A few weeks ago I mentioned to a friend that I was working my way through the second half of Mad Men, and she asked that I let her know what I thought about the series’s ending, since all of her friends who had seen it said they had different takeaways on it.
Though the series is a couple years old at this point, I guess I should say that I’m going to discuss spoilers, inasmuch as the show’s ending has any; no one dies in the finale (that’s all left to happen after the fact), and romantic pairings and partings range from obvious to unexpected but only a little disappointing. Roger Sterling’s illicit affair with Megan Draper’s mother Marie gradually turns into an utterly Roger sort of relationship; they seem to have a genuine affection that matters to Roger, but they also fight relentlessly. Joan Harris receives an ultimatum from her new boyfriend after she goes into business for herself, and she chooses her work (albeit somewhat begrudgingly; the ultimatum has a term limit of about two minutes); it’s a semi-tragic ending for Joan, who’s spent the majority of the series actively trying to achieve a workable balance between her personal life and her professional one and repeatedly failing in the former while persevering through the latter. Peter Campbell gets a new job offer that, combined with his growing nostalgia for married life and dissatisfaction with being single, leads him to ask Trudy to remarry him; Peter’s unambiguously ambitious, and the sentimental nature of his ending feels undercut by the reality that part of his getting the new job in Kansas is that he has to present as a family man. Peggy Olson continues working at McCann Erickson after they absorb Sterling Cooper & Partners, and she and Stan Rizzo realize that they’re in love with one another after years of being best friends; contrasted with Joan, Peggy’s approach to being a professional and a woman has always been to neglect her personal life, which has left her with some regrets in the last couple seasons of the show, and her pairing with Stan, while utterly predictable based on the quality of their relationship throughout the show, feels like a facile bow to top off the story of Peggy’s continued ascent (don’t get me wrong–Peggy is easily the best character on the show, and it’s fun to see her succeeding and being happy; it just feels like a pointed dismissal of Joan’s own frustrated attempts to be simultaneously satisfied with two spheres of her life in comparison to Peggy’s relentless leaning in at work). Betty Francis learns that she has terminal lung cancer, and she chooses to forego treatment in favor of trying to maximize the quality of her last six to twelve months; she and her daughter Sally come to something of an understanding about why Betty wants to end things this way, though their relationship remains strained as Sally begins to take over caring for her younger brothers as Betty’s illness advances.
That brings us up to Don Draper. The second half of Mad Men‘s seventh season is concerned with the gradual dissolution of SC&P after Roger sells the company to McCann Erickson (ironically, a move intended to save it). Don, having grown dissatisfied with the corporate culture of the huge advertising firm, disappears on a cross country road trip that ends with him arriving in California to visit Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie. Stephanie sees that Don is having a personal crisis, and brings him along to a spiritual retreat in northern California, where Stephanie abandons Don after she’s unfairly judged by other attendants for letting her young son live with his paternal grandparents. Don has a breakdown at the retreat, and after calling Peggy to apologize for leaving without telling her goodbye, he’s found by one of the instructors and taken to a seminar where he has a moment of connection with a man who expresses the same insecurities that underlie Don’s entire character. The last we see of Don is him at peace, meditating while the sun rises.
Then you cut to the Coke commercial.
My takeaway from this juxtaposition is that Don, having had an ultimately shallow epiphany in California, goes back to McCann Erickson to resume his job as an advertiser, and he provides key creative direction on the Coke ad. A recurring motif throughout the series is Don’s dream of running an ad campaign for Coca-Cola, and it’s pretty clear to me that we’re supposed to assume that he’s borrowing key details from his experience in California to come up with the iconic ad. The hilltop sunrise mirrors his moment of clarity, and small things like the costume of one of the women in the ad, with her hair ribbons and billowy white blouse, are directly referenced by people working at the retreat.
Ultimately, Don Draper proves that he’s incapable of legitimate growth; his journey of self discovery at the end of Season 7 is too similar to other instances throughout the series where he’s gone off to do some soul searching and come back with a renewed commitment to whatever his personal idea of a good man is supposed to be. Don’s talent as an advertiser seems directly related to his lack of a stable inner self, and though we don’t get to see it, the obvious trajectory of his life from the end of the series forward is that he’ll continue his cycle of brilliant creative work, gradual disillusionment, and a reckless abdication of responsibilities in search of a new shallow epiphany so he can start over again. Don possesses no substance of his own, and the great tragedy is that he keeps attracting people to him who are left to clean up his mess when he decides he needs another artificial infusion.