By John Andrew Fraser
Sooner or later, everything ends. Sometimes it ends while you’re sharing a plate of onion rings with your family at one of New Jersey’s best diners. Sometimes it ends with life simply moving on as people slide into new positions recently vacated by others, like the world is some kind of complex ecosystem. And sometimes it concludes with the Hollywood ending you always wanted and you die surrounded by the empire you created as cops rush the scene. Mad Men ended tonight, and many will say that the golden age of television drama ended with it. To an extent that may be true—I don’t know that we’ll necessarily see a show quite like Mad Men (or The Sopranos, or The Wire, or Breaking Bad) ever again—but there is still great television being made right now and there will still be great television in the future. But Mad Men was unique in so many ways—it meandered, it took its time, it often confounded viewers, and it was never afraid to get weird. It was one of a kind, and for that reason, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that its finale was totally unique as well.
Don never made it back to New York (at least not on camera). He found out Betty was dying and seemed to make a half-hearted plea to raise their sons, but as soon as Betty reminded him that he wasn’t a big part of their lives to begin with he almost instantly seemed to know that she was right. Instead, he finally makes his way to California and meets up with Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie (and I have to admit that I did not expect to see Stephanie in this final episode). He joins Stephanie on some kind of self-help yoga retreat in the California wilderness. She’s given away her child, just like Peggy, and the kid will grow up without his mother, just like a young Don Draper/Dick Whitman. Don seems eager to try to shed the last vestige of his past when he offers to give Stephanie Anna’s ring. “Move forward,” he tells her (the same advice he gave Peggy in the hospital after she gave birth), but Stephanie isn’t taking his words of wisdom, “I don’t think it works like that,” she tells him.
I’ll be honest, at this time, I’m not exactly sure what Don found on that retreat, or if he even found anything at all. It’s almost like when Tony Soprano looked out over the Las Vegas desert while high on peyote and screamed, “I get it!” Did he come to the conclusion that he was just like Leonard, the everyman who should be happier—the guy who said his family looks at him, but never really sees him? And if Don did reach some kind of epiphany, would he really just turn around, turn it into an advertisement, and sell it back to McCann? Did he even dream up the famous coke commercial to begin with? Or did he think “I’m just like this guy Leonard, people can’t really see me for who I am, I don’t even know if I can see myself for who I am, I’ve failed with my family over and over again, but my one real talent is creating advertisements, it’s what I do, and I have to go back with this idea.” My guess is that this is going to be Matt Weiner’s version of The Soprano’s cut-to-black finale—fans will be debating what that final scene means for years. And there’s no clear answer (or at least to me there’s no clear answer), which makes it both great and frustrating at the same time. For eight years, Mad Men has been asking us whether people can change, now it’s all over—my feeling is that it’s pretty optimistic in its belief that people, in general, can change. But what about Don? I’m still just not sure.
The rest of the episode seemed far less ambiguous and almost a little tidier than I expected. Joan’s boyfriend, Richard, leaves her because he still can’t grasp the concept that she’d rather work than travel the world with him—so she starts Holloway & Harris, a production company where she won’t have to answer to anyone. When we last see Joan she’s using her babysitter as a secretary and running the operation out of her home, which may seem small time, but it’s worth remembering that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s headquarters was originally located in a hotel suite. Something tells me that Joan is going to be just fine. Roger seems happy too. He’s going to marry Marie Calvet. The absurdity of this situation seems to suit Roger well. Even he’s amazed at how little anyone cares, and he gets one last “Roger joke” in as he refers to Marie as his mother as they sit together in a café. I don’t know that I have much faith in Roger and Marie’s relationship long-term, considering what we know about both characters. Nevertheless, I think this was a fitting way for Roger Sterling to go out.
My guess is that fans of the show felt that Peggy and Stan also went out in the best way possible. There has been undeniable chemistry between the two ever since they were naked in that hotel room together back in season four, so it’s not exactly surprising that they’d end up together in the finale. Call me unsentimental, however, but I was a little lukewarm on the pairing (I didn’t hate it, I was just lukewarm on it). I just couldn’t help but watch the scene when Peggy and Stan confess their love for one another and think that it was a little beneath Mad Men (although the fact that it didn’t come across as a typically graceful confession was pretty great). Two weeks ago, I was left thinking that all Peggy really needed in life was her octopus painting. Her ending wasn’t bad, it just was more traditional than I expected, but that’s also okay—Peggy Olson has always been the character that Mad Men has viewed with the most hope. It makes sense that she’d get the happiest ending.
It’s hard to believe that it’s all over. I’ve heard many people say that to watch Mad Men is to look back on your own life, and it’s true. When this show premiered eight years ago I was graduating from high school! Since then there have been graduations, birthdays, and funerals in my life. I’ve moved to New York, left, and moved back again. I remember first watching “The Wheel,” while I was on a transcontinental flight back to America in 2009. It’s great how the characters changed, but always seemed to grow into different versions of themselves. And this is what happens in real life too! Take a look at an old year book, or a photo album, or an old picture on facebook, and you’ll see the same thing—you’re still you, but you’ve also changed. I keep thinking about Betty’s letter to Sally last week as the perfect illustration of this. On one hand, she acknowledges that she understands Sally and that she’s no longer afraid for her. She tells her to embrace the adventure. On the other hand, a large part of that letter is devoted to telling Sally how Betty wants to look at her funeral—Betty’s definitely changed, but she’s still Betty.
I’ve watched these characters make progress and then backslide so many times throughout the years that sometimes I almost feel like I can see little parts of myself in them. That might sound weird, and I don’t think that by watching Mad Men I’m fulfilling some kind of fantasy where I get to see myself on t.v. (I’m pretty sure I’d never want to see that), but it has led me to grow more attached to Mad Men than perhaps any other show I’ve ever watched. When you strip everything else away, the big ideas that Mad Men dealt with—personal identity, happiness, and fulfillment—are so universal, it’s hard not to relate at least a little on a personal level. For eight years, fans of Mad Men tuned in to watch something that they knew was special and unique. So many times it swung for the fences and delivered great moments. You almost want to buy the world a coke just thinking about it.
- True story: I’ve basically given up drinking soda, but today my roommate was drinking a can of coke and for some reason I just felt compelled to go out and buy one too. I guess the moral of the story is to never discount real-life foreshadowing?
- I loved that when Pete told Peggy that she’d be a creative director by 1980 and that someday people would brag about having worked with her, she responded with the classic Pete line, “a thing like that.”
- For some reason the line that made me laugh the hardest this week was when Joan asked Ken how his son was doing and he responded, “He’s kind of weird actually. We think he might have problems.”
- Weiner really spread the love in this episode. Nearly every major character showed up (even Ken Cosgrove and Harry Crane). Some were speculating that this last episode might only focus on Don, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
- So that’s it. We’ve reached the end of the road. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my Mad Men season seven recaps. Even though I’ll miss writing these, I won’t miss staying up until all hours of the night on Sundays. In closing, I’d like to thank everyone who has read and commented, and I’d also like to thank Colin for allowing me to post on his blog.
By John Andrew Fraser
I’ll be interested to see what other critics say about “The Milk and Honey Route.” While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a bad episode of Mad Men (although to be fair, I don’t think I’d call any episode of Mad Men bad), it does seem like a rather strange way to spend the show’s penultimate hour. There was no Roger Sterling tonight, no Peggy Olson, and no Joan Holloway. Instead we got scenes with Don at an American Legion gathering in Kansas with a bunch of characters we’ve never met before. Yet to be fair, this hour of Mad Men did appear to wrap up a couple storylines—one brutally, and the other with what seems to be a sense of hope.
For years, Mad Men fans have speculated that Don, once the ace ad man for big tobacco, would fall victim to some terrible smoking-related illness like lung cancer or emphysema. This episode is a classic example of the show zigging when we thought it would zag, as we find out early in the hour that Betty has been diagnosed with very aggressive, late-stage lung cancer. There’s no getting better, and most of the medicine and treatment will be palliative. Some may argue that this end to Betty’s arc is too melodramatic, however, I found it to be the biggest gut-punch the show has delivered since Lane Pryce’s suicide in season five. Betty had finally found fulfillment in her life—she had returned to school and was going to pursue a career in psychology—perhaps something she had wanted to do for a long time (she told Don last week, “I’ve always wanted this” as she read Freud at her kitchen table). This makes her diagnosis that much harder to take, Betty seemed destined for something close to a happy ending, and in the span of an episode, it morphed into a nightmare. In her final note to Sally, she almost serves as a mouthpiece for the show, stating “sometimes it’s best not to prolong things. Sometimes you need to accept when things are over.”
Meanwhile, Duck Phillips makes a surprise return in this episode. He informs Pete that there’s a great job opportunity at Learjet, but that he’d have to move to Wichita to take it. At first, Pete balks at the possibility. Yet, over the course of the hour he channels his inner Don Draper and realizes that Wichita could be a place for him to start over—and he comes to realize that he needs and wants to start over. He has dinner with his brother, Bud, who mechanically recounts his own philandering ways. He treats his daughter’s bee sting with some toothpaste, and he seems to remember just why he and Trudy made such a good team. By the end of the episode, he’s ready to move to Kansas with his wife and daughter. Not everyone gets a second chance in life, but apparently Pete Campbell does.
I’m guessing there will be some discussion as to whether Pete “deserves” this ending (if this is in fact his ending, since we still have one more episode left). Many fans of the show have long seen Pete as a kind of villain—Full disclosure, I am not one of these people. For better or worse, Pete has always been one of my favorite characters on the show, and the character with whom I most closely identified. So in his defense, I would ask—has any character changed as much as Pete Campbell over the course of the show’s run? Think back to the Pete in season one—the little weasel who tried to blackmail Don, and look at him now. He had to nearly ruin his life to understand just what he had, but Pete spotted an opportunity to turn things around, and he took it. That represents progress. Mad Men, like The Sopranos before it, is fascinated with the question “can people change?” and Pete Campbell has changed. That’s why it looks like there’s hope for him in the future, and maybe, just maybe, he’s earned it.
Kansas represents a new and better life for Pete, but what does it represent for Don? Purgatory? A different location where he still can’t escape his past? As has been the case several times this season, many of the scenes involving Don in Kansas take on an almost dreamlike quality—the episode even starts with an actual dream, where Don is pulled over by a policeman who tells him that they’ve finally caught up with him. He’s pressured into attending a veterans gathering, and my first thought was that these were the kind of people Dick Whitman would’ve been hanging out with if he had never ditched his identity. But Don isn’t Dick anymore—even though he confesses to the other veterans that he killed the real Don Draper back in Korea—it’s obvious to everyone at the event that he has money and that he doesn’t belong. When they believe that he’s stolen their money later that night, they break into his hotel room and accuse him of being the imposter that he is. However, Don didn’t steal the money, a new Don Draper named Andy, the local handy-boy did. Don realizes this, and tells Andy that if he commits a crime like this he’ll have to be somebody else, and that won’t be what he thinks it is. Yet despite this advice, the episode ends with Don giving Andy the keys to his car. He ultimately offers him a way to escape—a way to start over. It’s becoming clear that Don doesn’t want to be Don Draper anymore, but he can’t really go back to being Dick Whitman either. As he sits alone at the bus stop as the episode ends, we’re left to ask yet again, “who is Don Draper?” At this point it looks like he might disappear completely.
· Looking back, the show had hinted at Betty’s death several different times. In the season five episode “Tea Leaves,” she has a benign tumor removed from her throat and she ponders what life would be like without her. Earlier this season in “A Days Work,” Sally mentions getting Betty in the ground.
· In season six, Duck Phillips informs Pete that he has a job opportunity for him in Wichita, to which Pete responds, “Anything on planet earth?” This is a classic Mad Men moment where a small, seemingly insignificant exchange comes back and figures into the plot in a big way.
· I’ll see everyone next week for the series finale “Person to Person.” I don’t know what it says about the show, but I still feel like there’s so many different ways this story could end. I remain confident that Matt Weiner will deliver a satisfying conclusion.
By John Andrew Fraser
By all accounts, Semi Chellas is Matthew Weiner’s protégé. Over the years she’s written some of the show’s finest episodes, such as season five’s trippy “Far Away Places,” and season seven’s “The Strategy.” But it was her work on another season five episode, “The Other Woman,” that should have prepared us for this week’s hour. In that episode, Peggy Olson walked away from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in search of a new beginning while Joan prostituted herself in order to earn partner status at the agency. We’ll get to Peggy shortly, but this week was the final straw for Joan. Back in “The Other Woman,” she agreed to something terrible with the assurance that it would lead to more autonomy, more respect, and more power—and for awhile it did—she had finally climbed the ladder at SC&P and earned the job she had always wanted. Yet now that the agency has been absorbed by McCann, Joan’s worst fears from last week have already come to fruition—she’s nothing but a junior-level executive at McCann. Everything she’s worked for, after everything she’s been through, has been taken away, and she’s willing to take fifty cents on the dollar just to get out so she’ll never have to deal with it again. Just as Peggy did in season five, Joan leaves the agency—although with just two episodes left, I don’t think she’s coming back.
If this is the end of Joan’s arc (and it may be the end of her work-related story, but I’m almost 100% sure that we’ll see her again in the next two episodes), it’s worth asking whether any other character has changed as much during Mad Men’s run. In seasons one and two she was worried about meeting the right guy and moving to Glen Cove. In the pilot, she even told Peggy to put a paper bag over her head and really evaluate her strengths and weaknesses. Now, she’s staring down Jim Hobart and talking about Betty Friedan after her new boyfriend has offered to get Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante to come over and make him listen to reason. Would season one Joan even recognize season seven Joan if you put both of them together in a room?
We also found out this week that Roger Sterling knows how to play the organ! (Side question—why was there ever an organ in the SC&P office to begin with?) I guess it’s only appropriate since this episode did serve as a kind of funeral for the agency. Every scene with Roger and Peggy this week was solid gold. I loved seeing him play the organ while Peggy roller-skated through the halls of SC&P, I loved when he gave her Bert’s old painting of an octopus pleasuring a woman (was that the most Roger Sterling thing to do or what?), and I especially loved the slow-motion scene where Peggy walks down the hall at McCann for the first time wearing sunglasses while she’s clutching Bert’s octopus painting. I really hope that this scene hints at how Peggy will act during the rest of her time at McCann—showing up more than a little buzzed at 4 p.m. while just generally lacking respect for authority. Overall, these scenes seemed to serve as comic relief in an episode that was otherwise somewhat heavy at times, while also allowing the two characters to relive the time they spent at SC&P together, yet there was also a sense of sadness hanging over them. As Roger notes, “you’re never safe, even when your name’s on the door”—with the end of Sterling Cooper & Partners, he has quite literally been erased.
This idea of erasure follows Don throughout this episode as well. He’s invited to attend a meeting with Miller about a new low-calorie beer, but he finds that about twenty other Don Drapers (along with Ted Chaough) are also in the meeting. Just as Joan’s worst fears about McCann became reality this week, so did Don’s. He’s simply a cog in a huge machine, surrounded by drones who all turn their pages at the exact same time at the conference table. Don looks out the window and sees a plane fly by the Empire State Building and off into the distance. He senses that it really doesn’t even matter whether he’s in this meeting or not. He’s proven correct as he gets up, leaves and literally no one seems to notice. He shows up at the Francis residence to take Sally back to school, but she’s already left. Nobody seems to need him in either his work or his family life, so he decides to do the one thing any sane person would do—leave everything and drive to Wisconsin.
Don has always had a little Rabbit Angstrom in him, but nothing on the show has called back to John Updike’s 1960 novel quite like Don’s impromptu cross-state road trip in this episode. He’s looking for Diana—the waitress who everyone hated from the first two episodes this half season—but when he reaches Racine he can only find the remnants of the life she left behind—her daughter, her home, her ex-husband, and his new wife. I mentioned in an earlier review that Don probably saw a lot of himself in Diana, so maybe it was important for him to see what she left behind since he was always unable or unwilling to go back and witness the people he abandoned in his past. As the curtain closes on this episode Don is still driving. He picks up a hitchhiker who’s heading toward St. Paul. Assuming Don’s still in Wisconsin, he’s heading west. Who knows, he just might make it to California after all.
- After the previous four episodes ended with older songs, this one closed with David Bowie’s Space Oddity. I could not have been happier about this.
- Usually more stuff slips through the cracks at a bigger company, but it doesn’t sound like Don will just be able to go AWOL at McCann like he sometimes did at Sterling Cooper. He’s already missed two client meetings and Jim Hobart doesn’t sound pleased. Will Don quit or get fired, or does it even matter anymore?
- Seriously, where did that organ come from? I remember that one of the kids was playing it in last week’s episode. Also, was that some left-over Vermouth from the Pima Ryan ad that Peggy and Roger were drinking?