TV Commentary: A Fan’s Meditations on the Finale of “Mad Men”

People bonded with the product Mad Men was selling, but what were they falling for?

Dan Draper at the end of "Mad Men" -- nothing left to sell?

Dan Draper at the end of “Mad Men” — nothing left to sell?

By Matt Hanson

Once upon a time, people defined themselves by what novels they were reading, who they voted for, or what music they listened to; now the way to break the ice at a party is to talk about what TV show you follow. Before it became a household name, Mad Men could be a tricky show to describe for the uninitiated, but for a fellow fanatic it generated instant friendship.

If you watch seven season’s worth of a television show spread out over eight years it’s hard not to emotionally bond with the product, as Don Draper himself phrased it during the greatest sales pitch he ever gave. I caught Mad Men’s first episode by accident back in 2007 not long after moving in to my first apartment and binge-watched the rest of the first season via a stack of DVDs my equally spellbound roommate grabbed from Blockbuster, back in the dark ages when you had to go out and rent discs for TV viewing.

While fans bask in the afterglow of Mad Men’s finale, don’t let all the hyperbolic hoopla fool you: Mad Men’s status as prestigious high-art was by no means assured from its beginning. I remember hearing (I believe it was after the second season) that the show was put on hiatus; AMC wanted to weigh its lukewarm ratings against its critical praise. Not renewing it for another season was seriously considered. In a way, AMC’s ambivalence made sense: an ensemble drama about talented, successful people pursuing various forms of self-presentation as a way to ward off their insecurities and existential dread doesn’t necessarily seem like it would play in Peoria.

Luckily, the brass at AMC took a chance on the character-driven period piece and renewed it. Next thing I knew, Mad Men moved from niche cult following into the exalted realm of authentic pop-culture phenomenon. Gaudy full-page photo spreads appeared in Vanity Fair: they were often worshipful views of parties at pricey cocktail bars filled with people gussied up in period attire. A devoted fan base across the web delighted in giving each episode thorough annotations and spinning elaborate conspiracy theories about the next plot twist. People bonded with the product, but what were they falling for?

At its best, Mad Men explored how relatively comfortable and privileged lives are as easily unmoored and secretly angst-ridden as everyone else’s. The smoky glamor of postwar American prosperity lured you in, but the disturbing undercurrents of ennui and nihilism beneath the gleaming surfaces kept it interesting.

Borrowing a phrase from Norman Mailer (a recurring reference point), the Sterling Cooper gang were walking advertisements for themselves. Tucked somewhere deep behind the sharp suits and elegant coiffure, the banter and the booze, one could catch a glimpse of a jittery, very American fear that the outside world was wising up to the game — growing skeptical about the glossy persona people that like Don Draper were working overtime to sell.

Which is what made the finale so gratifying. Matthew Weiner put his characters through the paces enough times over the years that it was invigorating to see nearly all of them finally find peace. Roger and Pete each got what they always wanted, which was a little more than either one of them really deserved. The real victories in the finale were saved for the show’s female characters, who triumph over years of hostility and patriarchal belittlement.

Peggy, strutting into her new office with a swagger that took her years to develop, finally learned (by way of a charmingly awkward phone conversation) what we knew all along: that the irreverent Stan was not only her ‘work husband’ but also her soul mate. For Joan, choosing work over love proved to be a welcome form of empowerment and fulfillment. I loved the way she told Peggy, with a fabulously dismissive wave of her hand, that “I’ve been to the beach.” Joan determined once and for all that she was not going to put up with being any man’s eye-candy, definitively choosing to go into business for herself. For a character who was forced time and time again to define herself through her attractiveness, her determination to make her own way on her own terms was a beautiful thing to see.

Betty, in contrast, succeeded on much starker terms. Her last conversation with a geographically and emotionally distant Don was one of her greatest moments. Receiving the news about her cancer diagnosis, Don tries to take control in the traditionally male way, insisting he will return to New York and regain his position as head of the family. Betty stands up for herself as she rarely did before and shuts him down completely, reinforcing the control she now commands over what’s left of her life. She summons the will to bluntly tell Don the truth: that he doesn’t believe a word of his own bullshit, and he never has, cutting off the protestations of the eloquent ad man down once and for all.

As for Don, his final reckoning with his past sins was long overdue. Over the years we’ve seen him get everything he ever thought he wanted and then compulsively destroy it. We saw Don’s obsession with being “Don Draper” haunt him in secret, until gradually he began to discard the very possessions that he hoped would be sufficient to mask his shame as well as mitigate the self-disgust that grew with every broken promise and romantic betrayal.

It’s no accident that his emotional breakthrough came as a response to hearing someone explain to him how life, when filled with alienation and confusion, becomes loveless. Anxiety has been Don’s lot for as long as we’ve known him: behind the right cheekbones and the fat checkbook he’s been marketing a self he has always a little too desperate to become.

When he smiles, sitting in the lotus position in a crisp dress shirt and slacks, the moment is redemptive because for once, it doesn’t matter what Don calls himself, who he is trying to be, or whether or not he returns to New York and masterminds the famous Coke ad that teaches the world to sing. For one moment at least, there’s nothing he needs to sell. And that’s the real thing.

Matt Hanson is a critic for the Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts