What Happens When You Buy The World A Coke

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.

Journey Through Twin Peaks

One of the most engrossing films I’ve seen in recent years is Room 237,  a film essay exploring the depths of critical analysis on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite films, because it carries an atmosphere that is almost intangible, but careful viewers have pieced together the various tricks that Kubrick used to create that atmosphere. A lot of people focus on the moon-landing theory behind The Shining, but that’s only one interpretation of the film among many, and it’s the least plausible. It doesn’t fit in with the some of the other more plausible analyses, but leaving it in certainly helped spread the word about Room 237. 

Mostly, I just love the idea of film criticism as entertainment. So much so that I immediately planned on a similar treatment of another work I find as equally open to interpretation, Twin Peaks. If you couldn’t tell, since this is not the first blog I’ve written about the TV show, and until JJ does another layout change you’re looking at some heavy Peaks imagery directly to the left, I’m a little more than obsessed with the franchise and will needlessly fit it into unrelated conversations. “Oh, you love the new Batman vs. Superman trailer? You know what else is dark and brooding? Twin Peaks. Go home and watch it. Yes, it is on Netflix.”

If I couldn’t make the film essay myself, I at least wanted to present my interpretation of Laura Palmer’s struggle as a powerful symbol of ending a cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Laura is the hero of Twin Peaks because she refused to let the horror that tormented her continue, whether it was by some demonic presence or something closer to home.

Joel Bocko beat me to it. His series, “Journey Through Twin Peaks,” presents a thorough and beautiful analysis I could never pull off on my own. Unlike Room 237, however, he did it all himself and threw it up on YouTube, instead of submitting it to Sundance. But I think that’s fitting, because it turns out there is quite a bit more to Twin Peaks than the feature-documentary format offers.

I’ve watched Twin Peaks in its entirety about four times since 2010, and Bocko highlights points in the series that I never noticed. It’s the loving criticism the series deserves. He presents a coherent thesis, that the magic formula of Twin Peaks is a child of the tension between David Lynch and Mark Frost, and backs it up with specific examples of the different ways they treat characters and situations. I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but someone could easily watch his series without any knowledge of Twin Peaks and have a clear understanding of what makes the show work.

But there’s no good excuse for not watching Twin Peaks. I particularly like the analysis of the end of Fire Walk With Me, though he credits it to someone else (spoiler, obviously) that the flashing light on Laura’s face as she sits in the Red Room with Dale Cooper is actually Laura watching the entire series and reacting to the impact her life had on the town, both good and bad. Seeing it through that lens completely decimated me emotionally. It could easily be one of David Lynch’s most beautiful moments. (Update: Joel provided the source of this theory in the comments below.)

Bocko also suggests that everything Lynch has done since is not only influenced by Twin Peaks, but actually about the experience of making Twin Peaks. That’s a powerful realization, especially since I was also under the assumption that Lynch never lingered on projects, and for years seemed too willing to put the series behind him.

However, I think he and I would disagree about whether the series should continue without Lynch. I think Frost’s vision of the series is underrated, as does Bocko, but I also think it’s only fair that he gets a crack at developing his ideas on his own, since Lynch had a chance to go back and explore Laura Palmer’s character. I stand by it. Twin Peaks without David Lynch would still entice me.

Anyway, the whole series is on YouTube, in 28 different videos, divided into four parts. He covers the entire series with surprising depth, explains some background on the mystical influences on the mythology, and defends Fire Walk With Me as a crucial masterpiece to Lynch’s entire career. I’ve been waiting for a satisfying treatment of Twin Peaks like this, and if I couldn’t do it myself, I’m at least glad it’s done so well.