'Mad Men' Series Finale: Tim Goodman on a Masterful and Difficult Achievement

THR's chief TV critic looks at how creator Matt Weiner serviced all the major characters with mostly upbeat but not saccharine endings, while deftly concluding Don Draper's seven-season existential crises in a moving, believable and creative way.
 AMC

The hardest thing in all of television is the series finale, especially for a critically acclaimed series that has lit the zeitgeist on fire. An undue amount of influence is put on one episode, as if one hour (and change) should define five or more full seasons of work. But, at least in the immediate aftermath, that finale often is the standard. Consider it a masterful achievement, then, that Mad Men not only made a finale the bulk of its fans will appreciate, but one that was creatively equal to a number of its best episodes through the course of its seven-season run.

In short — impressive.

The finale, titled "Person to Person," which not only references the long-distance calls Don Draper makes to Sally, Betty and Peggy, but also the connection he finally finds near Big Sur at the Esalen Institute (though it was unnamed in the episode).

Creator Matthew Weiner managed something that probably won't be completely appreciated in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's episode, where Don's personal awareness leads to the creation of one of the most famous campaigns in modern advertising. Weiner's accomplishment is allowing what was often very disparate camps in the Mad Men audience to appreciate the same thing on perhaps slightly different levels.

A lot of viewers find the allure of Mad Men to be the advertising conceit and the drinking, smoking, screwing around, the costumes/clothing, the midcentury furniture, etc. — and those are all wonderful elements of the series. But the backbone of the show has always been a far less glamorous consideration of one man's existential angst and his struggle with identity and purpose (and, to various degrees, the sometimes similar struggles of other characters who are trying to make it through life without instructions).

Weiner's intellectual curiosity and fascination with the deeper meaning of existence is precisely why Mad Men has so much gravitas; but his smartest move was also putting a focus on all the exterior passions that make life interesting and fun. He deftly combined those two in the same way that one of his mentors, David Chase, did with The Sopranos, where protagonist Tony lives inside his own head and seeks therapy to deal with his inability to navigate life while also — hello, mass audience appeal — being in the mob.

The final extended Mad Men scenes were at once about Don finding some slice of contentment, some understanding of his condition after years of searching and confusion, while also brainstorming a brilliant advertising campaign in the process. Weiner serving both audiences (and yes, there is indeed considerable crossover, but it's foolish to think there aren't those disparate camps) was a masterstroke.

Beyond that, Weiner — who appropriately wrote and directed the finale himself — managed a couple of storytelling styles with aplomb. First, he not only wrapped up most of the main characters' stories, but he did so in an almost unfailingly upbeat manner (save Betty's more downcast end) — without making any of those happy endings seem saccharine or unbelievable (nor was Betty's too maudlin).

But Weiner also managed to present the "end" as open-ended. By that I mean that on one level the stories the Mad Men characters live go on, even though we have resolution and closure on another level. I thought that's how Weiner would end it, but of course had no idea how open he'd leave it. As an example, we are left to assume (correctly) that Don goes back to New York, back to McCann-Erickson, and regains his old job and the Coca-Cola account, plus delivers a TV ad for the ages. We don't see that happen, but we know it does.

Weiner thus allows viewers to continue Don's story in their minds, fueled not only by what Weiner gave us (Don's existential evolution and recognition of the failure of his bad habits), but also whatever else they might conjure up. For example, we can easily imagine that Don does see Betty and will be there in some form when she dies. And that it's possible Don won't abide by her wishes that the kids go to her brother — that Don will step up and play a bigger part in their lives. This is what closing a window (for the viewers) on lives that still go on (for the characters) allows.

We can imagine whatever ending we want, based not only on the facts and hints presented by Weiner in this episode, but also in previous episodes. And at the same time we are all free to imagine the future we're not seeing every Sunday: that Peggy and Stan will continue to be in love and maybe get married; that Pete and Trudy are happy in Wichita; that Roger and Marie's marriage is a happy one that lasts; and that Joan's company thrives.

If you're constructing how exactly to make not only a believable and well-told finale, but one that will satisfy both fans and critics while leaving more to the imagination for those who want to think about how the Mad Men story goes on, well, there it was.

And that was no small feat.

Before it all came together so effectively, there were a lot of wonderful and surprising turns that Weiner managed to either show viewers or hint at. Who had "Don racing cars in Utah (at 130 mph)" as the opening scene? And with so much reading of the tea leaves over the years by critics (ahem) who diligently checked on the timelines of all those pop culture references (songs, TV shows, etc.) and looked for hints about what year it was, we got the The Doors' "Hello, I Love You" playing even though it came out in 1968 and the series had moved well into 1970 by then; and this after the penultimate episode ended with a song from 1957 — it was as if Weiner was throwing dodges in there when he was probably just doing what pleased him. (That said, "Hello, I Love You" also famously says "Won't you tell me your name?" which not only is obvious to the overall theme of the show, but relevant to the people in Utah with whom Don was hanging out — they had no idea who they hell he was or was pretending to be).

I loved how Weiner was still able to tell a rambling road story and service that element — Don dealing with the woman with whom he was sleeping in Utah, for example — and now bowing to the pressure to focus only on concluding the main stories. It was as if Weiner was saying, hey, these little asides are essential to telling the story of this hour, but don't stress out, you'll get the closure you're looking for by the end.

In short, he didn't rush.

Which was good, because Mad Men has never been a series that rushes. But before anyone could guess at what was going to happen to all of their favorite characters forever, Weiner had to write about what was happening in the here and now:

We picked up with Don in Utah, ostensibly getting there by bus from Oklahoma. He was still adrift, a drifter funding whatever racing dreams those two random guys in Utah had — they wanted to bring their race car out to El Mirage Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert near San Bernardino, and the racing trials there. Why was this important? It wasn't, other than it was part of Don's great escape story, leaving everyone in his life in the dark while he chased whatever happiness he'd been missing.

But that set up "The Call," the person-to-person where Sally tells Don the bad news about Betty. In the arc of the story, as Weiner has constructed it, the only way Don doesn't rush back immediately to be with his family is to have Betty tell him that her wishes are for the kids to have a stable presence in the form of a mother in their lives, and she wants them to live with her brother. Don's person-to-person with Betty was one of three very real, true-to-life phone conversations Weiner constructs with dexterity. We have to know Don is adrift, cut off, and that he needs to be accountable for being absent. When Sally hangs up on him without Don understanding the full extent of the Betty situation, it felt real. It's a precursor to two more powerful "person-to-person" encounters.

He immediately phones Betty, and that scene accomplishes so much without saying much. Betty's allowed to call Don out for being absent as a parent. "I want to be there. The kids need me ... I'm their father." Those are both true and untrue statements, and Don hasn't learned the difference yet. "I want to keep things as normal as possible," Betty says, "and you not being here is part of that."

It's fair and it hurts — Don not being around is normal. Don absorbs it. And when he says "Birdie..." and fades out, with the both of them welling up with tears, it's a note-perfect moment that Weiner has crafted. Nothing more needs to be said. We know their stories and the fact that there's still love between them and it's sad. They can't strain to speak through the tears and they say goodbye.

Weiner repeats this powerful emotional connection, from a distance, again near the end with Peggy.

When the Utah guys head west, it allows them to drop Don off in Los Angeles, where he meets Anna Draper's niece Stephanie and tries to return the wedding ring.

It was, essentially, the culmination of Don's "on the road" phase.

He looks like a drunken mess when he gets there (partly because he is a drunken mess and partly because he was drinking away the news of Betty's cancer). In either case, Weiner got Don to California, where I thought he was heading all along, and he allowed California — the farthest west anyone could go, the last bit of land before it falls into the ocean and the rest of the world seems so far away — to serve as a metaphor for Don to stop running away from his demons.

Once in California, Don has nowhere else to go. When Stephanie brings him up to Big Sur and Esalen (and then leaves with the car), Don's alone and stranded. It's where he has an epic breakdown that leaves him nearly broken and seemingly incapable of anything except maybe killing himself (a fear that Peggy clearly expresses, as she's the last one to talk with Don).

Getting there is Stephanie's story. Don, as usual, is just on the move. He has no plans. It's just adventure. But Stephanie has a hard time accepting her past — she went to Esalen to work on that. Don has no real interest in this communal environment. He has no initial desire to get in touch with his feelings or to be a true believer in anything, a byproduct of his super-religious upbringing and a way for Weiner to circle back to that time and reiterate that Don is not a joiner, having seen as a child the dark side of total devotion (particularly emphasized in "The Hobo Code" from season one). So much about Don's past actions, from relationships to actual marriages to friendships and job contracts, are predicated on his reluctance to buy in — he never wanted to be trapped, to commit.

So when Stephanie struggles with revealing and dealing with her past, Don of course suggests fleeing.

"You could put this behind you. It'll get easier as you move forward."

And in a great, revelatory statement, Stephanie tells him the truth: "Oh, Dick, I don't think you're right about that."

And he's not. Once Stephanie flees with the car, Don is stuck there to face the fact that you can't run forever. The burden almost crushes him as he talks on the phone with Peggy. "What are you even doing?" Peggy asks him. "I don't know," he says, facing up to his fleeing. "I have no idea."

Weiner effectively shoots that phone conversation with a realism of Don's completely lost state — even more heightened than the one with Betty prior.

Peggy reaches out to him: "Look, I know that you get sick of things and you run. But you can come back home."

But Don is running from home, from all the broken relationships and the changes, the life not led, the dead-end decisions — even the empty victories of money and success. There's no happiness, no fulfillment, in any of it — just more "Is that all there is?" emptiness. In California, at the end of the earth, he's lost and crushed.

"I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name and made nothing of it," he tells Peggy, the albatross still weighing him down after all these years. He hangs up soon after, and collapses from the weight of it all.

It's a pivotal scene in the finale. Don, almost comatose, is led into a group therapy session and hears another man describe his own inability to be loved or acknowledged. (I liked how Weiner didn't have Don say any of this — that instead Don heard it and related to it.) The man says his wife and kids don't really notice that he's present or alive. "They should love me. Maybe they do. But I don't even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you're not getting it. People aren't giving it to you. Then you realize, they're trying. And you don't even know what it is."

Don absorbs the man's story and experience, crosses the room slowly, still in his broken state, then kneels and hugs the man and cries together with him in a revelatory outburst of emotion (contrast that scene with an earlier one in the same room where Don can't bring himself to express any emotions to a strange woman across from him — she eventually pushes him, expressing very accurately her own feelings of rejection and Don just not being able to connect).

I think the spiritual awakening part of that last extended scene in the finale did about it all it could with the time it had, but it was extremely important to Don's evolution, while also being believable. He's been running away, across the country, shedding bits and pieces of his past and of all the existential elements that have dogged him throughout the series. I think it's critical to understand how Don ends up where he does. It's the quintessential story of being trapped and having to come to some kind of acceptance of a truth. What better and more believable place than Esalen/Big Sur?

Jon Hamm did a superb job, as he always does, portraying Don's implosion prior to that turn of events. I bought in to the final half-hour or so knowing that it had to be truncated to function within the episode.

But that's also where the open-ended storytelling device Weiner employed was useful. We know that Don was meditating on the cliffs above the ocean (how are we ever going to forget Don Draper saying "Om"?) when the idea came to him for the ad campaign, but we also understand that he didn't just get up and run off the lawn. He took what he experienced at the communal retreat as a transformative life experience and employed it, we are to assume, as a changed man back at his job. The key part of the storytelling element here is that Don spent a lot more time at Esalen than the story showed.

But again, that's why I hoped we'd get that narrative construct — it allows us as viewers and fans to finish the story in our minds, to complete scenes we're not shown or expand on ideas we're presented.

As Don is meditating, a smile comes across his face (and then, we're to believe, the ad idea comes). But when that smile emerges, he's fully engaged in this new awakening, during the sun salutation, sitting cross-legged and blissed-out, and the group leader speaks of "new lives we've yet to live."

It's a precursor to the future. It's a clue that Don, a man who struggles with both identity and purpose, is finally embracing both and changing. It's damned near perfect.

Lastly, there was so much to love in storylines that had the most closure. Peggy's touching and comic realization that Stan loves her and she also loves him. Pete and Trudy jetting off to their new life together. Roger, embracing his age and laughing with his new wife, Marie. Joan, dubbing her new company "Holloway-Harris" and fulfilling her need to make something herself, even if it meant losing a man in the process (and we're able to imagine that if it's necessary for her to be together with someone, that someone will come along). We get a sense of the optimistic in those relationships and scenes. The strength of the finale is that the story doesn't fully end, but we have seen enough to let it end. Even Betty's elegiac last scene, defiantly smoking and going out on her terms, was something to behold.

I love, too, that the openness of the structure allows for wonder. What becomes of Sally, last seen taking care of the family? Bobby, who was barely trusted in any scene, gets a devastating one where he's trying to make dinner for Gene and Betty while Betty lays down, exhausted, unable to feed her kids. Bobby's effort is all burnt — and it's all heartbreaking.

There was so much in that finale to grasp on to, remember and dissect. Ideally, that's how you want to go out.

Mad Men was a series you could watch — bask in, really, with the glamorous clothes and beautiful people and the gorgeous excess of it all — and then turn it off and forget it if you wanted. But it was also a series that made people think if they chose to take a deeper dive. Matt Weiner deserves credit not only for that construct, but serving it so well through seven seasons and through that most impossible thing — the series finale.

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

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