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The last ‘Mad Men’: Don found peace and so should we

🕐 5 min read


(Spoiler alert. You know the drill.)

“Mad Men” is over — and with it, happily, are all the protracted, overwrought theories about how it would end. Perhaps now is the right time to at last regard Matthew Weiner’s muddled but mesmerizing masterpiece for what it truly was: a novel. A novel shelved not with the genre works like “Game of Thrones,” but kept over there in the nebulous section called “contemporary literature,” where the best endings are always the ambiguous ones. If that bothers you, then “Mad Men” was never your show to begin with.

Yet so many watchers held out hope that “Mad Men” would somehow shake itself out of its trance and deliver something, anything that screamed TV SHOW. There were no gunshots. There was no big reveal. Instead of hijacking an airplane (come on) and leaping into eternal legend as D.B. Cooper (really, shame on you if you ever bought into that nonsense), Don Draper/Dick Whitman broke through his pent-up emotions at a touchy-feely commune/retreat center on the California coast.

“Mad Men” was true to itself to the very last, segueing into Coca-Cola’s “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial from 1971. More of an ellipsis on the end of sentence rather than a period, it was nevertheless a memorable and moving image for a show that kept returning to the theme that the lies we tell ourselves are no different from the false sense of happiness that advertising always promises.

You almost expected to find Don’s face among those young, dewy-eyed optimists singing about buying the world a Coke. (It wasn’t. The technology certainly exists to have Photoshopped Don in there, but Weiner’s show was almost always about restraint, wasn’t it?) The message seems rather clear: Don found peace and so should we.

At the end of Sunday’s drawn-out final episode, Don (Jon Hamm), who had been on a cross-country meander after hitting a wall in his new non-role at McCann Erickson, sat on the grass with the Pacific Ocean behind him, chanting his “oms” after a particularly heavy group-therapy session: A fellow participant introduced himself as Leonard and — using up most of the 1-hour 17-minute episode’s precious dwindling moments — told of a dream in which he feels like he lives on a shelf in a refrigerator, glimpsing happiness only when the door opens and the light comes on.

Don — a fraud who stole a dead soldier’s name and found success in Madison Avenue advertising and who is on the record as once confiding that he felt he was always trying to scratch through and experience real life as it was being lived by those around him — was moved to tears. He and this Leonard person hugged it out, sobbing. Thus “Mad Men” ended its seventh season on a rather eerie but satisfying note of enlightenment. We left Don at peace — instead of dead, as many thought and even hoped we might leave him.

In other news, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) thought about and then rejected the offer made by Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) to start a production company together. Tempting, yes, but Peggy decided to fight the good (and bad) fight ahead of her within the McCann Erickson empire. After all, as Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) told her as he was headed out the door to become an executive at Learjet, “Keep it up, you’ll be a creative director by 1980.”

Also, Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) told Peggy he’s in love with her and Peggy realized that — hmmm, yes — she is love with him too. A tad hokey, yes, perhaps Weiner realized that he needed to give us something that wasn’t about death and abandonment. Meanwhile, Roger Sterling (John Slattery) seems quite happily unhappy with Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), Don’s former mother-in-law.

Though we did not get see poor Betty Draper Francis (January Jones) all the way to the inevitable death from lung cancer that she so stoically accepted (I think she set a new record for dashing through the five stages of grief), there was that last, sad phone call with Don, where she told him that she didn’t want him to raise their younger children after she’s gone. And she didn’t want him around, either. “I want to keep things as normal as possible,” Betty said. “And you not being here is part of that.”

Just before his apparent breakthrough at the retreat center, Don called Peggy at her office. (In the end, so much of “Mad Men” came down to phone calls.) She demanded to know where he was, what happened since he walked out of the office weeks ago, and why? In a way, she was like some of us “Mad Men” viewers over the years: What? Why? Hunh? What did that mean?

“Don, listen to me,” Peggy implored, “What did you ever do that was so bad?”

“I broke all my vows,” Don confessed. “Scandalized my child. Took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”

“That’s not true,” Peggy said. And once more we saw that nobody believed (or would listen) when Don/Dick tried to come clean.

I’ve had my issues with “Mad Men” over the years; I’ll bet you have, too. I happen to think it lasted a season or two too long, while others are sad that the story will not continue deeper into the 1970s. For some, the show was unbearably moody or dull. Giving it your rapt attention did not always pay off. It didn’t help when other viewers put their relatively unused master’s degrees to work online and elsewhere by delivering long and often very thoughtful analyses of each episode, scrutinizing every detail in hopes of cracking its code and, to be sure, showing off a little. This both added to and subtracted from one’s enjoyment of “Mad Men,” depending on your mood.

The show’s ratings were never all that high, certainly not in proportion to the hype and press that “Mad Men” received year after year, and there’s a case to be made that some of its Emmys were not fully deserved.

But that hardly matters now that we’ve come to the end. “Mad Men” will be missed — there is no other show like it that’s on right now, with such a strong, literary sensibility and the strength to see things through precisely the way it was originally envisioned. That was the real pleasure of “Mad Men”: watching Weiner exercise complete creative control. I quibbled and griped about it the whole way through and never once missed an episode.

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