For every media outlet and pundit that found the last episode of the remarkable series Mad Men wanting, I can only ask one question: “What had you been watching for the last seven years?” Believe me; this question is considerably dialed down from my initial reaction.
Fans of Mad Men know that it was much more than an accurate portrayal of the 60’s through 1970. The writing, the acting and the characterizations were brilliant throughout the seven seasons of the show. If you lived through the 60’s, good or bad, the period became part of your DNA. It isn’t just Mad Men’s flawless music, fashions, and settings but the mores. Most striking is that history was never redacted on Mad Men. Political correctness had no place here. Of course, I must admit that my admiration for Mad Men had occasionally been expressed by saying things like “This show is so true-to-life that one can see exactly when and how the country went to hell.”
Television programs that are pure entertainment dwindle by the day. They shouldn’t become political fodder. But, of course, today everything has been factionalized and politicized. Every aspect of life has become a political football…including football. Mad Men’s finale has generated “Meh” reactions from the likes of feminists and from both sides of the political aisle. Sure, liberal cluelessness is a fact of life but what is most dismaying is cluelessness from fellow conservatives. When Rush Limbaugh expresses disappointment, saying a clearer understanding of “the real Don Draper” (based on real-life ad-man Bill Backer) is necessary, it is disheartening. Newsflash: Mad Men was fiction not a documentary. The authenticity of the surroundings, including the cast’s final “home”, the real advertising firm of McCann Erickson, merely reinforced the fiction.
There were complaints about “happily-ever-after” endings for different cast members. It’s actually called “closure.” Every character had grown from where he or she started. Sacrifices were made, change was painful and not always happy. Each character reached a destiny they could not have envisioned when the series first began. Yet everyone stayed true to character. Was a happily-ever-after insured? Heck, no. For example, Don’s daughter, Sally, matured from a spoiled, willful child to a strong minded teenager, forced to confront the harsh realities of life before her time. Closer in temperament to Don than to her mother, Sally buds into the best of both parents.
Predictably, Peggy Olson’s character also came under fire because “this feminist icon” ended up romantically involved with “a nobody.” It never ceases to amaze me that feminists always get it wrong. A strong woman is a complete person, not a puppet for a faction. Peggy isn’t a “feminist icon.” She is what feminists wish they could be. Peggy traveled a rocky, uncharted landscape during the course of the series. She had assistance along the way, as all real people do. What made her character great was that she could absorb the blows and hard truths just as they came, without whining or claiming favored nation status. She never lost her humanity. It’s why Peggy is so adored. Peggy was emotionally alone for much of the series but not by choice. She wanted to brave trails but didn’t want to do it, isolated. Her involvement with the character of Stan shouldn’t have been a disappointment. Stan and Peggy had emotional tension from the outset. He had been Peggy’s foil and bulwark for the five years he had been on the show. In the final episode Peggy is stunned and delighted to find herself with Stan. Will it be forever? Who knows? Who even cares? It’s enough that she’s happy as we leave her.
The series provided perfect symmetry all along the way and the final episode delivered on that seven-year precedent. Don had helped Peggy over an emotional hurdle that might have destroyed her early in the series. Don desperately and unsuccessfully tries the identical tack as he’s breaking down, with Stephanie. Now Peggy supplies the support and catalyst for Don’s emergence from the wreckage of his chrysalis. Don telephones Peggy from Esalen when his situation is darkest. Peggy imparts three things that make his final evolution possible:
1. “You can come home; McCann Erickson will take you back in a minute.”
2. Refutal of Don’s self-loathing
3. “Don’t you want to work on Coke?”
This last question was Madison Avenue’s Holy Grail, the key to the series. Coke was the impossible dream with which the show began. And the show is all about advertising.
There were complaints that Don Draper would never have been party to Esalen Institute’s hippie influence. Probably not, had he the choice. Full disclosure: I was of the same mind until I actually digested what had happened, five minutes after the show ended. Then, it was a very joyful “Holy cow!” moment. If one had been paying attention for the past seven years one would know that Don Draper had been fighting his demons since the Korean War, less and less successfully. Don was, literally, marooned at Esalen. He had always run from facing himself. It wasn’t until personal tragedy and his ensuing crisis resulted in his emotional implosion, surrounded by people totally unlike him, deserted by the last person he could exploit to avoid confronting his own past, that he was finally able to break free. Don was awakened by a tortured man who represented the opposite side of Don Draper’s coin. Don recognized himself. The dam burst. Eventually, refreshed, Draper relaxed. Unguarded, he experienced a moment of clarity that, literally, set off a “ping” in his head. He smiled.
What happened at the end of the episode was nothing short of genius. The Coke commercial that closed the show was genuinely McCann Erickson’s most successful advertisement, ever. Most of us can still sing the song. And there is no doubt in the viewer’s mind that “Don Draper” had returned to Madison Avenue to teach the world to sing.
It doesn’t get any better.