Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Person to Person,” the series finale of “Mad Men.”
“People just come and go and no one says goodbye.” - Don Draper/Dick Whitman
Well. It’s hard to write about series finales, because whatever I say here might be taken as the final word regarding my assessment of the show in question.
So let me say up front: I absolutely love “Mad Men.” It has supplied me not just with many hours of pleasure and contemplation, but it’s been one of the most enjoyable and enlightening shows I’ve ever been lucky enough to write about. Since it premiered eight years ago, I could count on several things where “Mad Men” was concerned: The show would surprise me, it would confound me, it would make me laugh and make me think, it would frequently look amazing and it would experiment with storytelling and have top-notch aesthetic elements. I always knew it would force me to raise my game as a critic -- and it did, I hope. You get to be the judge of that, but regardless, having conversations via email and Twitter and in real life with fans and fellow critics has been one of the best parts of engaging with this drama. I’m going to miss writing these reviews and having those conversations a lot. But I’ll miss the show even more. It’s a classic.
But that finale … well, there were three main character threads to it: Joan, Peggy and Don. One of them was satisfying, but two of them, for various reasons, ended up being frustrating. I didn’t expect “Mad Men” to tie everything up neatly -- far from it, given what the show has been about for the past seven seasons. But let’s just say that some past season finales were more satisfying and resonant than the series finale was.
The thing is, big chunks of “Person to Person” would have made a pretty good second-to-last episode of “Mad Men.” As the series finale, certainly as far as Don was concerned, it left a fair amount to be desired.
Let’s start with the story line that was most satisfying: Stan and Peggy. Hot damn, that was great.
For several seasons now, “Mad Men” has built up the fabulousness of the phone relationship between those two characters. Of course, their in-person relationship has had many terrific moments too, but on the phone, Stan and Peggy both let down their guards, or maybe it’s more accurate to say they let down their hair (and in Stan’s case, that is a lot of hair). Peggy’s more relaxed and open when she’s half-distracted by the work on her desk, and she never felt pressured or tense during her phone chats with Stan. She never realized a relationship with a guy could be so easy, because all of hers have just been so damned difficult. With Stan it was easy, and that can be one sign that it’s love, but Peggy -- so smart about so many other things -- didn’t know that. When she did begin to understand the depth of her feelings, wow.
Elisabeth Moss has done so much amazing work as Peggy that we’re used to it by now, but she was just incredible in that phone scene. All by herself, she had to sell the idea of Peggy finding out that she was in love with her best friend. Moss absolutely conveyed that realization with incredible conviction and wonder (and humor: I need a GIF of the second time she said, “What?”). All of the Emmys for Elisabeth Moss now, please and thank you.
I don’t mean to slight Jay R. Ferguson; since he arrived on the show, he’s made Stan’s bear-like charisma and down-to-earth persistence seem eminently appealing. Peggy can be pretty waspish in person, and she needs to be with someone who is willing to call her on that behavior, but who also knows that her mean moments spring from a deep well of fear and anxiety. Peggy has a lot of barriers up to the world, and for good reason. No doubt she’ll need to keep those walls up to survive in a harsh environment like McCann, as we saw in an early finale scene, in which she had to fight to keep an account. But Stan has her back in every possible scenario, and with him at her side, there is literally nothing Peggy won’t be able to do. (I can't help but think Freddie Rumsen would be so happy for her and proud of his protégée -- his "ballerina.")
I especially love that my Twitter mentions lit up like a Christmas tree the minute Stan and Peggy kissed, and some Twitter folk went so far as to wonder whether that scene had been written by me. Ha, nope! But it was absolutely wonderful and I give it top marks. Steggy forever!
The second of the three main storylines: Joan. Here’s one of my problems with the Joan situation: We haven’t known Richard all that long, not long enough for any issues that couple might have to seem believably complex. The one problem we know he had in the beginning was her other commitments -- to her child, especially. Richard wanted Joan all to himself, and, early on, he had a tantrum when she made it clear that her son was a priority in her life. He realized what an ass he had been in that situation, and he has been nothing but supportive and kind since then.
So why did he suddenly reject her when she decided to become an entrepreneur? Not only does that not track with what we know of him -- earlier, he’d realized that he’d do anything to keep a great woman like Joan in his life -- it does not track with what he said in this episode. He was excited about Joan’s prospects and called her entire life “undeveloped property,” and he didn’t say that in any way that indicated that he expected her to join the country club, enjoy her windfall and leave it at that. Sure, his excitement might have partly been the cocaine talking, but his comments were in line with his previous behavior: Richard has been generally supportive of her career and has always prized Joan’s intelligence and drive. But suddenly, he didn’t want to share this new adventure with her, and because she showed some ambition, he shut down the entire relationship? Just like that?
Eh, I’m not going to burst a blood vessel over it, but that development felt as though it almost came out of nowhere. Again, if we knew more about Richard and if we had more evidence by which to judge his actions, maybe that heel turn would make more sense. But it didn’t quite track for me; honestly, it felt as though creator Matthew Weiner wanted Joan to have a sad ending, so he jury-rigged one at the last minute.
Why? Did too many other characters get relatively happy endings and someone had to draw the short straw? In any event, why did Joan have to face another major betrayal from a man? It felt a bit tired, honestly -- this again? We’ve been down this road plenty with Joan, and for her to have a functional relationship with a solid, kind man would have felt like a new and fresh thing for her. All things considered, from a writing standpoint, Richard’s sudden exit just felt half-baked. With more set-up, it might not have felt so rushed and forced. If only some of the real estate given to Glen freaking Bishop had gone to Joan and Richard, arrrrgh.
I know, I know -- you can make the argument that Joan got a happy ending, sort of. She was well on her way to setting up a thriving new business and I have no doubt that she would be very good at what she did. Holloway Harris was clearly off to a great start (especially because someone named Maureen was helping out, heh). And no matter what, Kevin would be taken care of, thanks to Roger’s largesse. Joan would soldier on, because that’s what Joan does, but I won’t lie and say I didn’t want more for her.
Speaking of Roger, how great is it that he did not actually die, but was last seen in the finale ordering lobster and champagne? Never change, you magnificent bastard! The one person we all expected to keel over from all kinds of excess was smoking, drinking and eating rich food right up until the end. May the rest of us be half as lucky as that man.
All right, I’ve danced around this long enough. Time to make my big pitch. And Marie Calvet actually supplies me with some of the ammunition I need. We got two scenes of her with Roger -- but not one Don-Sally or Don-Peggy scene? In person, that is. Phone calls just aren’t the same -- not for me, anyway.
If you liked Don’s storyline and thought it worked well, more power to you. On an intellectual level, I understand the logic of what we saw Don go though. He once again felt the pain of his failures, a disgust at his deceptions and the deep wound caused by the rejections he endured as a child. This time, however, he was moved to reach beyond his pain to comfort someone else. Yep, I understand all that.
But my response to the episode is not about logic. It’s about having spent eight years with these people, and it’s about the show’s ferocious ability to get me invested in their lives. On the latter score, “Mad Men” was incredibly effective. It’s because the show made me so very interested in their fates that how things actually worked out in some arenas was, frankly, irritating.
“Mad Men” boasts plenty of intellectual firepower, aesthetic ambition and shiny structural experimentation. But, if you will, “there's the rare occasion when the public can be engaged on a level beyond flash, if they have a sentimental bond with the product.” I have a sentimental bond with the men and women who inhabit the world of “Mad Men.” I don’t love them all the time -- sometimes they’re real jerks -- but I am always interested in them (well, most of them). I say all that to make it clear that I can’t be logic-ed out of the reaction I had to Don’s storyline. I get what happened intellectually, but it all felt a bit hollow emotionally. Don was off in Don-land, but a whole continent separated him from the heart and the soul of the show.
Of course, Matt Weiner is free to make the show he wants to make. But I have to say that certain things felt off to me. Some of those elements felt decidedly off.
Less than a quarter of the way into the episode, Don found out Betty was dying and he didn’t go straight home? I know that Sally didn’t ask him to return and Betty asked him not to, and I know that his old pattern is to drink and flee, but still. In every scene, I expected Don to get in a car or flag down a cab or hop on a rail car or commission a Learjet or whatever. I kept expecting him to go back to New York, or to at least try to head east, at some point, and the fact that he did not left me in a state of suspended animation.
It’s one thing for an episode to thrum with a secret that the audience knows but certain characters don’t -- that’s a tension-building strategy “Mad Men” has employed very well in the past. What I felt during parts of the finale was a skittering sense of frustration. That tipped into irritation once I realized that Don was going to keep on hobo-ing, even as his neglected children risked a fire in an attempt to cook dinner. Go home, Don. If hugs are being doled out, go hug your kids. I was so distracted by thoughts of that nature that at times, it wasn't easy to focus on what did occur.
Overall, the fact that certain relationships ended where and when they did -- over the phone, instead of in person -- well, that just felt off.
Don and Sally have one of the key relationships on the show, and the last we saw of them was a difficult phone call that Sally cut off at an awkward moment. For those two characters, for that to be the end of their association on screen -- it just felt odd.
What’s even more jarring is the way things were left between Peggy and Don. Here are some character groups we got to see together in the series finale: Pete and Peggy; Pete, Harry and Peggy; Joan and Roger; Pete and Trudy; Betty and Sally; Roger and Marie Calvet. An in-person scene we didn’t get in the finale: Don and Peggy. We got multiple scenes of Don and Stephanie, but the last time we saw Don and Peggy have a real conversation, it was a few episodes ago, and Peggy was mad at Don for dumping all over her dreams. That was the last time they spoke in person.
In the series finale, the last Peggy knows of Don is that he sounds suicidal and he’s calling her collect from California. That’s it. She doesn’t know where he is or how to help him. So much of the foundation of “Mad Men” has been built on the complicated bond between those two characters -- professionally and personally, each one looms large in the other’s life. The series premiere was all about Peggy’s first day at work as Don’s secretary. Their relationship during the ensuing decade formed, in a very real sense, the spine of the show. For those two characters, for that phone call to be the end -- well, I can't convince myself that that felt satisfying.
Before you send me a long email, I can already think of a million reasons why I should just accept how those relationships ended -- starting with the fact that they didn’t end. We’re supposed to accept the ambiguity because life will go on for those characters, and they will circle back into each other’s lives. Especially since Don went back to New York and came up with Coke’s famous “Hilltop” ad.
Or did he? That’s what the end of the episode strongly implies. But the episode doesn’t actually say so because … reasons? I do know one thing about that final scene and the Coke ad: Matt Weiner has ensured that he will probably be asked about whether Don created that ad in every interview he does for the next decade of his life. Maybe he will enjoy that as much as I enjoyed being asked, for three solid years, whether Peggy's sister took her baby (no, she did not).
In all seriousness, I absolutely get that “Mad Men” loves to play around with ambiguity, grey areas and doubt -- and I’ve reveled in that fact for eight years. Really, I have! But the vagueness about the ad wasn’t the good kind of ambiguity, it was just a knowable piece of information that the show chose to exclude. It created confusion, not pleasant or thought-provoking ambiguity.
That said, the clues embedded in the episode make it relatively easy to believe that, within the universe of the show, Don created that iconic Coca-Cola ad. The show has been dropping hints about Coke since Season 1, and the Coke references have come thick and fast in the last stretch of episodes (Peggy even mentioned it in her phone call with Don). Also, if you look at the similarities between the words of the meditation instructor said and the lyrics of the song, and add to that the gong-like tone at the start of meditation -- which perfectly matched the note at the start of the ad -- I think it’s a pretty open-and-shut case, myself. One inspired the other. The kicker is the smirk that broke out on Don’s face, right before the commercial began. Don Draper had clearly thought of a great idea for an ad, one that would get him out of the massive trouble he was in at work and would win a shelf of awards as well.
In seven seasons, "What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons" had evolved into, "What you call enlightenment was invented by guys like me to sell cola." That feels like the show at its most cynical, rather than at its most open-hearted, but Stan and Peggy kissed, so I'm just going to let it go.
By the way, I do believe Weiner would be fine with attributing a real ad campaign to a fictional character. In Season 1, we saw Don get the credit for Lucky Strike’s “It’s Toasted,” which was an actual slogan that company used for years. Another note: The timing works. The song and the commercial came out in 1971, and this episode was set around Halloween in 1970.
So sure, the ad makes sense in terms of being something Don could have done. The bigger problem was that various gaps, repetitions and dislocations led to an overall sense of dissatisfaction with Don's story. One or two gaps we have to fill in? Fine. Five or six big gaps? Eh, that’s more of a problem. We’re meant to assume that, at some point, Don left California and went back to New York, attended to his children, reconnected with Sally, had more dealings with Peggy, dealt with the death of his ex-wife, got back in the saddle at work, and eventually created the ad. Again, as far as Don’s storyline is concerned, if this had been the second-to-last episode -- great. As a series finale, “Person to Person” felt more than a bit disjointed; it left some important things out and left a lot of characters far apart.
And truth be told, it’s a little deflating to realize that Don’s big revelation led him to the creation of a memorable jingle. I know that that’s how the show operates -- the revelations Don encounters in his personal life often inform his work, which is really the only way he can consistently communicate with the world. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I hoped that, wherever he was in his life or his career at the end of the series, if Don was in a place where he could feel, give and receive love, that would be progress for him. I am glad he got to that place. I just wish the finale had shown him sharing some of that love with his real family and his work wife.
Leonard’s big group-therapy scene was finely acted (excellent work by Evan Arnold), and I know that Don’s heartfelt hug of a total stranger -- followed by deep sobs -- was meant to be the big emotional payoff of the hour. However, Leonard is a total stranger. That moment could not have the resonance of something like “The Suitcase,” or even the impact of a moment like the one in which, some time back, Sally impulsively told her father she loved him. Even Stephanie wondered why Don was with her, not with his actual family. There were a lot of references to mothers and children and abandonment, and obviously Don/Dick is the original sad orphan. But knowing his family needed him so much made it hard for me to invest in what the beaded and bearded folk in California were seeking.
It used to feel like a big deal for Don to confess, but this half season opened with Don regaling a couple of good-time girls with stories of his poverty-stricken upbringing. Don’s phone confession to Peggy was by no means his first confession. He’s been in the process of shedding his lies and sharing his truths for years now, and that process has been especially prominent in the last few seasons. I’m all for Don learning to accept himself and embracing his past, but the Don-Dick revelations don't have much force any more (partly because there have been a lot of them, partly because this final season should not have been dragged out over two years).
Don’s last encounters with the three major women in his life -- Betty, Sally and Peggy -- were on the phone. Who knows where Gene and Bobby ended up (maybe they will get lost in transit between the homes of various caregivers and nobody will notice for months). Don hugged a man named Leonard and he never did get rid of Anna’s ring. Don got a tan, shed some healing tears, and went on to create a cool ad (probably). Much of it felt like a prelude or a repetition, but maybe it was supposed to evoke the wheel, if not "The Wheel." You often end up where you started. That makes sense from a symbolic standpoint, but I felt, in "Person to Person," Don was re-learning things he had already learned many times.
Don once counseled Peggy to forget the hardest thing she’d ever done -- give up her child. Talking to a distraught Stephanie, he still clung to that belief -- that the past can be shed and its pain minimized -- but we in the audience know it’s not true and I can't quite bring myself to believe that the man who worked so hard to embrace his past truly believed that anymore. He has only made progress when he has realized admitted that the pain of the past still has a hold on him. As Don/Dick knew before he arrived in California, the only way out is through.
Ah well. I got one more hour with these people, whom I miss already. What can I say -- my relationship with "Mad Men" might be a little like Stan's relationship with Peggy. When I don't want to strangle it, I love it, and vice versa.
The truth is, I can’t stay mad at “Mad Men,” and as frustrating as parts of this finale were, I don’t even know if it truly made me mad. My reaction involved more irritation than anything else. But I’ll deal.
Of course, it was always going to sting to lose this show, and the show has confounded me so many times in the past -- why not go out on that note? Go ahead and be your idiosyncratic self, “Mad Men.” “Person to Person” has some good moments and some lovely grace notes, but it’s not a great series finale, nor is it an episode I’ll eagerly look forward to revisiting (except for the Stan-Peggy parts). But so what? I knew this wasn’t a show that would go the expected way; I half-expected the finale to troll me, and parts of it did. “Person to Person” was messy in some ways that caused me to grit my teeth, but I’ll get over it.
I am still grateful to “Mad Men,” and I’m sad, not just because that frequently amazing journey is over, but because this moment feels like the end of an era. When I got into the TV critic game more than a decade ago, back in the Elder Days, “The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” “Lost,” “Battlestar Galactica” were on the air. Giants roamed the earth. My sentimentality about the early aughts is not so blinding that I fail to see how amazing the TV scene is now — I truly love where the evolution of the medium has brought us. But now that “Mad Men” is over, an era is truly finished; the anti-heroes that once dominated the landscape have exited stage left, whiskey in hand, pursued by various demons.
It might be tied with “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica,” but the truth is, I have probably expended more words, more mental energy and more time on “Mad Men” than any other show I’ve ever written about. I don’t consider a minute of that time wasted -- far from it. It’s been a joy.
As Marie Calvet might say: Je ne regrette rien.
A final hail of bullets:
- Jon Hamm finishes strong by ripping my heart out again during his phone call with Betty. The way he said, “Birdie” was so epically sad. Terrific work by both actors in that scene. January Jones has also been really wonderful in these final two episodes.