SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Mad Men series finale.
Matthew Weiner had promised that the Jon Hamm-led show wouldn’t end like “Lost or even Breaking Bad,” and he kept his word tonight. In an interview with me before the premiere of the second half of Season 7 and the last episodes on April 5, the Mad Men creator noted that by the last frame, “there will be a whole story told, but there is no mystery to be solved.” At a finale event earlier today, as #TheEndOfAnEra and #MadMenFinale started to spike on Twitter, Hamm told a packed Montalban Theater in Hollywood that “the book will shut, and we will be staring at the back cover,” he added. “The story is complete.”
It turns out that with tonight’s closer titled “Person To Person,” neither the creator nor the star of the multiple -Emmy-winning AMC series were foxes trying throw the dogs off the scent. From its opening scene of a sweating, jean jacket-wearing and self-declared “retired” Don Draper racing a muscle car in the desert, to Peggy Olson and Stan Rizzo confessing their love for each other after years of working together and that poignant closing moment, the one-hour, 15-minute episode, written and directed by Weiner, zigzagged simultaneously in directions at once expected and totally surprising – just as the series has done for eight years.
Ever since Mad Men debuted on July 19, 2007, Weiner and his writers have flaunted great narrative style while economically navigating each character through 1960s America — even as historic events of that tumultuous decade were brilliantly woven in and out of the background. Notwithstanding all the hype and anticipation building to the series ender, tonight’s show was in line with that less-is-more approach. Even as Don painfully stumbled into some degree of relief at a hippie spiritual retreat in Northern California (read: Big Sur’s Esalen Institute), where he finally showed some insight into his troubled past and hidden life – along with that “Real Thing” hint of where he would go. No Madison Avenue defenestration, no parachuting into the desert and another change of name. Just Don. Or Dick.
Over the previous few weeks, Draper literally had walked out of the advertising world in the middle of a big meeting at McCann, leaving NYC and heading west to parts unknown. Along the Jack Kerouac-ish way, he turned over the keys to his Caddie, the final testament to his having Made It, to a young punk, while he, seemingly content for the first time in forever, waited at that rural bus stop. On a show depicting an era when everyone smoked, Mad Men also has seen Draper’s ex-wife Betty (January Jones) learns she is dying of lung cancer and might have a year to live — a reality that led to a deeper connection with daughter Sally, to whom she’d been mostly cold and unloving throughout her childhood.
Meanwhile, fictional Sterling Cooper & Partners has been fully absorbed by the real-life McCann Erickson. Christina Hendricks’ Joan Harris took a $250,000 buyout after hitting the glass ceiling of sexism with a solid crash. Conversely, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) walked into McCann like she owned the place, like an spinoff from a Quentin Tarantino film. And Vincent Kartheister’s slimy Pete Campbell not only has landed on his patrician feet at LearJet but has reunited with his wife and daughter, carting them off to the golf-course and private-plane set in the Flyover (good luck with that).
When Draper found out about Betty’s illness on tonight’s episode, he and Sally fought over what to do and where her brothers should live. The inevitable brutal call between Don and Betty had them quarreling over what’s next and the tears of two damaged people staring into a future neither can control.
After putting pedal to the metal, Draper headed to the West Coast to see the niece (Stephanie Horton) of the real Don Draper, last seen in the 2014 episode “The Runaways.” Tagging along with her, Don ends up at the retreat with some insufferable hippies along with a smattering of similarly lost souls like himself. At first he was greatly resistant. There was another call back East, this time with Peggy, confessing in scary terms how stuck, how broken he is. “I’m not the man you think I am,” Don tells his protégé as he delivered a laundry list of his sins (painfully familiar to all of us who have watched over the years).
Meanwhile, as was signaled a few episodes ago, John Slattery’s Roger Sterling is actually in love with an age-appropriate woman — Julia Ormond’s sensuous, debonair Marie, mother of Draper’s second ex-wife Megan. “You’re done with Canada,” Roger told Marie, as the two birds of a feather nearly blow it all up with a fight and before deciding to marry. In another poignant scene of closure, Sterling told Joan he’s leaving half his fortune to their illegitimate son – making him an heir-in-waiting.
“You’ll be a creative director by 1980,” Pete told Peggy as he exchanged the ad world for the jet game. She’d been as frustrated as Joan until her longtime frenemy called with an offer of partnership she almost couldn’t refuse. But with love in bloom with Stan, she turned Joan down (and good luck with that, too). Undeterred. Joan took the leap, starting her own ad production company, with her apartment as her first office. The closing montage gave us glimpses into the lives and loves of the main characters and, last, Don Draper chanting — a journey long and far from where it all started back in 2007 for us and 1960 for these folks who’d burrowed so deep under our skin.
Talk about riding off into the sunset — Weiner’s update of that grand Hollywood Western cliché was given a pure ’70s California Dreaming spin, as Don gazed out soulfully at the shimmering blue-gold Pacific before a segue to the iconic “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” Coke commercial that replaced “It’s A Small World” from the decade before. Did Don high-tail it back East to say goodbye to Birdy and rescue the Coke account with his visionary genius? Or are we meant to think that Life, like soda pop, like even Death, will go on without him?
So did the end of Mad Men fulfill your expectations? Exceed them? Come up short? Was the story truly complete? Tell us what you think as Don and company disappear in the TV rearview mirror. What a long, strange trip it’s been.