Now that Mad Men has aired its final show, I feel the need to talk about what I think worked so well about it. There will be spoilers. You have been warned.
I came into Mad Men late. I think the second or third season was airing when I finally came across a repeated episode and decided I had to watch it from the beginning. Of course, Don Draper was the original draw, but even he wasn’t enough to guaranty that I would keep watching. The first few episodes were tough. Knowing it was set in 1960 didn’t keep my feminism from getting extremely twitchy. I wasn’t even sure who I was more annoyed with – the men for treating the women like objects, or the women for letting them. Come on people!
Somewhere around the third episode, however, that all changed when we finally got to see Roger and Don as human beings rather than the personas that were so often on display around the office. In a scene where they are sitting around bitching about the new guy, Pete (who continued to annoy me as well, right up until the last couple of episodes), Roger says, “Every generation thinks the next one is going to be the ruin of them. There were probably people in the Bible complaining about ‘kids today.’”
And that’s a lot of what made the show for me. Clearly drawn, relatable characters who acted realistically rather than predictably. And while I often lusted after Don, especially when he was tying a woman to a bed and then leaving because she just wouldn’t shut up, or was ordering Sylvia around for an entire episode, I don’t think he was my favorite.
Nope, that would be Peggy.
Did Peggy want a home and a family all along? Yes, I think she did. But she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her career for it. She may have seen Don as a mentor but she also knew how to stand up to him, how to not be bullied by him, and how to succeed on her own without him. And when the show ended, her finale was quite possibly my favorite one of all the major characters.
It’s easy to look at Peggy’s ending and say it was just another rom-com trope that we’ve all seen thousands of times. Except it isn’t. In no way was she desperate for a man to take care of her. And she doesn’t expect that from Stan now. Further, while she and Stan have had their differences, I felt like they had come to a good place together, like they had earned each other’s mutual respect. Their banter didn’t scream, “get a room already.” Nor did they have any type of on-again off-again relationship a la Ross and Rachel on Friends. They make sense though not in an obvious way. It would have been just as easy, and believable, to let them carry on as friends.
And watching her work it out in her head as to how she felt was beautiful. That she hadn’t been agonizing over this for several seasons made it even better. It was sudden for her, and played perfectly by Elizabeth Moss. Similarly, there was a scene between Peggy and Stan a couple of weeks prior to the final episode where she admits to having given up a child for adoption. If Moss doesn’t at least get an Emmy nod for these episodes, there is no justice in the world of entertainment.
Also high on my list of favorites is Roger. Roger Sterling is everyone’s inside voice. He says the things out loud that everyone else is thinking, the things that should probably never be expressed out loud (“How Jewish are they? Fiddler on the Roof – audience or cast?”). He even showed up in black face in one episode and while I hate that that happened, I can see how it would be in character for Roger. Why wouldn’t he think that was alright? He is white male privilege personified. He’s never wanted for anything in his life nor has he ever had to truly work for anything.
And then there’s Joan. Early on in the series, the men of the office were trying to categorize the women as either a Marilyn or a Jackie. As women walked by them, they would call out which they were. Joan appeared and was an obvious Marilyn but as someone pointed out, “Marilyn is really a Joan.” And ain’t that the truth?
Joan knows her effect on men and uses it to her advantage every chance she can. And though she lives by her own rules, I don’t think that, until the last few episodes of season seven, she would have called herself a feminist. It’s not until she’s treated as truly disposable that she realizes her worth. And we see that in her ending on the show. She lets go of a man she cared about rather than compromise who she is and what she wants. She starts her own company – using her own two last names – because she knows her strengths and what she can accomplish.
Which leaves Don. I’ll admit that his ending confused me a great deal at first. As one of the masses who assumed that the character literally would not survive the end of the series, I was confused by most of the last half of season seven. He was systematically stripped of everything he held dear to him and to top it all off he…gives his car to some con artist kid from a small town? And then sits by the side of the road smiling about it?
And then that Coke commercial. What the hell?
For me, the answer came in remember one of Peggy’s last lines to him. “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” I have to assume that means he gets back from his little retreat and goes on to work on that very commercial (after all, the guy who wrote it in real life worked for agency of McCann Erickson).
The rest of it felt very Zen and very Buddhist to me. It was as if Don had to let go of his attachment to all the things he thought would make him happy, all the things that he thought would make him a new and better person, had to let go even of that persona he had taken on named Don. He had to rediscover himself as Dick instead of who he thought he had to be. I’d love to see what becomes of him after that revelation. Does he actually write that Coke commercial? Is he more down to earth? Less of a womanizer? Less arrogant? Does the change last or will he slip into old routines? It’s very open ended and I find I’m more okay with that than I would have expected to be.
I can’t overstate how much I love that this entire series was, in fact, a serial. There were plot points that came up in the final episode that had started in the very first episode. There were plots all along that felt like they were going to be significant that weren’t. Characters came and went, sometimes with little to no explanation, just like life. The series perfectly captured a decade and the lives of these particular people. Even the minor characters had depth. As show creator Matthew Weiner has said, “I’m not interested in writing Man One.” He made us care about all of them, even Pete Campbell in the end. And I think there are aspects of life that transcend time – not everything gets explained or wrapped up neatly. And it can change quickly with no warning.
As Joan so famously said, “That’s life – one minute you’re on top of the world. The next minute some secretary is running over you with a lawn mower.”