The series finale of Mad Men didn’t end with a bang; it ended with a serene “Om” as Don Draper, in a seated yoga pose, reaches a new plateau of enlightenment. Of course, Matthew Weiner is too smart and too wise to bookend the series with such a saccharine ending. Instead, it is suggested that Don will exploit this newfound catharsis and turn it into the Coca-Cola commercial “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” one of the most iconic television commercials in the history of advertising. Having watched the series finale five times already, I have no hesitation in declaring that “Person to Person” is, along with The Sopranos finale “Made in America,” one of the greatest finales in the history of television. Although the open-ending debate is not as enticing as figuring out if the man with the Members Only jacket assassinated Tony Soprano, the ending of Mad Men suggests something far more cynical about the wiring of the human condition and its relation to American capitalism. After all, Don monetizes and commodifies this opportunity.
Weiner does offer a semblance of closure just as the 1960s comes to an end; however, the outlook of 1970s America will produce the same adverse and propitious effect on the Mad Men players. These characters may have changed for the better, but America and the world at large still remains at a standstill. The Vietnam War is still raging. Watergate and Richard Nixon’s resignation is just around the corner. The Beatles break up. The energy crisis brings about new anxieties. And with the rise of social unrest in the Middle East, “terrorism” is becoming engrained in the lexicon of the American family. It can be said that Don’s ending is the total embodiment of America. While Weiner seemed more restraint in foreshadowing the historicity of the 1970s in the final season, it is difficult to not consider these factors due to the way Weiner has coded the series with history and politics throughout the years. It is for this reason “Person to Person” will withstand the test of time. Mad Men may be over but the world continues.
The title “Person to Person” refers to a phone call made through the operator to a specified person and paid for from the moment that person answers the call. The finale is structured around Don’s phone calls to the three women in his life. Remember Ted said something in that regard in “Severance”? Don’s first call begins with Sally. Continuing where “The Milk and Honey Route” left off, we see Don taking his “On the Road” journey in a considerably cooler fashion. The episode opens on a barren desert landscape, a stark contrast to the closing shot of Don’s face. Then we see a muscle car speed across at 130 mph and inside sits Don, fitted with a helmet and goggles. Take that, Lou Avery! Don is Speed Racer. Don’s adrenaline and liberation is short-lived after he recounts his experience to Sally, who looks like she matured and grew up overnight. Realizing that Sally is not listening to his story with the usual fervor, Don forces her to come clean. Not only does Sally tell him about Betty’s lung cancer, she also demands that Don intervene on the behalf of Bobby and Gene.
Betty wants the boys to live with her brother William and his wife Judy because she still believes in the idealized function of the American family. “What they really need is a woman in their life,” she says. But as Peggy says in “The Strategy,” “Does this family exist anymore?” Has it ever existed? While we applaud Betty for exercising agency, she is making a mistake and Sally knows it. That’s why she wants Don to suggest to her that they live with Henry. Although it wasn’t her intent, Sally simultaneously questions her mother and slights Don because she knows Henry is the fittest person to raise the kids. This is the clearest indication that Sally has outgrown her parents. The impatient and petulant Don tries to convince Betty to let him raise the boys. Instead, he just serves to reinforce Betty’s justification. Yet, it is this ineptitude on both their parts that makes this scene so heartbreaking. Don nearly breaks down after Betty tells him that his absence is part of the normalcy of their children’s lives. Just when you think Don hit rock bottom this season, his realization sends him deeper into a downward spiral. Drunk like a skunk, Don manages to hitch a ride all the way to California to see his faux-niece Stephanie. After being rejected by his family, Don attempts to find some relevancy by serving as Stephanie’s uncle. However, she too shuns him because he is not family… but not before taking him to a retreat in Big Sur.
Meanwhile, Joan seems to be enjoying her brief retirement after leaving McCann in last week’s episode. She and Richard are vacationing in Key West. They even try cocaine for the first time. Things could not get any sunnier for Joan. However, we know that Joan cannot stay unemployed for long. Not only because she wouldn’t allow herself to be, but also because she is a valuable asset. Someone is bound to need Joan’s help. That person is Ken. Ken needs a script done for a commercial and he knows Joan can find him the right man for the job. However, Joan takes it upon herself to produce it and the first person she reaches out to is none other than Peggy. Obviously, Peggy knocks it out of the ballpark, which helps propel Ken’s position with Dow and inspires Joan to form her own production company. Joan even offers a partnership position to Peggy.
Blindsided and flattered, Peggy still hesitates to accept such an offer. Joan is shocked because she knows the only other person who has more ambition than her is Peggy. Their relationship has always been an interesting one. Although they are both tenacious in their own ways, it wouldn’t seem right that they partner up. Ultimately, what separates the two is that Joan’s ambition stems from what the Japanese call kuyashi, which is this strong desire to prove the haters wrong (which in Joan’s case are men). Who can blame her? She’s been abused and exploited by all the men in her life, save for maybe Roger. Richard, who we all thought and hoped would be Joan’s soul mate, was just another disappointment. Now with some hindsight, we realize it wasn’t difficult for Richard to accept Kevin into his life because it simply reinforces Joan as a housewife figure. Yet, it is something entirely different when it is about her career. So he leaves. One can empathize with Joan’s desire to prove everyone wrong. However, while I am not denying her talent, Joan’s sudden venture into the film industry lacks meaning. To refresh your memory, Joan was first hit with the pangs of ambition when Harry could not handle the workload and offloaded a stack of scripts for her to read and research. This was the first time Joan stepped out of her role as secretary. Later, Harry yanks it from her and hands it over to an inexperience male employee. So forgive me for saying but her return to this line of business is not exactly nostalgic.
In contrast, Peggy’s passion for advertising grew after she served as a test subject for Belle Jolie lipstick. She was born to be in advertising. As Stan points out, it is the only attraction of being the boss that is tempting her to accept Joan’s offer, not the work. Realizing he’s right, she rejects Joan. Peggy once observed that Megan is the type of girl who can succeed at anything. Although not entirely wrong, it is Peggy who can thrive anywhere. That is why we should applaud her for staying at McCann. Mathis was right; Peggy is fearless, for even Pete predicts, “Keep it up, you’ll be a creative director by 1980.” There is something hopeful about this because while the world is plagued by men like the ones in McCann (or example, this douchebag), it is hopeful to see that Peggy and Joan have turned one of the biggest douches in Pete Campbell into a respectable man. The arcs throughout the series are just sublime.
Fans have pined for Joan and Peggy to start their own advertising company. Although Weiner couldn’t give the fans that wish, he fulfilled another by finally uniting Peggy with Stan. By the way, their scene together is the cheesiest Mad Men has ever been. Not saying that is a negative thing. However, some critics have argued that this development seems forced and abrupt. I disagree. The seeds have been planted since season 4 with “Waldorf Stories.” It’s wonderful to see Peggy’s personal life be on par with her career life. She deserves it.
Thus, it should not come as a surprise that Peggy is Don’s final person-to-person call. After all, the one person who helped Don through the death of Anna Draper, “the only person in the world” who really knew him, was Peggy. Their relationship goes beyond advertising. So it is only fitting that Don confesses all his sins to Peggy. The weight of it all becomes so overbearing that he collapses. Don’s family has rejected him. Stephanie took his car and abandoned him. In “The Strategy,” after Peggy and Don struggle with the work for Burger Chef, Don confesses that he worries about being alone. It is a bold decision to give Don his cathartic moment through Leonard’s revelation. After all, he seems to be the only one who can empathize with Don. At the same time, Don sees Leonard as someone he does not want to be. So it isn’t entirely surprising that Don’s metamorphosis leads him to become a better ad man. Don’s evolution is both gratifying and disconcerting because as soon as Don frees himself from the shackles of his past, he reverts back to advertising. That is not to say that Don has not evolved. He has. The Coca-Cola commercial is indicative of that.
There are multiple ways of reading the ending and the Coca-Cola commercial. We can interpret it as Don falling into the same trappings of advertising. We can also look at the Coca-Cola commercial as Don transcending advertising as he modifies the functions of a commercial. In this case, it is a call for peace as a bunch of diverse hippies sing in unison on the “Hilltop”. However, while Weiner may have given the ending some semblance of happiness, his indictment on advertising still remains shrewd and unforgiving. The ending is far more cynical than it appears. Throughout the series, Weiner has always been interested in the conflict between the elite and the disenfranchised, the mainstream and the counter-culture. Consider Don’s numerous run-ins with pot-smoking hippies in season one. Yet, these are the people that snap Don out of his funk and inspire him to turn it into a commercial. There is something terrifying in the notion that Don ultimately wins by co-opting counter culture into the mainstream with one of the biggest brands in the world. Don has truly bought the world a Coke.
As you can already tell from my glowing review, I am going to miss Mad Men. One of the many things I appreciated about Matthew Weiner is that he always did things on his own terms. Mad Men always moved at its own pace despite criticism for being quotidian and bland. If the show is thin on plot, it more than makes up with its vibrant characters and complex and witty dialogue. Perhaps the modest ratings of Mad Men is a consequence of this approach. Despite its glowing reviews, I still believe that Mad Men is greatly under appreciated. David Chase jump started the idea with The Sopranos but it is Matthew Weiner, a disciple of Chase, who made it possible for a series creator to be called an auteur. I am often flabbergasted at how meticulous each episode and each season is constructed. To be able to sustain this level of artistry for seven seasons is an impressive feat. I have no hesitation in declaring that Mad Men is one of the greatest shows on television. It is right up there with The Sopranos and The Wire. (I apologize to all the Breaking Bad fans out there. As much as I enjoyed it, I think it is an overrated series but I digress.) It’s been one hell of a journey. Bravo!