WARNING: There are massive Mad Men spoilers in this post. Read at your own risk.
The series finale of Mad Men was last night. Like most series finales, it was heavy marketed and highly anticipated. Of course, this runs the risk of disappointing the audience if the program doesn't deliver on the promises of advertising.
It's a bittersweet feeling to see Mad Men end, being such a character-driven show. It's hard to let go of these people we've watched grow and change for the past seven (seven and a half?) seasons. I found myself worrying about the characters and wondering how things will turn out for them. Compare this to a plot-driven show like Breaking Bad, where all the viewer cares about is what happens. With Mad Men, the audience is compelled by the characters and how they grow as people.
Breaking Bad's finale was a period, but Mad Men's was an ellipsis. We get a vague idea of where our favorite characters land, but there are still ambiguities. Things remain clear enough for the audience to get a fully-formed idea of the show's thesis.
Why did we watch this show for seven years? What is it saying about humanity at large? Is it a meditation on the struggle of the individual against the corporate machine? Is it an assault on the effects of consumerism on identity? Of course, these themes are tied to the corporate setting of Sterling Cooper, but Wiener seems to be saying something bigger.
The title of the final episode is telling- “Person to Person”. Mad Men has been a show about the struggle to connect individual to individual. Primarily, Donald Draper's struggle, but this theme can be applied to the entire cast. And rightfully so, the episode focuses on tying up loose ends among the remaining major players.
Peter Campbell's narrative thread is basically wrapped up at the beginning of this episode. He has confessed his love for his ex-wife and she has forgiven him for his past transgressions. He's overcome his inability to sympathize and his puerile need for validation. He's become a confident, driven individual who is comfortable in his own skin. This, in turn, allows Peter to ultimately win her back.
Pete's arc is an overture of the finale's atmosphere. It's the story of a man who has figured out how to give and receive love, the purest form of human connection. This arc can be applied to the rest of the characters as their stories play out, as each individual character learns to love both outwardly and inwardly.
The most obvious and literal of these happy endings is Peggy's romance-comedy climax with Stan. After he confesses his love for her over the phone, Peggy talks herself into the realization she's in love with him as well, this following a drunken argument where Peggy calls Stan a failure after he reminds her there's more to life than work. Peggy's feelings for Stan are conflicted because she is technically his superior. When she speaks to him over the phone, she is speaking with Stan the Human, but when she's with him in person at work, she regards him as Stan the Underling. His confession makes her realize that she is in love with Stan the Human and does not need to be professional at all times. Being emotionally mature, she readily accepts his love.
Roger Sterling is another character whose happy ending is a matter of securing romantic love. In the episodes leading up to the finale, Roger is shown to have started a relationship with Megan's mother- Marie Calvet. The finale gives the viewer some insight into the nature of their relationship- Marie is just as unstable and emotionally immature as Roger. But Roger accepts that with Burt Cooper gone he's now the oldest guy in the room. He still retains his razor wit and good humor, but it has since become tinted with a morbid acknowledgment of his coming end. Roger opens himself up to Marie Calvet's love because he does not want to spend his remaining years alone. Roger's knowledge of his death allows himself to truly appreciate the love he is given and embraces it wholly, as seen by his efforts to speak French to better communicate with Marie.
Joan's ending serves as a foil to Peggy's pairing with Stan. The second half of the seventh season introduced Richard, Joan's Californian boyfriend. He's a retired real estate developer who is looking to enjoy his golden years spending his fortune on Joan. However, Ken Cosgrove makes his final appearance and offers Joan a job working as a freelance producer for Dow Chemical. Roger Sterling also surprises her with the addition of their son to his will, securing his future. No longer concerned with her son's future, Joan is inspired to start a production company and tries to enlist Peggy as a partner. Undeterred by Peggy's rejection, Joan moves forward with her dream. Richard tries to talk her out of it, confessing that he wants to spend time with her and that starting a business will demand all of her attention and energy. He forces her to choose between him and her dreams. Joan chooses to move forward with Holgrove-Harris Productions.
This is a big choice for Joan because it is the first time she is doing something for herself. For a large part of the series, Joan was forced to bend to the will of the men in her life. At times, it seemed she was trying to fit herself into various archetypal roles: the perfect secretary, the perfect wife, the perfect mistress. She always had keen business sense, though she was often forced to also use her sexuality to advance in the business world, literally prostituting herself for her partnership. Joan's choice to start her own business balances Peggy's love for Stan. Joan is actualizing her professional dreams and affording herself a new level of fulfillment. She is treating herself with love and self-respect by sacrificing her romantic relationship with Richard and seems pleased as punch about it.
And then there is Don. Poor Dick Whitman who has never been loved in his life- born to a prostitute and a farmer, raised in a whorehouse by the deceased farmer's wife, Don was raised as a child no one wanted. His first sexual experience wasn't even with someone he loved, but instead a motherly prostitute. Don has gone most of his life without ever knowing what it was like to be loved or to love in return.
Even when he assumed his new identity and started his new life, Don still has a fundamental gap in his knowledge. To make things worse, he is now burdened with the fear that he will be discovered. That everyone will know he is a fraud and then abandon him. This forces him to keep people a distance and hide behind smoke and mirrors of silence and charm. At the start of the series, Don has conflated attention with love. At Sterling Cooper, people paid attention to him. At McCann, Don is just another part of the machine. This terrifies him and forces him to react the only way he knows how: by running away.
Don wanders the American heartland until he receives the news of Betty's cancer from Sally. Sally has grown up quickly, readily assuming the responsibilities of adulthood in the twilight of Betty's life. Don wants to come back to take care of his children and speaks to his ex-wife on the phone. They share a tearful exchange and silently acknowledge the love they feel for one another, though neither party can bring themselves to speak it aloud, knowing that it's too late. Betty tells Don that she wants everything to be normal as possible and his absence is a normal thing. This truth cuts Don to the quick.
Continuing his push west, Don goes to see the only family he has: Anna Draper's niece, Stephanie. Seeing that Don is in bad shape, Stephanie convinces Don to come with her to a meditation retreat. There the two attend a support group where Stephanie reveals that she has abandoned her child and feels guilty. Don tries to recommend his own strategy to her, telling her she can forget about her guilt and push forward and forget. Stephanie doesn't believe him and leaves him stranded at the retreat, forcing Don into a deeper depression.
With nowhere else to run, Don experiences an emotional breakdown. He calls Peggy and hopes to pick his spirits up by speaking to his old protege. She immediately sets to work trying to get him to come back and Don tells her that he can't go back to New York because of all the terrible things he's done. The pay phone serves as Don's confession booth as he details to Peggy his past sins, airing his old wounds for the first time in his life. He abruptly hangs up, forcing Peggy to worry for his safety. The reality of the situation is that Don is finally bottoming out. He can no longer hide his secrets, as the fear of being discovered alienates him from everyone around him.
Don is then encouraged to attend another group therapy session. It is there he is moved by the confession of a group member. This group member is an unremarkable man, a man who wishes he could gain the attention of those around him. He goes on to explain that he does not know what love is, and is unable to give or receive it, to even understand it on its most basic level. He comes to the heart-wrenching realization that his family is trying to love him and that he is the one who is not receiving it.
This shakes Don to his very core, as he is in many ways this man's opposite. Don is always the center of attention and feels the exact same lack of the capacity for love that this stranger describes. Don is relieved to find someone like him and is moved to tears as the barriers that have been up for his entire life come crashing down. He embraces this man and cries with him and they love each other in that moment, bound by their mutual lack of love.
The final shot of the series shows Donald Draper mediating with the Pacific Ocean at his back, a blissful smile on his face. The screen then dissolves into one of the most famous commercials ever made, implying that Don is the one destined to create it.
Don's old wounds are finally healed and what does he do? He goes on to turn that message of love for his fellow man into a commercial for Coke Cola. Is this a cynical message? Not necessarily. Though Don is monetizing the notion of love and peace, it cannot be forgotten that Don is an ad-man. He expresses himself through his work and his best work has always included a piece of himself. This tremendously successful advertisement is Don's way of showing the world the love he now feels for himself and humanity at large.
So what does it all mean? A show with as many characters and plot lines as Mad Men can't be boiled down to a few key phrases. It's about the struggle of the individual against the expectations and perceptions of society. It's about woman's struggle to be taken seriously in a man's world. It's about balancing ambition and love. It's about the difficulties in forging emotional bonds. More than anything, Mad Men is about the true power of connecting person to person and the happiness that can come of it.