The Best of the Mad Men Series Finale Recaps

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Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC

Most Mad Men recaps include the sentence “Mad Men has always been about [insert any of life’s big themes here]” and last night’s final episode really had writers questioning what big theme the show wanted to leave us on. Was the ending essentially a cynical look at commodification or an optimistic breakthrough for Don? Is Peggy’s ending a romantic conclusion for a character who has grown so much in her work, or fan service? Do people really change? Was the episode any good at all? These are all things we could debate for hours, perhaps over a Coke. If there’s one thing we loved more than watching Mad Men, it was analyzing Mad Men. So here are some of the best thoughts on the finale. One thing they have in common: an aggressively anti-soda stance (but, as a good Mad Men recapper would say, everything is slowly killing us, anyway). 

"If anyone in the show has reached full enlightenment, it’s Joan. She traveled the furthest of any character. Peggy was always ambitious, and Don was always troubled. But the Joan we met in the pilot was a self-appointed female defender of patriarchy, and by the close of the finale she is determined to burn it all down. She learned that supporting your own oppression doesn’t help you to get spared. Women and minorities are discouraged from speaking up about the systematic oppression they encounter, and often gaslit into pretending it doesn’t exist. One day Joan will meet a guy who won’t make her choose between love and her job. You can’t stop a ginger with a plan, even when one is making up that plan on the fly." —Molly Lambert, Grantland

"Of course, all these happy endings wouldn’t make sense on ‘Mad Men’ without an undertow of sadness — and Weiner has always seemed to be interested in how this generation would shape the next. In references and brief shots of the children, we get a sense of how they will feel the ripple effects of their parents’ drama. As Roger signs over half his inheritance to his child with Joan, it underscores the fact that this child may never know his father. Their child is filmed twice plopped in front of the television. Sally has been forced to grow up fast and compensate. Bobby, burning food in the kitchen, knows that his mother is lying about her illness and Sally must step in to play the role her father abdicated. Ken, obsessed with work again and leaving his literary career far behind, laughs about his kid, saying he’s 'a little weird, actually. I think there might be something wrong with him.' It’s a glib, minor joke, but it seems to line up with the show’s constant view of how little the era expected of fathers." —Logan Hill, New York Times

"The American dream deferred in Mad Men’s estimation was essentially the breakdown of Don’s belief system. Bereft, broken, he abandoned Dick Whitman’s identity as a measure of self-preservation—not just to escape Korea, but to erase the ghosts of his past. ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ goes that oft-quoted Didion line. Don Draper’s infractions violated Dick Whitman’s moral barometer, perhaps, and he began losing himself in the form of broken vows, traumatized children, empty promises, but most substantially in the form of alcoholism, the primary heirloom his father passed down. (Dishonesty, too, but alcohol was more useful in the short term.) In the first season, Mad Men felt like a spy story, an uncovering of secrets and the ways we ferret them away, but in the final season, Don just seemed like a porcelain doll who’d been left out on front street, in the rain—the manifestation of how lies warp us over time."  —Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, Jezebel

"The series finale — 'Person to Person' — took its title from the phone calls between Don and the most important women in his life: Betty, Sally and Peggy. It covered his change of identity, from Dick Whitman to Don Draper to the unnamed newborn who sat cross-legged in the California dawn, a hint of a smile just beginning to take hold. But more than either of those, it was about our (anti)hero's ability to finally find a true connection with another human being, one that had nothing to do with sex or money or being able to spin a good line — one accomplished, in fact, without Don saying anything at all. His soulmate, as is turns out, is not a doomed brunette but a man in a pale blue sweater, one so nondescript that his wife and kids don't even notice when he takes a seat." —Sam Adams, Rolling Stone

"This wasn't only a story about Peggy getting a boyfriend; it was a story about Peggy getting free of trying to emotionally connect with Don Draper, which she's been trying to do since the pilot. It was a story about Peggy stepping away from a relationship from which she gets nothing to make room for a relationship from which she gets something. Stan started out as a jerk, but Don stayed a jerk. Learning to stop throwing good emotional money after bad is one of the most important elements of adulthood; despite its cinematic-swoon elements, this was more than met the eye: It wasn't just a story about getting what you've always dreamed of. It was just as much a story about when to give up." —Linda Holmes, NPR

"Is this TV’s saddest happy ending ever or it’s happiest sad ending ever? Has Don changed, or has he come 3000 miles to find what he’s always found in a conference room? Has the man who said love was invented by guys like him to sell nylons found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work? Or has he, devoid of love and connection and family, become a kind of advertising bodhisattva, slipping the bonds of earthly relationships the better to tap America’s Coke-buying chakras?

This is where I’m supposed to bluff my way through Don Draper-style and tell you I know. I don’t. " —James Poniewozik, Time

"When people talk about the 1960s, they often say that it was a time of great change. The irony is that Don is supposed to be this great symbol of that era, and yet his refusal to change has defined the show. That’s true right down to the end, as he heads back to California to return Anna’s ring and ends up joining Stephanie at an Esalen-style retreat in Big Sur. He’s just had an emotional breakthrough with some stranger named Leonard, who tells a metaphorical story about closing the refrigerator door that echoes the show’s larger themes about doorways. Though when Don hugs the guy, it’s a bad sign of what’s to come. (‘Does hugging feel honest?’ the guru asks the group earlier in the episode.) The next thing you know, Don is sitting cross-legged on a cliff, listening to the guru insist that ‘the new day brings new hope,’ maybe even ‘a new you.’ Watching this, you might think, Don Draper has finally traded the corporate world for something meaningful! But the second you hear those voices singing in that Coke jingle, it’s clear that he has taken this authentic experience and commodified it. He’s just made the most famous ad for one of the most famous companies in the world. How fitting that a guy whose whole life has been a lie would invent a campaign called ‘The Real Thing.’” —Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

"There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times. (My favorite ending was probably the nastiest of the bunch: Ken Cosgrove has become a cheerful suit working for Dow Chemical, having refused to step through the open door in his own life to pursue his creative dreams. Ken, you missed your chance to write the Don Draper story!) But after all my anxiety about Mr. Big Shot, the great Don Draper, with his beef-red face and exasperating alcoholic relapses, with his attraction to an endless stream of beauty-marked Death Brunettes, he finally proved himself as the show’s protagonist, making his place at center stage, as both man and brand, seem not just inevitable and logical but also deeply original—a risk that paid off in full." —Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker

"What I love most about the Coke-ad ending, though—and the more I think about it, the more I actually do love it — was how neatly it resolved one of the most persistent themes of Mad Men: the tension between materialism and meaning, between stuff and all the things we think we are getting ourselves when we buy stuff. Don’s path to California found him shedding his possessions like a snake sheds skin — the last of these being his car, which he gave to a Dick Whitmanesque con artist, and Megan’s engagement ring, which he gave to Stephanie — until all he had was a tattered envelope full of money. And then he ended up at a Buddhist retreat (the scenes of which, I believe, were filmed at the Esalen Institute, which still operates in Big Sur), and, for once, his circumstances fit his environment. The guy who got his stuff by making other people want stuff got rid of his stuff. And ended up in a place that claims to hate stuff." —Megan Garber, The Atlantic

"It’s certainly a charming ad. It’s even an enjoyable song, if you don’t mind its appropriately sugary sweetness. On the whole it’s a preferable cultural platform to the stultifying conservatism and conformity of the earlier era in terms of who it includes. But it includes them as consumers, not citizens; as a target market, not members of the human family. It’s glurge, a mawkishly and manipulatively sentimental song-and-dance that contains within itself the negation of the uplift it purports to convey. 'I’d like to teach the world to sing' is undone the second the purchase of a Coke is required for the lesson to begin. It’s a chorus for capital."  —Sean T. Collins, Wired

"For some people, consumption is the revolution. Don Draper’s greatest pitch has always been the life he stole and then refurbished so it would take him as far and as fast as that car racing across the Bonneville Flats. Becoming a better man and a better ad man aren’t a contradiction. And repeated washings have left love and nylons so snarled up in each other that it’s impossible to tell the difference between them." —Alyssa Rosenberg, the Washington Post

"So, no, ending on the Coke jingle didn't fill me with uplift and contentment, particularly after a finale that took both Don and the show so far out of their comfort zones in bringing him to that New Age retreat along the California coast, in a way that seemed to promise something deeper than he ultimately proved capable of becoming. But perhaps that was the point: that even a journey of thousands of miles — involving heartache and personal injury and devastating news from the homefront — and even a visit to a place this peaceful and open and lacking in guile or commerce wouldn't be enough to fundamentally alter who Don is at his core and what matters to him." —Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

"There’s only one way out and it involves moving to California except now everyone’s already done that so yes we’re dead." —Choire Sicha, the Awl