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The series finale of ‘Mad Men’ hides dark lessons in its happy endings

🕐 6 min read

“What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons,” Don Draper (Jon Hamm) told department store heiress Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) all the way back in the premiere episode of “Mad Men.” “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget.”

Leading up to the series finale of Matthew Weiner’s handsome, uneven period drama about the advertising business, there were a lot of attempts to predict the facts or to analyze themes of the show’s finale, some of which proved prescient. Other attempts simply produced beautiful writing, which is an end in and of itself.

“Person to Person” summed the ensemble cast’s fates in fairly conventional fashion: Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) got together via a phone call that seemed scripted by the ghost of Nora Ephron; Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) reunited with Trudy (Alison Brie) and flew off into the future on a shiny LearJet; Joan (Christina Hendricks) opened a business in her kitchen, hiring her put-upon babysitter as a secretary; Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) came home to care for her brothers and take over for her dying mother; and Roger (John Slattery) ran off to Paris with Marie Calvet (Julia Ormond), his equal in both years and impulsiveness.

But if these relatively happy developments, combined with the sight of a meditating Don fading into the “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” spot, one of the most famous ads of all time, left you feeling a bit sticky-sweet, I’d encourage you to look deeper. “Mad Men” has always been a story about how slowly societal change actually reaches most people. But it’s also a story about one of the reasons why that happens: Consumer capitalism, with a little help from Madison Avenue, manages to siphon off enormous amounts of political energy, and divert it into consumption, convincing us that what we buy, wear, smoke, and eat are all inherently meaningful acts.

Don was telling Rachel the truth in the first episode (“Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,”) even as he was feeding her a line. Don has always thought of himself as the man running from the rules, even as he was helping to create them. And for all the personal happiness we witness in the “Mad Men” finale, those “Person to Person” triumphs actually make Weiner’s dark point about how easy it was, and continues to be, to reduce the supposed revolutions of the Sixties to a neutral consumer product that actually changes very little.

Let’s take Joan and Peggy, for example, whose stories ended up in slightly surprising places, with Joan choosing her career over her new lover, Richard (Bruce Greenwood), and Peggy realizing, as Sonny Bunch put it a bit puckishly, “that she can only truly be happy by accepting the love of a good man.” While it’s easy to trace both of these resolutions to their storylines to questions about work-life balance, it strikes me that both stories are about different kinds of moderation.

Joan, who just a few episodes ago was threatening to bring down the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the wrath of Betty Friedan on her new employers, ended up taking a reduced buyout and starting her own company. It’s rewarding to watch Joan recognize just how much pleasure she takes in work at the very moment when she could have pensioned herself off — I saw plenty of “Lean in, Joan!” tweets Sunday night.

But in starting that business, Joan is also making a choice not to be a revolutionary, not to call the EEOC, not even to call up the other women at McCann and see if she can join them for a “consciousness-lowering” session at the bar. Of all the ways Joan has made a place for herself, opening up her own shop is certainly the most liberating. But she’s joining the industry that treated her so badly, not beating it.

In the same way, Peggy’s cool-cat stroll into the McCann offices is an announcement of a conservative decision, not a radical one: She’ll make a place inside the corporate octopus on her own, Bert Cooper-inspired terms. Peggy’s victory is that it gets to be gals like her who invent love to sell nylons, not guys like Don. I’m happy to cheer her incremental progress, but I’m not going to mistake it for a revolution.

If Joan and Peggy’s stories are about the diminishing returns radical movements have outside their vanguards, Pete’s happy ending is literally a story about how a product can change a man’s life. Learjet gives him an opportunity to leave both New York and California _and more importantly, the idea of being Don Draper — behind.

In the first season of “Mad Men,” Pete and Trudy’s first big fight was about her desire for an apartment he didn’t feel he could afford on his salary. Now, he gets to wow her with the private jet that will whisk the family away to their fresh start in the Heartland. In the immortal words of “Gossip Girl”‘s Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester), “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.”

And in California, Don himself becomes the product, his “Om” fading to an iconic television spot. “Person to Person” leaves it slightly ambiguousexactly who dreamed up the “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke” ad, but as with so many frantic speculations about the facts of deliberately vague pop culture, the answer doesn’t really matter.

“Has Don changed, or has he come 3000 miles to find what he’s always found in a conference room?” Time’s James Poniewozik asked in his wrap-up of the finale. “Has the man who said love was invented by guys like him to sell nylons found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work? Or has he, devoid of love and connection and family, become a kind of advertising bodhisattva, slipping the bonds of earthly relationships the better to tap America’s Coke-buying chakras?”

I’d suggest that it doesn’t have to be a choice. As Thomas Frank writes in “The Conquest of Cool,” his study of the relationship between consumerism and cultural rebellion: “The counterculture served corporate revolutionaries as a projection of the new ideology of business, a living embodiment of attitudes that reflected their own. In its hostility to established tastes, the counterculture seemed to be preparing young people to rebel against whatever they had patronized before and to view the cycles of the new without the suspicion of earlier eras. Its simultaneous craving for authenticity and suspicion of tradition seemed to make the counterculture an ideal vehicle for a vast sea-change in American consuming habits. Through its symbols and myths, leaders of the menswear and advertising industries imagined a consumerism markedly different from its 1950s permutation, a hip consumerism driven by disgust with mass society itself.”

For some people, consumption is the revolution. Don Draper’s greatest pitch has always been the life he stole and then refurbished so it would take him as far and as fast as that car racing across the Bonneville Flats. Becoming a better man and a better ad man aren’t a contradiction. And repeated washings have left love and nylons so snarled up in each other that it’s impossible to tell the difference between them.

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