Note: I lost the time to review last week’s penultimate episode although many of my points of thought tie into this finale too, so consider this a double review of sorts
Digging into any given episode of Mad Men can be a daunting task given the level of depth packed into every frame, line of dialogue, and acting gesture. Even after many hours of reflection and the code seems to be cracked, even more hidden layers begin to peel back and can turn the meaning of an episode into something else entirely. I suspect that even once the dust settles on this long anticipated finale, “Person to Person,” and the hundreds of think pieces have drilled their way online there will still be more angles and interpretations that haven’t even begun to reveal themselves yet. The show’s creator Matthew Weiner takes a page from his earlier writing experience on The Sopranos and creates an ending that’s just as bewildering, intriguing, and yet totally correct for the vision that began almost a decade ago.
I suspect that “Did Don create the Coke ad” will become yet another “Did Tony get whacked” down the line complete with people who think they’ve nailed it down to one explanation. The truth is that there isn’t just one, and that’s why the ending is so great. Is it inferring that Don did create the ad and that his moment of personal enlightenment is really just inspiration to cynically sell people an emotion in exchange for soda pop? Is the advertisement merely a visual representation of all these characters understanding that they do have people in their lives that care about them and everything’s all howdy doody (except for Betty, sadly)? Or is the Coke ad a meta commentary on the nature of television shows (and all storytelling forms) serving as vessels to sell feelings? The finale effectively sold us on the happiness of these people in their last scenes and then possibly pointed the finger back showing how all of this is just an illusion of emotion that the writers want their audience to feel.
I could spend this whole space talking about just Don smiling (complete with a DING sound effect) and the smash cut to the famous 1971 hilltop Coke commercial, but there’s a lot more to delve into than just the misanthropic travails of Don Draper. “Person to Person” is rather uncharacteristically upbeat for a show that is primarily concerned with picking apart the doubts, flaws, and self-destructions that it’s characters put themselves through, and yet it works in the grand scheme of things. Following the dark psychological abyss of mind and history that wove through seasons five and six, these last two half seasons have brought these people to their last all-or-nothing points looking for redemption of some kind and/or a piece of hope for the future. I’m still unsure if I buy Trudy agreeing to reunite with her former husband within just this last stretch of the series, but Pete has grown significantly as a person since the annoying weasel of Sterling Cooper he was in season one, and his plea for a second chance in the penultimate episode carried a pang of truth in it.
On the flipside Stan’s profession of love to Peggy was a long time coming and it’s a testament to Elizabeth Moss and Jay R. Ferguson’s chemistry and the tightrope line that the writers walked with their relationship throughout the show that this moment did not feel like cheap fan service that Mad Men so carefully avoids. Roger and Marie Calvet ending up together also feels just right, and I’m sure many were not expecting Marie to have the last word on the Calvet family status over Megan. Speaking of Roger, if there’s ever a spinoff made I nominate a sitcom about he and Meredith’s hilarious misunderstandings. It’s a shame they weren’t paired up in scenes more often throughout the show. And is there any more natural place for Joan to end up in than in control of her own independent company with both her family names on the title? She’s been consistently treated horribly by the men in her life, even the “good” ones, and she doesn’t need Richard around when he can’t accept her personal aspirations for who she is, although it was nice to see her and Roger go out on good terms agreeing to take care of their child.
That’s really what this finale, as clued in by the title, ultimately presents itself as: a realization of the connections made with people over time however large or small, and we are never truly alone in this world if we open our eyes and see what’s right in front of us. The title also refers to the numerous phone calls made between the characters that symbolize how we are all on our separate paths yet remain tied to the people that made an impact on our lives. This is never more nakedly apparent than in the final conversation between Betty and Don about her terminal cancer. Don still fruitlessly thinks that he can come home make things right but Betty knows better and sets him straight on the matter, and even he seems to begrudgingly realize that his children will have a more stable and complete home life with Henry’s family. These last two episodes have been fantastic showcases for January Jones to evolve as an actress and put her early critics to rest as she brings Betty to her most achingly human and sympathetic point shorn free of the glossy, steely prism (some would say wooden) placed on her.
Don is the one person in the cast who really has the most trouble reestablishing connections thought lost. With Betty and Sally going their own way and Stephanie Draper abandoning him at the meditation retreat, the one person he receives some measure of reassurance from is Peggy, naturally. After seven seasons of Don falling, rising, and falling again to his lowest point, he finally asks himself what this all means and has anything he’s done in his life as Don Draper, formally Dick Whitman, even mattered? Their conversation toys with the notion of Don contemplating suicide, something that has long been theorized for the finale, as he collapses into an empty shell seemingly lacking in purpose. His breakdown over the phone with Peggy makes the lonely man’s story in the following scene that much more powerful and appropriate leading into his last DING moment.
He spends the next few minutes completely drained of life, possibly questioning every decision he’s ever made, but it takes the emotional parallels of another man’s story to jolt him back into consciousness. Living his own life has proven to fail time and time again, but vicariously living through others’ experiences? There’s nothing he understands more than that; it’s the very basis that the character has literally built himself on from the moment he stole those dog tags from the real Don Draper. Somehow this man who he has never met before was able to break through to his soul in a way that no one else has in the most cathartic moment in a finale full of cathartic moments. Film and television frequently use this trope in forced and hackneyed fashion to speak about the inner truths of their characters, but for a person who has done nothing but express himself through false appearances and identities it feels entirely right. For once someone else is pitching Don the illusion of feelings instead of the other way around, and he’s Harry Crane sobbing at the end of the carousel presentation. “Don…come home,” pleads Peggy on the phone. Don is home Peggy, Don is home in the lives of others.