Warning: The following article contains a whole bunch bunch of Mad Men spoilers.
The final episode of AMC’s Mad Men aired this past Sunday, bringing a seven season, decade-long series to a close. The series did not end with the deaths of all the major characters a la Six Feet Under, nor did it fade away like the The Sopranos. Rather, I would argue, the series finale of Mad Men concluded by offering its audience what its always done best: nostalgia.
In the very first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” we see ad executive Donald Draper (Jon Hamm) coolly puffing a cigarette and sipping whiskey while pontificating about the meaning of life: “You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget… I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, ’cause there isn’t one.”
Besides the fact Don was YOLO before it was a thing, this line has always stuck out for me as a wink and a nod to the audience. Watching from the comfort of the distant future we are aware there will be many tomorrows. Silly Don Draper/Dick Whitman doesn’t know — like the rest of the characters — what we do. Like Bob Dylan sings the times they are a changin’ and for the most part, we know what’s going to happen in the world at large during this seminal time in American History.
The potent nostalgia of the show is arguably one of its most marketable features — from hemlines to gimlets, the success of the series had the 1960s recapture our imagination. However complicated it was — and is — part of the allure of the show is rooted in the romanticisation of an era. The rampant misogyny, racism, homophobia, and smoking of the time is taken with a spoonful of sugar, a sense of but we know better now (maybe/maybe not) and things are totally better(ish).
The Truth Will Set You Free
In the final leg of the seventh season, a show notorious for capitalizing on nostalgia, the characters of Mad Men indulge in their own nostalgia for the past as a form of farewell to its audience. Compulsively, neurotically, casually, romantically, they confess and reflect. Unlike Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), they weren’t awarded a literal swan song, but rather a moments of non-musical reflection.
In “The Forecast” Glen Bishop (Marten Holden Weiner) is all grown up and is about to head off to Vietnam. In his awkward-as-fuck encounter with Betty Francis (formally Draper played by January Jones), she rejects his sexual advances knowing she can’t go back to the time when they were both children (one literally, another emotionally) and in love. She transitions from toxic/vulnerable little girl to cold, yet at times, comforting mother.
In “The Milk and Honey Route” we see the chain-smoking Betty’s past physically manifest: she has lung cancer, six months to live. Knowing the pain of watching her own mother die, she doesn’t want to put her children to do that same and refuses treatment. The letter she leaves for her eldest Sally (Kiernan Shipka) reveals that Betty’ wants to be buried in blue chiffon and mink, an ensemble that represents a time where she truly thrived.
Traditionally smarmy Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) yearns for the past he fumbled with his ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie). He chastises his brother for sleeping around even though he did the same. The two brothers blame their father’s philandering ways for their own transgressions. With that realization, Pete arrives at Trudy’s door at 4 a.m. to confess his undying love and his desire for the life they once had. We see him, Trudy, and their daughter boarding a private jet for their new perfect life in Wichita gifted to him by the drunk Duck Phillips (Mark Moses).
In “Time & Life” the resilient Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) confesses to furry coworker Stan Rizzo (Jay R. Ferguson) that she gave away a son, reminding us of Season Two’s “Meditations on An Emergency” where Peggy tells Pete, “I had your baby, and I gave it away.” Pete and Peggy have their own little goodbye, devoid of drama and including a cactus, but an essential scene for us to reflect on their past.
In the season finale, we see the closeness between Stan and Peggy cultivate in a declaration of love. Say what you want about the hokiness of that moment, I’m team Steggy. She deserves a man who loves her and supports her career, nay, loves her because of how good she is at her career — so everybody just shut up and be happy for her.
After the ever resourceful Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) smashes against the glass ceiling at McCann-Erickson and ditches another bad beau who wants her to be something she’s not, she starts her own business. When Roger Sterling (John Slattery) visits with a promise of an inheritance for her little Kevin, there is a final recognition of the child they had together, and the past love affair between Joan and Roger. Joan relays that her ex-husband is completely out of the picture, just having had twins with a nurse and couldn’t give a shit about Kevin. “So he knows?” (that he was being cuckolded) asks Roger, “No he’s just a terrible person.” Joan answers coolly, and in that moment we are brought back to Joan’s rape at the hands of her then husband. It’s not a full disclosure, but as close to one that we’ll get out the meticulously crafted Joan. It’s a confession of the mistreatment she’s experienced in the past, a past that she will rise above.
Walking out of his first meeting at the juggernaut McCann Erickson, Don searches for a mysterious and broken waitress who has made her own confession about leaving a child behind, and try as he might he can’t find her. So he makes his way across the country, driving fast cars and giving away his earthly possessions, he doesn’t seem concerned about what the future will hold.
In “Person to Person”, Don’s “retirement” is interrupted with the news that Betty is going to die. Sally is the one to spill the beans. She knows her father won’t be able to take care of her brothers and tells him so. Don (still YOLOing) immediately lights up a cigarette to call up his ex-wife to talk about her diagnosis. She tells him to stay away. There is a tangible moment of mourning between the two: that she will die, that he isn’t a good father, and was never a good husband. He softly whispers, “Birdie” and the pet name brings back a rush to a time when they could have had a shot at a life together.
Unable to go back to his family, Don travels to California to visit his stolen identity’s widow’s niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz). “Dick!” she exclaims when he shows up drunkenly at the door. She takes him to a hippy retreat and he watches her deal with her own sense of regret about leaving her son behind (Jesus, a lot of baby boys get abandoned in this show).
Attempting to pull a classic Whitman/Draper move, he tells her that she can forget and move forward, that he can help her. She doesn’t want to be saved by him and disappears with his car. Stuck at the Esalen Institute we see him ask, “So, people just come and go and nobody says goodbye?” There’s a particular kind of irony that a man who once claimed to live for today is now grasping for some sense of closure and assurance.
In a last ditch effort for some sense of finality and connection he calls Peggy. Articulating a trifecta of ultimate sins, “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made… nothing of it.” She comforts him, “That’s not true” and you can practically see the montage of the two’s shared pasts and secrets flash across the screen.
Crippled by the future and paralyzed by the past, he is ushered in to sharing circle where he hears the confession of Leonard (AKA Everyman. AKA a bottle of Coke). Leonard shares that he feels he is not seen. Don embraces him, but is he actually making peace a part of himself?
In the final frames we see Don sitting cross-legged OMing away. As the instructor coos his new-agey instructions I couldn’t help but think, Really? At the end of it all Don becomes like a guru or something? After all we’ve gone through watching a man remake himself time and time again, he simply gives up to a higher power? A knowing smirk comes across his face.
Cue the Coke commercial.
“You want nostalgia, I’ll show you some fucking nostalgia!” – Matthew Weiner (no, not really)
The cleverness of this ending is that it reminds us, that despite any attempts to tie up each character arch into neat little bows, the future is still coming. There’s a tomorrow for Don, one that is heavily implied to include using the pathos of the day to hawk soda by creating one of the most successful and infamous ad campaigns of the day, and for Pete to ruin his marriage again (or not, personally I think he’s an asshole), and for Betty to die, and Sally, Bobby, and Baby Gene Draper to grow up faster than they have to, and for Joan to sink or swim, and for Peggy to have it all, or maybe just a little. There’s a blank space between the then and now, a knowledge that we’ve seen parts of their past and now they go on without us, into the future.