Mad Men Series Finale Recap: I’m Okay, You’re Okay

Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC
Mad Men
Mad Men
Episode Title
Person to Person
Editor’s Rating

“Be open to this,” Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie tells Don in “Person to Person” when they check into a proto–New Age facility in Northern California. “You might feel better.”

She’s responding to Don’s reflexive sneering at class names on a handout: “Psychotechnics,” “Anxiety and Tension Control,” “Divorce: A Creative Experience.” She’s right to push back against Don’s sourness, because those last two topics, maybe all three, sound like they might do a fellow like Don some good. And by the time we get to Don’s final close-up — a slow dolly into his meditating face as he smiles, capped by the sound of a bell — it appears that he’s on the road to accepting them. He’s open to the possibilities.

I started my final recap with this seemingly minor scene between Stephanie and Don because I’ve been reading descriptions of Mad Men’s last few minutes — a meditation followed by a Coke ad — as “cynical,” confirmation that all Don really learned in season seven, and at the retreat in particular, was how to hug and get his job back.

I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I think the optimism is sincere, bordering on maudlin. The whole episode fits that description. The Coke ad — a Madison Avenue incantation insisting that the momentary happiness of soda is the Real Thing — undercuts this a bit, because it’s ironic and funny, and consistent with the rest of Mad Men. The co-opting of the counterculture has been a theme throughout the show’s run, starting with the beatniks and continuing through the hippies and beyond.

But still, even though “Person to Person” has many wrenching scenes, and much of the action takes place in New York in October, it’s as sunny as the Northern California coast.

The Coke ad at the end is funny and ironic. It packages hippie sensibilities for a TV commercial, and Don starts the series selling cigarettes and ends selling stomach-and-tooth-rotting soda. But the tone of that ad is uncharacteristic of Don, whose most striking campaigns tended to have a melancholy, self-aware vibe, bordering on meta. The Coke ad is all about making the viewer feel good. It’s a Pollyanna-ish ad that befits a smiley-faced episode. I don’t have a problem with that. These characters have made mistakes and learned from them while remaining the same flawed people they always were. Any happiness they receive in this finale isn’t an unmotivated, unrealistic, out-of-nowhere gift. They worked for it.

Sally goes home from school and helps her dying mother raise her siblings. Betty has only a few months left and looks ashen and weak, but manages to arrange for her children to be taken care of in strict accordance with her wishes, a major victory for a woman whose desires were second-guessed and undermined throughout the show’s run. 

Joan gets a commission from Ken to produce an industrial film, breaks up with Richard because he’s jealous of the time she’d spend on her new career, and starts her own production company. She’s last seen working out of her home with her mom babysitting Kevin, Joan’s child by Roger.

Roger had stopped by earlier to tell her he was leaving part of his estate to Kevin to make sure he would always be taken care of. Our last glimpse of Roger finds him in a Quebec café with his new wife, Marie, the mother of Don’s ex-wife Megan and Roger’s first age-appropriate partner since Mona. (They both have wedding rings.)

Pete is seen crossing airport tarmac with Trudy and their daughter to board a Learjet and start a new life in Wichita. Pete’s parting scene with Peggy finds him expressing total confidence in her (“Someday people are going to brag that they used to work with you”) and admitting that nobody ever said anything like that to him (an extraordinarily generous thing to say when you think back on insecure, ambitious, treacherous young Pete, who saw Peggy dancing with co-workers after her first writing job and said, “I don’t like you like this.”) In the penultimate episode, we’d seen the lifelong brat and serial cheater begging Trudy to take him back, and convincing his brother not to cheat on his wife.

Peggy, who never got any closure on her promising date with Stevie in “Severance," practically stumbles into a mutual declaration of love with her co-worker Stan, in one of the most shameless and satisfying examples of fan service I can recall. (“All I want to do is be with you,” Stan tells her.) The most beautiful thing about this pairing is that Peggy, unlike Joan, won’t have to choose work over love. Peggy loves her work, her boyfriend is turned on by her creativity, and they share an office. Our last image of Peggy finds her banging away on her Selectric while her artist lover rubs her shoulders. Writer heaven.

Series creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote and directed the finale and directed and co-wrote last week’s “The Milk and Honey Route” (which to me feels like Part 1 to this week’s Part 2), is not a cynical artist. He’s skeptical about a good many things, and he’s put his characters through the wringer, not just by inflicting great distress upon them but by never taking anything they do or say at face value. In the end, though, Mad Men is ultimately a more hopeful series than The Sopranos, the last drama Weiner worked on, in that while The Sopranos seemed to think that people could change profoundly but usually didn’t because it was just too hard, Mad Men shows people changing all the time, sometimes deliberately but more often incidentally, shifting out of one mode and into another and back again, while never suggesting that a particular mode is the “true” version of that character, or that any of them should be condemned for all time for making a rotten choice. (Stephanie, like Don, lives in terror of being judged. Like Don, she’s not temperamentally suited to being a parent, and when somebody does judge her she flees, and here she makes a choice that seems as self-defeating for her as going back to New York and fighting for custody of his children would’ve been for Don.)

Don told his half-brother Adam Whitman in season one’s “5G” that “My life only moves in one direction: forward.” This was one of many examples of Don, formerly Dick Whitman, narrativize-ing his life to make a meandering and often half-conscious journey seem deliberate, and a conflicted, messy, often destructive and self-destructive personality seem cool and controlled. I don’t think it’s an accident that Don’s progress in season seven divests him of all outward signifiers of “Donald Draper,” including both his wives, his children, his apartment, his job, and, at the end, his car and his suit. (He’s carrying his belongings around in a JC Penney bag.) Nor do I think it’s incidental that Don’s most intense scenes in the last few episodes have revolved around deep, dark confessions to friends and strangers. Last week he told fellow veterans at a V.F.W. meeting about how he accidentally killed his commanding officer in Korea. In this episode, his phone call to Peggy peaked with a list of admissions that might as well have started with “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” “I broke my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”

“That’s not true,” Peggy says, replying to that last one. She would know. She’s Exhibit A. Don was her mentor and she’s still applying lessons he taught her, including the fine art of bluff-calling-as-brinksmanship.

One of the most discussed episodes of The Sopranos’ final season was “Kennedy and Heidi," in which Tony Soprano went on a dreamlike trip to Las Vegas, took peyote, and stood on a hilltop shouting, “I get it!” He didn’t get anything. But I think Don, who ends “Person to Person” on a hilltop looking inward just like Tony, does get it.

What does he get? A (possible) answer can be found in two other scenes at the retreat.

One is Don’s phone call to Peggy, which sounds very much like an addict making amends for past misdeeds in the early stages of recovery.  ("Person to person" is how Don calls Peggy and Betty long distance.)

The other is the refrigerator monologue by a fellow retreat member, Leonard (Evan Arnold: remember his name). It’s about feeling unloved and invisible, so much so that you retreat within yourself and fail to recognize that, in their awkward and often messed-up way, people are trying to reach out to you, and “you don’t even know what that is.”

Don’s moment of clarity, such as it is, occurs here. He stands up from his chair in a medium shot, and over his shoulder we see a painting of an opened flower; slightly abstracted, it suggests a sunburst. Then he embraces Arnold, as a young child might embrace a family member in distress: reflexively and without any ulterior motive. Don has nothing to gain from doing such a thing. Don is a man who, throughout the show’s run, treated the expression of emotion as a sign of weakness, unless he was so bereft (or drunk; the two were usually connected) that he couldn’t control himself in that way any longer. Think of how many times Don responded to other characters’ tears with “Stop” or “Get a hold of yourself,” and then practically ordered them to drink. 

But maybe it’s not Don who’s embracing a stranger. It’s Don plus Dick Whitman, a name Don has used in the last few episodes, with surprising ease.

Maybe what we’re seeing here is the reconciliation of Don Draper and Dick Whitman.

Throughout the episode, you hear what sounds like two people talking: Don and Dick. Dick realizes Betty is right to say that he’s never been that involved and has spent the last few months on the other side of the country (racing cars!), and stays put. 

Don tries to stop Stephanie from going back to L.A. for her son by warning her not to be guilt-tripped. “Don’t listen to them. You weren’t raised with Jesus. You don’t know what happens to people when they believe in things.” Seconds later he’s offering to move to L.A. to help support her. That’s Dick. Don wants to go back to New York and fight for custody of his kids, even though he’s at best third in line for that privilege. The two sides are in conflict throughout the show’s run; the battle was what many episodes were about, especially “Kennedy vs. Nixon,” whose title used the public identities of presidents as metaphors for the warring aspects of Don’s personality. 

Which brings us back to “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” one of the most famous ads ever made. I don’t object to the idea that we’re supposed to come away from “Person to Person” thinking Don left California and went back to McCann with a great idea. This isn’t the end of The Sopranos. All the pieces actually do fit.

But with apologies to Peggy Lee, that’s not all there is.

As presented, I think it’s fairly clear that the Coke ad is Don’s. But the idea might have come from Dick Whitman.

“Look at yourself,” Don told a model in the first scene of the mid-season premiere, “Severance.” “You like what you see.” As is often the case with Don, he was talking to somebody else but also talking to himself, in ways he couldn’t realize because Don is an emotionally constipated man who makes fun of psychiatry and self-help and generally resists looking inward. The Don we see on the hilltop is a man who seems to be making a dedicated effort to look at himself (actually into himself, through meditation and group therapy) so that he can one day like what he sees. The title of the mid-season premiere, “Severance,” describes the slow rupture that’s separated old Don from new Don throughout the back half of season seven. (The process actually began in the first half, but toward the end it accelerated.) This is a man who still has some of his old bad habits (smoking, excessive drinking, sex addiction, running away from problems) but has displayed more contrition and self-control than we’ve ever seen, and has made a number of grand gestures that were more about making other people happy than protecting himself (such as that huge check he wrote to Megan).

That Coke ad was born in January 1971, less than three months after the events depicted in “Person to Person.” It was developed at McCann, the agency Don fled, by an executive named Bill Backer (sounds like Don Draper). He got the idea when his plane was stranded in Ireland en route to meet Coca-Cola music director Billy Davis and Davis’s co-songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. Backer saw other stranded passengers killing time by chatting over bottles of Coke. Upon arriving in London, Backer told the music team about his epiphany, and they got out an old tape of a song they’d started working on a year earlier, turned it into the now-famous jingle and shipped it to radio stations in February, and it became so popular that it became a TV spot that fall.

Don is staying at a facility that seems modeled on the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, and he’s stranded there, just like Backer was stranded in Ireland. Among other things, Big Sur hosted folk festivals; a documentary of 1969 edition, featuring musicians from Woodstock, was released as a feature film in 1971. To top it all off, if you watch the ad you’ll see a hippie chick with pigtails tied by red ribbons who looks just like the young woman who tells Don he’s stuck at the institute.

Beyond that, it’s not a huge intuitive leap to expect that the Coke ad would come into play during the final season. Even if you didn’t know exactly when it was created, Weiner has repeatedly shown McCann boss Jim Hobart trying to tantalize Don with promises of Coca-Cola. The first such instance can be found in season one’s “Shoot.” And the show has a history of borrowing or outright appropriating real-world campaigns, starting with season one’s “Lucky Strike: It’s Toasted,” from 1917.

It’s possible that Peggy, herself a McCann employee, created that ad, maybe with input from Joan, whose son is pictured watching Sesame Street, which was filled with sing-alongs that had a Coca-Cola hilltop feeling. But the dollying in to Don’s face followed by a ringing bell and then the ad — plus the fact that Weiner came to Mad Men from The Sopranos, and has indicated in interviews that this show’s ending wouldn’t be like that one’s — makes me think that in this case, the most obvious answer is right.

The next question isn’t what does it mean, but how does it feel?

It feels warm and hopeful.

That’s why I can’t accept that the Coke ad’s use is purely cynical — that it’s snickering at the viewer by suggesting that Don learned nothing from any of his life experiences, much less the last half of season seven, and that he eventually went back to New York and strip-mined the remains of the counterculture and California-style self help in order to sell cola.

That can’t be all there is. It would be out-of-character for a series whose stories, characters and themes were never about just one thing.

Try to be open to this:

Mad Men is the story of a lot of complex, often infuriating characters whose individual stories are all reflected and refracted through the show’s hero. The hero is a man who keeps running away from himself instead of looking inward to try to figure out why he runs. The hero is a man who was abandoned over and over throughout his life. He felt unloved even when he was loved dearly (just like the refrigerator monologist), and spent much of his adult life seeking perverted facsimiles of love, then abusing and betraying the people who gave him real love, because he was so damaged that he couldn’t recognize love as love. He kept thinking about killing himself and then not doing it. He kept blowing up his life whenever it got to be too much and building a new life in the rubble. He kept running away and ending up back where he started because he only liked the beginnings, with their new car smell. He loudly proclaimed that love doesn’t exist and money can buy happiness and you can forget anything and move on. He told himself life was about moving forward and never looking back. He eventually figured out that, as Dick Whitman’s own stepmother said in “The Hobo Code,” life is a horseshoe: “Fat in the middle, open on both ends, and hard all the way through.”

The man described above is Don Draper, and he's Dick Whitman. Both are seeking what the hero described in his Lucky Strikes pitch in the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” He justified an essentially meaningless phrase by saying that all advertising came back to the desire to fill a void and assuage feelings of unhappiness. “A sign on the side of the road screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay,” Don concludes. “You are okay.”

See also I’m OK, You’re OK by Thomas Harris (no, the other one), which was published in 1969 and became an international bestseller in 1972. It’s a book derived from transactional analysis, which holds that “’Happy childhood’ notwithstanding, most of us are living out the not okay feelings of a defenseless child, dependent on okay others (parents) for stroking and caring. At some stage early in our lives we adopt a ‘position’ about ourselves and others that determines how we feel about everything we do.”

Person to person, indeed.

By the final few minutes of Mad Men’s last episode, I think the hero has started to become okay. He’s begun to reinvent himself one more time, not as yet another discretely defined (false) person, but as the two men he always was, in “perfect harmony,” as the Coke ad says. And maybe he’s started to detach from the “positions” on himself that were formed in childhood, and cemented when he didn’t get off that train at his hometown stop in 1950. 

That smile wasn’t just about having a clever idea for an ad. It was the real thing.

He may not always be nice. Maybe he’ll win his daughter’s love back, maybe he won’t. Making ads makes him happy, so he’ll go back to making ads. But he’ll be Don Draper and Dick Whitman, and all stops in between, and he’ll be okay, and so will Peggy and Stan and Joan and Roger and Marie and Sally. Life is a horseshoe, but you can be okay.