Sunday 23 October 2016

Television review: Mad Men will teach the world

Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)

Published 25/05/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Jim Cogan
Illustration: Jim Cogan

The tributes have been pouring in for last week's prediction in this column that the most likely ending to Mad Men would involve Don Draper being the man who dreamed up the Coca-Cola ad, "I'd Like To Teach The World to Sing".

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Though in the interest of full disclosure, while this was suggested as the probable payoff, we did have a mental reservation that they would actually go for this one.

The makers of Mad Men have trained us over the years to have none of the ingrained expectations that we normally have when we are following a TV drama, that no scene will play out in a pre-ordained fashion. So when we have that sense that something is pre-ordained, as the Coke ad finale seemed to be, that it is driven almost by an historical imperative, our instinct is to suspect that something else is afoot.

But I also think that that sliver of doubt arose from the fact that for many of us, it felt that the show had already ended with the second-last episode - or at least, it was very hard to imagine a better ending than the one in which Don is on his road trip through the United States, sitting at a bus stop somewhere deep in Oklahoma, with his few possessions in a Sears bag.

He has just given the keys of his Cadillac to a young grifter escaping a small town, not unlike the place that Don himself escaped from a long time ago. Though he appears to have cast off most of his possessions, and much else besides, as he sits at the bus-stop he is smiling, at that moment he is free, contemplating the endless American possibilities of the open road and the blue sky. And the music starts, the voice of Buddy Holly: "Everyday, it's a-getting closer, going faster than a roller coaster/ Love like yours will surely come my way..."

Not only is it a sweet ending, it is probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen in my life.

Scholars, of whom there will be many, will be ticking off all the classic American images in that one scene, and deducing further meaning from the location of the scene in Oklahoma - the musical of that name became a triumph during the war years, not just a powerful entertainment but a symbol of renewal and of the limitless energy of a nation. And as Don sits there he may well be thinking that there's a bright golden haze on the meadow, and that the corn is as high as an elephant's eye.

Much of the debate about the "real" ending has been about the tone of it, whether Don dreaming up the Coke ad is a reversion to the cynicism of Madison Avenue or a moment of sincerity on his part, a sign that he is becoming a better person out there in California.

But I feel that he got there already in Oklahoma, that indeed we had been given some sort of a resolution of most of the main characters by then, but I see a thesis already in the making which suggests that the last character to be resolved, was "history".

It's always been there, as a kind of character, never obtrusive, but still a force. So when Don finds himself in the final episode sitting in the lotus position among the spiritual path-finders of Big Sur, not only are we getting a signal that the culture of the Seventies will partly be formed in the mind of Don Draper with his Coke ad, but that the modern world in general is being created in California at that time, by these people.

Eventually there will be a realisation that you can have whatever ending of Mad Men that you want, that they have changed the rules here too, by giving us not one, but two and perhaps even three grand finales - the scene of Peggy Olson sashaying down the corridor into her new office wearing dark glasses, cigarette dangling, holding the painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman, would have its supporters - and rather than setting them against one another, like Messi and Ronaldo, we will rejoice in the abundance.

They've earned it.

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