(This review contains minor spoilers for the Mad Men series finale “Person to Person”)
Mad Men’s premiere back in 2007 was a glowing, critically hailed debut that put the AMC network, now a very serious name in original cable programming, first on the map. The stylish period piece was lavish, subtle, nuanced, realistic and fundamentally a character study of the best kind. The show has taken some twists and turns over the years – some more solid than others – but it has always managed to find what is interesting about itself and dwell there, and this will indubitably be the legacy that keeps the show on a whole smattering of “Best Of” lists for decades to come.
Finales are notoriously difficult to get right. Wrap everything up too nicely, and it comes off as hollow and schmaltzy, too saccharinely Hollywood to have any genuine emotional impact. But leave too much open-ended or unresolved, and the lack of satisfaction makes the audience feel cheated. There is a very narrow middle ground at which a finale remains both emotionally and narratively substantive, while also providing genuine catharsis and resolution. Matthew Weiner stuck that very difficult landing last night and preserved his show’s brilliant legacy with grace and poise.
I’ll be honest, it was slightly more optimistic than I was expecting, but that is not at all a criticism. While Mad Men has explored many themes over the years, its most central meditation is on the pursuit of happiness: What is it? How do we find it? How do we know when we’ve found it? Can it be preserved? Or will it always, inevitably slip through our grasp? The show is true Americana in that sense. As that endless repository of rakish, dry wit, Roger Sterling once observed: “What is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”
Every main and recurring character on the show has struggled with this dilemma in some form, but Don is of course the primary locus of this narrative quandary. It would have been easy, and no doubt tempting, to send him careening down a one-way path of hopelessness and despair, possibly even suicide, in an effort to be cynically ‘edgy’ and expose the pursuit of happiness as a futile fraud. And while he does go to some dark places in the finale, he emerges also seemingly hopeful, having found a bit of (temporary) peace, as do most of his metaphorical fellow travelers (Peggy, Joan, Pete, Rodger) which I think was the right call.
This series was ultimately built to ask, can the Jay Gatsbys, the Don Drapers of the world ever cure themselves of the chronic dissatisfaction they harbor? A chronic dissatisfaction, moreover, that is largely a product of the consumer culture upon which advertising is entirely based. The finale seems to traffic in the hope that yes, even people like Don – someone always detrimentally on a quest for greener pastures – can eventually learn to be satisfied in love, in family, in work, in money, in all the relationships and things he has.
A good number of people have expressed a level of cynicism about the episode’s final scene, where we are shown an iconic Coke-a-Cola ad from the 1970s, which features a range of people from all around the globe, similar to the ones Don meets at Big Sur, singing in harmony about how coke brings people together. The conventional reading of this moment seems to be that the ad is the brainchild of our protagonist, who eventually goes back to advertizing behemoth McCann-Erikson to commoditize counter-cultural spiritual enlightenment and the ethics of global kumbaya into another successful ad campaign for a major corporation.
However, my take away was a much more optimistic reading – Don’s ostensible enlightenment was ‘real’ and his connection to the (every)man who spoke of being ignored, disaffected, rejected and without hope was the actual turning point in his own personal journey toward happiness.
The question of whether Don has the ability to grow and change, and learn is at the core of the series, and I for one believe (or perhaps I just want to believe) his identification with this stranger finally broke the debilitating chain of false promises which had strung him along for most of his life. He has finally learned to tell the difference between commercial forms of connection designed to sell candy-bars and soft drinks, versus the real thing. The ad’s placement was offered as a comparison counter-point, to expose the vacuousness of connection garnered through commodities compared to authentic experiences of human connection which cannot be manufactured through capitalist consumption. The former always looks shallow compared to the latter, and that’s because it is.
You can’t buy love. Wealth is no guarantee of happiness. And drinking a coke with someone is not what will make you feel connected to them. All connections are transient, ultimately, but that’s precisely why they are precious and valuable. People are free to come and go as they please. It is a reality that can be a source of immense pain; but it is also what makes it meaningful when people choose you, when they choose to stay with you. This is not the ethic of choice as expression of personal individuality, the quintessential hallmark of modern advertising. It is the ethic of choice as an expression of human connection and care.
Or maybe that idea of authentic happiness and genuine connection is just another thing being sold to us, brought to you by AMC’s Mad Men, the television commodity. Has the show just been an exercise in self-reflexive meta all along? Perhaps. Then again, Marx’s Capital is sold by publishers for a profit, so it’s a little unfair to expect a TV show to fully exceed the circuits of capitalist production in an effort to say something about disaffection under capitalism. And maybe that’s the real message here – real emotion, real connection can develop and perhaps even prosper in a milieu of consumerism. But we are naïve and doomed to certain unhappiness when we mistake the one as the true source or guarantor of the other.