From Both Sides – The Mad Men Finale

29 May

It’s been two weeks (nearly) since the Mad Men finale. It’s been a long process of digestion for me, but I’m finally ready to breathe deep, crack my knuckles and sit down at the keyboard to write about it.

donsfinalsmile

image from vanityfair.com

Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ was the final song of Season 6, playing over the poignant scene of Don showing his kids the dilapidated house where he grew up, but it comes to mind now that the show is over and done with. It was the perfect track for a show that was all about duality – a show all about Janus, looking back both into the traumatic first half of the 20th century and on into our own time. And it wasn’t just about Don’s double life – as I’ve said many times before, Mad Men’s key conflict was between our own longing for and rejection of the past. So, it seems fitting that I’m still in two minds about this finale.

On the one hand, I was so happy to see Joan and Peggy set up with hopeful futures. Both of them have suffered – how they’ve suffered! – emphasised by the rather pointed cactus baby donated by Pete just before his departure. For Joan to take matters into her own hands was a triumphant moment, tinged with that slight bittersweet goodbye to Richard – although, honestly, who was that invested in him? And for Peggy to finally accept a little light into her life in the form of human teddy Stan Rizzo was joyous, albeit a nakedly out-of-character fanservice moment. I liked the sense of continuity in the last few moments, suggesting that they could still be out there right now, being awesome. Yessssss.

On the other hand, it was all a bit neat and tied up with a bow, wasn’t it? I actually wouldn’t have minded the show ending an episode earlier, on the shot of Don on the highway. Weiner had set up enough character momentum for us to forge our own futures for the Sterling Cooper crew – e.g. we saw Joan take her rolodex and Peggy’s swagger that so brilliantly book-ended her arc.

This leads me to the two sides of Don’s final ‘redemption’. At the time I read the Coke advert as a deliberately ambiguous idea. I didn’t want to believe Don literally went back to McCann (a place of soul crushing monotony for him, surely?) and ground out this sickly confection of an advert. But Matt Weiner tells us that, yes, Don made the ad. So, in light of this, how can we read the ending? Is it really a positive, fresh start for him?

I’m not ashamed to say that I’m one of these people Weiner finds ‘disturbing’ in their cynical view of this particular advert. Coke exploits the late 60s counterculture for commercial purposes, proclaiming a vision of peace and racial harmony that we in 2015 can see is a naive dreamworld. Not only this, but having hawked the cigarettes that have killed his wife, Don moves on to a similarly toxic substance (linked to the drug by Joan’s little indulgence). People at the time may have viewed the work as ‘beautiful’ (as Weiner puts it), but it’s hard to take off our 21st century goggles when we look at it now.

With this mindset, the ending could come across as something rather bleak. Having struggled through seven seasons of existential crisis, our lead finally shucked all the accoutrements of ‘Don’ (an Odyssean arc, stripping back the elements of masculine power so the hero can rise again). It seemed like he could finally reconcile himself with Dick. But then the pull of advertising lures him again. Seems like, with all his demons laid to rest, he has truly transformed into Don – Don is now his real and only self. The question the show was asking us all along – can we change? – is answered. No. It’s a bit hard to swallow given that we’ve spent so many years invested in his redemption.

And yet, there is something almost hopeful in Don’s face at the end. When everything else is taken from him, he is still in possession of his creativity. It reminds me a little of the end of Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, featuring another difficult artistic protagonist (or two). ‘White. A blank page’. The Menier’s 2005 production ended with an intake of breath, lending it an even sharper feeling of beginning, rather than ending. Just as Sondheim projects plenty of his own artistic persona onto Seurat, so Weiner spent much of Season 7 ruminating on the writer’s process and what would come next for him. Hence: Don’s anxiety over his dreams for the future. His final, inspired smile reminds that, when all else fails, the creative spirit remains.

That Don’s story didn’t really end is, I suppose, in keeping with everything else the show has been telling us for the last seven seasons. In Season Three, Don told us that ‘change isn’t good or bad. It just is’. Isn’t that the way of life, too? Don will continue to have his good parts and bad parts and will probably still struggle with elements of himself. So will all of the characters. So will we. In the course of writing this, I’ve been listening to a few other Joni Mitchell songs, and one in particular caught my ear:

And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return, we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round 

In the circle game

I may not be 100%, passionately happy about the final episode, but it does fit with the rest of the show, thematically and narratively – and in the way it can be viewed from many angles. Unlike other show finales (*cough*BSG*cough*) it hasn’t soured me towards the product as a whole. Instead, I look forward to rewatching many times.

Matt Weiner, it’s been a hell of a ride. Thanks for having me on board.

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