7 Motifs to Watch for in the Mad Men Finale

Photo: AMC

If there’s one thing Mad Men fans love, it’s trying to make heads or tails of the symbolism that runs rampant in each and every episode of the series. And for good reason. Series creator Matthew Weiner has never seen a symbol he couldn’t put to good use, be it an empty elevator shaft, an old-fashioned fainting couch, or a tooth that was rotten to the core. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the Mad Men motifs that will almost certainly pop up in Sunday’s series finale. 

1. California
Ever since season two, when Don Draper fled to the Golden State and took refuge with old friend Anna, California has been offered up as a temporary balm to any East Coast ailment. Save for Megan, who moved to California to pursue her dreams, most every man who followed suit and went West did so looking for an escape for whatever burdened him in New York. Pete Campbell tried to start fresh and made progress professionally, if not personally, eventually ending up back in New York with his ex-wife. Ted Chaough ran to California to distance himself from his burgeoning feelings for Peggy as well as his growing disdain for advertising. He, too, ended up back in New York, still in advertising, now divorced. California is a mirage, a siren song that will eat you alive if you’re not there for the purest of intentions.

Look for this if: Someone needs a fresh start; someone wants to run away.

2. Coca-Cola
The all-American dream and the juicy worm that McCann used to lure Don Draper into coming to play with them, Coca-Cola is the cheery façade that masks the evil empire that is McCann Erickson. Though not inherently evil, Coke is a monster account that should be everything Don wants but in reality does nothing for him. The (delicious) beverage has had a high profile in the back half of season seven, leading some to suspect that its role in the finale may be even bigger than anyone could have previously guessed.

Look for this if: Something seems to be too good to be true; Don actually makes it back to work.

3. Thanksgiving
Of all the holidays, it seems like Mad Men loves Thanksgiving the most, featuring it four separate times over its run. First featured in the season-one finale, “The Wheel,” Don at his absentee husband/parent finest opts out of joining the family festivities due to work, only to change his mind and arrive home too late. Then, in the season-four premiere, the clan formerly known as the Drapers now known as the Francises are spending Thanksgiving with Henry Francis’s mother, who makes little effort to hide how underwhelmed she is by her son’s new wife. The following season sees another underwhelming encounter with Thanksgiving, fueled largely by a heavyset Betty reaching peak bitterness around the holiday and telling Sally about her father’s first wife in an attempt to poison their relationship. The most recent Thanksgiving occurred in “In Care Of,” the season-six finale, in which Don takes the children to see his childhood home, Pete makes peace with Trudy, and Joan and Roger are able to share a Thanksgiving meal with their young son.

Given the trajectory of the final set of episodes and the series’ affection for the holiday, it would be wholly unsurprising to see Mad Men take a final stab at doing the occasion up right and, as with “In Care Of,” creating an opportunity for people who don’t see eye to eye to come together and break bread in peace.

Look for this if: There’s no time jump.

Drifters have long been a thematic benchmark for the series, with references as recently as last episode, titled "The Milk and Honey Route," a reference to the book, The Milk and Honey Route: A Handbook for Hobos. But hobos have recurred throughout the series, in “The Hobo Code” and “The Gypsy and the Hobo.” It’s clear Don has always felt like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again, and yearning for that unencumbered way of life in ways he knows he shouldn’t. Don knows the code, he knows the route, but can he finally commit fully to the way of the wanderer? And does he really want to?

Look for this if: Don can’t straighten up and fly right; the anchor of being a working man and real father is just too much to bear.

5. Planes
In a way, it’s not entirely surprising that so many people latched onto the outlandish “Don is D.B. Cooper” theory, given how obsessed Mad Men is not just with planes but with death in relation to planes. Even before Pete’s father’s death in the crash of American Airlines Flight 1, the show seemed to regard air travel and airlines as a kind of death knell, if not a fool’s errand. The dead-end pursuit of American Airlines and the Mohawk Airlines debacle that proceeded it, as well as trying to land the North American Aviation account, which nearly brings Don’s secret identity down around his ears — airlines are bad news. Add to this Ted Chaough's hell flight from the first half of season seven — in which he threatens to crash the small plane he's flying with the Sunkist executives on board, proving that depression is a terrible co-pilot — and it makes a lot more sense that Don chooses to drive cross-country rather than take a plane. Pete’s leaving to take a job with Learjet, based in Wichita, which is enough for some to draw their own conclusions about the finale, but regardless, if planes show up in the finale, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Look for this if: I mean, Pete’s going to work for Learjet; it’s going to come up.

6. Resurrection
Okay, maybe not literally (hopefully not literally), but definitely metaphorically, resurrection of some sort is almost guaranteed for the Mad Men series finale. As Dick Whitman rose from the ashes as Don Draper, so could a new person rise from the ashes of Don Draper. Which is a fancy way of saying that Don could finally get his shit together and be the decent, loving human being he’s always feinted at being. Essentially, the resurrection motif is in play if the finale ends up being more about new beginnings than it is about endings. With Betty’s near-inevitable death, that may be more difficult than it seems, but there are plenty of ways to work around that.

Look for this if: People are more interesting in the beginnings of things than the end; there are opportunities to start fresh.

7. Connection
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, what a bold move predicting that an episode entitled “Person to Person” may feature connection of some kind — to which I say: Shut up. Seriously, though, one of the criticisms often leveled at Mad Men is that the show often operates with a clinical distance that makes it hard for the audience to connect. While I’d strenuously disagree, I think the genesis of this critique comes from the fact that often the true moments of connection on the show are few and far between, but all the more powerful because of that rarity. That said, this is the series finale, so look for surefire moments of connection between Don and Peggy, Don and Sally, Don and Betty (hopefully), Peggy and Pete, Don and Pete, and, ideally, Peggy and Joan.

Look for this if: It’s the series finale; if this doesn’t happen, that means the episode was just 54 minutes of dead air.