Social media and water coolers alike have been a buzz since the series final episode of “MAD MEN” aired. Some have wondered just why the series became such an intensely popular phenomenon. Was it the nostalgia and quirky fun of Janie Bryant’s wardrobes spanning mainly across the 60s, right up to 1970? Was it the character development of these Madison Avenue ad men and women? Yes. Plus so much more.
No one is a hero. Creator Matthew Weiner took great care to create this show like none other. In world filled with characters at their very best and their very worst… of strong heroes, saintly women, villainous women, and evil antagonists. Here instead was a rare world where characters were not such typical standards. They felt more authentic and more oft to show us their warts and jaded outlooks than their best pose. And he took the time to show them in their quiet moments, and everyday activities of life- not just soapy ‘cliff-hangers’ to stir us into the next episode. Basically, they were us.
A full cast of flawed characters. We’re drawn into each of these main characters for various reasons. Do we admire the socially awkward pluck yet tenacity of Peggy? Do we wish for the calm empowerment and independence of Joan? Are we curious about what makes Betty so confident in her strength of identity? Are we entertained by the hilarious lines of Roger? Is Pete fated to say and do the slightly wrong things? Is Sally doomed to repeat her parents’ follies? These are the types of questions that consume our thoughts and seem to be the undercurrent of every show. In every little moment, frequently the most mundane- we get tiny little morsels to feed our curiosity of just who ARE these folks? And we’re left still a tad peckish, never quite satisfied. This is ‘thinking people television’.
And then there’s the mystery of Don Draper. It’s the crux of the show. He is neither hero or anti-hero. He is considerably flawed. And proves that he is, every single time when we think he’s magically evolved into a reformed good guy. So is he a monster? Noooo. Like the rest of us, this man has ‘his moments.’ Don’s mysteries are deep and complex and we’re never shown the full extent of his eternal question mark.
Parting scenes. (Spoilers ahead for those who somehow haven’t cued up your DVRs to this buzz-worthy finale.)
Joan shines by being true to herself- independent and empowered. At first I was torn and felt sad that it she was forced to choose between having a career and having a devoted man in her life. Then we see her happy in her choice. And that’s the genuis of this show. Transitioning into the 70s, this theme of whether women can have it all was truly coming into the forefront. The 1980 Enjoli perfume ad “I can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan” reflects that this issue was hardly resolved by the rise of feminism in the 70s and still not to this day. This show knows how to weave in a storyline that is not only true to its character but reflects the themes of that particular year/time- uniquely well.
Peggy and Stan fall in love. This was unexpected. Not because it doesn’t make sense. It actually does. It just seemed so ‘non Mad Men’ to have such a sweet story line that wasn’t laced with some bitter edge or cynicism. Yet it didn’t feel out of sorts because we had watched these two develop and interact over time, watch them have each others’ backs and be brutally honest too many times to mention. Who else to make up the perfect pair than the friend who lets you be completely yourself and who has seen you in all your good times and bad, right?
Roger and Megan’s mom make it permanent. I guess time will tell (in our imaginations.) But I have solid hopes for these two. I think Marie may be the only one who challenges him enough (and I’m thrilled she’s actually within his age) to keep him interested and they seem like they’d have a lifetime of fun.
Pete Campbell finally makes the right move. Pete ushers in the new decade with a promising job offer that would relocate him to Wichita. They prefer a family man to match their midwest values and as though a light bulb came on, Pete happily agrees to become a new and improved man for Trudy. It’s actually a very sincere and convincingly passionate pitch. We see the Campbell family board their jet, as Trudy radiantly beams in her fur lined coat and matching hat with a “That Girl” look as she spins around to board their future life.
Don and Peggy say goodbye. Don shows surprisingly more raw emotion and vulnerable transparency in this final episode than we’ve ever seen before. And not just in one scene, but several. We see him break down after being abandoned at a ‘hippie self-help retreat’ in California. With all the flashbacks to his childhood, this act of abandonment (motherly abandonment was also the heated topic at hand for their group therapy) was the final straw to bring Don to his most vulnerable low. It’s Peggy he calls in this moment. Is he calling for a ride or to reach out as a verbal suicide note? He says he just wanted to hear her voice before he says goodbye. Not surprisingly, she is alarmed and goes from scolding him for worrying them to realizing his dire state of mind, with a tearful “just come home, Don.” Despite their past roles of boss/employee/co-worker/mentor and friends, she’s actually the closest thing to a mom he’s ever had.
Don and Betty say goodbye. The way in which Betty departs and says goodbye to Don were especially tough and moving scenes to watch.
You see, my mom was diagnosed with cancer (breast not lung) in the prime youth of her life as a single mom in the late 70s. Our dad was also mostly out of the picture (actually even less so than Don). The part that really got to me was watching Sally after breaking her secrecy by telling Don the shocking news and that they (Sally and her two brothers) would be going to live with Betty’s sister and brother-in-law. I had an eerily similar conversation with my father, explaining to him why it was in our best interest to go live with a stable, nuclear family. As I watched Betty have that tough chat with Don, reiterating that he must respect her wishes and why; I pondered how parallel this conversation may have been to my own parents’. Then I wondered how this affected Sally later in life.
Was Matthew Weiner in my head? Perhaps that’s the key to the success of this show. It gets in our heads. We feel we connect to these fictional characters somehow in a real way.
Don says goodbye. Don breaks down and finally shows all his emotional cards, thanks to a little nudging from Supergirl Helen Slater. Ultimately, we can only guess what was to follow for Don. Speculations have run amuck from Don converting to a hippie zen lifestyle permanently to him going back to the ad world after his therapeutic retreat, just in time to write the most famous and successful ad of his career. Many have argued the famous “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” inspiration came from his stay in California from the parallels offered. (The true story behind how that famed ad came to be is fascinating in itself.) I can only hope for Don that he simply found true happiness, as the final scene alludes- and that’s good enough for me.
Merely for entertainment, you can take a Mad Men quiz on the Sundance site to see which character you most resemble. It’s interesting but not completely surprising that Don Draper was my result. No worries hubby, I’m not an adulterer, nor a heavy drinker and smoker; but do I escape when pressure get tough? Oh yeah. (Thankfully my escapes generally come via TCM or a movie theater.)
My favorite scene– other than every single delicious second in this entire final episode, I’d have to say it’s when Bert Cooper’s ghost says goodbye to Don via a musical dance number “The Best Things In Life Are Free.” It’s magical for several reasons- for one, it’s a lovely nod to Robert Morse’s earlier career as the lead actor in HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING (1967), which has been argued was a major influence for this show. But it’s also a precursor in seeing Draper’s wall starting to crumble. Watch that scene again and look closely at Don’s face as he tries to hold back his emotions. Yet another example of Don Draper’s issues with goodbyes.
What is your favorite Mad Men moment? How about your favorite closing title song? Farewell, Mad Men… yes, you will be missed.