WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. DO. NOT. CONTINUE. IF YOU HAVE NOT FINISHED MAD MEN. IF YOU CONTINUE WITHOUT HAVING WATCHED THE SERIES FINALE, I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE.
|The final shot of Mad Men's Don Draper|
As I have written before, we expect art to give us meaning, to hand us an answer, even though life rarely ever does this: X never equals Y directly and despite the education system’s attempts to give us a simple formula for art, there is none. We expect meaning, though: we expect to have an answer to why we are here in life, why we do what we do, why things happen, often beyond our control. There are no answers. This is the abyss. If you cannot face a life without meaning, your options are slim.
The series finale of Mad Men is central to this concept, in a lot of ways. I have never written about Mad Men in any critical way, partially because there are so many who do it better (namely Tom & Lorenzo). Tonight though, having finished the series finale (twice, actually), I feel compelled to pull Matthew Weiner’s opus into my own theories on art and being.
The end of Mad Men provides no “answer”: tomorrow, for Don, is another day. He does not die, he does not make any grand proclamations about his identity. Whomever he has chosen to continue as (Don or Dick Whitman) is entirely in his own mind and we, the viewer, are done. Our window into the world of this character is over. For the characters of the series, they are moving on. Whatever their resolutions are at the end of the series are for us. Their ultimate fates are unknown and that is exactly as it should be.
There is some backlash already. Did Don create the famous Coca-Cola ad? I am uncertain but I think it is fairly obvious we are to draw that conclusion based on his smile, which some are reading as smug but I read as peaceful, knowing. He has reached the center and, at the center. Don Draper comes up with advertisements. He is a pitchman and, now that the “catastrophe of [his] personality” has become "beautiful again"(quoting his own reading of Frank O'Hara's "Mayakovsky" earlier in the series) and he has found peace, his mind is free to create from within itself using the form it has worked in: ads. A writer, the more writing they do, relates to the world through their words, through their development and manipulation of language. Ultimately, it becomes their form of communication, the way in which they process the world that they live in. For Don, his clarity brings him back to his love. Reddit user Northern_kid writes “He finds nirvana and sells it.” Indeed.
I do not want an answer. I do not want to know what happened to Don once he stopped chanting. I do not care. Don is alright, he is alive, as far as we know, and that is it. He has, in his moment, created something new, I suspect, and he will go and give it to the world. Every character, to some extent, has reached a level of closure, a moment that genuinely makes them smile. For Joan, it is having no boss. For Pete, having his family with him and a fresh start. For Don, well, for Don we have a feeling it is a deep understanding of himself. However, we do not know that in any meaningful way and I understand how that is bothersome to people.
Why, though? Is it because viewers of the series eventually expected closure on every level— that we should know the ultimate fate of each character which has passed through the series? Weiner’s great triumph, in my opinion, is his selectivity, his ability to show us the portions of these lives as we need to see them and understand them. Yes, the series exists for us to watch but these characters do not exist on our plane: they exist for their world and that world has its own beginning and ending without us. Their lives continued on for whatever time period. Our concern is over. The 60s have ended and the characters have made their peace with that, even if we as a nation had not by the end of 1970. It would take much of the 1970s and beyond to really make sense of what the nation had gone through during the 60s. Maybe, to an extent, we still do not understand it and mostly will never have that opportunity.
Weiner, though, delivered the final episode perfectly. There have been a lot of turns to throw us off but ultimately, the series is about a man’s journey to find inner peace, to understand his actions in a war that he always had difficulty justifying. Dick Whitman’s stealing of an identity in order to get home, we find out, is hardly the worst thing anyone has done in the armed forces to get out alive. Dick did what he could to get home and ultimately, there is some forgiveness there for Draper. He may not have returned to the name but Dick Whitman finally returned from Korea in the last episodes of the series.
In our most basic art forms, we demand answers. The more complex forms are made fun of because “anything” can be that art form. That is not true, of course: it takes an inner understanding beyond a superficial one to understand contemporary art in many cases. I feel that anyone who has watched the series and thoroughly thought it through is not surprised or bothered by this ending. Don’s smile at the end, though read by some as “smug” seems to me to be the moment he has reached his true inner self. He understands himself and his role in this world. It is in that moment that his mind frees itself to create and create it does.
I had a moment when I finished watching this episode that I would like to share: I have rewatched the series several times, up to whatever episodes were available at that time. Surely the first several seasons three to four viewings, the last two seasons maybe a viewing or two each. The finale, I have watched twice now, back to back. In a way, I have had the experience. I think I have experienced the moments that Weiner wanted me to experience and my time with the Mad Men universe is at an end. This is not to say I will not return to the series later, just that I am okay, alright, with where the series has ended and where I have changed in having experienced it. I think good art should not move you substantially, only give you a little flavor of someone else’s experience to add to your own. Nothing can change your life but art can provide you some moments in which you understand your part in the world, even if there is no set definition of such a thing.
Addendum: I feel like there's an aspect here I would love to write more on, which is Don's version of capitalism and Coca-Cola's which comes out of the ad. It is leaning on the good vibes of the era which quickly falls away.
A few personal notes:
1) I have really enjoyed the series. I think the actors have nailed these parts (I expect lots from Kiernan Shipka, certainly) and Matthew Weiner has written the first line of his obituary. There is nothing worse, as a writer, that I can imagine than writing the one work for which you will be remembered at a relatively young age but, I think sadly, Mr. Weiner has done it. Mad Men is the great American novel in television's often rough format. Truly, this series has made television itself the true art form for telling a real narrative over time. Movies are no longer capable of doing such. Just let Michael Bay entertain you, I guess.
2) As an Atlanta kid, the Coca-Cola song is home to me. It makes me misty-eyed and, in Don's words from near the start of the series, I feel nostalgic. That we as a society could never have lived up to its ideals saddens me, to an extent, but I suppose it would be silly to develop ideals from an ad.