Series finales are always tricky to judge because they’re meant to do so much. And when you have a sprawling cast like Mad Men does, it becomes more difficult to satisfy each character’s arc – which may be why I was left a tiny bit “meh” after last night’s “Person to Person.” It’s still, by all accounts, a well-written and beautifully-acted episode, but the choices that Weiner made for the characters’ endings seemed often questionable. I’m still trying to figure out just exactly how last night’s episode left me – I’m still mulling it all over in my head.
Don is still on his cross-country tour. On the phone with Sally, he’s boasting about how fast he was able to drive a car, but she has other more important things on her mind. He notices how cold she is, and when he finally gets the truth out of her, he’s unmoored. Interestingly enough, when Sally first discloses Betty’s grim diagnosis, Don dismisses it with an eye roll, saying his exwife was a “hypochondriac” When it finally sinks in that she’s dying, Don jumps into “gotta be a good dad mode” which is patently superficial and ridiculous. He cannot be a father to Sally, Gene, or Bobby – it’s clear that he willingly let that part of his identity go. Sally’s desire to stay with Henry, as opposed to being shipped to her uncle William is powerful because slowly Sally is taking on the role of mother figure to her little brothers; though, it’s clear that Betty would not want that, which is why she is hoping William and his wife can offer a semblance of a stable family life, one that the kids would not have if they stayed with Don (though, I’m a little miffed that Henry’s feelings aren’t being considered – after all, I’m assuming he’s fallen in love with the kids, too).
When Don calls Betty for their final goodbye, he approaches the situation like he did with Sally: steamrolling over their wishes. These moments show just how delusional Don can get – he still thinks he can run things, even when he’s thousands of miles away in some divey motel. The two share a sweet moment, as Don breaks down in tears, finally understanding that Betty is dying. Betty, newly mature, is grateful and touched for the gesture (that’s all it is), and even calls him “honey,” but warns him not to let his pride get ahead of her wishes. It’s a great moment, one that both Jon Hamm and January Jones play beautifully.
Don ends up in a commune in Los Angeles with Stephanie. Unable to help Bdetty and Sally, he tries to help Stephanie, but she rejects his offers as well. Instead they travel to a commune, where Don is obviously out of his comfort zone. Don, never an introspective person, doesn’t sit well with all of this naval-gazing. The show’s put Don in these kinds of situations before – and each time, he’s tempted, but eyes it all warily. Stephanie, who gave up her kid to his dad, is going through feelings of guilt and despair over her decision, and during a rap session, she’s guilted by another participant, a woman whose mother abandoned her. Don tries to reason with Stephanie, but she flees, unable to deal with her guilt. Leaving Don alone in this environment brings a new self-awareness to Don, that he’s never had before. During his “retreat” he calls Peggy “just to hear her voice. Their goodbye is short and sweet, and one that fills Peggy with dread because she’s worried he’ll hurt himself.
I wish there was more to their goodbye as Peggy and Don shared probably the most complicated relationship on the show. She was a protegee that eventually outpaced him, not because she was more talented, but because her debits weren’t as destructive as his. When reassessing how he messed up his life, he turns to Peggy, because unlike everything else in his world, Peggy turned out beautifully. He took credit for her success in earlier seasons, and in some way, Peggy is a both a daughter and a parallel of Don – her life has a foundation of deceit, like Don’s, and it follows her, but she doesn’t let the burden take her down (and for most of the show’s run, neither did Don – so maybe when Peggy’s Don’s age, she’ll have a similar breakdown).
After saying his goodbye to Peggy, Don’s left bereft: no friends, no job, no one. When at another round of sharing at the commune, Don’s no longer the annoyed outsider, but instead he’s much more attuned to what’s going on. A sad sack, Leonard talks of his alienation from his family and friends – the world goes on without him. When talking with Peggy, Don asked, jokingly, if the place fella part without him – it was a joke, but one that tellingly shone a light on how important it is that McCann-Erickson has moved on from his defection. He sees something similar with his family life as both Betty and Sally are making plans for Gene and Bobby, and excluding Don. He’s watching it all move ahead without him.
So, Leonard shares his feelings of inadequacy and loneliness and starts to cry. Don gets up and embraces the guy, and has a cathartic release of his own. The image of both men sobbing in each others arms is a powerful one because Don finally made a connection, or a difference in someone’s life. When he tried with Betty and Sally, the two rebuffed them – as did Stephanie. His feelings of impotence were heightened by the realization that though he was an important figure at McCann, he wasn’t essential (not anymore). But with Leonard, he was able to provide some kind of comfort and release. It was a great moment.
Which is why I felt cheated when we see Don, cross-legged and barefoot, chanting with a mediation leader on a cliff. The camera zooms in on his face, and his mouth stretches into a beatific smile. I understand that Don’s had a breakthrough – I’m not sure what this means. Lots of folks think he’ll be returning to McCann – I don’t think so. I think Don Draper’s really dead this time. Finally he’s put to rest after being dug up, and paraded around as an ad man. I think Don’s moment of zen is really a rebirth of Dick Whitman.
With Don’s moment of peace, we move onto Joan’s story line. I was glad that we didn’t leave with Joan quivering in rage over being sexually harassed and bought off. Instead, she settled into a life of domestic bliss with Richard (snorting cocaine and everything! By the way, did anyone else but I think that poor Richard’s gonna die after doing coke and eating 12 eggs?). But Joan’s not kept woman, nor are her ambitions in life tied to one man. Working as a partner at Sterling Cooper means she has something besides her ridiculously good looks to live on. When Ken Cosgrove meets with her looking for a producer to helm a corporate video, Joan immediately sets on it – and brings in Peggy as a freelancer. The two do such a great job, that Joan sees a new venture in this: Harris Olson – a production company that would finally liberate the two women from working under sexist and unappreciative men. When Joan pitches the idea to Peggy, the latter is flattered, but also a little stunned. She doesn’t feel as yoked as Joan did; in fact, her diligence is simply part of a multi-layered plan to become Don. In a sweet moment, Joan stresses, “the partnership is for you.” But Peggy doesn’t take the job. Joan instead creates Holloway Harris, and though Richard leaves her (was there a real future in that relationship?), she manages to carve out a real life for itself.
But Peggy staying at McCann has another bonus: Stan Rizzo. Folks were shipping those two for a while now, and I have to be honest, Stan and Peggy’s meet cute was kinda disappointing and totally out of sync with Peggy’s story arc and the tone of the show. I’m sorry, I was also swept up by Peggy’s monologue on the phone, during which she actually sells Stan to herself, like a pitch, but it felt way too Nora Ephronesque (no disrespect to the great Nora Ephron). Elisabeth Moss performed the speech beautifully (it’s about time she goes home with an Emmy), but I felt cheated by the ending – a little too pat for a show like Mad Men.
And because Peggy’s journey was so compelling for the past seven seasons, and her relationship with Don has been so integral to that journey, their goodbye felt a little underdeveloped. I also wish that Roger and Don had some sort of decent scene. Instead, Roger’s running off to get married to Don’s ex-mother-in-law, Marie Calvet. Roger ceased being a real character and sorta became the Urkel of Mad Men and his interactions with Marie are pure schtick – that doesn’t mean it isn’t satisfying, but it all feels light.
But back to Don. When trying to talk Don off that ledge, Peggy brought up Coca-Cola. The episode ends with the classic Coke commercial which featured a cast of multicultural thousands warbling “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” It’s funny because that ad was supposed to be uplifting and lovely, but all I thought about was Jonestown and the Peoples Temple. There’s something insidious about the Coke commercial – as if we’re being brainwashed into believing that drinking Coke is a socially-conscious act. And because I found the commercial creepy, I couldn’t help but think that despite the pat endings for the characters, we’re meant to leave the show ambiguously. Which, given how complex and anxious Mad Men was throughout its run, I’m sure was a conscious choice.