It’s fitting that we end around Halloween. It’s barely noticeable—a Jack-o-lantern in Joan’s apartment, a subtle marker to remind us exactly how deep into 1970 Mad Men will wind up—but in many ways it’s the perfect time of year to close the book on a show that, at its core, has always been about the masks we wear, about the characters we play as we fake it until we make it. Mad Men retained that concept until the very end, leaving us with a conclusion that’s open to interpretation and, depending on whether you’re a glass half-full person or not, potentially peeled back the Draper facade for good. (Whichever way you see it, that glass is 50 percent Coca-Cola. It’s the real thing—or is it?)
When we first see Don at the beginning of “Person to Person,” he’s speeding through the deserts of Utah, wearing denim and seeming pretty close to reinventing himself, excelling (literally and figuratively) yet again at that whole “moving forward” thing he preaches so frequently. But by the episode’s third act, he’s frozen, paralyzed by a panic attack, barely able to open his mouth to tell a stranger “I can’t move.” His actions, the ones he’s spent the entire series trying to outrun, have finally caught up with him, and the weight of them is enough to make Peggy think Don’s suicidal (I see your subtle nod to the internet’s “the title sequence has a falling man, so clearly Don’s gonna jump out of a window” theories, Matt Weiner). Just like Betty could only smoke so many cigarettes before developing lung cancer or Stan could only spend so many work days being secretly in love with Peggy before blurting it out over the phone, Don could only spend so many years hurting the people closest to him before they’d eventually hurt him back.
Betty’s decision to have the kids live with her brother William instead of Don after she dies sends our antihero into a tailspin, but it’s his encounter with his “niece” Stephanie in California that really drives home to him exactly how terribly he’s treated everyone in his life. She takes him with her on a hippie spiritual retreat, and when he sees during a group therapy session just how guilty she feels over abandoning her son, he gives her a quick version of the speech he gave Peggy in Season Two, telling her she’ll feel much better after she moves forward. “I don’t think you’re right about that,” she responds, and by morning, she’s gone without a word. Don’s stuck at the retreat without a ride home (shouldn’t have given away that Caddy last episode!), and he’s hurt that Stephanie would leave like that—“people just come and go and no one says goodbye,” he angrily tells the woman at the front desk—hurt enough to call Peggy in a panic and confess his sins to her, before apologizing for walking out of McCann without saying goodbye to her.
But to kill yourself requires motion of some kind, even if it’s downward, and Don is stuck, until he’s ushered back inside for another group therapy session. It’s there that a poor schlub named Leonard speaks for everyone Don’s wronged. In many ways, he’s the opposite of Don: He’s “never been interesting to anybody,” and no one cares that he’s gone. He describes a dream where he’s sitting on the shelf inside the refrigerator, waiting for his loved ones to open the door and smile at him; once the door closes, the light goes out. For some reason, hearing it like this makes everything click for Don—he hugs Leonard, the surrogate for everyone he’s fridge-door loved his whole life, and they weep together. A breakthrough.
Which brings us to that Coke commercial. That smile we see on Don’s face before closing with the most iconic ad of the ‘70s—is it one of peace and clarity, or one more like the one we see from Don at the beginning of Season Four, when he talks himself up to a reporter and then slips into darkness for the remainder of the year? Are we supposed to assume that Don returns to McCann (as Peggy said, they’ll let him come back) and creates one of the most well-known ads of all time? Probably, yes. But his intentions are open to interpretation. Just like people have spent years arguing whether Tony Soprano is dead or not at the end of The Sopranos, fans will likely argue for years to come over whether or not Don’s a permanently changed man. Does he return to New York to make amends with his loved ones and just happen to achieve his greatest success after straightening out his personal life, or is Coca-Cola just another sign that “what you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons,” that Don will always be who he is at his core—a slick ad man who knows how to manipulate people to get what he wants? Is he changed for good, or is Coke a band-aid slapped over a fatal wound? (After all, the ‘70s were all about trying to forget the ‘60s, and like Joan says after she tries a bump of a different kind of coke, “I feel like someone just gave me very good news.”)
Me, I’m an optimist. I’d like to believe that Don has achieved the impossible and become one of TV’s first antiheroes to get a truly happy ending, just like I’d like to believe that Pete will never cheat on Trudy again, that Joan’s new production company will be an enormous success, that Peggy will marry Stan and become a creative director by 1980 just like Pete predicted. But we don’t know for sure, and in many ways, that’s the beauty of a show like Mad Men. It’s not all black and white; just like in real life, sometimes people change, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they try valiantly, but slip up and revert to their old ways. But either way, life, like Don Draper, keeps on moving. That Kodak Carousel keeps spinning. We can put on as many masks as we want, dress it up however we please, but as those hippies shilling for Coca-Cola from atop a mountain sang, “what the world wants today is the real thing”—and that’s what Mad Men gave us, why it’ll go down as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time.
— “There are a lot of better places than here.”
— “Your life is undeveloped property.” Wow. What a perfect summation of Mad Men—hell, of the American Dream in general.
—I love that after Peggy decides to stay at McCann, Joan (still intent on having two names to sound official) names her production company Holloway Harris. She’s gonna make it on her own.
—On that note, what a jerk Richard turned out to be. Never liked him.
—Trudy looked very Jackie O on her way to Wichita.
—That last Peggy/Pete scene was so great. The callback to “A thing like that” (which Pete says to Peggy in Season Two after she tells him Freddy is presenting her Belle Jolie lipstick copy) was perfect.
—I’d complain that we don’t really get any resolution for Harry Crane, but he hasn’t really had a major storyline for a few seasons now.
—Don being asked to fix the Coca-Cola machine earlier this season wasn’t the only foreshadowing of this ending. When Betty tried to return to modeling in season one’s “Shoot,” she was cast in a Coke ad. But she couldn’t do it, and she returns home passing off her failure as a conscious choice to give up modeling for good. How fitting that Betty couldn’t handle a Coke campaign. If Coca-Cola is Don’s salvation, Betty is a relic of his past, and she has to die rather than forge ahead into the ‘70s.
— “Hello, big shot.” Joan and Peggy forever.
—That final Joan and Roger scene was also great. “Somebody finally got their timing right.”
— “You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things.”
—I’m a little sad that the last Peggy/Don scene we have takes place over the phone, but these two have already shared so many stunning face-to-face scenes—the slow dance to “My Way,” the kiss on the hand when Peggy quits, the entirety of “The Suitcase”—that it feels okay. And since Don presumably returns to McCann, it’s not goodbye for them just yet.
— “You make everything okay.”
—I can only imagine that Coca-Cola executives everywhere woke up this morning with cartoon dollar signs in their eyes. Free advertising!
— “New day, new ideas, new life.” Mad Men.