By David D. Robbins Jr. | The Fade Out
Don Draper began the Mad Men series finale trailing a comet of dust, racing the Bonneville salt flats with Gary Gabelich, but left after seven seasons in a decelerated sunny-state of om, and having penned Coca-Cola’s famed 1971 hippy Hilltop ad. It’s a stupendous ending, leaving the ‘realness’ of Don’s change up for debate by critics and fans. The same Lothario that confidently slept his way through a blizzard of women hits a cathartic breakdown in the last episode, broken by the news of his ex-wife’s cancer and the awkward but honest story of a stranger named Leonard at an ashram, who gave voice to his own loneliness in a much better way than any pitch Don ever delivered about the essential need to smoke Lucky Strike or fly Mohawk Airlines.
The writers toyed with the viewers’ expectations for Don all the way to the end. At the beginning of this seventh season, a friend of mine and I hypothesized that someone was going to take a nose dive off the Sterling Cooper building, given the show’s opening title sequence, a silhouetted business man falling slowly down the side of a skyscraper filled with images of women, advertisements and family photos. Having heard those whispers, the writers of the show playfully hinted at Roger Sterling taking the parachute-less leap (the story about jumping two stories off a Navy boat) and leading us also to believe Don might be contemplating a vault from the Cali cliffs.
For the most part, every main character was given a neatly tied-up ending. The least believable and most ingratiatingly saccharine moment found Peggy and Stan falling in love in a way to put rom-coms to shame. (Okay, so maybe some of it was cute.) Roger rewrites his will for his and Joan’s little boy and was last seen at a restaurant in France with Marie, making one last classic joke to the garçon about her being his mother. Pete, whose character changed from outright bastard to supposed family man, asked his ex to remarry him and off they went to Wichita in a Lear jet. Joan tried a snoot of a different kind of coke, disentangled herself from men (which seemed wise given how every man on the show was a horrible human being), and began her own production company. Poor Betty ended the show riddled with cancer, an irony not lost on those viewers that remember in the first season how our first image of Don is watching him scribble away ideas on a bar napkin about how best to market cigarettes, later obfuscating their health risks with the trite and tasty “toasted”.
There’s a lot of story in the small details of Mad Men. Note how Betty began the series needing analysis after being unable to control her shaking hands and nearly hurting her children after losing control of her car. By the show’s end she was taking college courses and reading Sigmund Freud’s Study of Hysteria. (Which may be a clever way for the show to suggest that the largest cause of womens’ hysteria is most likely hideous men.) We find Don reading “The Godfather” while he’s shacked up in a no-tell motel on his crisis road-trip. Why would the writers do that? The answer is part silly pun (Don. Don’t you get it?) and the fact that the mobster novel is largely about greed and self interest — something Don has battled throughout the show. One of my favorite scenes, which reminded me of good cinema, is the moment Don looks out the McCann Erickson boardroom window and watches an airplane in flight — giving meaning to his Rachel Menken daydream — where she says cryptically and now metaphorically, “I’m supposed to tell you, you missed your flight.” Later we find out she’s dead, and Don looks to find her again, seeing her in the face of DIane the waitress.
Don is shifting into being a more nostalgic, contemplative man, differing from the cynic that told Rachel: “The reason you haven’t felt love is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. 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.” There’s another great scene, when we first learn Betty has cancer, where she and her husband leave the doctor’s office (without mentioning the dreaded “C” word) and he crumples up her cigarette package before she can light up. We immediately know what that means. (It’s also an echo of Don’s line in Season One about the only virtue of cigarettes left to tout are the crush-proof boxes.) It’s a moment that recalls Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” (which is a story about abortion that also never mentions the word that is its main topic) and his maxim that the best novels “show, don’t tell.”
Ultimately, at its worst, Mad Men put a historical and serious patina to soap opera topics: affairs, romances, office relationships, an abortion, two babies given up for adoption and a secret love child. A few times the historical nature of the show seemed to be heavy handed, though well-intentioned. But the show was at its best when it confronted the singular question of what real happiness means. (Which is why the last season may just be its best.) The pacing of the first three episodes of the second half of Season 7 was like a waltz. They were episodes about life as a waiting room. Waiting to live. Waiting to say “I love you”. Waiting for the right job. Waiting to take risks. Waiting for death. That interminable waiting that quickly turns into a life lived meaninglessly. Watching the last season called to mind the struggles in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, wondering if there was time to redo the ‘decisions and revisions’ and if everything would be ‘worth it after all’. The answer the show gives is that it’s never too late. The last words we hear in Mad Men are from the leader of the ashram, Don grinning: “Mother Sun, we greet you, and are thankful for the sweetness of the Earth. The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. New day, new ideas, a new you.”