Where you confused with that bizarre ending? Who can blame you. What a way to end a show! Can’t say it’s surprising, since Matthew Weiner worked on the last season of The Sopranos, but it was extremely weird nonetheless. When the episode was done, I took a shower, and thinking about what those last images meant, it suddenly came to me. Turns out, this was a pretty amazing way to end the show. Mad Men is a show set in the past, and with this finale -titled “Person to Person”-, it revealed what it had been about all along: the past. More specifically, how the past is never too distant from us, how we can’t escape it, and how no matter what we do, it is part of who we are.
Consider the montage towards the end of the episode, and how we leave most of our main characters engaged in (mostly) happy endings that point at their future while simultaneously using imagery from their pasts:
We see Pete getting on an airplane, which makes us remember how his dad died in a plane crash in the beginning of season two. But unlike his father, Pete is boarding his plane with Trudy and their child. He is starting a new life, yet his baggage and form of transportation is his past.
We see Joan starting out “Holloway Harris”, a production company. She is finally going to have a job in which she doesn’t have to answer to any patriarchal pig. She has just started the business, so she is operating from home -which is the apartment she once shared with rapist Greg, but also makes us think of the last moments of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, when the clandestine new agency was operating out of a hotel room. The founding of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was certainly the beginning of Joan’s empowerment.
We see Roger about to get married (or on a honeymoon?) with a woman who is actually as old as he is. I think that speaks for itself. What’s more, he is speaking french, which means he is bending the knee and actually trying to be better connected to his wife.
We see Peggy typing away, another long night working in the office (“The Suitcase”, anyone?). Only this time, she is not alone, she is accompanied by Stan, the great friend and newfound lover that was there all along. A little corny, maybe, but fan service goes a long way when it is thematically resonant.
We see Sally washing the dishes, and Betty smoking a cigarette even though she only has six months to live. It might be a conflicting message to send the youth, but by smoking that cigarette, Betty is owning up to her past, and if there is any character in this show that started out as a little girl and ended up a woman, it is surprisingly her. What’s more, even though they’re not talking, Betty and Sally are sharing the same space. Mother and daughter peacefully under the same roof.
The most bizarre -and perhaps least happy depending on how you look at it- of these journeys, is Don’s. When we last saw him at the end of last week’s episode, he was sitting on a bench in the middle of nowhere with big ol’ smile on his face. He was letting go. He was forgetting who he used to be. He was forgetting Dick Whitman (having been exonerated of his guilt earlier during the veteran’s rally) and he was forgetting Don Draper (symbolically, by giving out his car to the young man). For a moment, it seemed like Don was finally going to be happy, and all he had to do was get rid of everything he owned. He could finally be himself. Except that’s not possible. Not in the world of Mad Men.
In the world of Mad Men, Don’s life catches up to him when he finds out about Betty’s terminal cancer. His initial reaction is to go back -no matter how happy he felt by leaving everything he knew behind. However, after being refused by Betty in a beautifully emotional scene, he decides to look for comfort in California. For the first few seasons of the show -before Megan, at the very least- California was synonymous with paradise to Don, because that’s where Anna Draper lived. Anna is, of course, no longer, so Don goes for the second bets thing: Anna’s niece Stephanie, who takes him on a retreat with a bunch of hippies.
Never mind the hippies, the important part is that Don is going back to his past. And right after he was *this close* to leaving it all behind and finally being free. Yeah, that’s what we tell ourselves, but the truth is Don was never going to be free. He can’t escape his past. Certainly not in this episode, which turns the struggle literal by stranding Don in the hippie commune. Once there, and surrounded by insufferably spiritual people, he can do nothing else but confront his past. He cries, he hugs a man, he finds peace within himself… When we see him doing yoga towards the end of the episode, we can only ask ourselves how is this the same Don Draper I’ve been watching for eight years?
Well, it’s the episode’s final minutes that answer this question. The crucial moment -the moment when Don is most vulnerable- is when he calls Peggy out of desperation. She tells him to come back home (whatever that means), that McCann will welcome him back, and that he will be working on a Coca-Cola campaign in no time. But Don can’t go back. He doesn’t have a car. He’s stranded, so might as well give in to this hippie lifestyle.
And for a while there, it seems as if group therapy and meditation are actually going to be the exercises that change Don Draper for good. For a while. Just when we thought we had lost Don to the art of yoga, life comes running back, Don smiles, and we see this:
Then the credits roll.
What is the meaning of this nonsense? Well, I guess it means whatever you want it to mean, but to me, it’s become pretty clear. Don Draper comes back to New York, and uses all this hippie bullshit that made him cry and hug a stranger to create this iconic ad that will make millions of dollars for a company that sells diabetes in a bottle. America.
It might seem like a strange way to end the show because it’s very different formally from what the show has done in the past, but it only makes sense from a thematic perspective. Time and time again the show has presented us with Don being on the verge of making a radical change only for something to go wrong. Because for Don, just like when he took his identity, making a change means destroying everything that came before and starting over from scratch. He tried to forget Dick Whitman ever happened, and his past caught up to him. He tried to leave Don Draper behind, and the past caught up even faster. Making Don Draper the creator of one of the most iconic television ads of all time means crystalizing what Mad Men had been about all along: you can only move forward if you recognize the road that lies behind.