In the last episode of 30 Rock, when Tina Fey’s Liz Lemon was trying to convince her boss, Jack (Alec Baldwin), not to sail away and abandon his life, one of the ways she tempted him to stay was by asking, “Don’t you want to know how Mad Men ends?” Now, we all know, since the acclaimed series Mad Men ended after seven seasons on Sunday night in the US (and on Monday in Israel), and the finale had an uncanny resemblance to that Liz-Jack exchange.
The main character, alienated ad man Donald Draper (Jon Hamm), was on the road, lost in America, for the entire finale.
Don left Manhattan weeks ago, trying to find a girlfriend who had disappeared on him. After a strange interlude in the Midwest in last week’s episode in which angry veterans accused Don of stealing and beat him – which he accepted meekly, in a kind of atonement for the guilt behind his theft of the identity of his commander in the Korean War, a choice that has haunted him throughout the series – he hit the road.
The final episode opened in Utah, where he raced cars in the Salt Flats, but when he spoke to his daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka) back in New York and learned that his ex-wife Betty (January Jones) was dying of lung cancer, he headed, not for home to console his children, but for California. California was where Don once lived and where he went whenever he needed to hide from the pressures of New York. Anna, the widow of the man whose identity he stole, lived there until her death from cancer, and he has always maintained a tenuous connection to her family, mainly Stephanie, her hippie niece who was still living in Anna’s home.
While the stories of Don’s family and colleagues played out in New York – there was an un-Mad Men-like happy ending for Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), the secretary who became a copywriter – we kept returning to Don, who went on a retreat on the coast with Stephanie.
There, he hit a low point, and actually started to connect to the kind of encounter sessions which set the tone for the Seventies, and which Tom Wolfe speared mercilessly in his essay, The Me Decade. I would have expected Don to be skeptical, as he was when he sparred verbally with the bohemian friends of Midge, one of his mistresses, in the series’ early seasons, but he eventually embraced the emotionalism. He did speak to Peggy, the character with whom he had the closest and most interesting relationship, by phone, and she tried to lure him back to advertising, asking, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” (shades of Liz and Jack).
This didn’t seem to move him, and he returned to the encounter sessions. At the fadeout, he was chanting on a sunny field overlooking the ocean, but then there was a cut to the iconic Coke commercial with the song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” performed by a multi-racial choir dressed in mostly hippie garb on an identical field.
The implication, which seems rather bleak, is that Don found his bliss, then returned to New York and sold it. The only consolation is that he did listen to Peggy, just as Jack listened to Liz in 30 Rock. (For the record, there have been several references to Mad Men on 30 Rock and vice versa, and Jon Hamm appeared on several episodes of 30 Rock as Liz’s boyfriend and in another cameo).
This ending will likely be talked about as much as the unexpected finish to the previous series on which Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner worked as a writer/ producer, The Sopranos.
Like The Sopranos, Mad Men has riveted viewers from the beginning, because of the quality and originality of every aspect of the series, from its fantastic acting to its meticulous production design (there is actually a show on at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York of the show’s costumes, sets and props, that runs till mid-June). In addition, it’s the only one of the acclaimed premium cable dramas that does not have a crime background. Its setting is the kinds of homes and offices where most people live and work.
The Internet has been alive for weeks with speculation about the finale, with fans guessing everything from the plot to the year to the final song. One aspect of this frenzy of both speculation and leave-taking was that many people wrote personal articles about how the series mirrored their lives: I counted three pieces with the theme “I am Sally Draper.” Not to belabor the point, but that goes for me as well, although I am several years younger than the character of Don Draper’s spirited, rebellious and confused daughter. My late father also worked in advertising, even, for a time at McCann-Erickson, the huge firm that buys Don Draper’s agency in the final season. Later, my father worked at Fortune Magazine, which was located in the rather portentously named Time & Life building (an episode in Season Seven was named Time & Life), where the Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce Agency was situated for many years. My father said the series was “like a documentary” about the advertising world. Like Sally, I visited my father in that building, and also sneaked looks at the New York Post to read about grisly murders, as she did in the creepy Mystery Date episode on Season 5.
Mad Men was a Proustian return to childhood for people who grew up in the Sixties, an era that has never been captured on film or video so evocatively. When Jennifer Getzinger, who was one of Mad Men’s directors (among the episodes she directed were the extraordinary The Suitcase in Season 4 and the Season 5 opener), visited Israel in 2013 for the Cinema of the South Festival in Sderot, I spoke to her about Weiner’s meticulousness, his conviction that every detail mattered.
She told me that he knew the date on which every scene took place, and that he matched the weather to it. There many more stories about Weiner’s seemingly obsessive but brilliant attention to detail, and it paid off in every moment.
But the series is much more than nostalgia, which Don told us in the finale of Season One means, in Greek, “the pain from an old wound.” It’s an incisive look at how the world changed during the Sixties. As Don said, “Change is neither good nor bad, it simply is.” We can look at that world now, where drinking, smoking, sexual harassment and napping were accepted parts of office life, with anger, disgust, envy or fascination, but we can never go back. Betty Draper’s inimitable parenting style – in one of her earliest scenes, she catches her five-year-old daughter with a drying cleaning bag over her head and is only concerned that the girl may have left the clothes on the floor – can make us shudder, but it was an era where parents did not worry as much about their children, for better and worse, and where the children had much more freedom.
The show details the racism, sexism and anti-Semitism of the era, and while we long for the women to shatter the glass ceiling, and for the Jewish and African-American characters to come into their own, we can also learn a great deal about where we are now from taking an honest look at where we were not so long ago.
The show was always about a particular group of people, but also about American culture, and selling is a key part of that. What binds the more formal and repressed era of the early Sixties to the later, freewheeling period is still the capitalism that held the country together.
“I keep going to a lot of places and ending up somewhere I’ve already been,” said Don, in Season Three.
The first episode of Season One revolved around Don’s successful pitch to Lucky Strike tobacco, in which he deflected attention from reports that cigarettes were carcinogenic by burnishing the product’s image. The last episode ends with the Coke commercial, the result of a successful pitch. Life may be confusing and scary, Weiner seems to be saying, but a good jingle will always get inside your head. As the song says, “It’s the real thing.”