For weeks, creator Matt Weiner has been warning legions of “Mad Men” fans to expect ambiguity in the ending of the show, and perhaps he over-corrected.
While Don’s fate remains ambiguous, the rest of the characters received rather satisfying, unexpectedly happy conclusions that offered relatively painless emotional cauterizing. This was, in short, not the ending to “The Sopranos.”
“Mad Men” obsessives will note that the series closes on Don sitting cross-legged, his back to the ocean and some measure of calm on his face, in a white shirt and khakis, hair perfectly Brylcreemed into place. He’s meditating, and maybe he’s finally found a coping mechanism that’s healthier than downing bottles of whiskey. Maybe this breakthrough will be the one that sticks.
Let’s take a look at how everyone’s stories were wrapped:
The show opened with Don at Peak Hobo, and for the first time in the series, he’s in jeans. JEANS. Of course with no car, no suitcase, nothing really, but about $20 million dollars to blow, Don is letting his Dick Whitman flag fly. His hair is a mess, and once again he’s seeking solace, or escape, with an equally hobo-ish prostitute.
He does seek out Stephanie, as we predicted, and returns Anna’s ring. But Stephanie is struggling with her own demons, and of course, Don’s first impulse is to try to fix her, which she rejects.
She invites him to a retreat, which is where he remains until the series ends.
“You show up to LA with some family heirloom,” Stephanie says at the retreat, before later taking off with Don’s car. “You’re not my family. What’s the matter with you?”
Stephanie has voluntarily given her son to his paternal grandparents. She doesn’t feel maternal, and she has a huge chip on her shoulder about it. You can see Don trying to work through his own messes, having been abandoned by his prostitute of a mother once she died in childbirth. Maybe, just maybe, he can help Stephanie.
Of course, he can’t. He can barely help himself, and news of Betty’s lung cancer sends him back on a whiskey bender. Don has no responsibilities. He’s been relieved of his fatherly duties in all but the most occasional, perfunctory capacities. He’s “retired,” left to try, once again, to find a way not to hate himself.
Betty, dying of lung cancer, has one last argument on the phone with Don over the fates of Bobby and Gene. Her scenes from last two episodes of “Mad Men” are arguably the best acting of January Jones’ career. If last week was a heartbreaking clinic in mothering, this was a portrait of how cancer patients often must be the ones holding it together as their loved ones start to collapse under the weight of their prognoses.
Don was enjoying his freedom and spending his money in a way that would make him happy — or as happy as he knows how to be — by throwing it at fast cars and loose women. But news of Betty’s impending death sent him into a tailspin and he insists on taking Sally, Bobby, and Gene.
Betty isn’t being cold, but merely pragmatic when she tells him, “I want to keep things as normal as possible, and you not being here is part of that.”
If nothing else, this shot of Peggy from “Mad Men’s” penultimate episode told us one thing: Peggy is going to be all right. And she’s more than all right. With Stan by her side, a calming force keeping her from making snap decisions, Peggy is most certainly going to end up running things.
“Someday, people are going to brag that they worked with you,” Pete tells Peggy as he’s making his goodbye rounds. He predicts that Peggy will be creative director by 1980, which of course feels like an eternity to Peggy. She wants her name on something, and she wants it quickly.
And Peggy very nearly had that opportunity with Joan — all she had to say was yes to Joan’s proposition that they become partners in a production company.What would take her years if she stays at McCann, Joan is offering in the space of a week.
As much as “Mad Men” was about Don’s quest for identity and self-acceptance, it’s about Peggy, her creative genius, and her ability to avoid Don’s mistakes. Freddie Rumsen may have discovered her, but it was Don whose shadow and vision loomed large from the start.
So of course it was the scenes of Don and Peggy on the telephone that tugged at our heartstrings the most, another “Suitcase” moment all over again, this time over the space of a long-distance telephone call.
“I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am,” Don says, as Peggy implores him to come back and fix everything, to just come back and work on Coke. “I broke all my vows. Scandalized my child. Took another man’s name, and made nothing of it. I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you.”
Sally morphs into this authoritative, level-headed adult, seemingly overnight. Not only does she advise Don what should happen to Bobby and Gene, she cancels a trip to Madrid to come home and take over duties that Betty is too weak to assume. And maybe, just maybe, that will signal some progress for her generation. Rather than turning into a short-order cook for her brothers, she offers to teach Bobby how to make dinner without burning it.
But we really see how much Sally is her father’s daughter when she tells him about Betty’s cancer. She informs him that Betty wants Bobby and Gene to live with their Uncle William and Aunt Judy. Don puts up a fight, Sally tells him to tell Betty he wants the boys to stay with Henry.
“Let me finish. I’ve thought about this more than you have,” Sally tells him, sounding exactly like Don. “Daddy, it’s going to be so hard for them already. They should at least be in the same bed and at the same school.”
“Do you understand I’m betraying her confidence,” she continues. “I’m not being dramatic. Now please, take me seriously.”
Roger has become highly aware of his own mortality, and highly evolved for that matter. He was always civilized and generous when it came to the end of his first two marriages, and fortunately, his benevolence hasn’t run out. After Marie spits at him in French that he’s going to leave her for his secretary — clearly she hasn’t met Caroline — Roger decides to marry her. “Yell at me slower, or in English,” he tells her.
Roger is the last of the Sterlings, and now the family name won’t even live on in the form of the company his father built. Even though Kevin is his son, his last name is Harris. He wisely decides to divide his estate between Ellery (his grandson) and Kevin. And in a satisfying moment, Joan actually acknowledges that Kevin is theirs, together. “It would be a relief to know that no matter what our little boy is secure,” she says as she accepts Roger’s offer to take care of Kevin financially.
We should have known she’d get bored. Ever since we witnessed that wave of disappointment wash over Joan’s face when Harry no longer needed her to read soap opera scripts, Joan has been destined to be more than just a secretary or an office manager.
After ditching McCann, she ran off to Florida with Richard Burghoff. They’re reminiscent of Don and Megan in Hawaii, trying an assortment of drugs together.
“I feel like someone just gave me some very good news,” Joan says after a couple hits of cocaine.
But of course it can’t last, and soon enough Joan’s eyes come to life when she realizes exactly what she’s going to do while sitting across from Ken Cosgrove at lunch.
Once again, she’s underestimated. Ken just wants her to go through her Rolodex to find the producer they used for Birdseye to produce a series of industrial films for Dow. But Joan has enough contacts. She’s capable of producing the film herself and makes quick work of hiring Peggy to write a 10-page script for $1,200.
Nothing ever really changes for Joan in at least one respect: the woman remains chronically under-appreciated.
“Your life is undeveloped property,” Richard tells her as he’s begging for her to consider leaving New York. “You could turn it into anything you want. It’s got a hell of a view.”
Joan and Peggy have a curious relationship. They can be vicious in the way they snap at each other, but their relationship is undergirded by mutual respect. So it’s only somewhat of a surprise when Joan invites Peggy to be a partner with her in her newly-formed production company. It needs two names to sound official, she says, but Joan is also savvy enough to put Peggy’s competence before their philosophical differences.
Joan, it should be noted, meets with Peggy wearing the same pink dress she was wearing when Peggy tried to blame her for her own sexual harassment at McCann. This is triumphant, eat-your-s— Joan.
Finally, Joan has something of her own, something about which to be excited, something she can build. Having been turned down by Peggy, Joan rebounds easily and creates Holloway Harris Productions.
Alas, Joan is not destined to “have it all,” and once again, the man in her life is a self-involved vessel of disappointment.
“I can’t just turn off that part of myself,” Joan tells Richard, who wants her to abandon her professional dreams to be a woman of leisure. “I would never dream of making you choose.”
At least she didn’t have to hit this one over the head with a vase of roses.
Peggy, typically, is too busy to go to lunch with Peter on his last day. He stops off to gift her with a cactus and some words of encouragement before heading to Wichita, where he arrives with Trudy looking like a Midwest version of Julie Christie in “Dr. Zhivago.”
Ken is squared away at Dow, hoping not to make a fool of himself, and he’s going to have Joan to thank for making him look very, very smart.
Harry, unlike Peggy, feels like he has enough job security to turn down an important business lunch to have one more with Pete before he leaves.
LOOK WHO’S GOING TO BE MR. PEGGY OLSON!
We absolutely mean that in the best most ecstatic way possible.
Stan followed Peggy to McCann-Erickson, and thank goodness, because he’s the silent-but-crucial support system backing her when she’s confronting a superior about being removed from the Chevalier account.
Peggy can’t help but get in her own way. She can’t accept Stan’s advice without insulting him in the process, and she’s simultaneously maddening and brilliant (of course she is, she’s Mini Don), but love smooths those things over, and Stan finally tells Peggy he loves her in the sweetest, most awkward phone conversation that suggest their relationship will be a success if all of its negotiations take place via copper wire.
“Every time I’m face-to-face with you I want to strangle you,” Stan says. “And then I miss you when I go away. And then I call you on the phone and I get the person I want to talk to. … Now I don’t know what to do with myself because all I want to do is be with you.”