Let's Discuss The Mad Men Finale

WARNING: Spoilers ahead for the series finale of Mad Men.
Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC.
The opening of the Mad Men series finale seemed like a literal depiction of Don Draper's death drive. He was racing cars in the desert, trying to break the land speed record. "What are you afraid of?" a man at the garage asked Don. That's been the question for seven seasons, hasn't it? It seemed like Don Draper had been hurtling towards destruction this entire time (a theory many fans wanted to believe, especially given the show's opening credits), and maybe he'd just found the means to finally do it in a fast car and rugged jean jacket.

That car racing was merely a context clue for time and place, though. There would be many, many more along the way, including Halloween decorations at the McCann Erickson offices and Joan's apartment. It was October, 1970. Did you note that? Great. Matthew Weiner wanted you to. It would play a major role in the series' final moments. 

What the finale would spend the next 50 or so minutes conveying to viewers, however, is that thanatos — an oh-so-Freudian element of the human condition ripped from Greek mythology — was never the only thing driving Don Draper/Dick Whitman. In the show's pilot, he confidently asserted that, "You're born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." 

He was referring to Don Draper's tomorrows, though. Just like the campaigns he created to blow smoke in people's eyes and sell nylons, Dick Whitman created the persona of Don Draper to peddle himself and push against those aforementioned rules. It never fully fit, and the show's final season was a measured study as to why. Being Don Draper may have afforded him financial security and material possessions, but it stripped Dick Whitman of his most important instinct: hope. 

Hope was what allowed Dick (as Don) to start a family with Betty, and then try again with Megan when it didn't work out. He was the son of a prostitute; he yearned for the loving support system he never felt he had. The series' central conflict emerged from the fact that he tried to create these connections using a false identity, and lying was a house of cards that would eventually crumble.

Hope is also a basic tenet of advertising, which was, of course, the subject of Mad Men. Buy this lipstick, and your life will improve. You can only pull the wool over people's eyes for so long, though — including your own. Every time a character on Mad Men tried to be duplicitous and conceal the truth, it would set off a series of events that again played into that notion of dying hopeless and alone. 

After seven seasons of that spiraling death drive, the finale was about honesty and connection. The truth, it seemed, would set everyone free. 

For Joan, the truth meant starting her own production company and ending things with Richard. It also meant allowing Roger to leave a small fortune to their son, because being honest about his parentage would secure Kevin for life. 

For Peggy, it meant admitting that her goal was to become the agency's first female creative director, and she didn't mind how long it would take. "There's more to life than work," Stan told her, but that wasn't true for Peggy. Her happiness would come from finding both creative and personal satisfaction within her career, and that's what we saw in the final shot of her and Stan. Peggy was hard at work at her typewriter, and Stan came up behind her, lovingly rubbing her shoulders in a gesture of support of her professional endeavors. 
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For Roger, being honest meant marrying Marie and taking care of his and Joan's son. 

For Sally, it was about telling the truth. She betrayed Betty's confidence and told her father that Betty was dying. She then went home to assume her mother's domestic duties in a show of maternal support and love. 

For Betty, it meant being honest with Don/Dick about the fact that he'd never been a great father, and he shouldn't be the one to care for his sons after she died. This truth clearly gutted both of them, but it removed another false identity Don was trying to keep up — that of a doting dad. 

For Don, the truth was that he couldn't outrun Dick Whitman. He stripped off his stolen identity and found clarity at a holistic retreat in California. He was brought there by Anna Draper's niece, Stephanie, the bridge between his two identities. Was it fair that he basically discarded the trappings of Don Draper, including fatherhood, with no evidence of the clear repercussions it would have for those he'd left behind? No. He confessed his sins during a phone call to Peggy, apologized for never saying goodbye, and was absolved. 

Mad Men
never concerned itself with the carnage its antihero left in his wake. People are resilient; they recover and move on. Dick Whitman/Don Draper was just one person, and maybe we were the ones who were too fixated on what he and his actions meant in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps that's the truth Matt Weiner was getting at this entire time. 
Photo: Courtesy of AMC.
As Mad Men came to an end, Dick sat placidly in the California sunshine, ohm-ing away, and a bell chimed. A smile played on his lips. The show then cut to the famous ad in which a chorus sings about buying the world a Coke on a placid hilltop. Dick's final moment of clarity gave him the inspiration for one of the most famous ad campaigns of all time, because he's nothing if not a peddler of promise. Some critics actually spotted it coming

"What the world wants today is the real thing," the chorus sings. Except, of course, they're in an advertisement, selling soda. If it was created by the "real thing," meaning Dick Whitman, though, can we forgive its commercial motives and just take away the underlying message of hope? That is Mad Men's final question and enduring legacy: the struggle between capitalism, optimism, and cynicism, packaged and marketed to us as the American dream.

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