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Television Review

An inspired ending for Don Draper — and for ‘Mad Men’

“Mad Men” went out on top, and with a big exclamation point at the very end. In a clever final twist, which series creator Matthew Weiner delivered as a kind of gigantic wink, we were left believing that all of Don Draper’s angst, all of the suicidal frustration and existential grief that had caused him to leave McCann Erickson and drive aimlessly across the country, ultimately led him to create one of the great ads of the time: the Coca-Cola hilltop commercial of 1971.

We saw Don meditating with a group of hippies overlooking the Pacific Ocean, exhaling giant “ommms” and coming out of his profound depression, which had left him on the ground by a phone booth saying, “I can’t move.” And then we saw the famous commercial, with a multicultural assemblage of young people on a hill — not unlike the one where Don had sat cross-legged in meditation — singing “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony).” The implication was that Don had gone back to New York and returned to McCann Erickson, as Peggy had said he could; and he quickly topped his career working on the prestigious Coke account, the holy grail of the ad world, transforming his experience into classic Don Draperian ad poetry.

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As the ad ran, you could almost hear Don pitching the idea to Coke in his seductive Don voice, using the philosophy of self-help, the peace movement, and civil rights in service of selling soda as the solution to despair. Years earlier, he’d made a similarly persuasive pitch to Kodak for its Carousel projector, in which he had also cannily drawn from his own life.

Weiner, who wrote and directed the final episode, may not have satisfied those viewers eager to see Don change completely, and become a new man, a better man. He didn’t succumb to black (suicide) and white (rebirth), but stuck to the gray he’d used for Don all along. He had a more realistic and specific final salvo for his hero: Don grew a bit, perhaps, in terms of self-understanding and communication. In a telephone breakdown with Peggy, he confessed to all his sins. He understood what both Sally and Betty —his “Birdie” — had told him, that he was not the right person to be a full-time parent to his own children. But he also remained the dazzlingly talented man we’ve known for seven seasons, the guy who could remake himself from nothing, who drinks too much but still looks dapper.

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We saw a few other satisfying turns in the episode, all of them true to the characters and yet also audience pleasers. Peggy, the character I’d always assumed would have to sacrifice love for work, found love — and it looked like a long-term thing — with the teddy bear known as Stan. It was Doris Day-Rock Hudson cute, and it was poignant; they couldn’t say they loved each other face to face, even though they were in the same offices. So they said it on the phone first. She has a “gift” when it comes to advertising, as Stan said, and the clear parting impression was that she would continue to ascend professionally.

Instead, Joan was the woman who ended up having to trade love — with the needy Richard — for her career ambitions, now in the production business thanks to some help from Ken. Richard insisted she stop working, and she refused: “I can’t just turn off that part of myself,” she told him. There was no doubt that Joan would succeed beautifully, as she handed off her son — who will be rich one day, thanks to Roger’s new will — to her mother and turned her full attention to work.

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Just as Weiner pulled a twist by making Joan, and not Peggy, the woman who can’t have it all, he made Pete, and not Don, the guy who changed most dramatically across the series. Pete’s newfound sincerity seemed like the real deal, as we saw a happy Pete, Trudy, and Tammy boarding a plane to their new life. Pete’s farewell to Peggy was lovely and generous: “Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you.” Roger and Marie also seemed well matched, together like a pair of feisty peas in a pod.

Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in “Mad Men.”
Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in “Mad Men.” (Justina Mintz/AMC)

Interestingly, as Weiner gave us parting glances at the major characters in the last minutes of the finale, he spent only a moment on the Francis household. We saw the terminally ill Betty continue to fail (and to smoke), while Sally did the dishes. It was so mundane, and so rich. We could see that Sally was growing into the grounded, wise young woman we knew she’d become. I felt a great sense of pleasure at seeing Sally, once so bratty, and later angry and “scandalized,” as Don put it, acting more mature than the adults around her.

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The finale may have spent too long at the retreat, with Don trying to find purpose by helping out Anna’s niece, Stephanie. But the payoff, the way it all got turned into inspiration for Don, made it worthwhile. Do you agree? Were you satisfied with the end of “Mad Men”?

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Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.