Previously on Mad Men, ‘The Milk and Honey Route’
My only real hope going into the series finale of Mad Men was that the storylines wouldn’t all be wrapped up in a neat bow. The show was always far too complicated to end in such a tidy fashion. Thankfully, I think it perfectly toed the line between fan service and staying true to the story at hand. While many characters did find happiness, their futures remained fairly vague. Who knows how long their newfound happiness will actually last? This finale was about new beginnings rather than definitive answers.
Of course, Betty’s future is the one exception to this; unfortunately her outcome was painted pretty clearly last week. Part of me wanted to see Don and Betty face-to-face one last time, but what we did see was so much better. Betty’s strength in her final days is so satisfying. She wants everything to stay normal for her children for as long as possible and that means not having Don come rushing home. So, a phone call is the final scene between the two.
After Sally spills the beans to her father, Don is prepared to come collect his children. Betty has other plans though; she wants them to live with her brother and his wife so they can still have a steady family. The two of them bicker – completely par for the course – but when Betty says she’s too tired to spend her time arguing, the realization of it all hits Don.
I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t prepared. When Don broke down and uttered, “Birdie” that was all I could take. The knowing silence between the two of them was overwhelming. There was so much conveyed without either of them actually needing to say anything.
The one character lacking screen time was Sally. Whether it was in standing her ground with Don or in being up front with Bobby, it’s fantastic to see just how much she has matured. She may be stepping into the role of mother for the time being, I have no doubt that she’s going to make something amazing of herself. Anyone else want to see a Sally Draper spinoff?
When Joan is approached by Ken to find a producer for a DOW industrial film, the wheels in her head start spinning. She approaches Peggy about starting a production company: Harris-Olson. To which I literally squealed! But this was an example of Mad Men knowing when to reign in the happy endings. Though it would have been amazing to see Joan and Peggy coming together at the helm of a female-led company, it would have been too perfect, too tidy.
Peggy ultimately decides to stay at McCann because advertising is what she loves. Joan wanted something of her own where she answers to no one but herself, but in a sense Peggy already has this. She may not be Creative Director yet, but she’s not coming up against the same resistance Joan did. When she and Stan are taken off of an account, Peggy effortlessly works her way back onto it. She seems more than comfortable maneuvering her way to the top.
In the end, Joan does start her own company. When her nanny-turned-secretary picked up the phone to say “Holloway-Harris” a flood of pride washed over me. As a longtime fan of Joan, I found this outcome beyond rewarding. I should have known her story wasn’t over when she grabbed the Rolodex before leaving her office at McCann. She didn’t end up with Richard and I think it was for the best. He wasn’t prepared to support Joan in her dreams if it meant he couldn’t have 100% of her time. His fucking loss, if you ask me. I don’t know how anyone could walk away from a woman like Joan.
So where Joan’s finale wasn’t about romance, it kind of was for Peggy. For as long as we’ve known her, Peggy has been content to view work as her entire life. Sure she’s had relationships, but they always took a backseat to the job. I don’t see that changing, necessarily, and with a guy like Stan on her arm I don’t think it has to. He loves the job as much as she does, and more importantly, he understands what it means to her. For a moment, I was incredibly concerned Peggy’s realization of her love for Stan was going to feel very cheesy. But the way she so methodically worked out her feelings was incredibly true to her character. Given they’ve had some of their best moments together via telephone, there really was no better way for this to come to light.
Roger’s new beginning, and likely his final chapter, will be spent with Marie. She’s come to live with him in New York and they’re getting married. Before their nuptials though, Roger has decided to re-write his will so his entire estate will be split between his grandson and his son, Kevin. Given her history with men and money, Joan is hesitant at first to take this offer. After learning about his new relationship and realizing Roger is not trying to “mark his territory” but simply offer the child what he deserves, Joan accepts. Roger seems truly happy by the end of the episode, enjoying his life with Marie and learning some French along the way.
If there was anyone who perhaps got a little more than they deserved, it was Pete. For seven seasons we’ve seen him be a complete slime-ball but somehow he ended up with everything. Admittedly, we have seen him undergo a bit of maturation in these past few episodes. Particularly with regards to his anger and self-righteousness. There were a couple of moments where the old Pete would have been a complete jackass, yet now he was able to remain calm and compassionate. Even his goodbye to Peggy was rather generous for someone like him. “You’ll be a creative director by 1980.” Let’s hope he doesn’t screw this second chance up. Also, didn’t Trudy look fancy as hell getting onto that private jet? Damn!
Don begins the episode in Utah, working on and racing cars with a bunch of youngsters. Interestingly, in complete opposition to the way he lives his life, he never drives the car to its limits. After learning the news of Betty’s diagnosis Don heads to California, exactly the place many viewers anticipated he would end up. He tracks down Anna’s niece, Stephanie, and the two of them end up going to a spiritual retreat together.
During his first retreat activity, where the participants were asked to communicate how they feel about the person next to them without using speech, Don stares blankly at the woman across from him. Out of frustration or anger, she pushes him away; a quite literal example of his inability to connect with anyone.
The next group exercise, a sharing circle, was rich with symbolism and possible interpretations. When Stephanie shares her desire to start fresh, one woman assumes she means being a mother to her child again. This woman, it turns out, spent much of her life waiting for the mother who abandoned her at a young age to come back. Feeling judged, Stephanie bails on the group.
Don considers the woman’s statements for a moment, both because he never had a mother himself, but also because it’s now his children who will be without a mother. It’s possible he also sees himself as the one his children are staring at the door waiting for. Eventually he runs after Stephanie and tries to console her. “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.” Stephanie isn’t convinced though and by the next morning she’s taken the car and left. Leaving Don stranded at the retreat.
If you were one of the people who subscribed to the “Don will die” theory, the next scene probably had you thinking it was, in fact, coming. Don calls Peggy and admits he has no clue what he’s been doing. She assures him he can always come back to McCann, but Don is too despondent to truly hear her. “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He’s admitting things without any apprehension at this point. Peggy is worried about Don being alone and that feeling was certainly only worsened when Don tells her that he just wanted to hear her voice and say goodbye. If it hadn’t been for the woman who persuaded him to join the sharing circle again, who knows what Don may have done next.
Just when he needed it the most, Don listens to another man, Leonard, talk about his depression and it’s almost as if he’s listening to himself. Though Leonard feels ignored, something Don isn’t used to, they have the same problem with human connection. In regards to love he says, “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know when it is.” Don is so thoroughly moved by this admission that when Leonard starts to cry, he doesn’t hesitate to comfort the man and cry along with him. I never expected to see Don hug and cry with another man like that, but what was even more surprising was watching him meditate, complete with a long “om.” The last thing we see of Don Draper is a genuine, peaceful smile.
How completely appropriate it was, for a show about advertising to end with an advertisement. Which, by the way, would have been extremely on-the-nose if it hadn’t been for the implication of how it connects to Don. He once laughed at Peggy’s dream of making something long lasting in the world of advertising, and yet he ends up creating one of the most well-known commercials of all time. Oh, and if you’re unsure this is what was implied, just re-watch the Coke commercial and you’ll notice two things: the actors resemble many of the folks Don met at the retreat and the hillsides where the commercial was filmed look a lot like the setting of the retreat.
Perhaps it’s all a bit cynical. Don finally makes a connection with other people, has some sort of personal epiphany, and then uses it all just to sell a product. I suppose you could say seven seasons have culminated in one really cool ad campaign, but I think there’s more to it. Don has always created ads based on his understanding of other people, now he’s creating them with his newfound understanding of himself.
Consider the pitch for “The Carousel.” Don knew people are nostalgic and sentimental, and he played on that to sell slide projectors. Though the photos he used were of his own family, as an audience we knew how little that actually meant. There was a prevailing sense of hollowness to it all. Compare that to the Coca-Cola ad, where I truly believe Don would have pitched it with a deeper empathy. Not only does he understand feelings, he actually recognizes them within himself now.
Honestly, I think that’s the biggest and greatest growth we could have hoped for from Don Draper.