What follows contains all manners of spoilers about the finale of Mad Men. If you haven’t watched it already, don’t read.
Overall, I thought the Mad Men finale offered a lot more fan service than I expected. Matt Weiner is like David Chase in the regards that I don’t think he really cares what fans think, he’s going to tell the story the way he wants it (his paranoia about spoilers and leaks, though, is unmatched). That’s been obvious throughout most of this season, as we’ve watched Don go after yet another conquest and frankly cost two or three episodes that could have been spent exploring other things. Despite this, the finale tried to deliver for the fans. Our core group of people all got resolution to their stories, and an ending, even if we might not have liked each one. Even Meredith, Don’s ditzy on the surface (but obviously a lot smarter than she looks underneath) secretary got a nice send off. That’s a lot more than a lot of shows will offer. I’m good with how Joan, Roger, and Peggy ended up, even if some of the endings were a bit saccharine (although the Peggy and Stan thing feels right. She has the job and the man and the man understands her love of the job. Could she ask for more?).
Here’s my problem with the damn Coke commercial and the
obvious insinuation fact that Don’s whole takeaway from the time at the retreat thing was a better way to sell fizzy sugar water. When you look at it that way, I feel like it invalidates what they were building to this entire season with Don’s actions, the pursuit of the damn waitress, and etc. When you simply look at it as “Don’s done it again! It’s the next Carousel”, why did we bother with anything? Let’s just skip to the usual refrain. Don is unhappy being one in a sea of many. He runs away, because he’s fucking Don Draper and Don Draper always runs away. He magically comes back and wows the world with some new fake nonsense from his fake life. End of show.
If you instead look at Don’s epiphany, or whatever you want to call it, as finally accepting who he is and that he has personal value, things are so much more interesting. Then the Waitress story makes sense. Here is Don, doing Don things like always. And it ends poorly, like all of his other conquests do. Except, this one isn’t the same. Don can’t let go. Maybe he saw a little too much of himself in her. Maybe there’s a pang of remorse about everything. Maybe the fact that he’s just a cog at McCann is weighing on him. Whatever it is, Don watches that airplane flying through the sky and realizes that he needs to find… something. Maybe this waitress to fulfill those Don Draper things he needs. Maybe something else.
Cut to Don on the road. He doesn’t find the waitress. But he finds something else. The courage to tell the truth about the real Don Draper to a bunch of vets. The desire to try and turn that young con artist’s life around before he becomes the next Don Draper. The need to try and help Stephanie, misguided as most of Don’s attempts to help are. And so on. And it all culminates in his experiences at the retreat place. For most of this, this is Don being Don. He can’t relate to the old woman in the one session. He’s clearly skeptical of everything and can’t believe he’s there. He’s pissed when Stephanie takes off with the car and strands him. He’s sticking out like a sore thumb. But he’s not the same. The weight of his calls with Sally and Betty are weighing heavily on him (and can we discuss how those two still are in love with each other in spite of all the terribleness that they endured together?). He breaks down on the phone with Peggy, perhaps the person he has the greatest hopes for. He’s left sitting in front of the phone in an almost catatonic state when that seminar leader pulls him into that class, and he sees that schlub guy break down, talking about how unlovable he is. And you see that look of recognition on Don’s face. That guy is him, the Dick Whitman he has spent years burying under his Don Draper facade. Suddenly, this whole season of nonsense has paid off. Maybe Don can become a new man, an honest man.
And when we get to him doing yoga on that cliffside, it certainly looks that way. But no, same fucking bullshit from another show creator who thinks that he’s way smarter than us. An empty payoff. If we were just going to get this, why not just let it be Don being Don at this place and then he comes back and says “I know how to market this staid beverage to these young people.” That would have felt way more honest about things. Or, even better, why not let Don keep his moment of enlightenment and come back to New York and see Peggy, his protege and one of the very few people he actually respects in this world, and tell her about his experiences and let her go off and do the damn song. That would have felt honest and vindicating, because while the show may have been about Don, it’s often felt like the show has secretly been about Peggy, and her trip up the ladder in the 60s. Tell me those outcomes would not have been way more satisfying.
Overall, still a good ending, and I didn’t have to worry that the cable went out like I thought during The Sopranos finale. Still, sometimes it pays to stop thinking that you’re the smartest guy in the room and see the big picture. Just saying. Ommm.