Mad Men, the finale, review: an enigmatic ending for Don Draper
The conclusion of this landmark drama was witty and absorbing, says Chris Harvey
After eight years and 92 episodes, Matt Weiner’s rich, characterful drama about the lives of the advertising men and women of New York’s Madison Avenue in the Sixties and Seventies went out with a witty, absorbing final episode that brought endings and new beginnings for all its major characters, including emotionally disintegrating adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm).
Previous episodes had seen Draper walk away from his new job at the advertising giant McCann-Erickson (and the Coca-Cola account), and set off on a careening journey towards the void at the heart of his life. The man who had been brought up in a bordello, taken on the identity of a dead man and made his name in the newly sexy ad industry had been slowly coming apart at the seams. In the finale, which began with Draper driving at speed in the desert-like conditions of the Bonneville salt flats in Utah (and with Weiner, metaphors are never too far from the surface), his breakdown was accelerating.
“I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am,” he told his successful protégé Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in a long-distance call. “What did you ever do that was so bad?” she reassured him. The list of sins that followed sounded minor, but being a failed husband and failed father was writ large. Draper was facing a reckoning with himself and the outcome for almost the entire episode was unclear.
Weiner, though, was busy teasing any viewers with dire expectations from the start, as Draper’s colleague Roger Sterling (John Slattery) responded to the fears of his secretary. “He’s not dead, stop saying that.” But while Don’s story lurched towards resolution – a one-night stand with a woman who emptied his wallet, a drunken haze, and a trip home to his niece’s, who took him to a hippie retreat overlooking the Pacific; a phone call to his former wife Betty, now dying of lung cancer – the lives of its other characters were undergoing transformation.
For Christina Hendricks’s Joan Harris another love was disappearing over the horizon, as she found her latest flame unalterably opposed to her plan to set up as an advertising producer. He didn’t want to share her attention with work. “I would never dream of making you choose,” she told him, just before he left her. Her former lover Roger, meanwhile, seemed to have found a soul mate to match his worldliness and wit in the mother of Megan – Don’s other former wife (and former secretary) – and we left them in a Parisian café anticipating a long future of sexy arguments and spritzy one liners together.
Weiner had reserved his warmest, weepiest moments for Peggy, though. They followed a spitty fight with big-bearded, bear-like graphic designer Stan, the man who’s usually to be found with her in the long hours after all the other employees have gone home. Their make-up phone call, sparked by Peggy’s anxiety about Don’s mental state bloomed into a startling profession: “I’m in love with you. I love you Peggy,” he told her. “I don’t even think about you,” she returned unpromisingly, but after some shortness of breath realised: “I think I’m in love with you, too. I really do.” It felt like a gesture of love from Weiner towards a clearly favoured character (“I couldn’t leave without giving you this.”) But its soapiness was allayed by the fact that it came as a surprise, and that its essential rightness dawned on you about the same time as it dawned on Peggy.
But as Don Draper faced his demons at the hippie retreat, it seemed its clifftop location could yet fulfil the promise of the tumbling fall in the title sequence. Weiner, though, had saved up a slightly inscrutable gag for his sign-off. Draper had experienced an unexpected moment of empathy with a man who told a group therapy session “I’ve never been interesting to anybody” – funny in itself, because he spoke up just when we thought we were going to get the real Don Draper from his own lips, and had to listen to this boring schmuck instead, who wanted to be loved, but “didn’t even know what it is”.
Don understood what he meant though, and seemed restored as he greeted the dawn with a group yoga session. A smile played across his face as the scene cut to the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coca-Cola advert. Don’s next creation? Or a memory of an existing ad (it was made in 1970), reminding us that to an adman even spiritual enlightenment can be used to sell. Weiner won’t be unhappy if we’re still finding interpretations for a while. This was a thoroughly enjoyable finale for a stylish, extraordinary drama, whose characters never felt less than real.