In retrospect, I guess we all should have known better than to expect that Matthew Weiner would be able to come up with a decent ending or indeed any ending at all. After all, the TV show Weiner worked on before Mad Men, The Sopranos famously ended with a bell ringing and a cut to black, while “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey plays, an oddly appropriate song for the master of unsatisfying endings, because just like a Matthew Weiner TV show, “Don’t Stop Believing” builds and builds towards a climax that never comes (and it’s even cut off in mid line in the Sopranos scene).
I never got into The Sopranos. I intensely dislike mafia stories and besides, I was disappointed when the hot new TV show from the US that had won all the awards turned out not to be about opera singers, as I had assumed based on the title in those days of limited internet. I think I watched maybe half an episode and that was it.
However, to my own surprise, since prestige TV shows that arrived with huge accolades from the US usually do very little for me, I found myself quite drawn into Mad Men, sticking with the show even as the German broadcaster shuffled it into ever more ridiculous graveyard slots (for my previous ruminations on Mad Men, see here) until the very last episode, which aired on German TV yesterday night.
I’m not even sure why I found myself so drawn into Mad Men, since I don’t particularly care for most retro television shows. And besides, Mad Men was frustrating much of the time from the very first episode on. I guess a big part of it was that the meticulously recreated 1960s setting appealed to the design buff in me, particularly in the latter seasons as the show moved into the cool half of the sixties. Another part was that I found all the bits about advertising and how it’s created really fascinating. And indeed, Mad Men would have been a better show IMO, if there had been more advertising and less soap opera antics involving the characters’ home lives, though gawking at the clothes and set design made even the annoying soap opera elements endurable.
Finally – and yes, sometimes I am that shallow – I kept watching, because I wanted to see, if Don and Peggy would finally end up together or at least share a night of red hot passion, because damn it, Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss had such a lot of chemistry and generated enough sparks to power the entire studio in every scene they shared.
In short, I was waiting to see if after the succession of Barbie dolls he married and slept with, Don would finally realise that what he really wants is a Midge. And yes, I did some searching around to find photos of vintage Barbie dolls that look just like Mad Men characters. Come to think of it, maybe that was another reason I kept watching Mad Men, because the fact that many characters looked like vintage Barbie dolls appealed to the former doll collector in me.
Anyway, for all us Don/Peggy shippers (I can’t have been the only one, can I?), we now know how that turned out.
To be fair, I actually think that Peggy is much better off with Stan, because Stan is solid and dependable, while Don is flakey and unstable and something of a jerk. Nonetheless, that was not what the story was building towards. Besides, it’s also telling that Stan’s declaration of love comes right after Peggy gets off the phone with Don and has clearly decided that she’s had enough of Don and his antics for good (and frankly, one of my predictions for the ending was “Peggy is finally fed up with Don and pushed him out of the window – hence the falling man in the title sequence”). Poor Stan is the consolation prize – she even tells him, “Oh, I never thought about you at all.”
It’s not even the first declaration of love Peggy has gotten over the course of the series – in fact, there are several moments where confused male Sterling Cooper employees fall to their knees in front of Peggy (sometimes literally) to declare their undying love, sort of. Pete Campbell, Duck Phillips, Michael Ginsberg, Ted Chaough, even Don himself (twice, including one time while he’s telling her he just married Megan) have all done it. Stan is just the last in a long line and the only one who gets a positive answer. Come to think of it, this isn’t even the first time Peggy has decided she’s had enough of Don and turned to someone else. She did pretty much the same thing with Ted Chaough.
So while I’m glad that at least Peggy got to have a happy ending with Stan (who’s a far better choice than Pete, Ted or – heaven’s beware – Duck) and the declaration of love via the phone scene itself is lovely, this still doesn’t really feel like a happily ever after to me.
Though Peggy at least gets an optimistic ending that sort of makes sense in conjunction with what has gone before, which is more than you can say for many of the other characters. Because while the last seven or eight episodes were basically an extended good-bye tour, where established characters reappeared, only to announce they were going off somewhere else – and we should give Matthew Weiner credit for at least attempting to give his characters closure – a lot of these fates did not ring true.
Let’s start with the company at the heart of Mad Men, Sterling Cooper and Partners or whatever it was called at the end. The company finally gets gobbled up by McCann Erickson, a fate Sterling Cooper has alternately courted and tried to avoid since the very first season, and dissolved. And for that matter, what on Earth has McCann Erickson, which is after all a real company existing in the real world, ever done to Matthew Weiner to make him hate them so much? Because frankly, as a writer I’d feel very uncomfortable (not to mention skirting a defamation lawsuit) having my character say the sort of things Mad Men characters repeatedly say about McCann Erickson about a real company. Though I suspect McCann Erickson doesn’t care and is laughing all the way to the bank, pleased about their increased profile. For example, before Mad Men I had no idea which company was responsible for all those lovely Coca Cola ads (and they are lovely, though I don’t even drink cola). Now I know.
Regarding the characters, I can almost buy that deeply closeted gay Bob Benson would go off the Detroit to work for some American car manufacturer or other, though I still suspect that Bob would have been much happier in New York City with its burgeoning gay pride movement (the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, i.e. about a year before the end of Mad Men). And yes, I know that New York City was considered in decline and crime ridden by the 1970s and 1980s and therefore no longer viewed as the place to be, so apparently to Americans, the characters getting the hell out of there is a happy ending. But if New York City is about to decline, Detroit is about to decline a whole lot worse.
Glenn Bishop suddenly finds patriotism and goes off to Vietnam, which is completely opposite to the earlier portrayal of his character. Roger Sterling suddenly deciding to move to Paris and get married to Megan’s mother of all people? Okay, so the scenes with the two of them were cute and it’s a good sign that Roger has finally decided to marry a woman his own age, but I still don’t buy it. I also think a Roger/Joan reunion would have been a better ending, especially since both are free now and even have a kid together.
But Pete Campbell who loves New York City so much that he cannot even tolerate living in the suburbs (not that I don’t sympathise) suddenly declaring his undying love for Trudy, on whom he cheated even on the eve of their wedding ten years before, and going off to Wichita in fucking Kansas? Yeah, right. I predict he won’t last six months, before he comes back screaming. Never mind that pretty much the last line he speaks on screen is a Terminator-like “I’ll be back” to Peggy.
Meanwhile, Ken Cosgrove gets fired, goes to Dow Chemical to take over the job of his father-in-law (who prophetically is played by Ray Wise) and promptly turns into a raging arsehole. Not only does that ending not ring true, it’s also a sad fate for someone who was one of the few likeable male male characters in Mad Men. Especially since he doesn’t go to work for any old corporation, but for one that is pretty close to the epitome of the evil big corporation (Napalm, Agent Orange, Bhopal, faulty breast implants and plenty of other scandals). Honestly, I’d much rather have seen Ken retire to become a full time writer, which his wife actually suggests to him at one point. Especially since Ken, Mad Men‘s resident SF writer, always struck me as an amalgam of several real life SF writers who worked in advertising for their day jobs. In short, I’d hoped Ken would turn into Frederik Pohl and not the nasty big corporation’s spokesperson.
Going on to final fates of Mad Men characters that do ring true, there is Betty and her impending death of lung cancer. Now I have to admit that I loathed Betty from the very first moment I saw her. This has nothing to do with the actress whom I have liked in other roles, it’s simply that Betty is a horrible person. In fact, I strongly suspected that we were supposed to loathe Betty, which is why I was very surprised that a lot of people did not loathe her at all, but felt sorry for her. Yeah, Don is a jerk and a complete failure as a husband, but since Betty was so unlikeable, it was hard to have any sympathy for her at all. Plus, any appearance by her always dragged the series into soap opera territory, especially when she continued playing a big role in the series even after she divorced Don and should in theory have been written out, much like Megan and most of Don’s various flings were.
So while it is of course tragic that a woman of barely forty and mother of three young children would die of lung cancer, I still found it incredibly hard to muster sympathy for either Betty or Henry, her equally loathsome second husband (who always looks like someone who’d molest his step children, plus he’s a Republican, which does not endear him to me barely two weeks after the US election). I do feel sorry for Sally, Bobbie and Gene (and it doesn’t help that Kiernan Shipka, who plays Sally, acts rings around much of the adult cast) and how Sally and later Bobbie desperately try to cling to normalcy for the sake of their mother, stepfather and little Gene, but not for Betty herself. Though Betty refusing treatment (even though chemotherapy was around in 1970, much to my surprise, since my biological grandmother who died of breast cancer in 1968 did not get any as far as I know) and the fact that her final requests to Sally focus only on what she wants to wear in her coffin and how she wants her hair done, actually do ring true to the way the character has been portrayed throughout the series (and kudos to actress January Jones who’s excellent in these final few episodes).
Her final phone call with Don didn’t do much to endear Betty to me either, since she tells Don point blank that she doesn’t want the children living with him, because children need a normal family with father and a mother (I bet if she’d lived, Betty would have become a fervent anti-gay marriage crusader along with creepy Henry). Now Don really isn’t about to win any “father of the year” awards, but in many ways, he’s a pretty typical absent father of the postwar era. And in his scenes with the three Draper children, it’s obvious that he’s fond of them (which may well be due to actor Jon Hamm being fond of children), which is why the scene a few seasons ago where Don confesses that he didn’t want his children never rang true, because it was pretty obvious he cared about them. Meanwhile, Betty is not just a horrible person, she has also been portrayed as an awful mother from the very start. Don may not make “father of the year”, but Betty has always been a hot candidate for the prestigious (not) Darth Vader Parenthood Award.
So were we supposed to loathe Betty? Were we supposed to feel sorry for her? Both? I don’t know. All I know is that I feel bad about not feeling sadder at her impending death, because what I see is a deeply unpleasant person meeting a horrible fate. The fact that the series kept almost gleefully pointing out all the smoking and the drinking with a big red arrow that said, “Look at those backward people. They don’t even know they’re killing themselves.” throughout its run doesn’t help either. Someone eventually had to succumb to all that drinking and smoking and Betty was the one who got the short straw. It’s also telling that in her final shot, we see Betty sitting at the kitchen table with a cigarette in her hand. And yes, I know I’m probably not objective regarding Betty, because I keep conflating her fate with my biological grandmother’s (whom I never knew and about whom I have very complicated feelings*) and because she represents the sort of conventional suburban married life I intensely dislike (and she married a Republican, too). So in short, Betty couldn’t win, at least not with me.
When those episodes first aired in the US, I’ve seen quite a few people complain that Betty was fridged, while all the jerky male characters got happy endings. So was Betty fridged? If it had only been Betty dying, I don’t think anybody would have complained, especially since – as I said above – someone had to succumb to all that drinking and smoking and drug taking. However, it wasn’t just Betty. Because women involved with Don Draper have the tendency to die, mostly of cancer. Both Anna Draper and Rachel Katz of the Jewish department store, two women who were important to Don, die as well, both of cancer, while his Beatnik girlfriend from the early episodes becomes a junkie. Don Draper is very much like Lady Mary from that other retro nostalgia TV hit, Downton Abbey. Have sex with them and you die. And in both Anna’s and Rachel’s case, the deaths were entirely unnecessary and typical fridging deaths, far more typical than Betty’s. Anna basically dies to get Don to pour out his heart to Peggy, for all the good that does to anybody, while Rachel (whom we haven’t even seen in several seasons) dies to set Don on his vision quest to find the “real America” or whatever that was supposed to be. And the Beatnik ex-girlfriend gets turned junkie to inspire Don to come up with that “We won’t do any tobacco ads no more” letter. Anna and Rachel both get fridged to motivate the male protagonist or teach him a lesson. Betty… well, I suppose she gets fridged, too, though it’s never really clear which lesson Don is supposed to learn from her death.
In general, I find that while Mad Men is chock full of jerky male characters, a lot of the women are deeply unpleasant, too, particularly the various wives, trophy and otherwise. I’m not sure if we were supposed to dislike Trudy Campbell and Roger Sterling’s second wife Jane, but I did. Unlike Betty, I did not actually hate Megan Draper at first sight, but I definitely came to hate her in the end. And that’s very much the fault of the writers, since it’s pretty obvious that the only reason Megan was brought in was that she looked great in the fashions of the late 1960s (and damn it, she did look fabulous – Megan always inspired the sort of wardrobe envy in me that Betty never did). In this house, we called her Twist and Turn Megan, after the 1967 all new Barbie model, which kids could exchange for their old models (see a TV ad about that here and imagine Don Draper created it), cause that’s just what Don did, exchange old model Barbie (Betty) for the new and improved Twist and Turn model (Megan). And once Megan had served her purpose, she was discarded, just like an old Barbie doll, while Don went for Malibu Barbies, quite literally.
So in short, Mad Men‘s woman problem wasn’t so much Betty, it was that all female characters who weren’t Joan or Peggy or the various secretaries were either unlikeable or discarded once they’d served their purpose or both. Note that while we got detailed explanations about what happened to Bob or Ken or Pete, Dawn or Shirley or Meredith were dispatched with a single sentence (and I’m still not sure what became of Dawn).
As I said above, back when the final episodes of Mad Men aired in the US, someone said that all the arsehole men got happy endings, while most of the women got tragic endings. However, having actually watched those episodes, I’d say that hardly anybody in the show gets anything approaching a happy ending.
Just try to look ten or fifteen years forward and imagine where those characters will be: Betty Draper? Long dead. Pete Campbell? Either deeply unhappy in Wichita and divorced from Trudy for the second time or equally unhappy back in New York. Megan Draper? She’ll never be a star, that much is clear, and she’ll probably die of an overdose sooner or later. Bob Benson? Probably dead by 1985, poor guy. Glenn Bishop? Dead or missing in Vietnam, poor kid. Ken Cosgrove? Instead of winning Hugos, he’ll be standing there trying to excuse and explain away Napalm and Agent Orange and Bhopal and all sorts of other scandals that can neither be excused nor explained away, losing a bit of his soul every single time. Roger Sterling? I hope he’ll find some happiness with Megan’s mother, though I suspect he’ll leave her sooner or later. Harry Crane? Still doing the same thing he always was, now at McCann Erickson. Ted Chaough? Who the hell cares?
The only regular characters I suspect will find some measure of satisfaction for Peggy, who’ll likely achieve her career goal of becoming the first female creative director and who has Stan, too, and Joan, who never found love, but who found success in business instead. And yes, it’s very telling that Joan, the very woman who was always seeing her job as a stepping stone for finding a good (i.e. wealthy) husband and not as a career, in the end chose her career over her latest partner and sent Bruce Greenwood packing (which made me cheer), while Peggy, who always wanted a career before a partner, ends up getting both. So let’s hear it for the working women, who braved sexism and wound up getting their own sort of happy endings.
Indeed – looking back over the entire series – my main criticism of Mad Men is that while the show is set in an incredibly cool era of liberation (the 1960s), the characters always default to the conventional choice, if in doubt. Though they are offered chance over chance to be free and live the lives they want to, whatever those are, in the end most of them choose a job with a big corporation (McCann Erickson, Dow Chemical, General Motors, Learjet), marriage to someone who fits the image and a house in the suburbs over whatever it is they really want. Just see the way people who rebel against that sort of life are portrayed. Roger Sterling’s daughter runs away to a hippie commune that is portrayed as dirty and unpleasant, basically one step away from Jonestown and disinherited, too. The copywriter (Paul something or other) who joins the Hare Krishnas (who are also portrayed as only one step away from Jonestown, which does not match the real Hare Krishna movement) and writes an incredibly bad Star Trek script. Megan Draper and her faux Bohemian actress life in Hollywood. Peggy’s photographer ex-boyfriend. Just be a good American, take that corporate job, get married to the right sort of partner, regardless if they are right for you, and move to the suburbs. Live the American Dream and don’t forget to vote for Donald Trump. That seems to be the message of Mad Men. Or is it?
Because as I pointed out, pretty much no one in Mad Men gets a happy ending, even if their individual endings seem happy to them at the time. Besides, the one main character who does not end the series stuck in a corporate job and a marriage with the right sort of partner is none other than our protagonist, Don Draper. Which is somewhat unexpected, since Don had always been the most eager chaser of the American Dream or what he believes it to be. After all, Don was always the one with the stellar career, the house in the suburbs and the penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side. He was always the one who married socially acceptable Barbie dolls, even though he clearly preferred a very different type of woman (older, more mature). Hell, Don Draper even stole another man’s name to get the life he felt he was supposed to want. So it is something of a surprise to see him reject all that in the end. Or does he?
Now I’ve said before that I’ve never found Don’s deep dark secret all that convincing, because I’ve never been able to see just what was so bad about having grown up poor and rural white during the Great Depression that Don felt the need to hide his background. Sure, if he’d been Jewish or Hispanic or African-American passing as white or a transman, then the big secret and identity theft would have made sense. But “I was dirt poor, my Dad was a violent jerk and I grew up in a brothel” aren’t the sort of backstory to make advancement impossible and likely wouldn’t have been in the 1960s either. After all, the Great Depression was only thirty years before, so a lot of people would have come from a background of poverty. Never mind that even today, many people in the US and Europe, including many whites, are only a couple of generations away from abject poverty. For example, while the paternal side of my family has been solidly middle class for several generations, on the maternal side there is abject poverty and homelessness only three generations back. So in short, pretty much everybody comes from a less than ideal background, if you go back far enough, particularly in a nation of immigrants like the US. If anything, the fact that so many Mad Men characters – Roger, Betty, Pete, Bert Cooper – come from generations of wealth is unusual.
And indeed I suspect that the writers noticed that Don’s deep dark secret wasn’t all that shocking, since they kept trying to make it more shocking. The fact that Don spent part of his adolescence in a brothel only showed up (with extensive flashbacks) several seasons in. It never really worked for me, either, because the whole “Don grew up in a brothel” thing relies way too much on the “prostitutes invariably are bad mothers and children of prostitutes inevitable become serial killers or other criminals” trope that I hate with a burning passion. And even though Mad Men tries to paint the whole “grew up in a brothel” thing as a horrible experience for Don, the narrative itself contradicts this again and again, since Don clearly keeps seeking out women who remind him of the prostitutes of his youth.
Again, it seems that the writers got this, so they tried to up the deep dark secret once again by revealing in the penultimate episode that Don believes he killed the man whose identity he stole. Once again, this revelation does not really work, for starters because it happens during an incredibly tasteless scene of unpleasant, drink veterans in Trump country swapping war stories, one of which involves some old dude telling in great detail how he and his war buddies slaughtered and apparently ate a bunch of German soldiers towards the end of WWII. Coincidentally, this isn’t even the only “American veteran talks about murdering evil Other in wartime and how horribly traumatising this was for him” scene I saw last week – there also was a very similar scene in Gotham involving the Michael Chiklis character. Now I know that American writers occasionally fall victim to the “US soldiers are automatically admirable” fallacy (rather than letting audiences from cultures where the military is not as venerated know just why this particular soldier or veteran is admirable). But what precisely is the purpose of these “Wah, I slaughtered a bunch of enemies and now I’m so traumatised” revelations? Do US screenwriters never consider that their works will be watched outside the US, often in the very countries whose citizens were just reduced to evil Others to be slaughtered, so the heroic American soldier can feel traumatised about it? And that “Wah, I slaughtered a bunch of people, but they weren’t Americans, and now I feel bad about it” makes most Non-Americans immediately hate the character in question?
So Don’s revelation that he believes he killed the man whose identity he stole not just happens at a moment, when I for one was still furious at the old guy who murdered the German soldiers who wanted to surrender, it also doesn’t ring true. For starters, Don does’t actually murder the real Don (unlike that old dude from Kansas), he drops his lighter, probbably deliberately, and causes an explosion, which happens to kill the real Don, whereupon our Don steals his identity. Which isn’t a nice thing to do at all, but I don’t believe for a moment that Don wanted to kill the real Don, because that doesn’t fit his character. And besides, if he wanted to kill him, there are easier ways than blowing up both of them. He probably just wanted to get injured, so he could go home.
So in short, Don’s deep dark secret, which wasn’t really all that deep and dark and shocking, was something of a weak link throughout the series. And indeed, when the secret was revealed to someone, the reaction was all too often “Who cares?”, going back all the way to the very first season, where Bert Cooper uttered these very words. And it goes on until the last episode, where Peggy asks Don, “What’s so bad about that?” So maybe the fact that Don’s deep dark secret wasn’t all that shocking to anybody but Don was the point all along?
Coincidentally, the final act of Mad Men begins when Don finally decides to blurt out his deep dark secret at the most inopportune time ever, in the middle of a client meeting. Since the customer in question is Hershey, purveyor of really, really bad chocolate, the scene didn’t quite work as intended in this house, since we basically looked at each other and said, “Wow, Don Draper was so poor when he grew up that he actually thought Hershey’s was good chocolate.” Interestingly, this scene was also the point where Don basically admitted that all the stuff he (and the other Sterling Cooper employees, e.g. Peggy does it, too, talking about the ten year old boy waiting for her at home) tells the clients and the people they’re advertising the products to was lies, nothing but lies.
That scene comes at the end of the penultimate season and leads into the final season, where sadly the writers drop the ball. First, we get several tedious episodes of “everybody hates Don Draper”, including previously likeable characters like Joan or Bert Cooper who don’t really have a reason to hate him. The reaction is also outsized – after all, it isn’t as if Don hasn’t had breakdowns before and they could probably live without Hershey and their dreadful chocolate (though Sterling Cooper in general and Don in particula have always been chasing lower quality products – Don after all declared his preference for Chevrolet instead of Jaguar) . Then, everybody’s attempt to oust Don lead to the whole company being sold to McCann Erickson (which we’ve been told throughout the series is a fate worse than a deal with the devil – honestly, what has McCann Erickson ever done to Matthew Weiner?), which leads to the company being closed and merged, which in turn causes Don to have another breakdown in the middle of a meeting and just run off to go in search of the real America or whatever that was supposed to be. Now Don’s final breakaway might have had more impact, if he hadn’t done that sort of thing before, several times in fact. In fact, Don keeps running off and vanishing only to reappear some time later, all the way back to that weird “hanging with the rich people in California” interlude during the first season, so the impact is somewhat diluted. And indeed, no one except for his latest secretary Meredith (who isn’t particularly bright) is overly worried about Don vanishing, because he keeps doing that sort of thing.
Don, meanwhile, goes on a roadtrip, first in search of the waitress he had a brief affair with, and then in search of the real (white) America, the meaning of life or whatever. As a result, the narrative meanders around for the last couple of episodes. And while Don’s odyssey through rural America might have been charming one or two years ago, right after the US elections they’re difficult to bear, because the people Don meets match every negative stereotype of Trump voters you’ve ever seen. It’s also telling that they’re all white – in a show that has been overly white from the start anyway. The “real Americans” are also jerks, one and all of them, who take his money, exploit him and in one case beat him up. I have no idea if this is the point Weiner wanted to make, but it’s certainly the message I got from those scenes post-US-election.
During his extended roadtrip, Don also sheds the insignia of the company man he used to be. He looses his suit, tie and hat and starts wearing jeans and flanel shirts, he begins to look scruffier, he gives his Cadillac, which he bought during the very first season, to a random teenager he meets en route and gradually reverts to the hobo he once was.
Eventually, Don’s odyssey leads him to California and the doorstep of Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie, who’s played by Caity Lotz, better know to geeky people as Sarah from Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow. Stephanie isn’t pleased to see him (plus, she either gave away her baby or had it taken away), but she takes Don along with her to a hippie retreat on the California coast.
Unlike the hippie commune to which Roger Sterling’s daughter ran away or the ashram where Paul, the copywriter, ended up, the Californian hippie retreat is not portrayed as one step away from Jonestown. Okay, so Don calls them a harmful cult at one point and compares them to the fundamentalit Christianity he encountered as a kid, but compared to pretty much every other variation of either traditional religion or new age spirituality we’ve seen in the series so far, the hippies actually seem pretty harmless. Yes, they are silly in many ways, particularly if you had variations of these exercises and sessions inflicted on you at school (The hippies even had the same bent wood chairs as my old school). But there is no doubt that the hippies are earnest about what they’re doing and that they apparently are helping at least some people, perhaps even Don. Coincidentally, the people at the hippie retreat are also one of the most diverse crowds seen so far in Mad Men. I found it interesting that there were so many older people, since I’d have assumed that places like this tended to skew young.
The head hippie is played by Helen Slater, Supergirl in the 1980s and the adoptive mom of the current Supergirl. Combined with the presence of Caity Lotz, best known as time-travelling undead assassin/superheroine White Canary, and the fact that the other leader of the hippie retreat looks a bit like Vandal Savage, I was briefly wondering whether I was watching a Legends of Tomorrow/Supergirl/Mad Men crossover.
Stephanie runs off after a random hippie woman confronts her about her lost/given away baby. And indeed it’s notable that there is a theme about abandoned children and the screwed up adults they become running through Mad Men, starting with Don himself via Glenn Bishop and his divorced mother, Peggy’s lost baby, the three Draper kids, the baby Megan never wants and eventually loses, the baby Joan never wanted and still decides to keep, Pete and Trudy’s daughter, who is so long awaited and still abandoned, Roger’s daughter who abandons her young son and icily tells Roger, “He’ll survive. I did.”, the neighbour kid who installs himself on Peggy’s couch all the way to Stephanie and her lost baby and the ambivalent feelings she has about that. It’s also interesting that Matthew Weiner was apparently born in 1965, i.e. he is about the same age as Gene, Kevin and Tammy. And in the US, it’s the children of what was eventually called Generation X, i.e. those born in the 1960s and 1970s, who suffered the most from their parents’ divorcing.
I have no idea, if Matthew Weiner’s parents divorced, but he surely knew children whose parents did and probably was terrified that the same thing would happen to his family. Even I knew that fear in far away Germany, even though divorce rates were pretty low when I grew up and we only had two children of divorced parents in a class of 25, a number that is much higher today. But even though we all knew very few people who actually had divorced, every kid I knew was terrified of divorce. So are we watching Weiner dramatising a childhood trauma here for the sake of all children of the 1960s?
One thing that would point towards that explanation is that the 1960s of Mad Men, though meticulously recreated, are no more the real sixties than the 1970s/80s of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes (another retro show that gave me the feeling of watching someone’s childhood trauma on screen) are the real seventies and eighties. What we are seeing on screen is a construct, recreated from bits of pop culture, from TV shows and movies, books and magazines and – yes – commercials and ads. That’s why Mad Men shows so many clips from real TV programs and recreates ads for real products. That’s why there are so many references to popular movies and TV programs of the period. That’s why the characters alternately look like Barbie dolls or movie stars. Because what we’re seeing isn’t the real sixties, but a recreation fashioned from childhood memories. By the way, it’s also a fact that people often consider the time just before they were born the most interesting historical period. I was born in 1973, so the late 1960s are incredibly fascinating to me.
Once Stephanie runs away (and also rejects Don’s attempts to help her, the third female member of his family to reject his attempts to help in a single episode), Don finds himself stranded at the hippie retreat. He hugs a random and not very hippie-like guy who feels invisible and like a cog in the machine during one of the group therapy sessions. And then he’s meditating with a bunch of other people on the top of a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean (and no, he doesn’t jump) and suddenly breaks out into a big, happy grin. And then there is a cut and we get this:
Yes, it’s a Coke commercial and a very famous one it is, too. And no, Don Draper had nothing to do with it nor was it created on a sunny California clifftop, but at Shannon Airport in foggy Ireland. The person who came up the idea for the spot was a man named Bill Backer, who worked for the real McCann Erickson, and the story behind it may be found here.
Okay, so it’s a great commercial and coincidentally it was the only time while watching the Mad Men finale or indeed Mad Men at all that I got misty-eyed, but then that ad always has that effect on me for some reason (though only as a commercial. The radio version of the song doesn’t have the same effect on me). It’s also telling that the genuine 1971 Coke ad contains more diversity than all seven seasons of Mad Men combined.
So what precisely does this ending signify? Does Don’s grin mean that his misadventures at the hippie retreat have just caused him to come up with the perfect Coca Cola commercial? Or is Don genuinely at peace, while the commercial is just there to remind us that every counter-cultural movement will eventually be appropriated and commercialised by the advertising industry? Though part of what makes the commercial so touching is that the innocence and earnestness feel genuine, as if these lovely colourful hippie kids really think that sharing a bottle of Coke will make everything better.
I guess we’ll never know and Matthew Weiner claims he doesn’t know either. Though my personal head canon is that Don Draper has been held prisoner in the basement of McCann Erickson since 1971 and has been meditating up every Coke commercial since then. The Christmas ad that’s currently running is Don recasting his troubled childhood into the idyll it never was. And yes, those Coke commercials are brilliant. I don’t even like Coke and haven’t had a cola of any kind in twenty-five to thirty years now and Coke ads still make me want to have one, before I remember how the stuff tastes. That’s pretty much the definition of brilliant advertising.
So the question that remains is what precisely was Mad Men supposed to be? An illumination of the advertising industry in the 1960s? A scathing critique of the American Dream and why it’s not a good thing to want? An equally passionate defense of the same? The angry cry-out of the abandoned children of selfish 1960s parents? Matthew Weiner’s attempt to come to terms with a childhood trauma. A combination of all the above?
Or maybe Mad Men really is just the world’s longest Coke commercial?
*It’s still difficult for me to refer to her as my grandmother, because to me she never was that (in my mind, she is “my mother’s mother” and the only reason I no longer refer to her as that is because people don’t get it), since I already had two grandmothers growing up.