The Mad Men Finale We Needed, But Didn’t Deserve

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Mad Men on AMC, created by Matthew Weiner

by host Ellen Horne

In the wake of the Mad Men finale, there was some debate over what it all meant and how strange it was that one Coca-Cola ad should have such a prominent moment on the sunny Big Sur (or Italian) hillside. But as Jon Hamm and Matt Weiner have now piped up, the only thing to resolve is whether that ending felt true and right, or a little too tidy.

While we at the Mad Men Pre-Game Show are loath to Monday- (or Friday-) morning quarterback this, we’d like to humbly point out that we flagged that Coke ad a while ago—not for its iconic status in the history of advertising, but because it was produced by Roquel “Billy” Davis’ music division at McCann. Ericka Blount Danois pointed out the opportunity to show an African American in something more than a walk-on role, and we’re still sighing heavily along with her that Mad Men missed that opportunity.

And Don’s “moment of actualization”? Weiner’s depictions of hippie counterculture had always been so mocking. The irony of a realization (at a place designed for spiritual awakenings) is not lost on us. We’d had a hunch that the finale would wrangle with the counterculture, and given Mad Men’s track record with that topic (Roger’s daughter moving upstate to join the "dirty hippies," or Paul Kinsey as a Hare Krishna), it feels fitting that the burgeoning New Age should become an object for Don’s exploitation. The show used the countercultural quest for meaning as a tool to resolving Don’s character arc. Did anyone else think that “Leonard” - the office drone that Don hugs in the encounter circle - looks a little like Matt Weiner?  Even real estate developers get a more generous treatment than hippie soul-searchers, yet both are doomed to exit stage left when they are no longer useful.

Many TV shows have been set in the workplace, with the cast playing out a work-family melo-dramedy, but Mad Men had a very particular power source fueling the saga: Maternal abandonment. We’d touched on this when we spoke to psychiatrist and author Dr. Stephanie Newman. The ending for her really underlined what a tragic character Don is.

“He has the insight that ‘the real thing’ is connection with others,” she says. “Ironically, it is precisely this type of real connection that has and continues to elude him.”

In the three “Person-to-Person” calls that Don makes, only Peggy suggests that he’s got a ‘home’ to return to, or makes even the slightest suggestion that she wants anything from him. She gamely asks him, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?”

Stephanie Newman continues: “Many characters on the show play against a background of deprivation, loss, and longing. As the woman at the ashram says to [Anna Draper’s daughter], 'Your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door.' Mothers leave in the world Weiner has created.”

In the final installment of our podcast, we kicked off our around-the-office montage of predictions with Bob Garfield, co-host of On The Media, and he went all-in on the defenestration theory. (While Amy Pearl didn’t quite get Stan and Peggy’s baby as she predicted, we suspect she wasn’t unhappy with their resolution, even if we found it saccharine.) As the days pass, I’m finding myself increasingly content with the end. I was hoping that Don would become John Updike, but that he returned to the only family that really wanted him -- the ad world -- felt like it fit.

When I checked back with Bob to see what he thought of the finale, he told me, “I find it weird that the ending was such a wry little joke. After all his tribulations and angst and caddishness and self-indulgence and lies, he finds himself in a situation neither Dick nor Don could believe in—a new age ashram—where he gets a glimmer of revelation and conceives one of the most iconic ads ever. Even the little chime tone as the idea strikes, which is like from a Roadrunner cartoon. Ah! So in the end, what Don/Dick is...is an ad man. I mean mad man.

“Better he should have jumped.”