5 / 5
*Spoiler alert: This review contains details from the final season of Mad Men*
For 7 years the saga of Don Draper and those who work for Sterling-Cooper have captivated audiences and have evoked a cultural phenomenon with today’s contemporary society. Mad Men brought about a renewed interest for history, specifically within the 1960s; a decade that bore witness to a multitude of differing cultural shifts and mainstream trends that genuinely redefined the perspective of the normative. It is incredulous to believe the Kennedy presidency, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, the moon landing, Bob Dylan, and even The Beatles were all (no-pun intended) products of the 1960s, and the era influence continues to influence over forty years later. Creator Matthew Weiner, known for his intensity to detail and subtlety with Mad Men, was always careful to show hints of such events and trends influencing his characters. A true progression of character doesn’t immediately happen, but rather it is a form of evolution. In that regard, Weiner was strategic in showing such subtle influences on all of his characters, most notably the female characters within the show. However out of the vast set of characters that has dominated the show in its seven year run, never did we, as an audience, see Don Draper (Jon Hamm) truly change. He remained consistent, maintaining the same suit, hairstyle and demeanor. Don Draper’s lack of change emphasized him as a man outside of the scope of understanding the very world he stands in. The world is moving too fast for him to comprehend, to which his personal relationships have always faltered as a result. Don has continually tried to hold onto a former existence of himself amidst a world that demands him to evolve.
The second half of Mad Men’s final season repeatedly displays the visual of Don Draper standing in the middle of his now-empty apartment. The walls are stripped bare, the furniture is gone and any resemblance of passion towards anything or anyone is nonexistent. Don stands in the middle of these rooms perplexed and alone. Unbeknownst to him, such visuals emphasize Don’s empty world; that despite all his actions throughout the last 10 years to move forward, he only winds up empty again. This is because Don Draper is fundamentally flawed and his efforts have always been misguided, especially in the context of maintaining a functioning relationship. In that regard, the question must be asked if Don has ever actually matured into an adult. Don says to his daughter, Sally, at one point about knowing what to do with one’s own future, “If you’re lucky enough to think of it, you should write it down because when you’re older, you’ll forget,” thus begging the question if Don has ever known what he truly wanted out of life. Don is undeniably talented in what he does, but his true talent has always been to disappear when times become difficult. Commitment is Don’s true adversary.
The events of Mad Men’s final 7 episodes reminds Don of his past more frequently than he would like to acknowledge. His desire to escape his past and live in the present is entirely contradictory in the regard that he refuses to acknowledge the present day. This ultimately will cause Don to embark on another journey that challenges him to accept his own shortcomings as an individual. Matthew Weiner is strategic in how he crafts this character narrative by recycling concepts from former seasons, but using them as a means to remind both Don, and the audience, that he cannot escape his past and must accept it as a part of himself if he truly wants to live for the now. That is the foundational basis of this final season; stripping Don away from his crutch, his job, and forcing him to confront his own mortality and legacy. For Don, this is daunting and it causes the audience to speculate whether Don Draper is capable of persevering beyond his faults.
The final episodes further show a representation of the physical and personal affronts dealing with the show’s female characters. This is most notably done with Christina Hendrick’s Joan Holloway, whose character has endured being sexualized and relegated to her gender for the majority of the show. Hendricks has always been tremendous with her ability to insert subtlety into her performance, especially in the context of being sexually discriminated against, yet this season finally saw her unable to repress her emotions any longer. When looking at the series as a whole, Hendricks provided the show’s most obvious character evolution; to which Joan began as a sex object and believed that was the key to success in contrast to beginning in the final season where she is now a career woman who doesn’t want to be minimized. These final episodes portray female discrimination specifically with Joan with her character being expected to regress back to being a sex object and have her opinions and thoughts be marginalized within the chauvinist male environment. The male-centered attitude and blatant sexual harassment Joan endures is revolting, to say the least, to which the audience feels just as violated and diminished as the character does. However, Joan’s decision to finally stand up for herself provided the final season with the best moment of empowerment to which she was willing to walk away from everything for the sake of maintaining her personal dignity. Joan’s true evolution falls in the eventual path she is to embark upon; starting her own company and being her own boss. This achievement doesn’t occur without sacrifice, however, with Joan being placed in the position of choosing between her career or a rich boyfriend, who wants to spend his life with her. It further ought to be noted that with the exception of Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks was the definitive standout of Mad Men’s final season and ought to be commended for her work. Saying Hendricks is deserving of some awards this year is an understatement.
The other surprising standout of the final season was January Jones and her portrayal of Don’s ex-wife, Betty Draper. For years Betty has been reduced to being the happy-homemaker, a “job” she does but internally resents. Betty has always, like Joan, been reduced to her looks and expected to essentially talk about nothing. The tragedy in Betty has always been her inability to recognize she ought to make something of herself and take the chance of stepping in the real-world. It was only in the last season that Betty began to make a stand for herself by vocalizing her opinions and emphasizing that her thoughts did matter beyond cuisine and her children. It was within these final episodes that Betty finally made a progressive step forward, going for her Masters degree in Sociology. Yet this source of hope for Betty was quickly diminished upon learning the news of her having terminal cancer. It is ironic that the largest heartbreak of the season, perhaps the series, comes from the very character many viewers despised for years. January Jones’ portrayal in these final episodes is the perfect combination of tragedy and absolute bravery, to which the viewer cannot help but feel compassion for this deeply flawed woman. Betty Draper officially represents those who never truly had the chance to exhibit their talents for themselves. The talents Betty could have uncovered about herself will never happen due to her living up to the expectations of others and ultimately due to her life being cut short so abruptly. The mere fact Betty is capable of confronting death so directly is evidence that she always was a strong woman, reinforcing the tragedy that her true skills never were utilized. This undoubtedly was January Jones’ best work since the show’s third season when Betty and Don’s marriage eventually crumbled into divorce, and she ought to be commended for the level of depth she gave Betty in these final seven episodes.
With the exception of Don, Joan and Betty, complacency was a predominant theme in this final season, especially with Elisabeth Moss’ Peggy Olson. For the entirety of the series, Peggy has strived to be the best, to have a level of being distinguished amongst her peers. She has continually fought for this clout, many times being reduced by Don who offered tough-love that occasionally bordered on verbal abuse. Nonetheless, Peggy always came back for more despite the difficult circumstances of her situation. In one poignant scene in this final season Don directly asks Peggy what would she want to do if she actually achieved her goal of being a creative director, to which she stumbles upon the answer and is only able to offer the generic response “to create something.” While this scene is seemingly insignificant, it has an effect upon Peggy, whose demeanor shifts to passivity. In the series finale, Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) jokingly says to Peggy, “With enough luck you can be creative director by 1980,” a fact Peggy readily accepts and no longer is willing to combat. This even comes after being offered a new partnership within Joan’s new company that she has rejected. Elisabeth Moss offers the prospect of complacency within Peggy especially in the series finale, which is a sentiment the character has never endured in the series’ run. Yet she also places a slight edge of ambiguity as to whether this is something Peggy truly wants. It asks the question if Peggy truly is done fighting for what she wants or if she is settling for a normal existence by being another body in a largely populated building. Peggy’s fate is left widely ambiguous and it is up to the viewer to answer this question.
What is obvious to viewer is the eloquence and respect given to the show in its final episode. Matthew Weiner has been repeatedly accused of “not giving the viewer what they want,” which to them, is infuriating and seemingly shows of a lack of concern for their opinions. However, it is due to Matthew Weiner sticking to his vision of the show and refusing to give into the demands of viewers that allowed for Mad Men to be one of the greatest shows ever conceived. Weiner’s careful attention to detail never subsided and it was due to his close association with historical accuracy that allowed for the show’s final episode to truly be one of the greatest finales ever to have graced television screens. The very environment the characters stand upon make sense on both a historical and evolutionary basis, to which the various futures that are implied for the characters are difficult to challenge given their individual pasts. This is especially the scenario with Don Draper, who runs back to California and finds himself at a mountainside retreat that encourages self-realization. Don, who has run away from his past and emotions for years, is finally put in the position that he must let go and feel something. This is particularly profound in that every time in the past Don has shown emotion it has been in the format of being reactionary. Don not only acknowledges his fundamental flaws as a human being, but he theoretically accepts them as being a part of him. In order for Don Draper to truly move forward, he must come to terms that he has been influenced by his past and also there is indeed a man within himself that is devoid of advertising. In that regard, such an ending largely surpasses the various viewer demands of Don’s fate, which ranged from him committing suicide or him being the real-life D.B. Cooper who hijacked a Boeing 727 in 1971, parachuted from the plane with 200,000 dollars in ransom money, and was never found.
Instead, Mad Men concluded in the most ingenious way: an advertisement. The final visual of Don Draper is him meditating with a group on a mountainside. In the midst of humming with others with his eyes closed, he begins to smile, potentially indicating he is finally at harmony with himself. This sets off a scene fade to the infamous 1971 “Hilltop” Classic Coke commercial that featured a large diverse set of individuals of various cultures singing together, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” which redefined the face of advertising in the 1970s on both a corporational and international level. The incorporation of this advertisement into the finale offers two theories: The first being an indication that advertising continues onward, that the themes of harmony and unity are manipulated for the continued sake of selling a product. It potentially suggests that we as a society are ourselves products to the very products we purchase. To that, the first theory is cynical, but the message is clear. The second theory is the implication that “Hilltop” is Don Draper’s newest creative breakthrough; that the imagery of his smile while meditating on a hilltop evoked the inspiration he needed to conjure his next greatest advertising achievement. This is entirely reminiscent of his “Carrousel Speech” to Kodak in the show’s season 1 finale in that Don used his family pictures to emphasize a sense of connection; the need to reconnect with a time that is free of pain and “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” In that regard, the “Hilltop” commercial could be perceived as Don’s understanding of the newly evolved world he is a part of, to which his newfound vision and acceptance of self helped to construct a truly profound advertisement. The “Hilltop” commercial takes the prevalent themes of the 1960s: Love, harmony, peace, acceptance, equality, and weaved them together in a single commercial that visually represents what the world wanted, to be “in perfect harmony;” all the while the commercial is still a means to sell Coca-Cola. Regardless of which theory viewers decide to adopt as their personal interpretation, the fact still remains that Weiner’s decision to end Mad Men, a show about advertising, with an advertisement is sheer brilliance.
There is no doubt this final season of Mad Men will be honored during the upcoming award season, but what is more obvious is that the conclusion of Mad Men truly is the end of an era.