Now that everyone’s had time to digest last night’s “Mad Men” finale, we’ve moved into the stage of grief known as Obsessively Nitpicking Over What Happened to Don, Even Though That’s Not The Point. Did he create the Coke ad that played at the end of the show? Did he phone the idea in to Peggy (yeah, right)? Could anyone else possibly have the vision to come up with something like that?
Actually, yes: A real human, who lived in the real world, and whose name was Bill Backer, was the genius behind one of the most famous commercials of the 1970s. He was McCann’s creative director for Coca-Cola in 1971, and you can read all about him and the origin story of the ad on their Web site.
Okay, but assuming this Bill Backer person wasn’t a factor, what about Don?
It’s his brilliant idea, right? Even though Don says he’s “retired?” Even though he refers to his life in advertising in the past tense? As Roger Sterling’s secretary Meredith pointed out, there are a lot of places better than McCann, or New York, although Don doesn’t seem to be the best at finding them. The Bonneville salt flats were pretty cool, but alas, they weren’t enough.
Here are the arguments in favor of this not-so-cockamamie idea that Don Draper gave the world a Coke (advertisement):
It’s freaking Coke
On the phone, Peggy tells Don that he can come back to McCann even though he just walked out, abandoning his life and the company — and Coke is the main argument she uses. That’s her hook: don’t you want to work on Coke? He couldn’t escape it even when he wanted to — remember last week when the motel owner was begging Don to repair his old Coca-Cola vending machine because he didn’t want the new one?
The episode begins with Joan doing coke and ends with … Don doing Coke?
There are no visual coincidences on “Mad Men”
A bunch of people noticed that the woman in braided pigtails from Don’s hippie retreat looked an awful lot like the hippie in the Coke commercial.
No one ever changes
If Joan got bored with living as a woman of leisure, Don probably isn’t going to make it through the rest of his life meditating, especially when he doesn’t have anyone keeping him in California since Stephanie took off with his car. And if the show is, as it always has been, about how people don’t really change — except in small ways that they end up fighting anyway — then sure, it makes sense that Don would eventually return to New York. He may go west, to California, to Hawaii, but he always comes back to the city Pete calls a “toilet.”
Do we really think a bunch of “om-ing” would give Don the sort of absolution for the tremendous guilt he feels about his life? “I messed everything up,” he tells Peggy when he finally calls her to let her know he’s not dead. “Took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.”
But giving the world a Coke would more than qualify as making something of Don Draper’s name. That ad was a piece of American iconography, the sort that made Coca-Cola synonymous with freedom and idealism. One wonders if even Don would be able to uncouple Coke from its current reputation as a trafficker of diabetes and high-fructose corn syrup. If there’s anyone who could do it, it’s him.
Even the real McCann, which has been gamely tweeting through every put-down Matthew Weiner has thrown at the agency, has claimed Don:
As has Coca-Cola:
Maybe Don just needs periodic hobo retreats to get his demons out of his system so that he can return to McCann without being stifled. Maybe he’ll work freelance. Or maybe this is his idea of a shirt sleeves operation:
Even when he blew things up with Hershey and was banished, then finally allowed to return on strict probation, Don couldn’t stay away from advertising.
While Don may not be winning any father of the year awards, he’s never completely abandoned his children. Don would certainly return for Betty’s funeral, and who’s to say what would become of Bobby and Gene once Don sees them again? He could still end up taking them, even if that’s not what Betty wanted. Of all the things we really dread, the top one has to be Sally missing out on her life because she becomes a mother to her two younger brothers after Betty dies. No wonder Betty wanted Bobby and Gene to live with their aunt and uncle. She could see it coming.