I cannot get the ending of Mad Men out of my head, man.
There is surprisingly no consensus on what really happened, and even less so over the tone of the finale. There is somewhat of a neat divide over what kind of future the show leaves for Don Draper. Is it a cynical inversion of human emotion fitted to capitalism? Or a triumph of Don’s creativity and humanity? I think it’s both, but more on that later.
This whole last season really threw me, and I started picking up on what exactly has drawn me to this show in the first place. When it first landed on Netflix, I watched the first few seasons in a very steady pattern; alone, in the dark, after long days of studying and delivering pizzas. It was escapism, for me, living as far from the glamour of 1960s New York City as possible. I didn’t always get it, but I consumed it like a sweet-toothed caffeine addict consumes cans of Coke.
In fact, I think it was the first TV series I really started looking at critically. Those nights of binging on the exploits of Sterling Cooper coincided with my internship for Under the Radar, and with the prospect of reviewing TV and music for a major publication looming on the horizon, I needed to start sinking my teeth into scripted drama. I discovered that Mad Men was rich with meaning, symbolism, and just amazingly complex moments.
But for some reason it was always a show I couldn’t explain, even to myself. If I wasn’t watching it, I could never remember why it appealed to me in the first place. But then I’d put it on and remember just how satisfying a world Matthew Weiner created.
Back to the ending. The simplest way for me to digest what the final moments really mean is as an objective viewer. Meaning, I don’t think it is necessary to speculate much on whether or not Don found peace or squandered his humanity for capitalism, or whether he wrote the ad at all. I think it is fairly obvious that Don conceived of the famous Coca-Cola ad during meditation, and his state of mind is, at least in that moment of conception, completely at ease and in balance with nature.
Which, is exactly right. Because as much as we spent the last seven years trying to understand the kind of man Don Draper is, that moment is really the final revelation. He is an artist for hire. That is his purpose, his zen, the end.
My other big takeaway from that moment, though, is that it signifies a bigger global change that we’re still grappling with in modern day reality. Don’s submersion into hippie ideals turns out to be no different than his day-to-day among corporate ad agencies. In the end, they’re both selling an idea. Don’s epiphany is the moment that brings them together. Global idealism and pragmatic capitalism. The birth of post-modern consumerism.
That’s the death of the sixties, isn’t it? When the suits twisted the values of counterculture into for-profit mechanisms, everything got mixed up and truth and art and lies all bled together. It started with Coca-Cola broadcasting a feel-good jingle about global solidarity with a diverse cast on a sunny hilltop in Italy, and now it’s Tom’s promising a new pair of shoes for third world countries with every pair purchased, it’s Starbucks’ charitable foundations, the Ronald McDonald Foundation, etc. These are all marketing disguised as altruistic responsibility. It’s still a lie, just like all the lies that Don Draper concocted over the years. Only, before “I’d Like to Buy The World A Coke,” companies didn’t have to worry about grand statements of global unity and social responsibility, they just had to sell you a product. Which method is more honest?
Mad Men was always about change. The setting of the ’60s heightened the elements of change, while it’s main protagonist seemed impervious to the shifting tides. He was stuck in the past, in nostalgia, and never quite grasped what the undercurrent of counterculture was trying to accomplish. Until he does, and his response is to adopt the aesthetic of anti-capitalism means for a capitalist end.
A lot of people have pointed out the opening theme as a perfect summation of how the show ended. It always looked like Don was going to jump to his death, but of course, he didn’t, in fact, the opening always ends with him back on the couch like nothing happened.
Because Don is a survivor. He spent the sixties lost in the chaos of social change and personal meaning, but after all is said and done he just adapts. But because of who he is, and what he represents, his adaptation changes the landscape of corporate culture, globalism, consumerism, politics, everything.
Is that a bad thing?
It depends. From a Marxist point of view, absolutely. We’ve become blind to the oppressiveness of capitalism because it assimilates its greatest critics for its own purposes. But on an individual level, maybe it is not so bad. We no longer have to choose between our comforts and our souls, because the machine is taking care of the world for us.
All we have to do is buy a Coke.