In “Severance,” the first episode of Mad Men’s final half-season, Ted Chaough pitches a line to Don: “There are three women in every man’s life.” In tonight’s finale, Don places phone calls to three women, and each call provides Don an essential glimpse of the life he left behind.
First, Don talks to Sally, who’s not interested in hearing her father’s latest tales from out west. While he’s a picture of velocity, spending his days gripping the wheel of a Chevy to see how fast he can speed into the desert horizon, Sally looks burdened and inanimate. She slumps against the wall with tired eyes as she informs Don of Betty’s prognosis. He pledges that he’ll be there to help, the same way he intended to swoop in and rescue Anna Draper when she came down with cancer. “You’re all going to live with me,” he tells Sally.
But that’s not what he really wants—it’s what he thinks he should do—nor is it ideal for Bobby and Gene. Sally is old enough to know all that. She’s old enough to know a lot of things, suddenly. Whereas their last phone call ended with Don shaking his head at his daughter’s irresponsibility, this time Sally is the mature one. The cancer news has sobered her and given her focus. Don hasn’t been around to witness this change, so he thinks he needs to rush home and be the adult. He doesn’t realize that Sally has already filled that role. “Do you understand I’m betraying her confidence?” she says, borrowing the grownup language that Henry used when he broke the news to her. This repetition is a sign of the trust that Sally’s placing in Henry amid this crisis—she’s come to admire him, which is part of why she’s advocating for him to take care of her brothers after Betty dies.
The last thing Sally says to her father on Mad Men is, “I’m not being dramatic. Now please, take me seriously.” It sounds like a version of a plea that Betty would have made in years past, to no avail. (Don even rolls his eyes at Betty’s supposed hysterics during this phone call, before he understands that his ex-wife really is dying.) But unlike Betty, Sally doesn’t demand satisfaction when she asks Don to take her seriously. She doesn’t even wait for an answer. Instead, she hangs up the phone, because while she’d like his help, she also knows that she doesn’t need Don—a wisdom that was hard-won for her mother.
If Don learns from Sally that he’s not needed at home, he learns from Betty that he’s not wanted. Run down by her illness and lacking the energy for an argument, Betty tells Don that Bobby and Gene will live at their uncle’s house because they need “a woman in their life—a mother and family.” Sally is insinuating herself into that female-role-model slot for now, and maybe she entertains notions of keeping it up for a while, but Betty doesn’t want that for her daughter. Like she said in the letter last week, she sees Sally leading a life of adventure.
And Betty sees the same thing for Don, because she has been paying attention, so she tells him to keep his distance. “I want to keep things as normal as possible,” she insists, “and you not being here is part of that.” It pains him to hear that, and it pains her to say it, too—in the same breath, she calls him “honey” as she expresses sincere gratitude for his affection and sense of duty. But the fact remains that Don’s presence is an aberration in his children’s lives, not a constant.
The “normal” family has always beguiled Don with its potential for contentment and meaning. But it also frightened him with its propensity to disappoint him—to leave the void within him unfilled. So he ran from “normal,” retreating to sunny fantasy lands or into the arms of new women, or both. He could always go back, he figured. Even now, he convinces himself that he can return to New York, be a caring father, and restore order to the remains of the Draper household. That reality, however, is no longer available to him. Don’s tragic oversight was to think that he was adventuring outside the bounds of “normal” when in fact, as Betty points out, he was simply creating a new normal, one that didn’t include him.
That is the existential abyss—erased from his own life—that surrounds Don when he places his third phone call, to Peggy. “Did everything fall apart without me?” he croaks. It’s self-pitying sarcasm, borne out of disgust that he was so easily carved out of his world—and anger at himself for wielding the scalpel. Now that he’s worked free from all his attachments, Don is struck by the emptiness of the lonely soul who remains. He wonders aloud what he has to show for himself. “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” No honor, no legacy, no identity. By his estimation, if “Don Draper” disappeared at that moment, he would leave nothing behind. It’s the ultimate conclusion that he’s been heading for throughout Mad Men’s final stanza.
Peggy, however, resists Don’s momentum toward his own end. She tries every tactic to shake him out of his darkness. She reassures him: “You can come home,” Peggy offers, which is a contrast to the admonitions Don heard from Sally and Betty. She entices him with glory: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” And finally, she affects a familial air—she sounds like a stern mother when she straightens up and demands, “Don. Come home.” None of it gets through to him—not at first. Yet it’s important that even as the McCann machine rumbles ahead without Don, Peggy still sees a place for him.
Maybe Don’s subconscious instinct for self-preservation leads him to make this last “person to person” call so that he could hear that message. He tells Peggy that he wanted to hear her voice—the voice of a protege who never stopped looking up to him, even when she hated him. “I don’t think you should be alone right now,” Peggy says, her voice laden with concern. Don replies, “I’m in a crowd.” Note that he doesn’t deny he’s alone, which sums up his state at this nadir in his story. Alienated to an extreme, Don would be alone in any crowd.
While the three phone calls chart Don’s descent into despondency, there’s also a countervailing arc of ascent in his last storyline—it just plays out more subtly. The thread of Don’s redemption can be picked up early on, in an exchange he has with his paramour from the salt-flats gang. “Whose ring is that?” she asks when she returns his valuables from her purse. Don laughs. “Weren’t you going to steal it?”
The remark is fair enough: She planned to make off with the ring, so why does she care about the story behind it? But as he laughs at the would-be thief, Don fails to detect the echoes of his own past. He stole Don Draper’s name without much concern for where it came from, either, yet with time he came to care deeply about its provenance. The ring, which belonged to Anna Draper, symbolizes that compassion. It’s a relic of Dick Whitman’s humanity.
So maybe Don believes he’s fulfilling his manifest destiny when he arrives in California and offers Anna’s ring to her niece, Stephanie. He could think that he’s squaring up a last remaining debt by returning this legacy to Anna’s bloodline, making it as if he’d never intervened in her affairs. Stephanie is indifferent to Don’s grand gestures. “I appreciate you trying to help me out,” she says, “but I’m pretty sure you’re the one who’s in trouble.”
He doesn’t stop trying to help her, though, and after a group therapy session where she faces painful realities about the son she gave up, Don offers Stephanie familiar advice: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Peggy Olson once heard a similar forecast from Don when she abandoned her own newborn son. Peggy took him at his word. Not Stephanie. “No, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that,” she says. Don has put past lives behind him. He kept moving forward. And how much easier has it gotten for him? Don ought to see their common plight, but he doesn’t.
That’s just another instance of Don failing to connect, person to person, with those around him. In an exercise where he simply has to turn to a fellow human and express how he feels about them, Don looks around the room in consternation. The woman who’s partnered with Don in the exercise finally reacts out of frustration, pushing him away, which deepens his confusion—an archetype for so many of his failed relationships.
Then a man named Leonard puts the archetype into words. There’s a lot of talk about the fearsome power of “shoulds” in the seminars at this retreat, and Don spends much of the episode trying to do the things he believes he should do—go home to his kids, for instance, or take care of Stephanie. But Leonard speaks to a deeper “should,” the one that says we should love and be loved. “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.” The monologue has Don’s rapt attention as he hears from a kindred spirit—someone else who’s isolated not by their failure to give love but by their inability to receive it.
Don is the opposite of Leonard in some ways. Leonard laments how uninteresting he is, while Don is used to being the center of attention when he walks into a room. But their fundamental pain is the same. Leonard describes a dream of being on a refrigerator shelf. He’s aware that there’s a party going on outside, a joy that he can see in the smiles of people who open the door and look in on him. But they never pick him to join the party. Leonard’s vision is a permutation of Don’s purgatory, in which Don is surrounded by tantalizing images of a happy, fulfilled life and maddened by the impossibility of making them real. Like Leonard, Don can describe the happiness that he envisions—in fact, he’s built a career out of describing it—he just can’t sample it for himself.
Don faltered in that first exercise, when he was asked to wordlessly show his feelings toward another person in the room, but now he can’t hold himself back. He wraps his arms around Leonard and sobs, an unspoken show of gratitude for someone who shares his fundamental struggle to connect.
The final scene shows Don chanting in harmony with his fellow meditators. “The new day brings new hope,” says the group leader. “The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you.” The image of a newly calm Don gives way to the famous “Buy The World A Coke” ad. The singers wear the loose hippie garb favored by the visitors at the self-improvement retreat; a couple of them bear a resemblance to specific people who Don encountered. A woman with ribbons in her braids, for instance…
…looks a lot like the woman at the front desk who tells Don that “people are free to come and go as they please”:
The implication is that Don went back to the only home that would have him—McCann, where Peggy extended a perpetual welcome—and applied his newfound insights to launch an iconic Coke campaign. The ad came about once Don understood that he wasn’t alone in his loneliness. After a decade where earnest ideas of free love and deeper understanding were juxtaposed against assassinations and spectacular societal discord—dreams that carried their own disappointment in tow—Don’s pain was simply a pronounced and individual iteration of a hurt that pervaded the culture. So Don promises to assuage that anxiety, with soda pop.
As Mad Men has drawn to a close, a lot of attention has been returned to the show’s opening sequence, which depicts a man tumbling through the air, surrounded by ads that depict all of the happy people we’re supposed to be. One theory held that this animation presaged Don Draper’s inevitable end, in which he would vanish himself by leaping to his death—Peggy fears this scenario when she talks to him on the phone.
But that theory neglected the way that the show’s opening sequence ends: A seated, still man gazing into the distance. This image is just as important to understanding the course of Mad Men’s main character. Yes, Don is the falling man, adrift in the simulacrum of idealized life that he helps create in the name of commerce. He is also the man who breaks out of the fall and surveys the world with newfound perspective.
It’s a cycle of renewal, and as Don listens to the meditation leader’s mantras on the topic of newness, he smiles because he’s coming to terms with that cycle. It’s Don’s lot to plunge deep into the fears that plague the American psyche, experiencing broad-based ennui on a personal level. Once he understands these essential anxieties, he infuses his advertising with hopes that counteract them. He markets these new dreams until they, too, reveal their inadequacies, and the cycle restarts. That’s why Don loves beginnings: Fantasies are believable in the beginning. Then they lose their sheen.
After the nuclear-family utopia of the ’50s failed to eliminate all of society’s ills, Don’s nostalgic ads promised that products would make the lost fantasy real. Now that the ’60s vision of perfect harmony has frayed, Don will once again convince a nationwide audience that consumer goods can make up the difference between the ideal and the reality. Coca-Cola will teach the world to sing.
Don is the embodiment of a process by which our consumerist system creates, sustains, and ultimately discards visions of a better world. Does this cycle lead anywhere? Mad Men remains agnostic on that question. But Don smiles in that closing shot because, if nothing else, the routine of aspiration, disappointment, and rebirth gives him a sense of purpose. There is an essential reward in the circular struggle to create a better self, even if—like Don—we’re making up that better self as we go along.
When Richard tells Joan that her life is “undeveloped property,” he means to imply that he and Joan can build something on that property together. Joan doesn’t have difficulty connecting to someone like Don does, and now she’s grown so close to Richard that they can picture a future where their primary pursuit is to enjoy each other’s company. A person-to-person life.
That “undeveloped property” line may have stuck in Joan’s mind, though, and as she pictures her vacant lot, she thrills to the possibility of building something there on her own. You can see the moment when the mental blueprints take shape. Her gaze lingers on a paper handed to her by Ken Cosgrove. The brief describes a Dow industrial film for which Ken needs production help, and Joan reads it over, running through a mental checklist of ways in which she is perfectly suited for the project. The right producer would need contacts with an array of creative talent and the ability to coordinate a complex project. They’d have to understand not just the logistical requirements of a film shoot but also, hopefully, Dow’s business interests. Joan recognizes herself in the job description.
So the seeds of a production company are sown. Roger provides Joan’s nascent plans with an unexpected boost when he promises an inheritance to their son, Kevin. It’s the sort of largesse that Joan is typically inclined to reject because in her experience, generosity from wealthy men comes with conditions. Roger assures her, though, that he’s not “marking his territory,” as he’s about to marry Marie Calvet. So Joan accepts. “It would be a relief to know that no matter what, our little boy is secure,” she says, and the underlying sentiment is that she doesn’t have to make choices with Kevin’s future in mind anymore. She can build a future that, first and foremost, excites her.
Richard doesn’t like the way his undeveloped property has developed. Joan’s enterprise promises to take all her attention, and he desires that attention for himself. “I don’t want to root for you to fail,” he says, but he already is, which is why he says it. A ringing phone intrudes on their conversation, an aural metaphor for the encroachment of Joan’s business aspirations. Joan offers to marry Richard—a gesture of devotion that falls short of the literal devotion he seeks. He declines her exasperated proposal and washes his hands of the relationship, explaining, “When something’s wrong, it’s always wrong.”
For him, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s so haunted by the specter of his old, unhappy marriage that it’s impossible for him to diverge from that template. It’s unlikely that Richard’s first wife had the singular wit and ambition of Joan Harris, but all he can see are old mistakes. There’s nothing wrong with Joan. There’s something wrong with Richard, and it always will be. He wishes her good luck. A moment later Joan is back on the telephone, conducting business.
Gleefully developing herself, Joan is enlivened by her chance to build her future independently rather than hoping to earn it from a man. She weaves this excitement into the pitch for partnership that she makes to Peggy. “We won’t answer to anyone,” Joan says. “It’ll be something of ours with our name of it.” This is the purest expression of Joan’s dream. Having applied her talents to the many schemes and pipe dreams of Roger Sterling, Don Draper, et al., now Joan is responsible for her own vision. There’s nobody to cast her work aside on a whim. Yes, she’ll still face disappointments. But they won’t necessarily come with disenchantment attached.
Peggy doesn’t latch on to the vision of Olson Harris the way Joan hoped. Perhaps when Joan says, “We won’t answer to anyone,” it doesn’t fully resonate with Peggy because she already believes that she doesn’t answer to anyone. She has bosses, sure, but she has quickly learned how to manipulate the internal politics of McCann. Look at the way she bullies a middle manager to hold onto the Chevalier account. Unlike Joan, Peggy’s series-finale fulfillment doesn’t come in the form of a new career. In “Lost Horizon,” a headhunter lays out a rough roadmap for her: She’ll put in a few years at McCann, and then she’ll have the resume to go wherever she wants. It looks like Peggy plans to remain on that track.
Her revelation is her acknowledgement that “There’s more to life than work,” as Stan puts it. Peggy has been defined exclusively by her job for some time. She pushed all other concerns else to the side, even her own child, in her determination to see a payoff from the bet she placed on her career. As a result, she views everything through that lens. Stan expresses contentment with his work—encouraging her to try doing the same—and Peggy calls him a “failure,” accusing him of having no ambition. When Stan is standing in front of her, she sees the employee—more specifically, she sees someone who doesn’t meet her impossible standards of careerism. When Stan leaves, though, she just misses the person, because she’s not projecting her own perceived shortcomings onto him.
Stan observes this dichotomy, with some exasperation, along the way to confessing that he’s in love with her. “I don’t even think of you,” Peggy says after searching for a response. But when she hears those words out loud, they ring false, and she corrects course. “I mean, I do, all the time, because you’re there, and you’re here.” She keeps talking it out until she stuns herself with the verdict, “I think I’m in love with you, too. I really do.”
Peggy’s breakthrough conversation with Stan comes right after she gets off the phone with Don, and the timing is no coincidence. Peggy’s feelings for Don were fraught and confusing. She looked up to him. She wanted his talent and the confidence that she perceived in him. He frustrated her and inspired her. It could be that, at times, Peggy mistook this slurry of emotions for love, not knowing any better. Like Leonard and Don, she desired love without being able to identify what exactly it is.
As she opens up to Stan, she gets it at last. Peggy logically talks through her affection in a manner that’s so endearingly true to the character. She reasons her way to a more coherent definition of love. Stan doesn’t even hear the climax of her monologue—he’s already put down the phone by then so he can run to her office—but he doesn’t need to hear it. He knows how she feels; her epiphany is for her benefit. She ends Mad Men in the embrace of a person who finally helped her feel a meaningful attachment that extends beyond the advertising world.
You could argue that it’s a tidy way to wrap up Peggy’s story, but I’d argue that she earned it. If there’s a knock to be made against this satisfying conclusion to a rich, complicated series, the criticism would be that everybody gets the ending they deserve. (Everybody but Betty.) Sally learns to fuse her independent spirit with the responsibilities of adulthood. Pete enters the rarefied air of corporate kingpins with Trudy at his side, acquiring the status and stability that he’d always felt were his just rewards. Roger and Marie accept the limitations of their commitment as they enter the twilight of their lives, jaded but joyous. Even Don feels the glow of sunrise.
It remains an open question how long the characters’ new lives can last, and that’s the bittersweet subtext to the finale’s happy endings. These dreams may endure. And they may erode, providing fodder for another generation of ad men who spin taglines from the remnants of America’s dashed hopes.
- This is the final version of tonight’s Mad Men finale review, barring minor tweaks and corrections.
- Joan tells Peggy that their production company will be named “Harris Olson” because “you need two names to make it sound real.” In the closing montage, Joan’s nanny-turned-secretary answers the phone “Holloway Harris, how may I help you?” So Joan still ends up using two names, both her own.
- Peggy calls Lorraine’s bluff on the Chevalier account: “Call David. In fact, why don’t we go and see him right now? I’m sure he’d love to get involved.” I would not turn my nose up at a Peggy spin-off, especially now that she’s such a badass.
- Before he leaves McCann for good, Pete takes a moment in Peggy’s office to shower praise on her. Pete tends to become obsequious when he’s saying goodbye to someone (e.g., the honeysuckle farewells he lavished upon Ken Cosgrove in “Severance”), but his kind words for Peggy come across as authentic rather than affected. Flattered to the point that she’s at a loss for words, Peggy finally says, “A thing like that!”—a phrasing often employed by a younger Pete Campbell. It’s a sweet farewell from Peggy to the father of her forgotten son, one that carries both the melancholy and the acceptance of a road not taken.
- Tonight’s pre-show recap clips showed Roger shrugging off news of Don’s disappearance by remarking, “He does that.” And in the finale itself, Stan assures Peggy, “He always does this, and he always comes back.” The people who have worked around Don understand his retreat-and-return cycle better than he does.
- Peggy’s first-day dress—the one she wore for that instantly iconic swagger down the hallways of McCann—now hangs on the back of her office door.
- Harry Crane gets all peeved when Peggy opts out of Pete’s goodbye lunch. “He acts like we’re the Three Musketeers,” Peggy sneers. Harry has pulled the we’re-all-old-pals act with Roger and Don in the past, too. He basically spent the last three seasons of the show pretending to be friends with people who despise him (or, at best, merely disdain him).
- Peggy tells Joan that she doesn’t have time to moonlight, but Joan tells her that it’s a $1,200 job for a 10-page script, and Peggy changes her tune. Maybe Joan learned from Roger that Peggy’s evening work schedule gets more flexible when there are hundred-dollar bills involved.
- Don’s clothes sack last week was a Sears bag; this week it’s Penney’s.
- Joan reviews cocaine: “I feel like someone just gave me very good news.”
- It’s nice that Meredith got a little sendoff scene and even better that she spends much of that scene matter-of-factly speculating about Don’s death. She hopes that he’s in a “better place,” and when Roger protests that Don is really alive, she says, “There are a lot better places than here,” once again proving that she’s smarter than she might seem. At first I hoped that Meredith got her job back when Don returned for the Coke ad. But on further reflection, I hope she ended up in one of those better places.
- Thank you for reading these reviews as I took over on Mad Men duty for its last half-season. I’m about to head to the airport for a vacation, so I won’t have a chance to look through your comments for a while, which is a bummer. Your insights in the discussion threads have enriched the show, providing me with so many ideas and interpretations to consider, and I’m grateful for it.