come to my favorite character in the show, Peggy. I love Peggy’s transformation from mousy babe in the woods to tenacious go-getter. Oddly enough, her career progression (at least time-wise) followed mine pretty closely. About the time Peggy started rising to success, I did, too. (One doesn’t have anything to do with the other, but in a lot of ways it endeared her even more to me.) Sometimes she was too honest and lacked emotion, but all of that was a means to an end. However misguided her intent was, she felt she had to be one of the guys to fit in. She thought if she focused solely on work, she would be successful. It worked, but at the same time she didn’t make friends easily. As I mentioned earlier, she parroted some institutionalized sexism towards Joan when she blamed Joan’s attire for Joan’s harassment.
In the final episodes, Peggy is fun to watch. In the second to last episode, she has to wait for her office, which leads to some great moments, like the scenes with Roger (rollerskating Peggy is burned onto my brain forever). When she’s walking down that hallway, cigarette in her mouth, sunglasses on, and octopus painting in tow, it is the Peggy I’ve wanted to see for seven seasons: confident, take no prisoners Peggy.
In the finale, Joan asks her to be a partner in her new venture. As much as I would have liked to have seen the girl power duo of Harris and Olson, it would have been out of character for Peggy to take the offer. She fits in well where she is, as we see in the boardroom when she stands up for herself and her team. (I’ll admit I wanted to stand up and cheer during that scene.) There’s also another good reason for her to stay: Stan.
Some have said the pairing of Stan and Peggy is a bit of fan service. That may be true, but it’s something I’ve wanted to happen for a while. Each time they talked on the phone, it was clear that he was the only one that could keep her calm. (Yes, sometimes Don could talk her down, but it was Stan that constantly kept Peggy centered.) I cried happy tears when Peggy awkwardly proclaimed that she guessed she loved him, too. (It was especially fitting that this all came after Peggy called Stan a failure for not wanting to be as ambitious as she is.) As much as Joan deserves success, Peggy deserves someone who appreciates her for who she is, someone who will constantly remind her that there’s more to life than work.
And so we come to the maddest of the Mad Men, Don Draper. Honestly, I thought the finale was going to be all about Don, as the final moments with each character in the second to last episode seemed like finales for them. (I was pleasantly surprised when it was more well-rounded.) Don is doing his best Kerouac impression, taking to the road to figure things out. He visits Stephanie, his last connection to the real Don Draper, to give her Anna’s ring (which has recently vacated Megan’s finger). She sees how weary he is, and invites him to a retreat on the coast. Don, of course, thinks the whole thing is hippie nonsense (a sentiment that culminates in a scene where an older woman shoves him because that’s how he makes her feel during a non-verbal exercise). During an especially rough therapy session, Stephanie walks out, and eventually leaves Don there. Don calls Peggy, acting very sad and cryptic, and crumbles into a heap by the pay phone. Supergirl (OK, not actually Supergirl, but Helen Slater) invites him to a session, where he eventually cries and embraces Leonard, a man who wonders if his family sees him as anything more than a container in the fridge that’s passed over.
The next time we see Don is in all white, cross-legged on the grass with a group of people meditating. The camera zooms in on the peace on his face, and the next thing we see is the iconic “I’d like to teach the world to sing” Coke commercial.
So the question is this. Did Don achieve inner peace, leading him to create something inspired by his experience, or did Don simply find his inner peace, which is finding a million dollar idea to bring him back as an advertising superstar?
My theory is it’s a little of both. It’s completely out of character to think that Don buys everything the people at the retreat are selling. Because I believe that nothing in good fiction is there without a reason, I go back to the moment when he headed to the front desk after Stephanie left. The woman behind the counter tells him he’s paid up. Everyone there is selling something. Instead of cans of soda, though, in this case, it’s things like emotional peace or pop psychology. Don looks around at the people there, who buy into what’s being sold. (I go back to quotes from Don in previous seasons, like,“Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.”)
So I think Don takes his experience in northern California and decides to sell Coke (as Peggy references in their phone call) to hippies and young adults. Maybe it’s not the pure inner peace he’s supposed to get out of retreats like the one we see, but it’s Don Draper’s inner peace. Don returns to what he knows–advertising. It’s the one thing he’s incredibly good at, and the way he leaves his legacy.
All in all, it was a great finale. I loved the open-ended closure we got, because it means we can draw our own conclusions. Do Peggy and Stan make it? Does Peggy, as Pete suggests, become creative director by 1980? Does Pete become the king of Kansas, or does he die tragically in a Lear jet crash? What does Sally grow up to be? How successful does Joan become?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but somehow I don’t care.