Mad Man begins and ends with Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, alone, and yet not alone. In the opening scene of the pilot, it’s the dawn of the sixties, he’s in a crowded, lively New York bar, people are drinking, smoking, laughing, talking, and at first all we see is the back of his head. We’re curious right away because he’s making notes on some cocktail napkins, and although he’s not actually sitting apart from the others, he’s a thoughtful island unto himself until he asks an elderly black waiter what brand of cigarettes he smokes and why. When the waiter admits how much he loves smoking, even though his wife has read somewhere that it “will kill you,” it’s obvious from Draper’s expression that this is an advertising issue he’s been seriously pondering. We know enough about the show at this point to intuit that his job is to sell people on a product that may be deadly. He looks around. Everyone’s smoking.
A decade later, the sixties is history and the same man is one of a group chanting Om at an Esalen-style retreat on Big Sur. The last words we hear from the group leader are “A new day … new ideas … a new you.” The camera moves in and this time we’re seeing Don Draper/Dick Whitman face to face, close up, though in reality we’re seeing a third person, the actor Jon Hamm, whose classic Hollywood charisma has anchored Mad Man from the beginning; he is the face of the series. During his on-the-American-road escape from Mad Avenue in the previous episodes, which the show’s creator Matthew Weiner says were inspired by the seminal TV series The Fugitive, Hamm conveys the rugged, hungover ambience of a taller, handsomer Humphrey Bogart.
The Real Thing?
So why end a seven season series about a Madison Avenue ad firm in the sixties with a Big Sur meditation session? As we stare into an immense close-up of the face that launched the show that saved AMC, we seem to be living out Dylan’s line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Matthew Weiner has left it up to his audience to figure out what’s going on with this deeply conflicted artist who discovered his genius in the most absurd and demeaning of professional endeavors. Is he happy? Has he achieved the big E? Or is enlightenment beneath him? A joke? Like the old one about the quest for the wise man of the mountain who tells you “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son.” Or maybe, “life is just an ice-cold bottle of Coke.”
But what’s going on with his mouth? Is that a smile, a half-smile, or is it, as some have suggested, a smirk? This isn’t the Mona Lisa we’re talking about, it’s our last look at one of the most complex and memorable characters to emerge from post-millennial television, along with Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Walter White. The last word comes from the realm of the absurd (“the best ad ever made,” says Weiner) as the angelic face of a young girl fills the screen singing “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” which segues into “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” while a we-are-the-world chorus of youths join in, each with the iconic bottle in hand, closing out the final season of Mad Men with three words dear to the heart of Henry James: “It’s the real thing.”
Thus, what for most mortals would signify the achievement of inner-peace is for Don Draper simply the return of his wayward muse. So much for the smirk. If anything, the half-smile is a work in progress, conveying a sense of pent-up inspiration, thoughtful urgency, if not impatience, to start putting the vision in play.
Bowing Out Early
For all its effectiveness (as Weiner notes, “it’s nice to have your cake and eat it too”), the ending didn’t make me regret bowing out of Mad Men two seasons earlier. Why did my wife and I give up when we did? Besides losing interest in the characters, the milieu, and the storylines, what put us off as much as anything was Don Draper’s second marriage (his first wife Betty’s second was no less yawn-inspiring). In an amusing bit of Esalen hilltop stream of consciousness on the New Yorker website (“What Don Draper Was Thinking in the Final Minutes of ‘Mad Men’”), John Kenney says it well, “Megan spoke French. Megan was annoying. God, she was annoying. Everything about her was annoying, even when she spoke French, which is rare, as French is so melodic. I don’t miss her. Why did I give her a million dollars?”
The Nuisance of Ads
The Sopranos ended brilliantly and controversially as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a choice made with a push of the button by Tony Soprano, who is looking up watchfully when the screen goes black. Whether the abrupt cut-off suggests sudden death or a metaphor for the ways of the world (sadly played out by the untimely death of James Gandolfini), it was a great ending to a greater if no less flawed work of television art (and one in which Weiner was creatively involved). In another great series, Breaking Bad, Walter White also died accompanied by irresistibly upbeat rock and roll, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” However true to itself, Mad Men’s Coke commercial ending inevitably trivializes the moment and reminds us that all these hours of generally superior television have been about a phenomenon so unappealing that the audience numbers lifting the last episode above all others depend on TiVo estimates of people who prefer to watch a show about advertising without enduring the nuisance of ads. Don’s fate is to be a poet in an essentially crass and unpoetical profession. Imagine Keats or Shelley brainstorming ads or writing jingles.
The Show’s Finest Hour
On the other hand, anyone who has a problem with the idea of ending one of television’s most celebrated creations with a Coke ad must have missed the Season One finale when Draper unveils his sales concept for the Kodak slide projector the company is calling The Wheel. Like a film director in a screening room, Draper turns down the lights and presents a slide show featuring images from happier days with his estranged family. As the images come and go, he defines nostalgia in terms that reflect his ambiguous personal history (“the pain from an old wound”), telling his clients that what they’re selling isn’t technology but memory. “This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” he says. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”
If for nothing more than that moment, Matthew Weiner and everyone involved in the series has earned the acclaim and awards. As for describing Don Draper as an embattled poet, who else would notice someone in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and be curious enough to read it? You knew Mad Men was something special when Jon Hamm read from O’Hara in voiceover, “Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.”
A review of Mad Men following the second season (“Jon Hamm Unforgettable as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the Soul of a Great Series”), echoed here, appeared in Town Topics, July 29, 2009.