Mad Men is over. This is still a difficult idea to process. When Becky and I did our binging re-watch a few months ago I kept trying to remember where and when I was as each big episode queued up on Netflix. I originally watched the premiere on a friend’s couch, because that’s where 20-year-old Bean lived in the summer between his Sophomore and Junior years of college. I caught up on seasons two and three in my apartment in Hyde Park in between sessions of frenzied Master’s Thesis writing. Season 4 was in a crappy starter apartment. Season 5 was in a high rise I always sort of felt like a tourist in. I moved in the middle of both the 6th season and the first half of the 7th. On Sunday night, I watched the series finale from the living room of the grand condo that Becky and I bought six months ago.
Watching Mad Men has been a through-line across nearly a decade of my life. As I watched these characters grow and change and fall back into their set ways across all 92 episodes it felt like I was watching my former self watch them at the same time. How had I changed since “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” blew me away? What made the pauper Alex who was overwhelmed by “The Suitcase” different than the one who put on socks despite the balmy Chicago spring on Sunday because nerves always make his feet cold? I dunno. It’s hard to pin down what makes a person different from one year to the next, much less tracking what keeps them consistent. Harder still when you are trying and mostly failing to make those judgments by looking at yourself. But I know I’ve changed physically, my personal geography has changed endlessly, and I think I’m a bit wiser and more experienced than that thin-haired neophyte on the couch in Bowling Green.
I went over all that not just because my beanbeanbean form of navel-gazing is a bit of a running joke among The Recorder staff, but because it felt in tune with the themes that seemed front and center as Mad Men wrapped up this Spring. Don Draper has spent much of his adult life creating new identities and new lives every times the current one became too much. He kept trying to outrun every part of his past, even when the memories and choices he had once made were decent or good. Whether that long, sad arc would ultimately lead to the destruction that the opening credits long forebode or a ending closer to self-awareness and happiness was the series’ great mystery. Others have covered how the finale answered that question better than I could, so go read them. So, instead I’ll note two things about those final moments and then turn it over to two of the women I watched the series finale with.
First, I liked the understated shot that the episode closed on. Don’s face, earnestly engaging in meditative yoga, is mostly blank until a bell rings and a satisfied smile spreads across his face. The close-up holds for a few seconds and then we cut to the Coca-Cola ad that makes everything before it a beguiling mix of hope, cynicism, and honesty.
That shot is a neat and careful reversal of the shot the pilot episode began with eight years ago. That one gave us the back of Don’s head. We were looking at him looking beyond at something else. Mad Men did that again and again: in the opening credits, in the ads, and in many self-consciously iconic moments from the show itself. It was the series’ signature image. So for Matthew Weiner and company to leave us with the inverse feels substantial and, to me, hopeful. Which builds to my second point.
This feels like a happy-ish ending. Don has gone a very long way in the decade since Mad Men‘s narrative began, and, almost to the last, he spent those years ready to run and start over because he was so conditioned against looking inside and finding the strength to live within the choices he had made. I think the events of the finale gave him that impetus to stop, look, and listen to the people offering him empathy and love. Even if he does go and turn that into the Coke ad, that knowledge will stick with him and life will go on a little bit better than before. It’s a fitting and cathartic ending and made genuinely grateful for the years I’ve invested in the show.
Beans, I left your house mad, because I 100% didn’t buy that Don Draper was stuck in California at a yoga session and okay with that. I am not ashamed to admit I interpreted the ending differently than most — I worried Don honestly adopted a lifestyle of new age mediation and that felt so wrong to me. I initially believed Peggy wrote the Coke ad, having succeeded Don and risen to his level of cache. While that would have been a pretty bad ass way for her to go out, I wanted Don back in New York. I wanted Don to be back to Don, whatever that means now at the end of the 1960s. Then I saw the side-by-side of the blonde ribbon-tied braids, and to that I say thank goodness for people smarter and more perceptive than me. Don using that meditation session to brainstorm a winning pitch for Coke to sell more Coke was cynical as hell, but THAT I buy — hook, line, and sinker. That’s the Don Draper we know, and he’s going to be okay. I’m okay, you’re okay.
In other news, I am alone on Naysayers Island in feeling that Peggy and Stan are realistic work spouses, but not believable life partners. Still, it’s very likely that I am simply projecting — I have always found Stan and Peggy’s work spouse dynamic very relatable and true to life, but I myself have never been romantically interested in any of my own work husbands. I get why people are happy about this match up or even felt like it was long overdue — I just happen to not feel that way.
Joan and Roger’s parting scene was delightful. I love her laughing line of “What a mess!” re: Megan’s mom, and her pronouncement of Greg just being a straight-up terrible person. Cheers all around.
I really worried Don was going to croak after he hung up the phone with Peggy. Weiner, you sadist, don’t toy with us like that.
In closing, on the storyline I think I cared about most, but least wanted to see in the finale: I want Sally to be there for her family during this horrible time in their lives. And then I want her to let them take care of themselves so she can be adventurous and live a spectacular life.
Sally Draper spin-off! Would watch.
Of course as Mad Men comes to an end, the thing that stands out to me is the costuming. I could write thousands of pages on the costuming on this show, but I’m just going to point out one thing that stood out to me as I was watching on Sunday. The colors of Mad Men.
The logo ingrained in our minds of stark black and white with the red text. Red hasn’t been a color we’ve seen much of in the run of Mad Men. It wasn’t that popular of a color, besides lipstick and nail polish, in men’s and women’s fashion of the 1960s. But in true Janie Bryant fashion, the finale is filled with the colors of Mad Men. Nearly every scene has characters clothed in red, white, and black. And nearly every character gets their chance to shine in Mad Men hues. It’s a nice ending to an amazing show and the amazing thematically charged costumes as well.
If you’d like to read more about my costuming thoughts on the series, check out Costuming Mad Men from Beginning to End.