Looking For The Heart On A Sunday Night

If you haven’t seen the final episode of Mad Men, you probably want to stop here until you have.


I’ve had a curious relationship with Mad Men during its seven season run.  I’ve seen every episode, looked forward to the Sunday nights it’s been on, taken part in the speculation about what might happen, loved the look, was entranced by the mood.  But I never really invested in the characters; never found someone to really root for. I disliked some of them, didn’t understand others, felt sorry for a lot of them, but I never truly liked any of them or wished I could spend time with them in person.  Like real life, I suppose, they were all selfish at the core, and capable of real, casual cruelty. I found those dark moments to be predominant, as opposed to the flashes of consideration and genuine connection between the characters.  That, plus the fact that I found the show oddly cold — part of its charm, no doubt — kept me from caring deeply about the future of any of the cast.  They were deep and fascinating characters… But I didn’t worry about them and I didn’t cheer for them.

I never, ever liked Don Draper, for instance. Nor did I sympathize with him at any point, no matter how often it was made apparent to me that he’s a damaged man, looking for something to fill up his soul.  To me, that doesn’t excuse how he treated, or how he kept such a distance from, Betty, his children, Peggy, Megan, or any of his work colleagues, up to and including Roger.  I understood the charisma from the purely physical aspect of Don Draper’s appearance, but I never found him charming or even particularly slam-bang good at his job. To me, he seemed like a big, arrogant phony in all aspects of his life, and I often felt the lives of others would be better if he wasn’t in them.  That said, I was always curious if and how his character would develop, what his journey was leading to.

I suppose the week-to-week pot shots the Sterling-Cooper denizens and their family members took at each other were true to life, but I felt like I saw so much more of those than I did acts of kindness, and I found myself thirsty for those – really wanting a sign that these characters liked each other and wanted to help each other, aside from looking out for their own interests.  I feel the closest thing to a genuine friendship between any of the regulars was Peggy’s relationship with Stan, but that felt more familial to me (even though Stan definitely didn’t want it to be).

I guess I just found the series too cynical to take it into my heart, or consider it one of the greatest dramas of all time, as so many critics and bloggers are quick to deem it.  Damn good, and an impressive stylistic achievement, but for me, not up there with The Wire, or Hill Street Blues, or My So-Called Life, or The West Wing in my personal list of favorites.

I think it’s possible to read the series finale as either overwhelmingly cynical and depressing, or as tonally jarring, with segments that seem wildly divergent from what we’ve seen the series to be.

Unlike a lot of recappers, I didn’t read Don’s smile at the end segueing into the famous Coke commercial to be a sign that he’d thought of the slogan – That itself is a pretty cynical reading.  Rather, I took it as his total embrace of the burgeoning Me Decade self-help crap, and that he was now one of those blank-eyed, smiley-faced kids in the ad, which I always found creepy and cult-like.  Don has always been on the lookout for the thing that would make him whole, and he’s marked time by coming up with quickie, improvised slogans (improvising and creating something out of nothing has always been his great talent), while trying to fill that void within himself with external stimuli – cigarettes, booze, money and sex.  Having been there, done that, and still not found fulfillment, he’s at the end of his rope, the end of America, and the end of the series looking over the Pacific wondering “What’s next?” His decade is gone and he has no anchor.  Flailing, Don reaches out to Peggy, the one person he knows has always understood him the most, and Peggy tries to talk him back into his old life, the things she thinks are important to him.  But Peggy doesn’t understand Don completely, and nothing less than complete connection will suffice at this moment.  Only when a total stranger perfectly(and randomly) articulates the pain Wordsmith Don has experienced for so many years but didn’t know how to express verbally, does Don find the connection he’s craved.  And it’s not really with Leonard, but with the sense that at last, he’s not alone.  And, based on the environment in which he found that connection, Don’s also finally found a message he thinks he can buy, and he’s so desperate for it that he doesn’t even seem to notice that the message has its own profit-making motive.  He can come and go as he pleases because he’s “paid up until the end of the week!”  Don has assimilated, found the one true family he’s always wanted — but for how long, if it leads to the empty phoniness of a Coke commercial?

To me, the more daring choice would have been to not show Don at all in the finale.  Let our final image of him be sitting at that bus stop, smiling, a tiny speck in the center of America, just disappearing into the country, always questing and never finding, but having learned to enjoy the quest.  Of course, that would have left my ideal finale pretty thin, since I felt there were so many perfect goodbyes prior to that – A fade out as Betty climbs the stairs to heaven and/or her next class; Pete’s reconciliation with Trudy (more on that in a bit); Peggy’s confident arrival at McCann with her past under her arm in the form of Cooper’s art; Ted Chaough’s air of contentment as one of a bunch of suits at a meeting he doesn’t have to run; Joan taking her cool quarter mil and running away forever with Richard. If Don were taken out of the equation, I’m not sure what the idea finale would have been… An hour’s shot of the empty Sterling-Cooper offices?  It would have been daring television, sure, but probably not satisfying (or interesting).

So Don got his “happy” ending.  What about everyone else?  Peggy passed on the chance to be her own boss – 1980 seems far away, but she’s worked too hard to get to this point to risk everything on a venture that may or may not succeed – but found true love… In a manner so uncharacteristically schmaltzy of this series that I thought it might be a dream sequence.  Stan professing his feelings so baldly can be excused (his love for Peggy has always been apparent), but her quick realization that she feels the same for him was so weird (“I never think about you”) that it’s possible to take it, too, as cynical.  It’s like she takes all the impulsiveness she displayed in agreeing to the whirlwind Europe trip earlier in the season and applies it here to feelings for Stan.  It felt more “why not?” than “this is how I’ve always felt and never knew it.”  And that doesn’t bode well for Stan, whose emotions have always been genuine.  Then again, it’s also possible – and more likely – that series creator Matt Weiner figured, if anyone deserves a happy ending, it’s Peggy, so here you go, kid.

Joan got a happy ending, but at the cost of the two things she’s always wanted most – romantic love and stability.  Richard’s early-season lack of interest in her career goals was a red flag, even though he tried to convince himself he was okay with it.  And Joan’s invested too much in establishing herself as a professional, and done too well at it, to walk away.  She may yet find her romantic love, but she’s going to take care of the stability herself.

I guess Roger got a happy ending, but he never reconciled with his daughter, he didn’t get the relationship he wanted with Kevin, his friends and the company he grew are gone, Marie is crazy, and he has to deal with stepdaughter Megan glaring at him every Thanksgiving.  I’m not sure how happy all that is.

Pete got his happy ending – a fresh start in Wichita and a reconciliation with Trudy that, like Peggy and Stan’s coupling, bordered on the unbelievable.  Pete may be genuinely a changed man, but Trudy’s experience of him is as a consummate bulshitter and schemer. Why would the speech he gave her strike a nerve and convince her to step backward?  Because she hadn’t found anything else to do? Because life in the suburbs alone was difficult? She shouldn’t trust Pete to mail a letter, let alone be a transformed husband.  Again, the event was so jarring and out of character with what I’d believed the show’s emotional underpinnings to be that it took me out of the emotion and the moment (and yes, I realize this happened in the next to last episode, not the finale).

Betty did not get a happy ending, but it’s one she accepts. Sally gets the worst ending, and there’s no two ways of reading.  An adult too soon (a role she’s been moving toward, and one she takes on fully after she tells Don about Betty’s illness, and there’s no going back), she won’t have to take care of her mother forever, but she might have to take care of her brothers forever (I hope she really teaches Bobby how to cook – and do dishes). Sally won’t have the relationship with either of her parents that she’s wanted. Sally will never get to Madrid.  Her life seems destined to become a list of places she hasn’t visited – It’s difficult to see her ever being happy.

About the only person who’s truly happy is Harry Crane, and he’s been that way since he became Head of Television a few seasons back, giving him license to cat around and act like he’s way more important than he should be (and he was likely rewarded for it because those were the times and that kind of behavior was characteristic of a “successful” person). Now he even has a tin of cookies.  Blecch.

If I take the extra-cynical view of the finale, it’s heightened in tone from what the series established, but fits in with the larger, grim messages of the show: We’re all alone; We all have holes inside of us that we’ll spend our lives trying to fill (sometimes we get there, or get close, sometimes we don’t); Everything we gain materially fades away.  But if I take everything that happened at face value (which I feel the show taught me never to do – Don wasn’t going to jump off the Time-Life roof in the final scene because the show was never, ever that literal), then the finale, in places, is a total departure, tonally, from everything that had come before, which to me invalidates a lot of the experience.

In my book, Mad Men goes down as a fascinating, messy, frustrating experience that I observed with interest but didn’t live. Not the happiest ending to my watching of the show that I could think of, but one I’ll remember and ponder for a long time, and maybe that’s happy enough.

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