Be sure to stop reading this article if you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men and you’d like to remain in the dark. For a more general view of the show, visit my first article.
If you have been watching Mad Men since 2007, you probably have deeper feelings about the ending of the show. The characters have been in your life for a significant amount of time and losing the continuation of their stories is an emotional experience. Catching up with the show by watching it within a single year or two is no less enthralling, but may not lead to tears as easily.
If you haven’t seen the series and you’re just curious what all the fuss is about, I hope this explanation will lead you to watch someday when you’re ready for new complex characters in your life.
I never expected Don Draper’s story to wrap in an obvious way. The series often fed us subtle clues about its direction that are only clear on a second viewing (or a very sharp memory). As an example, in a scene between Sally Draper and an acquaintance, Sally lights a cigarette and the boy tells her, “smoking causes cancer.”
Sally is young enough to avoid starting a smoking habit, but not Betty Draper or the millions of other smokers of her generation. When we discovered Betty’s diagnosis in the penultimate episode, we were not as surprised as sad. Not only because we feel for the character, but because we all have people in our lives who didn’t hear the same warnings.
Some viewers made very big predictions about Don’s fate. They wanted to see him fall from a building to mimic the title sequence, or hijack a plane to make him a famous character from history. Neither of those endings would be true to the character even as dramatic as it would be for television.
I also never expected Don Draper to kill himself even though he was so often surrounded by characters who thought it was the only way out. In a meeting, Don pitched an ad for a Hawaiian hotel with a business suit on the sand and footsteps toward the sea. The clients saw it as a suicide, but Don saw it as opportunity. Don is not a man who escapes problems by accepting defeat. He always ran from the truth and expressed himself silently through his work.
In an early season, we see a flashback of Don as a child where a woman fed him soup when he was sick. She was a prostitute, but filled a motherly role that was missing from his life. Then we see the advertisement he created with the same imagery and a tagline suggesting moms always know what their kids need. Don is the epitome of someone who can create a story that people believe because it comes from his personal life.
This leads to one perspective on the finale. The last scene was the narrative equivalent of the recent gold/white or blue/black dress debate. Some people saw that dress photo as what was visible in the image, “How does this appear to me in the photo?” and others as “What are the actual colors; I don’t care how it appears in the image.”
The last scene presented us with Don Draper along the ocean, attempting meditation on top of a cliff. He develops a smile as he is surrounded by ohms. Then we see an actual television commercial – an iconic one from Coca-Cola, created by real advertising professionals in 1971.
We do not see a scene where Don Draper creates this commercial, nor do we see him share the idea with anyone else. We are left to decide: Did Don Draper return to his work and help create this commercial or is it meant as a less literal message?
There are two realities present, but we have access to the writer. Matthew Weiner could answer our question immediately, but would it really matter? (Added May 20, 2015: Matthew Weiner explains the finale) If you believe that Don Draper left advertising for a world of enlightenment, that his hug with a stranger changed his life, will you see it differently when the truth is presented?
His smile moment on the cliff could be his acceptance of the past or just an idea for an ad. Which do you see in his face? The answer could reveal your own understanding of self. The evidence suggests another truth – that Don Draper did exactly what he’s always done. He went away without explanation, had an experience, and then returned to distill it into messaging for a client.
Other characters were given storyline wrap-ups that might have felt rushed or unlikely to last. The interpretation reveals your own optimism or pessimism. Do you believe that Pete Campbell grew up and will make a better father and husband in their new Wichita home? Do you believe that Peggy and Stan will last as a romantic pair with a foundation of friendship?
Joan represented women who enjoy their work and don’t want to let a romantic partner prevent them from pursuing something exciting. We see her without makeup, having an honest conversation about what she wants and then starting her own business.
Throughout the series, we saw many characters change and take on new challenges, so the wrap-ups aren’t endings, they are really just the next steps for those characters. The ending we saw for Don could really just be the end of his private torment and a step toward embracing his skills as a storyteller.