In the end, they all went on with their lives.
No, we don’t know what trajectory those lives will take past the final episode Sunday night of “Mad Men,” much like we didn’t know what the next of the seven seasons would hold at the end of each previous one during the superlative run of the AMC show.
It’s just that this time, we never will. But show creator Matthew Weiner set us up in the wonderful final episode with a pretty good idea of how each of the main characters would go on past the series.
Like any series finale, there will be detractors, but – for the most part – the last episode of one of my all-time favorite dramas satisfied. All of the characters were set out on their next life chapters, mostly all happily.
Joan, who had been objectified and led around by men her entire life, decided that she’d rather be her own boss, even if it meant not being with the man she truly loved. She opened her own business in her apartment, ready to take on the world of commercial film production.
Roger went on another crazy love adventure, always a jokester, always a survivor. It was the most simple of the endings, but aside from comic relief and an occasional pointed insight, Roger never really was much deeper than his own mommy issues.
Yes, the Peggy and Stan love story seemed rushed at the end, but viewers had seen their fate coming for a long time. We all knew Peggy and Stan would end up together. Still, it was the weakest link in an otherwise outstanding season and episode. The realization of their workplace romance seemed a little too pat. But at the same time, Peggy ended up with exactly whom she needed and wanted: a creative type who understood her need to be successful at her own career in a man’s world.
It also was right that Peggy stayed at McCann-Erickson rather than joining Joan, who asked her to be a partner in that new business venture. Peggy always was a pragmatist, and being at McCann-Erickson was the safe bet.
As for Pete, he got out of things maybe in the nick of time. He regained his family and got as far away from Madison Avenue as one might imagine, moving to Kansas for a new job and a new life. Instead of clicking together ruby red shoes, he hopped on a personal plane.
Betty’s story was the most tragic, but someone was going to have to succumb to the constant cigarette use of the 1960s. While Betty’s story was ending, Sally’s was shifting. She was forced to grow up, to mature quickly and take care of her brothers. Hardly an unusual story, as so many other people have had to do the same in their lives.
And of course there was Don. The most important character in the “Mad Men” world, the one whose future was the most talked about, whose ending was the most anticipated.
While some seem to think there was an ambiguity to the ending for Don, there really wasn’t even a glimmer of doubt as to what would happen next for the antihero of the show.
Of course, he went back to McCann-Erickson and, of course, he was the one who – fictitiously – wrote one of the most iconic commercials of the 1970s, the real-life “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” spot. Weiner could not have set it up any more clearly.
There was the phone conversation with Peggy where she told Don that McCann-Erickson surely would take him back, and her “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” prodding about the company’s account.
Then there was the girl at the reception desk of the commune where he got stuck without a ride out – with her red-ribboned pigtail braids, she was a dead ringer for one of the most standout figures in the real-life Coke ad. And Don himself, going with the communal flow in final scene as he waited for that ride home, sat on a hillside meditating with the rest of the group, not decked out in hippie attire, but in a white shirt and slacks.
No, Don did not spend the rest of his life in an ashram. It all was a total setup for the inevitable. Sure, Don went on a journey and the journey ultimately led him right back to where he belongs, Madison Avenue, and to being the ultimate huckster, salesman, ad man.
Clearly, he was biding his commune time, waiting for a ride out. Yes, he had an epiphany in the group therapy session. Don gripped his emotional pain, but Don had had epiphanies during the run of the show; he’d simply tamped down his feelings by self-medicating with alcohol and women. This time, he again confronted the reality of who he was and what he’d done in his life and then simply moved on. He didn’t commit suicide as some fans thought he might, he didn’t turn out to be D.B. Cooper as others suggested he would. He remained Don Draper, consummate advertising man.
While he was sitting on that hillside, seemingly meditating, what came to Don was not the meaning of life, but the biggest advertising idea of his life, that iconic Coke commercial. It was signaled so clearly by a dinging sound, like an elevator, going up – back to the top offices at McCann-Erickson. And then there was that sly Don smile, that advertising epiphany as the screen switched for the final time to the real-life Coke ad. The sing-song jingle still plays in my head days later.
The lives of the people in “Mad Men” always were metaphors for the 1960s setting of the incredible series. The ’60s were turbulent, nation-altering times. And despite it all, the nation pulled itself together and went marching on into a new decade.
The characters in “Mad Men” faced their own turbulent, life-altering events in that decade and, like the nation, they pulled themselves together and marched on, as well, into the 1970s and out of our sight.
In the end, Weiner managed to do what a lot of writers don’t succeed at when penning their series finales: tying up things in a way that not only makes sense but also makes you feel hopeful for the people you’ve come to follow for so many seasons.
They went on with their lives, for however long those lives would last. How their new chapters would turn out, well, we’ll probably never know. But it’s been one terrific ride watching them make their ways though the wonderful decade that was the ’60s.