Mad Men Series Finale Review: Break Down, Break Through
This review contains spoilers. If you haven't watched the Mad Men series finale, click away.
Sunday night, Matthew Weiner's brilliant series came to an end. Over seven seasons, the show brought us from the end of the 50s, through the madness of the 60s and swinging into the 70s bursting with color and joy. As I watched the finale, I found myself amazed at how connected I had become to these characters. I cried watching them wrap up their journeys. And when it was all over, I felt completely satisfied.
The title of the finale, "Person to Person," refers to three phone calls Don Draper makes in the last episode—to three important woman in his life: Betty, Sally and Peggy. Like every scene in the finale, these scenes rippled with the rich layers that had built up between these complex characters. I'm going to touch on all the main characters' endings, but I'll leave Don for last.
Joan has been fighting for legitimacy her whole career. She came up in a sexist, male-dominated industry, and she had to sell her body to get her partnership at SC&P. Then just when she thinks she's made her fortune and gained some authority, she gets swallowed up by a company that treats her like a piece of ass who's not to be taken seriously. After seeing how she was treated at McCann, anyone watching the show has been furious on Joan's behalf.
So for her to start her own production business—to me that was a huge victory. She'll answer to no one. This woman was so ready to be her own boss, she put her name on the sign twice, naming the business Holloway Harris (because, after all, "you need two names to make it sound real"). She gave up a life sailing around the world drinking up Italy and the Pyramids with a man she seemed quite fond of, because she wants to work. Like every other major character from the SC&P crew, she's driven to succeed in her profession. She's good at what she does, and—much like with Ken Cosgrove—it's just too early to retire. She had a moment sipping sun from the edge of the pool. Now she's ready to do her best work. Joan is one of several characters who will be starting anew.
When the cast members were discussing how their characters had developed and where they ended up, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss talked about how their endings, though they were not in any way predictable, seemed inevitable. There were things they didn't see coming, and when they looked back, they saw that the seeds for these developments had been planted all along the way. This is exactly how it was for me with Peggy getting together with Stan. I didn't see it coming at all, and yet it seemed wonderfully inevitable.
This was one of those cases where I was amazed by how much I cared about these characters. I was ecstatic for these two. Peggy was so badly burned by Ted. Ted lifted her up and threw her to the ground, and she's been bitter ever since, a hard shell formed around her heart. When she hit it off with that guy she was going to run off to Paris with, she woke up the next day and was mad at herself for believing for a second that something that romantic could happen for her. This is why it works so well when Stan tells her over the phone that he's in love with her, and we see that shell finally melt away. It sinks in for her that this is real, she opens up, and her feelings for this guy who has been so good to her come spilling out.
Betty and Sally
Mad Men dropped a bomb on us on Mother's Day when we learned that Betty was dying from cancer. Kiernan Shipka has been such a phenomenal actress portraying Sally, and it was fascinating to see her grow into an adult and then have to handle losing her mom. Sally has matured in a hurry, and we've seen that in the scenes where she confronts her parents. The scene where Sally fights with Betty after coming home with a broken nose was my personal favorite. It's not often you see a teenager eviscerate a parent so incisively.
There have been times when Betty was shockingly cold as a mother. (Perhaps we have Don to thank for making her mean.) Another fan will tell you they thought Betty showed real warmth and humanity with Sally when she told her it was her time to die, but I feel differently. I thought Betty was cold in this instance as well. I know she was trying to get Sally to be strong, but can a girl get a hug? The dads on Mad Men are pretty terrible, but Betty didn't exactly shine as a mother in my opinion.
When Betty told Don that the kids weren't going to stay with him, my first reaction was indignation on Don's behalf. But then she made a good case in saying that Don was never around anyway. The finale was loaded with deep material concerning parenting—more than I could mine in this article.
Pete and Trudy get back together and trade in New York for Wichita. A win? I mean, I know New York can drive a person crazy, but Wichita? Then again, they get to fly anywhere whenever they want. And they're together. So yes, they win. Another new beginning. (I'd like to think Trudy could do a lot better than Pete, but I guess that wasn't in the cards.)
The way Pete got steered toward his new job was a perfect example of how skillful this show has been in keeping the business maneuvering clever and cunning. Regardless of one's knowledge when it comes to the business world, the show gets you to understand the moves being made and feel what the characters are feeling.
"I'll buy you a drink if you wipe the blood off your mouth."
Of all the classic one-liners Roger Sterling has given us, that one is my favorite. He says it to Don in Season 5 after they leave a meeting where Don was especially feisty.
But I don't know if anything can top the scene where Roger plays the organ while Peggy roller-skates around the abandoned office. Those moments happen only when filmmaking melts the elements of story and character and directing into some unexplainable amalgam of silver and gold.
Roger's ending was yet another beginning. He's aware that Marie is a little crazy. But these two wild kids can't help themselves. Maybe they'll bounce back and forth between New York and Paris, skating across the Atlantic like the world is a wave to be ridden. Or maybe they'll claw each other's eyes out. Nobody said there won't be bumps ahead for these people.
We didn't see her in the finale, but I expect that Megan has plenty of happiness in her future. (It doesn't hurt that she has a million-dollar head start.) She deserves it. She's the only character who's never done anything cruel.
"I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name … and made nothing of it."
When Don says this to Peggy over the phone, his breakdown is heading to its climax. We see the effects of everything that's eating him—a second divorce, his first wife diagnosed with cancer, the realization that he's been absent as a father and will continue to be, the fact that he stole a man's name and has been running from his shadow ever since. He's been flying across the desert, breaking land speed records, even when he's standing still. Existential crisis has been sewn into his fabric since he was a boy. Don is a pained and beautiful enigma. We've seen only the surface of this man since we began.
Until he breaks down in a stranger's arms. Lost, broken, vulnerable, he collapses into the most real moment we've ever seen with him. This is when his breakdown becomes a breakthrough. As anyone who's studied reiki or yoga or therapy knows, you carry energy around with you, and when negative energy gets stuck, it affects you at the core. It can take some serious work to exorcise that negative energy. But when you do, clarity and euphoria burst through and propel you to the other side.
And into a Coke commercial, apparently.
When Don does his sun salutation the day after he breaks down in that stranger's arms, he is cleansed and clear eyed for the first time. Although the ending is intentionally ambiguous, the implication is pretty strong that Don goes back to McCann and writes that iconic Coke commercial. (McCann Erickson is a real company, by the way—the company that made that commercial in 1971.) Some will say that Don reverts to his old self when he goes back to advertising—selling sugar-water to the masses—but I say that he is absolutely not the same after that retreat on the California coast. Even if he puts on the same suit and walks into the same office, he's not the same person. His catharsis happened on a spiritual level. Sure, his enlightenment won't last forever. But nothing does.
Don's story ends with the most dramatic beginning of all. And as always, it was done with subtle artistic mastery.
When Breaking Bad ended two years ago, I remember it being a real event in my life. (Don't worry, no Breaking Bad spoilers.) I anticipated that series finale like a kid anticipates Christmas, with visions of blue meth dancing in my head the night before. I was riveted to see how this impossibly ingenious story came to an end. I locked the doors, pulled the curtains, shut off my phone. As with Mad Men, I was left satisfied and smiling. It's sad when an amazing show comes to an end, but I would be a greedy bastard to want more than what these shows have given me.
Mad Men started in an era of racism and sexism, and it ended with a liberated group of people singing together full of hope. It was a tumultuous journey, but one hell of a ride.
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