'Mad Men' Finale: Tim Goodman on Embracing the Positive, Not Cynical, End of Don Draper's Journey

Don't let the final 60 seconds of a seven-season story make you think Don didn't change. Tim Goodman, THR's chief TV critic, analyzes the ending.
Justina Mintz/AMC
'Mad Men'

In the wake of what will likely go down as one of the best (and better received) series finales in television history, one bit of Mad Men analysis has baffled me: the cynical take on the ending — that Don Draper didn't experience any personal enlightenment and merely came up with a way to sell soda to hippies.

Not only is that view slightly blind to the evidence presented in the actual finale, but it's also willfully dismissive of all the episodes that came before it.

My thoughts on the series finale of Mad Men are clearly stated in my deconstruction of the episode, and after rewatching it several times I have no interest in changing my perception of the final scene.

But I do believe it's important to reiterate how the narrative structure, which creator Matthew Weiner made open-ended (I described it in-depth in the deconstruction), contributed to an ending that allowed viewers (and critics) to imagine what they wanted about the unseen future as the major characters' lives move forward.

Until Weiner says something definitive about the finale (and he just might — unlike his mentor David Chase, of The Sopranos, who chose silence and then vagueness when discussing his own controversial ending), it seems the more cynical reading of the ending will persist in some circles. There's a contingent who believe that because of how Weiner chose to shoot the final scenes — Don appears to be finding the contentment he hasn't felt in seven seasons, but then ostensibly gets an idea for a Coca-Cola commercial in the process — the takeaway is Don has learned absolutely nothing at Esalen.

In other words, there's a Don-doesn't-change faction, as well as its Don-changes-temporarily-but-then-reverts-to-his-old-self offshoot. Those groups, those views, exist because throughout Mad Men's run, Weiner gave us a whole lot of Don wanting to change and then not doing it, or trying it out for a bit and failing. So there's certainly precedent, and plenty of it, for regressive behavior.

Perhaps this is a perfect time to admit I've been a longtime cynic myself — not just about Don's behavior in Mad Men, but about life in general. I'm the kind of person who was, for many seasons, rooting for Don to remain Don to the end, not because that's some cool way for an iconic character to "go out on his terms," but because making changes in a life, any life, is difficult. Human behavior tends to revert back to what's easy and familiar. I didn't want a happy ending that wasn't true or earned — or even happy. I like dark.

So, to be on the side believing the ending was, in fact, a sign of real and positive personal growth for Don is a little foreign. But I'm there because I believe that Don did earn it, and the finale was true to that struggle. After seven seasons of Dick Whitman/Don Draper existential crises, Weiner made him labor toward the finish line to earn the growth he experiences.

A number of issues about Don and Mad Men, and even Weiner as a writer and storyteller, inform the choice I made to believe that the ending is not cynical — that Don doesn't jump up from the Esalen lawn overlooking the Pacific Ocean and race back to McCann-Erickson to make a soft drink advertisement brimming with positivity because he realizes that the world is full of suckers who will eat it up (or, in this case, drink it down).

But others thought that. And here are the issues I have with that view:

The culprit here is the smash cut between Don finding peace and flashing that smile (not a smirk, by the way — it's reminiscent of the grin he flashed at the bus stop in Oklahoma when he felt truly free) right as the Zen bell rings for the second time during the sun salutation and the actual Coca-Cola ad in question. So the smile looks like a reaction to him coming up with the Coke idea, the bell acts like a flash of validating inspiration and the commercial is the endgame.

I think the scene made for good television, a memorable ending that will get people talking, but one that may not have served the massive amount of screen time spent prior proving that Don had indeed come to a point in his life where he could absorb change.

I actually do believe Don goes back and makes that Coke ad. I absolutely do. However, I also believe the man who makes it has been changed in so many ways. What's left open to interpretation is what happens before and even after the ad is created.

To say that Don learns nothing from his road trip and his time in California and at Esalen is to ignore so many previous scenes where Don is very clearly breaking down and accepting change in himself, not just in the finale but the previous 13 episodes.

The entirety of season seven is about real, absolute change to Don's life — to his wishes and desires, in his personal and professional life, and to him, coming to terms with his past and looking at a future he can control. By glomming onto a cynical theory that Don just becomes Don again in the final 60 seconds of the finale and races home to make that ad requires an unwillingness to acknowledge what Weiner labored to put in front of you.

Why can't we imagine Don having a breakthrough at Esalen and then also imagine him moving forward with it in his life? Change is slow and incremental. Why not allow Weiner to finally, after seven seasons, bring those incremental and difficult changes to Don's character and imagine a more optimistic future for him? I mean, what if Don actually believes in the sentiment of the ad? Why must the ad itself be cynical? Here's a guy who just had a cathartic experience, and maybe that smile on his face — when he's happy — is the understanding that he can make a killer ad out of the positive emotions he's experiencing at Esalen. That real-life Coca-Cola ad was so insanely effective because it created a visceral reaction in people — it made them want to believe in the positive sentiment at the heart of it.

The trouble with the cynical argument here is that people want the Don Draper of season one to be the Don Draper who makes that ad. Beyond that, there's a weird acceptance that Weiner can make the other characters change in some positive way — and outside of Betty, they all do — but he can't make Don change. You'll accept Pete and Trudy changing, and Roger changing, and Peggy changing, and Joan changing her historic reliance on men and choosing to make her own dreams come true, but you won't accept Don changing even an ounce?

Again, I think the smash cut in the finale didn't do any favors for clear representation. But it appears from statements made by the cast (and perhaps Weiner will address this) that he'd always had that last image in his head. So he wasn't going to change that for, say, a montage of scenes depicting Don as clearly a changed man. In short, he wedged the narrative of change up against the image he'd had in his head of the final scene. It all works, but the proximity has created two views.

Even with that structure, I still believe the evidence of the season leans more toward real change than not. I mean, you don't have two deaths that impact Don's understanding of his current life situation — Rachel Menken's, and the impending loss of Betty and what that means to Don as a father — and then have him revert to the norm. You don't have Don collapsing after his emotionally powerful phone conversation with Peggy, and then follow that with a massively moving, tear-filled embrace with a stranger at Esalen who articulates the hole in Don's life, and then pretend that those scenes meant nothing and a smile and dinging bell mean everything.

It's not like Don went through that harrowing realization of how he needs to break bad habits to change his life, and then woke up as Old Don. He didn't. He woke up and is willingly taking part in meditative practices. His change is in motion. It's happening. It's the culmination of seven seasons of introspection, and at least a season and a half of hard truths leading up to the behavior illustrating that change.

That's irrefutable. It's on the screen. That negates the argument that every ounce of Don's change magically happened in the Esalen setting. It happened episode after episode, and culminated there. Even the narrative construct that Weiner gives us — that this is not the end of these characters — suggests that Don stays at Esalen longer than we see him in the finale. His transformation is ongoing. This wasn't a flipped-switch scenario.

These lives go on. We don't watch them anymore, but they continue existing.

To the notion that Don's life is infinite regress, I get that, but you can't use it as an absolute when it comes to change. That's not only boring, it doesn't allow for Weiner to move a character from A to B (or, as I noted earlier, you'll accept change in every other character but this one). I was a loud voice of dissent at the start of season six when Don and Sylvie were repeating the same mistakes we'd seen from the beginning with Don. Weiner had done so much beating of that drum that it seemed like overkill (even acknowledging that the repetition of mistakes over time is essential to show a pattern of behavior, particularly if you're tackling the intellectually challenging aspect of unhappiness, discontent and the inability to be satisfied with your own accomplishments).

But if you look at how Mad Men was negotiated as a television series, you'll see that Weiner got that sixth season, but AMC owned an option on the seventh (and there was no way Weiner wasn't going to be involved in the ending). Based on that structure, mostly done for financial reasons and control, the sixth season couldn't be the last. It then had to be a bridge to the seventh, so getting more of Don being Don led to some of the most negative critical pushback Weiner and Mad Men received (and deservedly so). The early part of that season, I believe, helped cement the Don-will-never-change idea.

But credit the latter part of season six as a time when Weiner could then begin the real descent, the real end, the real change that his protagonist needed to suffer. Sally's discovery of Don sleeping around, I would argue, was one of the most devastating pieces of comeuppance/karma visited upon Don in the entire series. It led to the Hershey's meltdown, the (temporary) loss of his job and Don coming clean to his children about his past. While season six was repetitive and spotty early on, the latter half of it felt more like what we got in this final season.

And what we got was evidence that our main character was embracing some of the hard-earned lessons of his life and evolving. I think this final season — not just the final episode — will reveal itself upon repeated viewings as a span of time when Weiner moved Don Draper toward self-realization. He did it, however, like he's done everything else — by clinging to the realism of human behavior, where we take two steps forward and then one back. Where we progress and then regress and wake up to keep struggling forward.

Examining one's own life is not what sells a television series. Existential dread, the questioning of whether you're happy or whether you're content, of whether you lived your life the way you should before you see the end rushing up on you — those are not issues most people feel comfortable talking about. The beauty of Mad Men is that Matt Weiner created a character who does precisely those things, who is dogged by history, identity and meaning — but dressed him in amazing suits, made him handsome and cool and likeable and flawed, put him in an interesting profession and surrounded him with other flawed and intriguing people, and then wove stories around all of them.

Whether you like it or not, that's why he ends up in California, at Esalen, made to confront the past and what brought him to this point and to be given an opportunity that's stated very clearly in that finale — to start a new life that's yet to be lived.

To assume he doesn't take it is to dismiss everything that brought him there.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine

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