There are several tried and true ways to end a beloved TV series. You can end the “story” of the series, disperse the characters, and send them on with the rest of their lives – the approach taken by “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and “The Office.” You can project the characters into the future so we can see what will become of them (the so-called American Graffiti approach adopted by Six Feet Under and The Wonder Years). Or you can come up with a huge twist: St. Elsewhere is an autistic child’s fantasy; Newhart is a dream; the mother’s dead on How I met Your Mother.
Mad Men went for the huge surprise. As the last seconds inexorably ticked away at the end of “Person to Person,” Don Draper is meditating at an encounter session at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, he smiles and suddenly we are in a real ad – the famous “Hillside” Coke ad (aka, “I’d Like to Teach the World To Sing”). At first I thought the Coke ad was a commentary on how capitalism gobbles up and then commercializes anti-capitalist movements, but then slowly realized that it was Don himself who returned to McCann (the real-life creator of that campaign) and exploited his own counter-culture experiences to develop one of the most famous ads of all time.
“Person to Person” was a great episode of “Mad Men,” but it wasn’t a great series finale by traditional television standards. It gave us some unforgettable moments but not the emotional closure we crave. After all the emotional turmoil – after Don’s journey of self-exploration – we are back to where we started. Don might be a better, more self-aware person but he’s where he was 90 episodes ago – reaching deep inside himself to connect with people through advertising.
This might not be the ending we wanted but it’s true to the vision Matt Weiner established. There was an early hint even before the episode started, when AMC released one last sentimental promo based on Paul Anka’s “Times of Your Life.” That song was the basis for yet another famous ad – the monstrously manipulative late-seventies Kodak commercial suggesting you could capture the times of your life before they slipped away (an ad that makes me tear up even today).
The reference to Kodak reminds us of Don’s most famous pitch – the Carousel – which turned a slide projector into a time machine. In the end, a carousel is exactly what the Mad Men characters are riding. Life goes round and round while the painted ponies go up and down. People might grow and evolve but they don’t fundamentally change – they fall into the same behavior patterns and bad habits. This fundamental insight is what has set Mad Men apart from other shows. Sometimes it’s been frustrating to us, especially in the seasons where Don was trapped again in self-destructive behavior, but it’s unfortunately the way people really are. In our own fantasies we might want Don to quit advertising and become a novelist or humanitarian, but in the real world, someone like Don is likely to return to his career; people want to start over but most don’t.
In “Person to Person,” the characters ending up being true to themselves. They follow their talents if not their dreams. “Work isn’t everything” as Stan tells Peggy, but it’s a big thing and you might as well do what you’re good at. Don, Peggy, Roger and Pete are great at advertising and they stick with it. I’ve never thought Joan was a very good account representative but she’s an excellent organizer who puts her skills to work as a film producer. The question that all of us face is how do we live our lives? How do we spend our days? What makes us happy? The Mad Men answer seems to be that you find what you’re good at and stick with it.
This episode was filled with many classic Matt Weiner feints and misdirections. That Don apparently returns to advertising, and that an actual real-life ad closes out the series were two of those inevitable-yet-still-surprising developments that has characterized Mad Men, but they weren’t the only ones. I, for one, never expected that Peggy would find romantic fulfillment and that Joan would not. Peggy and Stan’s sudden realization that they love each other was a shock, if only because it was so transparently obvious that you couldn’t believe Matt Weiner would actually go there. It’s like he was throwing the audience at least one bone by giving them what they most yearned for: a happy ending for Peggy. The scene where Peggy and Stan declare their love could have come out of a Nora Ephron Rom-Com but was still deeply satisfying.
On the other hand, the collapse of Joan’s relation with Richard was equally unexpected, but equally satisfying in its own way. Richard wants to be on perpetual vacation but Joan has too much energy and talent to become someone’s playmate. When Ken (whose return is another surprise) asks her to help him find a producer for a corporate film she takes the job on herself and launches her own production company. At first it looks like Joan and Peggy will team up in their own production company, but Peggy decides her talents lie in advertising, not film production, so that’s one fan fantasy outcome that is denied us.
Also completely unexpected – to me at least – was the lack of resolution in what will happen to the Draper children once Betty dies. The adults all seem to have their happy-for-them endings, but for the children the future is bleak. When Don hears that Betty is dying of cancer he wants to come home and taken care of his kids, but in a heart-breaking call Betty tells him to stay away. She wants things to be as normal as possible for the kids and having Don away is normal. Worse, she wants the kids to live with her brother and his wife because they need a woman in their life. I had fully expected this episode to feature a showdown between Don and Henry over custody but Henry doesn’t even make an appearance. As far as I’m concerned this decision remains an open one because I can’t imagine that either Don or Henry would allow those kids to be raised by that weasely brother William. This is another example of bad judgement by Betty – it’s archaic thinking, even for 1970 – to assume kids need to be shipped out to the nearest female relative and I have to think that decision will be reversed once Don comes back East to resume his job at McCann. He might agree to let them live with Henry, as Sally, the clearest-thinking person in the house, wants, but I can’t see them with William and Judy.
In any event, it’s that brutally honest conversation with Betty that precipitates Don’s final collapse. Realizing how much he’s failed his own kids after having been an orphan himself, he goes on a bender and ends up tracking down Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, because he wants to give her Anna’s wedding ring, once worn by Megan. California, the one place where he’s known as “Dick,” has traditionally been Don’s refuge, but by now too much has happened to recapture the Edenic qualities we saw earlier in the series. Like Don, Stephanie has made a mess of her life and lost custody of her baby son. She takes him to a hippie-like retreat – the real-life Esalen Institute, which still exists but is not identified on the episode . According to Wikipedia, Esalen is “a nonprofit organization devoted to activities such as personal growth, meditation, massage, Gestalt, yoga, psychology, ecology, spirituality, and organic food” – in other words a playground devoted to the usual Sixties fixations. The show’s attitude to this retreat is unclear. Plainly a lot of it is ridiculous and self-indulgent, as exemplified by the nudist participant who tells self-serving stories in the counseling sessions. Some of it is brutal; for someone like Stephanie, whose life is too broken to fix, the honesty is just too painful to bear. Some of it seems preposterous , with all the happy talk and “how does that make you feel” line of questioning.
At first it seems like Don can’t fit in. Among the aspiring hippies, he looks completely different in his traditional suburban clothes and he’s skeptical of the mumbo jumbo. When Stephanie has a painful session, he tries to be the hero, offering to help her out financially, but she rejects him: “You’re not my family. What’s the matter with you?” Don then gives her the same basic advice he gave Peggy after she gave away HER baby: “You can put this behind you. It will be easier as you move on.” Don’s entire operating philosophy has been to repress the bad memories, to compartmentalize, and to create a new persona. “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that,” she replies, understanding that there are just some things you can’t repress and just need to deal with.
When Stephanie leaves in the middle of the night, Don is nearly undone. There once was a time when he wanted to escape TO California, but now he wants to escape FROM California, but is trapped by his lack of transportation. He’s furious that Stephanie left without saying good-bye and then realizes that he never said good-bye to Peggy so he calls her on the phone to talk. We never see him talking in the Esalen sessions, but he does engage in some hard-core talk therapy with the one woman who understands him. “What have you been doing?” “I don’t know, I have no idea.” “You can come home. McCann will take you back in a second. Don’t you want to work on Coke?” “I can’t. I can’t get out of here.” “Don come home.”
And then it all comes out. When she asks what he ever did that was so bad, he tells her: “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.” He’s confessed to Peggy before, but this time the strain is too much for him and he collapses after hanging up. And for a long time we think he might actually die after all. But Shelia, one of those preternaturally calm counselors, finds him and brings him to her session. And at this point you wonder if all these encounter groups, as ridiculous as they seem, might not have a purpose. After all, confession is one of the seven sacraments in the Catholic church. And at the American Legion hall in last week’s episode, the story-telling by the traumatized vets serves the same purpose as the Esalen confessions: to sooth the pain of the memories by giving them voice. To some extent, Don is purged by his conversation with Peggy.
At Shelia’s session, he listens to the heart-wrenching story of a man who feels forgotten, alone and invisible. It’s not satisfying to us that the last major speech of the series is given by someone we’ve never seen before. In fact Don himself has no dialogue at all in the last 10 minutes of the series. Instead, we hear from Leonard, who, like Don, is a clean-cut suburban Dad with a serious case of “Is that all there is.” He says his wife and kids don’t look up when he comes home. “It’s like no one cares when you’re gone. They should love me. Maybe they do. 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 what it is.”
Leonard then recounts a dream in which he feels like an unloved consumer product (maybe one of the very food products that Don advertises.) In this dream he’s on a shelf in the refrigerator. “Someone closes the door and the light goes off and I know everyone’s out there eating. And then they open the door and everyone’s smiling. And they’re happy to see you, but maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you. And then the door closes again. And the light goes off.” That’s a chilling image. Life is all about waiting for people to love you, to see you, to want you. But they don’t and then the light goes off. When he breaks down sobbing, it’s Don who comforts him with a silent, tearful hug.
And then in the very final scene, we see Don on the Big Sur cliffs, meditating with the other seminar participants. Except now he’s wearing a clean white shirt and white pants, like a virginal bride or baptized penitent. The very final words of the series are not Christian, though; they are Zen-ish, spoken by the meditation leader: “Mother sun, we greet you and are thankful for the sweetness of the earth. The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve had; the lives we get to lead; a new day; new ideas; a new you. Ommm. Ommm.” With that we get an ambiguous smile on Don’s face and then the transition into a commercialized Coke version of that scene on the cliffs.
Even on a second viewing, that Coke commercial disturbs me. It seems cynical to think that after all the progress Don has made in his voyage of self-discovery, it’s reduced to a commercial, as great as the commercial is. Has Don really become “a new you” and is that even possible? I have a feeling we’ll be debating this ending for years.
Some other thoughts:
- The title of this episode was “Person to Person.” Back in the old days, boys and girls, before cell phones, there was something called an “operator assisted call.” If you were at a phone booth, and didn’t have enough money to pay for a long-distance call, you’d ask the operator to call collect; the most expensive form of a collect call was the person-to-person call in which you wouldn’t be charged unless you connected with the very person you wanted to talk to. There are two person-to-person calls in this episode: when Don calls Betty and later when he calls Peggy. Altogether there are four telephone calls, including Don’s call to Sally and the Peggy/Stan “I love you”/”I love you too” call. Each of those calls is emotionally powerful in a way that is lost on the today’s Millennials, who hate talking on the phone. In fact, as Stan explains, sometimes the phone call is better for actual communication because being in the presence of another person can make it hard to get the right words out.
- Think there’s any question that Don came up with the Coke ad while at Esalen? Here’s the smoking gun. The pigtailed girl at the reception desk is dressed exactly like the pigtailed girl in the ad.
- The scenes with the Draper children were wrenching. We can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Sally Draper is somehow well-grounded and more emotionally mature than either of her parents. The steel in her voice talking to Don makes it clear she won’t be anybody’s patsy. And when he returns home and finds Bobby pathetically trying to make dinner, she has a maternal kindness that Betty never had. For his part, Bobby gets to show that he’s not the dupe Betty thinks he is; by trying to keep her illness a secret, she has made it worse for everybody’s emotional state. Bobby has learned the truth from listening to Betty and Henry fight but has no one to talk to until Sally comes home. But what a grim fate, to lose your mother and possibly even your father and step-father.
- To understand this episode better, it helps to re-read Tom Wolfe’s famous essay on the Seventies “The Me Decade“. The essay, which I just had the occasion to cite in a post on narcissism on TV, is about the encounter sessions at Esalen and EST (Erhard Seminars Training). As average Americans became remarkably wealthy between 1945 and 1970, they had the time and money to worry more about their emotional well-being. This has been Don Draper’s problem from the beginning: once he achieved all his material needs, what was left? According to Wolfe, around 1970 Americans began to turn inward, spending more time worrying about the most fascinating thing in the world – themselves – de-emphasizing the traditional values of community, family, etc. And at the heart of the movement was the encounter session. Per Wolfe: “The encounter session—although it was not called that—was also a staple practice in psychedelic communes and, for that matter, in New Left communes. In fact, the analysis of the self, and of one another, was unceasing. But in these groups and at Esalen and in movements such as Arica there were two common assumptions that distinguished them from the aristocratic lemon sessions and personality finishings of yore. The first was: I, with the help of my brothers and sisters, must strip away all the shams and excess baggage of society and my upbringing in order to find the Real Me. Scientology uses the word “clear” to identify the state that one must strive for. But just what is that state? And what will the Real Me be like? It is at this point that the new movements tend to take on a religious or spiritual atmosphere. In one form or another they arrive at an axiom first propounded by the Gnostic Christians some 1,800 years ago: namely, that at the apex of every human soul there exists a spark of the light of God. In most mortals that spark is “asleep” (the Gnostics’ word), all but smothered by the facades and general falseness of society. But those souls who are clear can find that spark within themselves and unite their souls with God’s. And with that conviction comes the second assumption: There is an other order that actually reigns supreme in the world. Like the light of God itself, this other order is invisible to most mortals. But he who has dug himself out from under the junk heap of civilization can discover it.”
- Esalen may have the appearance of a hippie commune but it’s definitely a commercial enterprise. Don’s relieved that the women who checks them into their cabin takes a tip, and we also see that he’s free to leave whenever he wants because he’s fully paid up on his account.
- I don’t think I ever look at a clock with as much anxiety as I did during the last 15 minutes of “Person to Person.” I knew it was going to end at 11:15 p.m. but as we started that last encounter session, I started to panic — how would this ever get wrapped up in the allotted time? Of course Matt Weiner delivered by essentially jumping us ahead to 1971 when the Coke commercial premiered. Without saying as much, we know that Don Draper’s life continues after we tune out.
- Among the various reasons I have reservations about the ending is that it looks like Jim Hobart is one of the winners after all. His acquisition and eventual destruction of SC&P pays off handsomely if the end result is that Coke ad.
- I’m sorry for the demise of Joan’s relationship, of course, but am glad she got out in time. When you have no other goal in life other than to seek pleasure after pleasure, it’s hard not to slide into decadence. Richard’s initial foray into cocaine was a troubling sign of what could come next.
Let’s contemplate the inanity of the Coke Commercial lyrics for a second (see below). These were not written by McCann. They came from a popular song by the New Seekers. For more on the origins of the commercial, check out this link:
I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
- There are a lot of abandoned kid issues in this episode. Stephanie lost custody of her child by being such a screw-up. Don, of course, is told to essentially abandon his kids because he hasn’t been there for them before now. We learn that Greg Harris treats Kevin like he doesn’t exist (“He’s just a terrible person,” is Joan’s too-accurate judgment.) Roger’s daughter, who’s still off at the commune, has abandoned her son Ellery. Peggy gave her son up for adoption. The woman Don has been chasing around the country, Diana, left her remaining daughter after a second daughter died. So all, in all, not a good showing by the parents of today’s Baby Boomers. And the decisive verdict comes down from an Esalen participant who says her mother left her as a baby: “What I feel is sadness. My mother left and I can tell you, your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door, waiting for you to walk in.” Ouch. No matter Stephanie can’t take it.
- Sweet goodbye between Pete and Peggy. No mention of their baby, now adopted by another family. Just respect from two colleagues who have come a long way together professionally. Plus this nice sentiment from Pete: “Some day people are going to brag that they worked with you.”
- As usual, Roger gets the best lines. To Joan: I’m getting married. I met her through Megan Draper. She’s old enough to be her mother. Actually, she is her mother.” And after Kevin won’t come to him, “Little rich bastard. He really is, I guess.”
- Some interesting casting last night. The actress who played Sheila was Helen Slater, the star of the “Supergirl” movie. And one of the mechanics from the Utah Desert Flats, Spencer Clark, is from Darien, CT, my current hometown.
- The Democratic National Committee tried to capitalize on the “Joan as victim” narrative from last episode by having numerous Democratic office-holders tweeting about an equal payment bill last night. The thing is, Joan’s solution turned out to be a Republican narrative. She didn’t get relief from the government: she started a small business!
Well, that’s it. This is not the place for a long retrospective on the end of an era, even though it is one. Undoubtedly, we’ll all have more to say later as we digest the meaning of this episode.