Mad Men finale is an incisive look at the human condition

May 19, 2015 Updated: April 23, 2016

We all strive to reinvent ourselves, yet we always end up usually in the same place, as the cliche “circle of life” tagline usually goes. The big Mad Men finale, that had everyone on their toes, proved to be a lot more than just a great ending to a beautifully written series, but an incisive look at the human condition. Namely, it touched upon our need for human connection, despite our intense display of Draperesque features that every single one of us sometimes carry around to try and protect ourselves, from whatever it is that we want to protect ourselves from. The big finale, was not really that big. Draper does not hijack a plane as the famous D.B Cooper, or kill himself, although all of these have been on the minds of many fans. No. In fact the ending is the most human, and frankly realistic ending to a show about a man whose entire life has been in free-fall.

The last ten minutes of the finale are dumbfounding. Draper is left in a catatonic state, unlike we have ever seen before in the 7 seasons of Mad Men. As we were all expecting for him to get up and make a confident speech about life, instead he becomes a mute to the realization of what he had done for the last twenty years of his life, ten of which we have been able to witness. Matthew Weiner, the main writer of show, has made Don completely vulnerable, and finally after a long indecisive wait, we have been able to see Don open up emotionally to a complete stranger- a guy named Leonard. His story about loneliness, isolation, the need for love, and of course his fridge metaphor all led to Don hugging the man as he exploded into tears. For the first time ever, Don actually looked like a human being with feelings.

If we look at “Person to Person,” it is obvious that Don is fully dissociated from New York, and every important person that was/is close to him. Throughout the episode he makes three calls, all emotional, to the most important people in his life: Betty, Sally, and Peggy. It is obvious however that the calls are not even a catharsis, rather terse and obvious realizations that he pushed all these people away from his life due to his lying, womanizing, alcohol, and just about every decision he had ever made. Draper, of course is not a “bad guy.” Matthew Wiener himself refused to call him an anti-hero, because really Don never killed anyone, and never really harmed anyone physically. He is, and was, the symbol of the American man, espoused in the ever-glorious drapes of Capitalism. We cannot deny however that he is a broken man, whose problems led to a culmination of utter loneliness.

We see the lives of the main characters also continue in the directions that they always aspired, if one looks as far as season one. Peggy, although has been always considered a workaholic and career-driven woman, she always wanted to find love,  which she does with Stan. Joan escapes the drudgery of having to be complacent with her new boyfriend, and decides to go into business herself. If we look way back at the beginning of the show, we can remember Joan always had ambitions yet always found herself in relations with less than desirable men, and although Peggy was always ambitious she was also very lonely and craved for a human connection. Roger and Marie, two characters that are very much the same, end up in what I think will be a doomed but still enjoyable relationship . We all know that Betty’s end is the most sorrowful, yet still what is interesting is to see Sally’s maturity. For the first time ever, we see Sally as an adult- although a girl that has been pushed by life’s circumstances to fend for her family. Pete Campbell is finally happy to have achieved more than he could dream of, until finally he will probably get bored again and stray both form work and Trudy. All in all, everyone is moving forward.

Don realizes that his life amounts to “nothing,” which of course is still very much up to debate. I believe, and many others agree, that the tumultuous and precipitous nature of the 60’s for Don, were indeed a free-fall as a person. In the end he is all alone. Still as John Hamn recently suggested, Don, in the last scene just before the Coke ad plays, and a big grin can be seen on his face, he realizes that he is an advertising man. That is his identity, which led him to create one of the most successful ad campaigns of the 70s for one of the largest American companies: Coca-Cola. Of course this is all fiction, and it was not actually Draper that made the real-life ad.

Don finds ‘bliss’ in himself through creation, and through the thing that he does best. Namely creating advertisements in order to sell products. In other words, happiness can indeed be found in achievement. Yet, does this not seem as a simple reinvention of himself, through the medium of Capitalism, and through the medium of consumerism? A very coy look at the final scenes makes us realize that infallibly the two are very much linked: a person’s life, as well as his/her creation through Capitalism might indeed result in some sort of happiness. Will it last? Probably not. Did it change Don completely? Probably not. I highly doubt that Draper can go to something that he never really had. He was unhappy as Dick Whitman, and he was somewhat unhappy-frankly depressed- as Don Draper. All he really has is himself, whatever the name, or the mask, he identifies through, the lies/truths which he creates in his ads is all that he really has. Similar to the lies/truths in his own life.

The dichotomy between lies and truths are therefore evident. Our lives are a mish-mash of lies and truths, just like advertisements, films and all forms of art to grace our civilization. The line between the two is at times hard to recognize, but we can always re-invent ourselves everyday by taking truths and lies, and giving them life. Don Draper was a creation, but really how much of Dick’s own choices in life were taken as Don, or as Dick? Regardless of the name, Don/Dick was still the same person, regardless of his attempt at changing who he was. This was his realization during his brief catatonia. 

One of the most important scenes in this episode is when Stephanie breaks down at the hippie meeting because she feels others are judging her for giving her child away. When she could not take it anymore she storms out of the building, with Don right behind her. In this scene between the two on the commune grounds, where he tries to pitch the idea of moving “forward” and forgetting about the past, something he has done before with Adam-his brother, Peggy when she had her child with Pete, and numerous other times. In that instance, you can hear Draper trying to sell the idea of moving past one’s bad decisions-again something he has been doing all his life, only to be rebuffed with “No Dick. I think you are wrong…” Something which again has never happened on the show. One cannot just move forward, and become emotionally empty, as that would result into a Don-styled nervous breakdown, which might mean you will go full-denim.

Another theme of vast importance is that of the running away/searching binary. Don always runs away from his problems, form the smallest social situations, meetings, to the biggest problems in his life. Although he runs away, he in fact is always searching for something at the same time. We all look for happiness, and to get it we tend to run from things, while searching for something to help us get more happiness. Remember Don’s pitch to Dow? “What is happiness? Just a moment before you need more happiness..” The idea of happiness is something that is touched upon a lot by Weiner. All the characters are looking for it consistently, but never really find it, thus they have to fabricate it in their own lives, just like how Don and Peggy do it in their ads. Again the line between the two seems very fine.

For some the ending is bleak as it alludes to the shallow consumerism that is born out of what some might consider deep spiritual human connections. Yet, I suspect that the hippie culture, and the counter-culture that promotes that garbage itself was and is a dichotomy of truths and lies, that all lead to the same needs and wants: the search for happiness. So what is this human condition? I honestly cannot say, yet I am sure it does have a lot to do with the issue of re-invention. Don tries to reinvent himself but always ends up who he truly is, an alcoholic, good looking womanizer, who makes a killer in the advertising world. That is the ending of the show in itself. Don/Dick is just who he is: the man in a suit who makes good ads.