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Mad Men Series Finale | The Power of Coke.

betty-draper-coca-cola-mad-men.png 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.  150938338_1280x725

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.  720x405-e91a27d7-7779-a797-8ea8-6ba397e972e7_MM_714_JM_0623_1545

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?

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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. Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 12.48.07 PM

(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.  jzi15

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.  tumblr_n1hqg4JzWt1trjj2go1_1280 16255067980_be76ba33e2_b-1

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.

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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.

tumblr_m61z8pbCyX1r17y54o1_1280 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?  Betty_cococola_shoot

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.

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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.  Screen Shot 2012-07-20 at 1.28.28 PM

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.”

Sally_and_Betty 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.  tumblr_n3vwww2FZf1r17y54o6_1280 “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.
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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. peggy

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.

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Comments

  1. Stephanie says:

    I feel like don is constantly hitting rock bottom and each time you think he’s gonna change but he always manages to come out of it and revert right back to the guy he always is exploiting his experiences in his emotional rock bottom to make him more successful and powerful in his professional life.

    • Nicole Cohen says:

      Pretty much. I just think Don believes in what he’s selling so whole heartedly!

  2. Alyse says:

    Well said

  3. Art maven says:

    Nicole , well done. One of your best “writes” ever. You explained the layers of complexities in Mad Men perfectly. Of course he did the last Coke Ad from his smile on the hill. But I would also add this– does not the Coke Ad also have a another message of “Why can’t we all just get along?” Besides his own personal problems , which you explained adroitly, isn’t Don tired of being the lone champion for fair + equal treatment of everyone–women, blacks, homosexuals etc? In the last episode we find him trying to help every down trodden person he meets even those stealing from him. Maybe Weiner and Don believe if we all, globally, could just get along, the world would be a better place for everyone. Clearly drinking a Coke together can’t make it happen but we can dream that someday something will.

  4. carla Berger says:

    GREAT PIECE…

  5. I think you need to start writing for Vulture pronto..this was one kickass analysis! And I too will always love Roger. Please keep doing more of these!

  6. Renee says:

    Great synopsis. The end of an era.

  7. It’s been a few days since I saw the finale and I’m still trying to figure out if I enjoyed it or even if I understood it. Reading your analysis, and a few others, is definitely helping. Think the last couple of season I lost touch with Mad Men – I wasn’t so invested in it. So I stopped caring about the characters and their stories. I think the only characters I never stopped with though were Peggy and Joan. Peggy’s especially. She’s not an easy character to like, but she’s had some great moments. Unlike a few people out there, I’m happy with how her time on Mad Men was concluded. Like you, I think Stand is awesome – him and Peggy have always has some sort of chemistry. Her phone call with Don was really touching in the finale – I think she needed it to finally let go of Don in a way.

    Awesome analysis, I never realised just how prevalent Coca-Cola was in the entire series. Heck it should be, Mad Men’s about the advertising world and, arguably, Coca-Cola is the king of advertising.

    • Nicole Cohen says:

      I watched the whole series in one shot last year so I think I had a little bit of a different experience than someone who watched it live. I could see how the slow burn of the episodes and character development could be a little too slow…. The “Fat Betty” periods and some of the Megan years were not the best of the series.

      I actually want to rewatch the whole series from the beginning!

  8. this has always been for me the best show that’s ever been on television. you nailed all the things i was thinking in this WELL DONE recap. i will miss this show and am waiting a little bit before i start all over. i feel sorry for people who don’t watch. really really awesome recap nicole.

  9. kris says:

    This is my favorite blog entry of yours – hands down! I loved this show so much that I paused the last episode at least 10 times in some denial about it ending. Your interpretations about the finale were spot on. Thanks!

  10. Uncola says:

    I agree with virtually all of what you had to say but based on all the evidence, it seems indisputable that Don did the Coke ad https://twitter.com/emillersmith/status/600142889058902016. That said, how did and why could that happen? I believe there is a strong belief that a dichotomy can exist here – the idealized wish to buy the world a Coke yet knowing it’s impossible in such an imperfect world. Those two things can coexist at the same time in one’s mind. It’s also possible for an ad man to sell an ad, know it’s NOT “the real thing” and be ok with that. The show is both at the same time telling us to be optimistic while at the same time cynically saying that’s the biggest lie ever. We are all TWO sides of that coin.

    Don in his last hobo trip of the series where has been slowly stripped of all of the trapping of his east coast life as he again searches west for the answers to his troubles and to heal himself, realizes he doesn’t need those to be happy. Along his journey, he is absolved of one part of one is his two great sins – having killed man even though accidentally. The WWII vet had resorted to cannibalism to get home. Don is absolved because he got the job of every soldier done – getting home. In the end, he only stole a man’s identity, he didn’t steal his flesh.

    The other part of that sin, the waste of another man’s life, is absolved by Peggy who says he has done something of meaning, which should have been obvious to him as he has a name for himself on the street. It is fitting that she is the one who does this as she is another person in this episode who realizes something that was standing right in front of their eyes all along – Stan, the love of her life. For Joan, it was Richard would never be right for her and answering that phone and continuing working would be.

    During these last few episodes, Don is still running from his past, moving west trying to stay with the sun, in the present and ahead of the past. When he ends up at the retreat, three critically important firsts in the series happen in this episode which are contrary to and the opposite of the Don Draper philosophy on life. First, Stephanie, who can’t handle her past, tells Don, after he suggests she “just put this behind her. It’ll get easier as you move forward,” that “No Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” This is the ONLY time someone hasn’t taken his advice to just sweep things under the rug and move forward and not worry about them or the consequences.

    Yet she does just sweep it under the rug and in the middle of the night goes hobo on the original hobo – reflecting her and Don’s constant focus on the “me.” Don, true to form, would like to go hobo too but can’t follow suit and is stuck. Don, who can’t leave or “move forward”, is forced to confront his own issues during Leonard’s confession, which leads to the second first in the series. Don has personally always shied away from empathy and sorrow and told others to do the same – remember him telling Betty in one of the earliest episodes that that was enough with the sorrow. Now instead of resisting the emotion, he actually goes and literally embraces the emotion.

    Don, the lowest of the low, an unwanted, unloved, bastard child of prostitute, and thus an outcast of the 50’s society, realizes he ISN’T the only one who feels unloved and unwanted. But in realizing he isn’t alone in that feeling, he realizes he isn’t alone in the universe anymore and he is transformed. Don also realizes he wasn’t responsible for the circumstances of his birth and no longer has to be embarrassed by them either and accepts himself as he is. He realizes it’s what he is and what he does that matters. Don has finally gotten in touch with himself or rather, in touch “person to person”, even though he was forced to do so, which is probably to only way it could have happened and partially explains why it never happened before in the series.

    Critical to understanding Don’s transformation is what Anne Draper tried to have him understand back in the Season 2 series finale “Meditations in and Emergency.” Anne tells Don “the only thing keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.” He asks what if you are alone. Anne says then you can change. Don states people don’t change. Without responding directly to his assertion, she remarks the Tarot card reflects wisdom – “as you live you learn things.” Here is the progression and important resolution of the tension in Mad Men from the fixed world of Chase’s Sopranos where people don’t change in any way at all and are thus bound to repeat their mistakes endlessly to one where people’s personalities don’t change but their understanding of themselves and their place in the world changes and thus their outlook on those do too and hence their actions. This is critical to Don AND Dick truly moving forward for the first time and resolving Mad Men’s philosophy on people living a happy life – more on this later.

    With his new found understanding (wisdom) and acceptance of his circumstances and of who is he is and where he came from, Don is finally able to move forward – figuratively and literally – with his life, which enable the third first to happen. During the meditation scene, a wry smile comes over his face as he, for the first time, finally actually understands the current times and is able to tap into its zeitgeist – he’s no longer a man of the 50’s, he’s a modern or post-modern man. He HAS changed, and for a third time; he is au currant.

    As a consequence, he is no longer trapped, as Stephanie is, by the mores of a 50’s society that’s is always “judging you” (as Stephanie noted in her confession) and is “me”: focused as demonstrated by all of Stephanie’s bad, self-centered decisions, whose problems are further compounded and spiral downwards as they come with society’s self-defeating recriminations which keep her even further trapped. In addition, he is also no longer shackled to the ad that typified of the era which was about your status, how it made you look or feel or how it made people perceive you. His ads also no longer need to rely on nostalgia, of looking to the past that can’t be recaptured – only re-seen as in the “The Wheel” or relived or re-felt in the first “Hersey pitch” before he spiraled into the whorehouse one. Instead, drawing once again on his personal experiences, he is able to move and LOOK forward to an imagined future ad world that exists right now (at least in one’s mind – think of the song “Imagine”) that isn’t focused on what the product does for me, but rather what it does to the largest group of not me’s – the world. This is a profound change from a world centered not around me but on the connected us. It is worth noting the initial items wished for in the Coke ad where things Don or rather Dick never really had growing up – a home, love, sweetness in his life – honey, and peace – snow white turtle doves.

    It is also worth noting how different a place this is for Don from the Wheel or The Carousel. In the Wheel pitch, Don says nostalgia is the pain from an old wound – in Don’s case his nostalgia isn’t a pleasant feeling as his wound is being the lowest of the low — an unwanted, unloved, bastard child of prostitute, and thus an outcast of the 50’s society. As Don notes in the Wheel pitch, the wheel is “a time machine. Goes backwards and forwards. It lets us travel the way a child does, round and around and back home again.” There are two critical observations to make here.

    First, the carousel time machine only moves forward in past time, not from the present time into the future. Second, this is exactly how Don has metaphorically moved through life, as a child going round and around, making the same mistakes over and over again and ending up right back where he started and never moving forward in time, in his development to becoming an adult or in his life in general. Don can’t move forward because his old wound never really healed, and his wound – his nostalgia – is what he unfortunately aches to go back to time and time again because it’s all he knows and thus is why he repeats his mistakes over and over again.

    However, by accepting himself for whom and what he is, he is healed and thus no longer stuck on that unhappy merry-go-round going round and around and can finally truly be in the present, move forward and for the first time in his life do so with a hopeful and positive outlook on life, a feeling which is so clearly reflected in the upbeat Coke ad. But more than just be in the present, Don’s new Coke time machine allows him to travel into the future – to a more Utopian world that lives in harmony. FYI if you’ve ever closed your eyes and heard a pair of Tibetian bells ring, the sound appears to travel away from you, filling the void in the universe. The sound also reflects that happy sound of the Coke ad filling the world. I’d like to think that was part of the double meaning of that sound. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Tibetan_bells.jpg

    Yet, Don isn’t buying the hippie message of life but he has gotten self-enlightenment and wisdom and through those the ability to accept and thus be himself, which is someone who can tap into the feelings of the people and the times and create an ad that reflects those times and feelings. He knows the Coke ad he creates isn’t “the Real Thing” but rather is an unrealistic dream or even a lie. But it reflects a real and good wish and that those two things – unattainable wish and reality – can coexist in someone’s mind at the same time. Something we strive for but can never attain – aka the “pursuit of happiness”, not the attainment of it.

    He also finally learned, though through forced circumstances, self-delusion doesn’t allow people to be in touch with themselves and move forward and thus precludes them from really understanding other people’s circumstances. But self-awareness allows for connections to made, Person to Person, even if not face to face as most of the best connections in the episode aren’t made person to person aka face to face, but indirect a la the phone and through the ad that touched millions though not face to face.

    But this connectedness is a wished for world and thus not totally real. But it is a vision of what we would like and want – to be connected and loved. And that has been a core tension of the show since day one – what you wish for in your life to make you happy versus what happens or has happened in it and what is feasible, realistic and meaningful. It’s a tension that will never cease, just as Sisyphus never stops rolling that ball up that hill only to see it roll right back down – just as Don falls at the beginning of every show but ends up on his feet, seated and looking relaxed and comfortable.

    Don’s no longer alone, but rather is, like the Coke ad and the Tarot card, connected to everything. Yes his personality hasn’t changed but his outlook on himself and how the world seems him and thus his outlook on life have. In addition, he has not changed his views on the constraints life places on your life – we can wish for things, but some of those are not the real thing or even attainable. But as humans, it is natural for us to want them.

    Most importantly though, only through the knowledge gained through living and learning things, aka Anne’s wisdom, combined with nosce te ipsum can and does real and meaningful change come and some measure of happiness, as happened with Joan in regards to Richard versus HER work, Peggy about love and Stan the Man standing right in front of her, Pete about Trudy and his family, Roger and Marie, and Don about himself, his past, the universe and his place in it. Namaste.

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