In addition to the usual spoiler warnings I'll have to add: I'm gonna' spoil more than just the last ever episode of Mad Men, "Person to Person". I'm also gonna' be spoiling my memoirs, which I don't really plan on writing. Why? Because the fact is that the connection I feel to Mad Men doesn't just bring up family stuff for me. It feels like it practically IS family.
I'm sure I'm not the only who feels that way, but ever since I first started watching the show in season one, I felt such a strong connection to the characters that it literally scared me. But I'll get to that later. Let's start at the end of the Carousel & work backwards. The way it should be done.
I didn't enjoy watching this episode 'till the second viewing. I thought I had prepared myself for the final episode not meeting my expectations, but from the speeding car at the open. (Is this Mad Men or Mad Max?) to the trek up the Californian coast to a pre-new age crunchy granola retreat, I just felt like these were more than curve balls. They felt more like knuckleballs. Yes, I wanted Don to change. No, I didn't want him to go back to horrible McCann. But I also didn't want him meditating on a God Damn hill actually humming "Oooommmmm!" Are you fucking kidding me? I was mad at myself for being so mad about it.
I'm not proud of this reaction. But then, after all that, the cut to the Coca-cola spot, (which had been predicted), made it even worse. He becomes a new-age phony AND returns to McCann where he whores out that phony enlightenment to sell soda pop? Double phony! Don & Dick!! Coke or Pepsi!! It's all the same!
Some internet reports say that this was Matt Weiner's cynical "it's all a con, baby" routine, well that didn't wash either. I wasn't buying any of it. So I said good night to my fading wife who shuffled off to bed. Gave my dog a final late night walk. Came back, watched it again and really thought it all through. Here's where I netted out:
This was the best show ending ever.
Okay, now to back that up. Here's my take. Matt was clearly playing with us. But when you really pay attention it becomes clear, as it does with most Mad Men episodes. It's about love. Again. (As Don would say). It's really that simple. Putting the ad at the end was a bit cynical but it hammered home the main theme of the episode and maybe of the whole show. Person to person. That's all that really matters. At the end of the day, assuming you have no inside information on what really happens to us after death, it's all any human really has. How we treat each other. Person to person. On the phone or face to face or in an "encounter" group. What you or I do or say to the next person we see might actually be the last human interaction we ever have. So you might as well be honest about it. Whatever your name is. However guilty you feel about whatever you've done. Just be honest. Especially with yourself.
After hearing about his first wife's pending death it all comes tumbling down for Don finally. Both the Don image (walls falling away like the show open) AND the Dick Whitman "riding the rails", Kerouc, race car driving bullshit too. It was ALL bullshit. All just a pose. The whole show the premise was "He's not Don Draper, he's Dick Whitman!" But when the shit hits the fan, it doesn't matter what your name is or wether you were born in a mansion or a whorehouse. What matters is the relationships you've had and have. The people you spend time with. Wether you treated them well or not. Those bonds, those person to person connections are really all that defines you. If you separate from those then you're not only a shell. You're even less than that.
The scene of Don not being able to to even move after his last life-line call to Peggy. He had thrown away his job, his money & severed most of his ties except a tangental one to his daughter. With that one call to her, learning about Betty's illness, makes him realize that none of the ties were really severed. Sally, Betty, Peggy. Even his boys and maybe Pete & Roger even though he didn't call them. (Maybe even Meredith!!) They're all connected. He loves each and everyone of those people. And he's so ashamed that he's let them all down. That he can't come in and save the day. He really thought the ties were completely cut for good. Until Peggy says "Come home". He doesn't right away. But Peggy may have saved his life. Without that call Don most likely flies into the Pacific from those glorious Big Sur cliffs. And Don may have made Peggy & Stan realize how much they loved each other. Love again indeed.
Don is bullshit. Dick is bullshit. Advertising is bullshit. Money is bullshit. "Honest" therapy where suburban housewifes make teen mothers feel horrible is bullshit. It's ALL bullshit. Except those connections. All those connections we all have with all the people we see every day. At home, at work. Lovers, ex-lovers, friends, even rivals. These connections are what matters.
Don does the meditation thing. Maybe he sticks with it later, maybe he doesn't. (Note: like any era, there's good & bad. My 9 year old does "mindfulness" at school now. I try to do it when I can. I think it's one of the less bullshit things to come from that time period.) Maybe Don wrote the Coke campaign just to make money to support his kids. Or maybe he finally just told Peggy how much the meditation actually helped him deal with the grief of Betty dying & all the guilt & shame he feels about how he's treated everyone. All while poking fun at what his new hippy friends dress like. And maybe Peggy took that conversation & turned it into a soda jingle. (Some theories on the internet suggest that there's lots of suitcase references in this final episode. "The Suitcase" was an episode from Season 4 where Don has a dream that he tells Peggy about that turns into one of her first successful pitches.)
I'm drifting again. (Sorry. It's late). But my point, and I think Matt's point is that it doesn't matter! Who cares if he wrote the Coke ad! That's just a job. There's more to life than work as Stan says. What does matter is the real real thing. Not self help retreats, not McCann, not race cars. But just learning to treat other humans with love & respect. It's a good message wether it's from the hippies or Madison Avenue. Those connections, person to person, are the real thing. Or as Bono said in the 90's, even better than the real thing.
End note: I didn't get into all the other stuff I wanted to talk about. The fact that my Dad looked like Don Draper & Pete Campbell's love child. The fact that I actually met Robert Morse (Cooper) as a kid in my living room. I didn't grow up in the suburbs, but being born in the mid-sixties, I still remember those times. I was the kid at those parties.
There's so much in this show that speaks to both the nostalgia of my childhood as well as to current day things I was going through. I was selling my own company & having a horrible fight with a business partner durning season 3 when that English company was trying to buy Sterling Cooper. Those episodes actually gave me strength & inspiration.
Or the fact that I actually went to a new-agey retreat like the one in this episode. A song-writers 2 week intensive. Sitting cross legged playing acoustic guitar for two weeks. But guess what? I had a total breakthrough about the grief I was still feeling about my dad who had died 15 years early. It was this memory of breaking down in tears at the Omega Institute in 1997 that made me accept Don Draper basically doing the same thing 1970. Getting away from your day to day grind really does bring up honest feelings. I think about my Dad every day. Don will probably think about Betty every day. Or the half brother he drove to suicide. Or maybe he'll start concentrating on the happy times to come with his daughter & two sons. Maybe he'll become really present in the moment. Maybe that centeredness is what really saves him. Who knows. But if anything saves him it won't be a commercial pitch, wether he goes back to work or not. It'll be a person. A real live person. And for Don, that's progress.
A wonderful show. A wonderful message. Thank you Matt Weiner.
Long live Mad Men!!