We are living in the Golden Age of Television or “a new Golden Age of Television and a new tidal wave of garbage.” This Golden Age is largely accredited to the invention of DVR, the internet, Netflix etc. Now viewers could follow long character driven plots over long periods of time, and shows could reach target audiences in a lot of new ways, achieving cult status through these avenues and opening the world of television to a caliber of artistic entertainment previously only available at the movies. Over time, TV has become better than the movies. I truly believe that no one ever knows if a movie is going to actually be good until its made, while TV can develop plots slowly, get green lighted without celebrity actors, etc etc.
Mad Men is perhaps the most artistic show I’ve ever seen. Every single frame of every single episode is spectacularly composed. Cinematography, acting, writing, costuming (I’ve read that people have actually contacted costume designer and DONATED their midcentury clothing to the show.) set design, character development. It’s brilliant. Duh.
The finale. I’d like to buy the world a Coke.
I’ve read a few articles about the Mad Men finale. The ending has Don having an epiphany moment doing yoga on a hill, and then cuts to the most popular and transformative ad campaign of all time- the “Hilltop” Coca Cola ad, which WAS in fact produced by McCan Erickson in 1971. Some thought it was a cynical moment, in an episode that largely tied up all of our main characters loose ends, giving most of them, the “happy” endings they worked for by growing and learning for seven long years. The series starts with Don concocting an ad campaign for Lucky Strike- the thing that kills Betty – (“Lucky Strike -It’s toasted” was also a real world ad campaign.) and ends with him creating an ad for soda- which we know helped bring on an obesity and diabetes epidemic. Some people took the ending to mean Don hasn’t changed at all. He’s still the same Don.
I disagree. I think the show has ultimately been about Don, the handsome ad man, vs Dick the scared child. We ALL have those two sides to us. When Don is sitting in his group therapy session, he is brought to genuine tears and emotion by the soliloquy of “The refrigerator Man” a man so bland that his children and wife don’t even notice when he enters a room. Don has never had that problem. But Dick has. Don connects with this man over the feeling of being left on the shelf, waiting and hoping for someone to turn their loving gaze on him. Don has never been able to recognize and accept the loving gaze. He’s systematically thrown away everyone who has ever cared about him by betraying them. “I’ve broken all my vows. I’ve scandalized my child. I’ve taken another mans name and made nothing of it,” is Don’s confession to Peggy, one of the most important women in his life. This after a phone call to Betty in which she tells him “I want to maintain normalcy for the kids, you not being here is normal.” Bam, even dying from cancer and 3000 miles away Betty can cut a bitch. Don recognizes in his “person to person” collect calls (the title of this episode as well) that he has never really connected, person to person. “That’s not true. Come home, don’t you want to work on Coke?” Peggy tells him.
This season Don has been stripped of everything that makes him Don. He’s lost or shed his furniture, his apartment, his job, his wife, his kids, and then even his car and his suit. He is reborn on that hilltop as something else. It’s a moment of hope. But then the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” comes on. Has Don forgotten his epiphany, and gone back to NYC to mine people’s genuine emotions to create this ad, once again peddling swill to Americans that will eventually kill them? Is that smile with the bell ringing because he has had his lightbulb moment? Hasn’t he learned anything?
Yes, I think he has. He has learned and changed. But he’s an artist, really. And in a way we are all Don Draper. In 2015, we are all mining our nostalgia all the time. We even use instagram filters to prove it. The same way he mined his true emotional experience for an ad campaign, we are all constantly mining our true emotional moments for instagram, social media and the like. In a way, this is what all artists do all the time, they steal from their souls. I think that because Don can’t actually LIVE it and FEEL it the way he wants to, he’s always been incredibly adroit at exploitingit. Thats his genius and his curse. In a way, he’s always been an outsider in the world of actual human emotion. And because he exists outside of it, he was always able to report on it and use it.
(This shot of the pigtail girl is a direct call back to Don’s conversation with the receptionist at the spa who tells Don he is stuck there. and the “proof” that he created this ad.) What’s changed for Don is that the message is no longer just the nuclear family as End Goal, he’s dreaming a little bigger now. It’s acceptance and harmony of truth and self on a large global scale.
The show has been about his LONGING for the American Dream, despite actually having it. His life with Betty was nothing if not the picture perfect American Dream. (His life with Megan was the visual of another type of American Dream.) One of my favorite moments on Mad Men was Betty and Don have the most picturesque picnic, sitting under a tree on a blanket, with their classic car playing music and their beautiful children at their feet. They get up to go home and shake out their blanket leaving all their trash littered under the tree.
Remember his incredibly powerful Carousel ad for Kodak? He literally mined his family photos to create this incredibly poignant and nostalgic ad campaign. I believe that some of the execs were moved to tears during his presentation. And this is what Don has always done- stolen from his real life for his art. Maybe this one scene, the carousel scene, is the lens through which the whole show can be seen.
Does that mean I think Don is a cynic? No, I think Don is the ultimate optimist. Don actually believes in the dream of Coke. Despite his statement early in the series that “Love was invented by guys like me to sell Nylons” he doesn’t ultimately believe that anymore. Yes, he has always robbed his emotional life for his work. But he pines so longingly for the American Dream. That Coke ad, is his ideal, it’s his dream reality. The carousel ad shows Don feeling nostalgia for something he still had at the time. He’s always had a disconnect, reflecting on his life rather than living it. “The Dick” in him could never let him feel the truly happy life he could have had, because only “The Don” was ever noticed and loved.
This is also not his first run in with McCan or Coke. Remember when Hobart tried to manipulate Don by casting Betty in a Coke Commercial? Despite being perfect for it, she loses the job because Don won’t work for McCan. She lies to Don and says that she decided she doesn’t want to model after all. Look at that scene compared to the “picnic” scene. Don was actually living in a Coke ad, he just couldn’t appreciate it. Look at how the show makes us see the artifice in what it’s selling as it pulls back to reveal the lights. The American Dream. Is it real?
There is one more picnic scene to note. One of the saddest on the show, in which Betty breaks her son’s heart. Just something to think about.
The rest of the finale is filled with happy-ish endings. Joan creates the Holloway-Harris production company (and does COKE!). Choosing herself over a man. She makes peace with her relationship with Roger and they are both genuinely happy for each other. Roger falls in love with Megan’s mother. A woman who can stand up to him and laughs with him. (I still love Roger. His wise cracks in that cafe were awesome.)
Sally makes peace with Betty, coming home to take care of her brothers. Last week we learned that Betty has terminal lung cancer. Something I think was foreshadowed since the beginning of the show. Betty was never shown without a cigarette and who could forget this scene when Betty, smoking a cancer stick, LITERALLY goes mother-lioness crazy and shoots her neighbors birds after the neighbor scared her kids. “BYE BYE BIRDIE” Right? Betty’s best moments have always been when she self actualizes. Here. In Italy. And at the end of her life.
Betty sits at her kitchen table smoking, and Sally is the true hero of the show. Mad Men loves to recall scenes in other scenes. Below three of the most important Betty/Sally scenes. When Betty tells Sally about becoming a woman. “Just ask another woman, she’ll understand….It means everything is working…Someday you’ll have a beautiful girl, and tell her all this.”
The moment when they can finally smoke together, and connect over Don: “I’m sure your father has given you a beer.” “My father has never given me anything,” Sally answers.
“You love the tragedy” Sally tells Betty. Sally gets Betty. “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good,” Betty now finally gets Sally.
The boys will be ok, because of Sally. (And in my heart I hope they get to stay with Henry.)
Pete and Trudy go off to jet set together. In his scene with Peggy, he recognizes that “one day people will brag that they worked with you” and that he will never know how that feels because no one has ever said that about him. Pete’s redemption is that he has stopped looking for the next best thing, stopped trying to be Don and has decided to be happy.
And Peggy. Peggy and Stan. I’ve always LOVED Stan. His clothing has been comic relief. I laughed out loud when he said he loved her and she said “WHAT?” LOL. Also of note, hanging in Peggy’s office is the dress she wore when she strode into McCan like a rock star with her sunglasses and cigarette, and next to it is the painting of the octopus pleasuring a woman from Bert Cooper. Peggy doesn’t have to choose a man or a career, like Joan does. She can have both. It’s the 70’s and it’s a new world. I loved the feel good vibe of the episode. After Betty’s scenes last week, we earned it. And maybe Matt Weiner is just as much of a hopeful, nostalgic, if hesitant optimist as Don is. I think Weiner believes in the power of Coke, the happy ending, the American Dream. And this series is his tribute to beauty of the “the tragedy” of it all.
The show was always as much about how good it feels to do good work as anything else. Sometimes that comes at a great cost to the creator. It always has, and maybe it always will.
But I’m still a sucker for the power of Coca Cola.