Mad Men died as it lived: showing us all the destructive ways characters — people! we ourselves! — repeat behavioral patterns, and how those patterns tend to mutate in surprising ways; how hard it is truly to know and be known by others; and how “newness” is often just a rediscovery of an old idea. The series has focused tremendously on themes of motherhood, divorce, mortality, the frequently baffling mechanics of human love, and “Person to Person” was no different. Mad Men’s series finale was a greatest-hits tour of the show’s favorite ideas.
All season long, Mad Men has been reprocessing themes and identities from earlier in the series. It’s a mirroring that’s been happening on the show for a while, and in a style befitting a series finale, “Person to Person” didn’t retell one episode: It touched on dozens.
“My life moves in one direction: forward,” Don once said. “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened,” Don told Peggy all those years ago. “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward,” he tells Stephanie. She’s less receptive; she’s not him, and she’s not like him, not like how Peggy is. The episode reminds us about Peggy and Don’s bond not just through their phone call but with a shout-out to one of their most important episodes together: Peggy can’t go to lunch in “Person” because of a meeting with Samsonite — makers of the suitcase from “The Suitcase.”
Almost everybody got one last moment to be how they’d always been: Meredith got to be dopey — translating a speech into pig Latin? — but also oddly philosophical in her Amelia Bedelia way. “There are lots of places better than here.” Of course Harry gets handed a tin of cookies, in keeping with his long-term food fixation. I wouldn’t say Mad Men is a show about sex work, but there is a lot of sex work on Mad Men, and fittingly, our whore child Dick Whitman couldn’t finish the series without one last purchase. Joan thought she needed something else, someone new. But as it turned out, in classic Joan fashion, she herself had everything she really needed, including both her names. Roger was at maximum Rogerness, right down to accidentally on purpose calling Marie his mother.
Maybe the Mad Men–iest thing about this episode, though, was the sense of displacement, of misperception, “a car that looks like a jet.” The whole point of a person-to-person phone call is to connect exactly and only to the person you’re trying to reach. Don placed two person-to-person calls last night: He had to reach Betty. He had to reach Peggy. And not someone else. But nothing’s ever that simple on Mad Men; Betty and Peggy weren’t completely reachable in the episode because Sally was the one speaking for Betty, and Peggy wasn’t just speaking for herself, she was speaking for Pete, too. Maybe there’s no actual way to guarantee that the person you’re looking for is the one you actually get. Stan wants to call Peggy, because Phone Peggy is much nicer than Face-to-Face Peggy. It’s a person-to-person call. Do you accept the charges?
The two most significant loops — and two big missed connections — came from Sally and Peggy, arguably the most important people in Don’s life. (At least now that Anna Draper is but a ghost and an engagement ring.) Sally’s parents both resentfully see the other in her; Don sees Betty’s desperation, and Betty sees Don’s deceitfulness. But in kinder light, that could be seen as Betty’s healthy desire to be loved, and Don’s healthy ability to get shit done. She is becoming them, only better, and she’s the one with the best idea for what her brothers probably need. In season three’s “The Arrangements,” Sally feels like she’s the only one mourning Grandpa Gene. “You’re being hysterical,” Betty scolds her. “He’s dead! He’s dead and he’s never coming back! And nobody cares that he’s really, really, really gone!” She’s wailing, standing there in her ballet outfit, while a kitchen tableful of grown-ups, including the uncle and aunt her brothers might be sent to live with, stares at her. Betty snaps at her: “Sally, go watch TV.” It’s something Betty says here and there, but in this moment, it is so pointed, and so dismissive, such a callous way to react to a child’s devastation.
In “Person,” it’s Sally’s turn to snap. She comes home to find her little brothers despondent, and just as Bobby tries to start talking about Betty’s looming death, Sally turns to the baby of the family. “Gene, go watch TV,” she says, maybe not as nastily but not like a warm angel, either. But then Sally softens a little, at least toward Bobby, and says she’ll show him how to make dinner.
Peggy too has a moment of using someone else’s line, and she uses it right on its originator. Pete’s big on distinctive phrases, and one he uses a lot is “a thing like that!” He says it to Ken in “Five G,” and later in season one to Peggy in “The Hobo Code” as they ride the elevator together early in the morning. (They have sex on Pete’s couch moments later.) Pete also says it to Hildy in season three. Peggy and Pete reaching a happy, friendly farewell, able to see the goodness and talent in one another. Peggy can hang on to this little piece of cutesy Pete — his aw-shucks line — and let the rest of him go. He can’t keep the cactus because he has a 5-year-old. Peggy can keep the cactus because she does not have a 9-year-old. That’s for the best.
The two most important people in Don’s life have in small ways taken on the voices of other significant people in their lives. And that’s why that haunting refrigerator monologue from Don’s group therapy companion Leonard is so resonant: Leonard’s not just talking as Leonard, he’s talking as Don.
They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.
In fact, Don has said something not dissimilar about his own emotional numbness, in “The Flood”:
But from the moment they’re born, that baby comes out and you act proud and excited and hand out cigars but you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem.
Don claimed in that episode that those feelings abated, that “one day they get older and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have.” But by the time “Person” rolls around, Don can’t even remember the last time he saw his own sons. Leonard does the articulating, but it’s Don who has the breakthrough: I am not alone. Or rather, I’m marginally less alone than I’d realized, and that’s something I didn’t know was possible.
“New days, new ideas, a new you.” That’s what the session leader says in the closing moments of the episode. Oh, puh-leeze, yoga beard. Mad Men has told us over and over that there’s no new you — change your name, change the conversation, be a parent or not, be alive or not, be a partner, be a prostitute, be both. The new you is still the old you, too. It just makes perkier commercials.