Monday, May 18, 2015

My thoughts on the MAD MEN finale

SPOILER ALERT. If you haven’t seen the MAD MEN finale and still want to, thanks for stopping by. See you tomorrow.

I’m sure there are a gazillion reviews (all in 140 characters or less), but here’s mine:

Backstory: I’ve been a huge fan of MAD MEN since Matt Weiner showed me his original script years before it was made. The concept was brilliant – a man living a lie in an industry built on selling lies. And my favorite era is the ‘60s (as evidenced by my book, which you need to buy immediately even if you already have one). I saw a rough cut of the pilot even before titles and music was added. It was clear from day one that this was something special. I thought the first season was the second greatest first season of a drama ever (behind the SOPRANOS – it’s hard to top Tony’s mother putting a hit out on him). Every episode was a little masterpiece, filled with fascinating characters all doing surprising and compelling things. Betty shooting pigeons with a cigarette dangling from her lips was enough to qualify the series for Hall of Fame status.
Season two suffered from a sophomore slump, but in fairness, so did THE SOPRANOS. And by year three I started getting tired of Don’s continual existential search for happiness. I thought, “Oh figure it out already. You have children. Most of us have to make some compromises. Grow up. Determine your priorities and make a commitment.”

After that the series shifted for me. It became a show about disgruntled people who were never satisfied no matter what they had. It also started introducing subliminal references to past moments. You really had to be an expert in the MAD MEN universe to fully appreciate every nuance. I would watch an episode then read Alan Sepinwall to find out what I just saw. Eventually I wasn’t interested enough to do even that.

And yet, along the way, there were still spectacular episodes or scenes. The “suitcase” chapter with Don and Peggy was exceptional. Even though the series had become somewhat uneven I always tuned in. It’s like in baseball – every time Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan took the mound you knew you had a chance to see a no-hitter.

So I was eagerly anticipating the finale. The only thing I was certain of was that Matthew Weiner would find an ending no one expected. I was right.

But what I saw was essentially a 1:17 minute shaggy dog story. Interspersed with neat wrap ups of the other characters (in some cases through lovely scenes) was this winding tale of Don Draper going to an Esalen retreat (popular in California during those hippy-dippy times), experiencing enlightenment, having his emotions stripped bare, discovering inner peace only to learn that his takeaway from all that was to create the “Buy the world a Coke” ad campaign. (That is if I interpreted it correctly.) What a cynical but wickedly funny ending. And what a relief. I was wondering, does Matt really believe all that psycho-bullshit was going to change Don Draper? (That said, I’m sure there are those viewers who believe that that was the ending and maybe the Coke commercial was just in Don’s mind. I so hope those people are wrong.)

But it took a long time to get there. Was the payoff big enough? Yeah… I guess… maybe. But I will say this: the JUSTIFIED finale was better and way more satisfying. Sorry. I know I’m spitting on the cross.
Some random observations:

Even though Sally and Betty told Don not to come back and take care of the kids and it appeared he was ceding to their wishes, I’d like to think that part of his decision to return to the world of advertising was to have more of a role in his children’s lives after Betty passed on. (I loved how Betty continued to smoke.)

As a writer, it bothered me, that Weiner attributed an actual campaign to his fictional character when in fact, a real person other than Weiner or a MAD MEN writer came up with it.

A happy ending of Don finding peace is not a happy ending. The guy was fascinating and had glimmers of kindness, but let’s be real -- he was a giant asshole. Joan and Peggy deserved happy endings.

The one character who deserved the happiest ending and didn’t get it was Sally. She was my absolutely favorite character. But based on her smarts, resourcefulness, and humanity (which she must’ve been born with because she didn’t get it from either of her parents), I’d like to think Sally will succeed in the world. I hope so. She’s the one I’m rooting for. Roger I don’t worry about. Once prohibition was repealed his life was fine.

Pete’s going to love it in Kansas City. With access to private jets he’ll be home four days a year. If that.

It bothered me that so much of the episode was played over phone calls. They’re static. And I think they undercut the big one – between Don and Peggy.

You know it's a very special episode of MAD MEN when Bobby has some lines.  

Poor Gene. Every time something happens he gets sent out of the room. In forty years he’ll be the guy at the Esalen retreat whining that no one chooses him in the refrigerator.

When Don broke down crying I was so relieved he didn’t confess to killing a Korean baby to avoid detection.

When we wrote VOLUNTEERS we had a scene where Tom Hanks’ character gives Rita Wilson’s character a Coke. They were both in the Peace Corps. We got this from research, that Coke was a huge treat for homesick Americans. That draft was 1980. When the movie was finally released and Sony then owned Coca Cola, we took a raft of shit for blatant product placement. Compare that to this. Talk about product placement – the entire 92 hours of MAD MEN built to one Coke commercial. Watch – they get zero complaints.

I bet Coke sales spike today.  And cigarette sales go up. 

I didn't read Alan Sepinwall's recap.  I hope I got even some of my interpretations right. 

I look forward to Matt’s next project. And I look forward to your thoughts on the finale.


Nick Alexander said...

I suppose I'm in the minority here, but I presumed that it was Peggy who came up with the Coke ad, not Don. It was her, typing away at the office, with Stan looking at the final draft, kissing her head, approving. Peggy's transformation to Don was complete, albeit with her humanity still intact.

By the way, from personal experience, drinking a Coke is a lousy way to teach someone to sing. Just saying.

Carol said...

I never watched Mad Men (Although I knew a man who basically was a Mad Man - he was in advertising in the 60s, and had fascinating stories) so I don't know if this is the commercial you're talking about, but I do know I'm going to be singing 'I'd like to buy the world a coke' for the rest of the day now.

GregN said...

Isn't is Esalen?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Ken obviously meant "Esalen", not "Echelon".

Chuck said...


It's pretty clear Don wrote the ad. The cut from his face to the ad, especially given the subject matter of the immediately preceding scene, makes it very clear. Peggy said he could come back and even mentioned Coke.

And, Ken, Mad Men has used a few real campaigns and attributed them to Don. "It's Toasted" for Lucky Strike and "Carousel" by Kodak to name two.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Drinking Coke is the new smoking. Not really the kind of product placement you want.


Johnny Walker said...

Having not watched the whole series, it does seem very fitting that a hollow man like Don should try and find something by looking inside... only to find a hollow (but wildly successful) advertising campaign waiting for him in the dark recesses of his soul.

I wonder what happened to him the in the 80s (yes, I know several comedy writers have taken a stab at that idea -- love to see yours, Ken!).

Oat Willie said...

That Coke song, wasn't it a hit single in 1970? Man, the golden years when advertisers threw great melodies away on jingles (compare with today's barren and recycled songs).

Hamid said...

Ken, there's a quote from Woody Allen in recent days that's crying out for a comment from you, as he's spoken of the difficulty in trying to write a half-hour comedy.

The veteran director has described his attempts to make a six-part series for Amazon as a “catastrophic mistake” with which he should never have become involved.

“I never should have gotten into it,” he admitted at the Cannes Film Festival. “It’s very hard for me. I thought it was going to be easy. You do a movie, it’s a big, long thing. To do six half-hours, I thought it was going to be a cinch. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m floundering. I expect this to be a cosmic embarrassment when it comes out.”

Johnny Walker said...

Lol. Poor Amazon. Woody is not exactly towing the company line!

craig m said...

Had Don tried to deal with his issues with overeating rather than group therapy, would he have come up with the iconic "I can't believe I ate the whole thing" ad instead?

Greg Ehrbar said...

Part 1 of 2

While I still reacted to the last scene of Don with a "Wha--?" it somehow made sense. Like the entire series -- and like life, like art -- it's ambiguous and open to interpretation. You almost don't want to have a solid answer with Don, just with everyone else.

If I regress to my college film analysis days (and just I happen to have Marshall McLuhan right here) Don's whole existence was advertising, marketing and especially branding. People compare Jon Hamm ("I am Hamm") to Cary Grant, who was a self-created brand of suave sophistication, reborn from a life of squalid poverty as Archie Leach.

Many actors, politicians and other famous people are brand. We live in a brand society that advertising taught us. We send it and we receive it.

Hillary Clinton is refining her brand. Eventually Miley Cyrus will put her pants back on and be a serious artist who laughs at her past silliness but is proud of it. In twenty years she'll be singing jazz with Tony Bennett on the New Year's TV special. Madonna made marketing and branding an art form and career path.

That's Don Draper. "Hey hey we are the Monkees/And we are here to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies."

Whether Don went back and created the commercial, or called Peggy to give the idea to her, all of it is possible. But on a college-class "read stuff into it" "What words can you see in the ice cubes" sense, Don was advertising in human form and he literally faded into a commercial. A very successful one. The only commercial to generate such a big hit song and cultural anthem.

Don found peace, he found way for people to need him -- that's what made him ultimately break down -- no one really needed him (just like a bottle of Coke or a Coke commercial, which we want but don't need).

Pithy. Lots of pith. But my favorite aspect of the ending was that the last voice you heard was that of Ron Dante of The Archies, one of the most successful jingle singers ever, who fronted a band that did not exist yet had the number one hit of 1969. Am I digging too deep to connect Ron Dante literally to the ending? Maybe. But he's an icon of the '60s and of advertising.

And his real name is Carmine Granito.

Anonymous said...

I watched Mad Men a few times, and came down with lung cancer.

G said...

Part 2 of 2

• Yes, Sally deserved more. Yet she emerged as the solid rock of the family, such as it was. Betty was smoking her life away, dying the way she wanted, and there's Sally doing what needs to be done, canceling her trip, being the adult her parents were not. You're right, no need to worry about Sally or anyone lucky enough to be in her life.

• The show ended, but life goes on. The endings (or new beginnings) for each group of characters were not fairy tales in the literal sense, because there would be troubles ahead, along with a fulfillment none of them had before. A satisfying close for a series should offer its viewers some closure.

• I felt that Elisabeth Moss's phone scene was thankless and must have been hard to write. They only partially succeeded. When Stan declared himself, it was something he might have done at any point in the show. In Peggy's case, having her transform from angry to Lollipops and Roses was not fair to the actress. I don't think Meryl Streep could have made it any more believable, but she should not have been put in that performance position. It was like Jan getting a date on the phone with the boy she thought didn't know she was alive.

• Joan. Yes, she has deserved to run the place since she took over media and made it hum, only to have to train a bozo to do it and go back to her desk. I've been there -- a lot. No question of her success. Like Marlo Thomas or Gloria Steinem and heading right into the decade where she can rock, or at least, start to rock.

• Roger and bat-crazy mama – Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold in “Gigi”. A match made in Dewar's. I guessed he was going to die after he played the creepy organ (why was that in the office?), but he's gonna go out, as my dad used to say, "Spoo-ja-dooin'". Don doesn't know who he is, Roger knows himself too well.

• Very glad Ken was a catalyst for Joan (and maybe Peggy in the future) after his scene where he was being "spoo-ja-dooed" by Roger and his "friends" after the merger. (I've been there too.) He was forbidden to write books on his own time, mostly because he was so good at it but it wasn't "his place". His talent was slowly marginalized by those who had no real reason to beyond their own insecurity. (Hmmm?) Ken was one of the few who had matured and realized things about life that the others either found out too late or just recently.

• Don wanted to be needed by someone and did, in his way, try to help people, over the course of the series. He mentored Peggy, most of all. When he hugged "chair guy", he finally have someone something only he could give, as he was looking at a mirror of himself. Back to college analysis: Matthew Weiner resembles Chair Guy and I have a feeling Weiner was baring his soul completely in that scene. Don, who is Weiner's alter ego (one of them), is everything that, on the surface, Weiner is not, yet the two connected as one and the same.

It's not money, it's not fame, not power, success. Those can be nice within perspective (from what I hear). It's really about finding out who you are, how you can gain contentment with what you're doing (or changing it), seeking balance, connecting with others in a deeper way, and things like that there (I'm starting to get too pseudo-something. Sorry.)

I still miss Suzanne Pleshette.

MikeN said...

That show was unwatchable. The only reason I didn't fast forward was because it was the last episode. BORING.

Jay said...

Terrific review, Ken (although I disagree about your views on the show's entire run becoming increasingly tedious...yes, the last few seasons weren't as strong as the first few, but I never really got frustrated with the constant cycle of ups and downs Don went through, because most of us can relate unfortunately).

Basically, my big takeaway from the finale was this: Don finally found (or really, accepted) his identity: Don Draper, the ad man on Madison Avenue (not the dead commanding officer whose name he stole in Korea) who can come up with an iconic campaign for Coke in 1971 or maybe even for Apple Computers in 1984. He is the Don Draper who will be constant a part of Sally and Bobby and Gene's lives as they grow up in the home of Sally's brother. That's his identity and purpose that he's been trying to find this whole time. Ad man and father of three.

blinky said...

Don't stop believin'
Hold on
Streetlight people
Don't stop

Wait! What happened?!??!

Robert Z said...

How it should have ended:


Sounds of a man waking from a bad dream.


Don Draper is in bed next to Suzanne Pleshette.

Don looks around room, bewildered. Sees snow globe on dresser.

Hitman walks in from master bathroom.


MUSIC OVER CREDITS: "It's a Long Way to Tipperary."

YEKIMI said...

@ Oat Willie

The song made it to #7 on the charts in 1971/72.And for the year 1972 it was the 97th ranked song on the year end charts. And if you'd like to see the song as it was originally released in early 1971 with different lyrics:

Ted said...

And after Mad Men, Ken's written about it, now watch Mannequin Two on TV today at 1pm - on a network called This TV - broadcast channel 5.3 in Los Angeles.

By Ken Levine said...

There are many hidden questions in MANNEQUIN 2 -- like why was it made?

Anonymous said...

To G. Ehrbar
I decided several weeks ago not to comment on this blog anymore, but I have to make this exception . I have to tell you how much i enjoyed your comments today (actually how much I have always loved reading your comments). Your writing is so beautiful; your views and opinions so well thought out and expressed---it's just wonderful.

I can't imagine why my opinion would be of any interest to you, but I nevertheless felt compelled to tell you.


Terrence Moss said...


Gary Moores's Blogma said...

Great takes as always, Ken. I've always thought those who whine so much about product placement should care more about compelling storyline/remarkable writing placement.

And amen on the static, lazy phone call scenes. They always seem like a writing crutch. As much as I like The Good Wife they take those scenes to such an extreme that an iPhone should get a weekly "Special Guest Star" credit.

Still, I'll always like MM for its initial premise, all the eras covered and the all-star lead cast. In the end, to paraphrase locker room speak, "It was what it was."

BTW, here's a great piece on the last song's backstory:

Hamid said...

There are many hidden questions in MANNEQUIN 2 -- like why was it made?

William Ragsdale's gotta eat!

Greg Ehrbar said...


You have noooo idea how much your kind words have lightened an otherwise dark and heavy work day. Thank you.

Sometimes it's just that nice little nod and smile that makes all the difference in life.

Thanks. I needed that!


-bee said...

How about this: that the Coke ad is a representation of the rare ad that is actually serving as a positive force in the world?

Yes, Coke as a beverage has few redeeming features, but I think that particular ad expresses a beautiful sentiment and may have actually made the world a little bit of a better place.

If Mr. Weiner feels this way about it (and who's to say he does), then Don's (hypothetical) creation of it is a sort of redemption as opposed to an act of gross cynicism.

As for the episode itself - it was fine but the relegation of Don to the sidelines of his kids life REALLY bothered me. Yes, Sally is wise beyond her years, but to say she and her siblings no longer need their father sticks in my craw.

Anonymous said...
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AAllen said...

My family had an album with the Coke song on it. Like all versions I've heard, it starts, "I'd like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love." On the album version, the singer slurs together the words "furnish" and "it," a source of endless amusement. On all versions I've heard since then, the singer carefully puts a pause between the words.

Pat Reeder said...

The Coke jingle was a commercial jingle first, then a hit song. The New Seekers were supposed to record it and didn't have time, so a studio-created group dubbed The Hillside Singers did it. The New Seekers recorded it shortly thereafter. Both had big hits with it.

Having come out of the jingle and advertising business, I can assure you that some of the best musicians and composers in the business were in that field, and I worked with a lot of them at TM Productions in Dallas. My wife's dad was a legendary big band musician/arranger (T. Dorsey, Tex Beneke, Freddy Martin, etc), and he played and arranged on those commercial music sessions and was the vocal group leader of the jingle singers at TM, PAMS, CRC and others. So it's no surprise to me that an ad jingle could be turned into a hit song (just ask Barry Manilow). But it also went the other way: as record librarian for TM, I kept an ear out for interesting new sounds in the record business to play for the commercial music composers, to "inspire" their work.

As for "Mad Men," I never watched it, but my wife was addicted. Every Christmas, it was an easy gift choice to give her a Blu-Ray set of the last season. Don't know what to give her now. I don't think a boxed set of "Two Broke Girls" is going to get the same response.

Greg Thompson said...

Sally had a great episode and essentially a wrap up -- that's she's going to be fine -- last week. That said, I wish her last scene wasn't dutifully washing dishes while Betty read a magazine.

I assumed Don returned with the Coke campaign AND to take care of his children, but that seems to be a minority view -- in my office at least.

There was a general feeling in my office (it's a writing staff) that the Stan/Peggy wrap up was too pat and that less would have been more. Their first talk of love didn't need to take them so far.

Ron Rettig said...

Ken, the true story of the coke jingle and Bll Backer, who thought it up.

Anonymous said...

I was leaning towards Don supplying Peggy with the info for the coke jingle at first, thinking his smile represented his new found happiness. But then I thought his smile represented his realizing he was on to something good for the campaign. Such a con man.Also loved Joan doing a start up business in her dining room using her house phone and having her kid running around. Many successful people built their businesses like that. Peggy and Stan was corny and stupid to me. I actually cringed when he said he loved her. I love both characters and believed they belong together (they always had such great chemistry and a blind person could see how he felt about her) but it was so forced. Sally and Betty know Don the best and they know he is the wrong person to raise those two boys, as we have witnessed over the years. He always had a secretary/ wife/girlfriend taking care of them when they were with him. Finally, I was shocked so many people didn't understand the Coke commercial's huge impact and how big that was for the advertising world back then. Made me feel so old!
Janice B.

Barry Traylor said...

Given the choice between MM and Justified the latter wins hands down for me.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

It's the day after the day after- I'm still decompressing. Didn't love the finale while watching it but I liked it more after reading about it/giving it more thought. Overall the final season wasn't up to par with early ones. I'm a huge fan of the show- HUGE- going to miss it tremendously- but, like most shows at the end, it was showing its age. Still, it was good, always looked forward to Sunday nights.

I wonder what all the writers at Hitfix, Grandland, EW, etc, etc, are going to write about now. I've always joked that Mad Men didn't just support AMC, the actors, writers, directors, -but half the writers on the internet. What show id going to carry that banner? --LL

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I know she went with Harris Holloway or Holloway Harris, but if Peggy were on board, was Joan's plan HO Films or HO productions?

MikeN said...

Not many mentions, but Mad Men frequently made a theme of Don Draper & Sterling Cooper is about serving customers and not being a machine. The Obelisk was a more blatant version of it, but even before Duck Philips and PPL were about dollars and cents while Don was about quality.

I think Matt Weiner was trying to say something there.

breadbaker said...

I have to admit I left it whistling the tune and smiling. The best post-showing understanding I saw was the New York Times interview with Jon Hamm. He pointed out none of the tying of loose ends meant happy endings. Peggy may have found love but others on the series have and then not. Joan's business is not guaranteed to succeed. Don may have learned something but that won't make him happy or fulfilled. His most important learning, in my opinion, is that two of his possible escapes--Betty and Stephanie--are gone and he literally has to start over except for the one person who loves him unreservedly, Sally.

And Lord did Weiner get lucky with that child actress!

MikeN said...

Mad Men's finale got half the rating of two colorized I Love Lucy.

Wayne said...

I liked both the colorized I Love Lucys and Mad Men. The set design and costuming of Mad Men is so great, it looked like it was older the Lucy.

Pizzagod said...


You know-for a show that had such an impact, the last several episodes left me wanting. I enjoyed them, but it was almost anticlimactic.

Sure didn't live up to the hype that accompanied it.

I agree, Justified had a much more rewarding finale, and since the Sopranos was mentioned (I was never a viewer-just kind of happened that way) and I am obliged to bring up better series enders.

I didn't care for the MASH ending that much-too drawn out for me.

Loved Mary Tyler Moore finale
Newhart was a goodie
Justified was excellent.
I liked the Leverage finale.
Burn Notice-not so much.

My favorite series finale? I was a fan of "Chuck" and thought that was one of the most fulfilling finales ever.

Life goes on-reruns forever

Anonymous said...

To Greg E.
To think, I almost didn't post that comment, because I was afraid it was presumptuous. You are very welcome, and btw, I forgot to mention that I also find your humor absolutely delicious. I could give you 10 examples, but I will only mention "Pithy. Lots of pith" made me laugh out loud.


jcs said...

I pretty much enjoyed every season of Mad Men. Weiner took a lot of risks over the years, not all of them paying off, but he kept you on your feet. I particularly liked that he denied his tragic protagonist a moral turn-around. Some people just can't help themselves and Don Draper/Dick Whitman is their undisputed king.

You might disagree with some story lines, but the casting was mostly brilliant. Seeing Harry Hamlin in a larger role after all these years, still at the top of his game, was very satisfying. John Slattery proved to be a tremendous performer by portraying Roger Sterling in a very nuanced way. Even tiny roles were perfectly cast.

Most of our TV dramas revolve around doctors, lawyers and cops. Weiner and AMC took a big gamble when they bet on a Madison Ave period piece and I am delighted that they did.

Kaleberg said...

I made it through three seasons of Mad Men, then gave up. Like you, I kept expecting Don Draper, the most boring character in the show, to finally learn something. Even electric shocks didn't seem to teach him not to try the left branch of the maze. How many times can you watch a flatworm fail? (Some biology grad student can pipe up here.)

I'm glad it ended with a good Coke ad. I was always fond of the advertising business back in the 1960s. There was a lot of innovative stuff on the screen and in the way things were done. The show weirdly seemed to miss all of that. They mentioned the Vietnam War, but ignored what was happening on Madison Avenue.

P.S. I'll have to check out what happened to Glen. I always liked him, maybe because he was more grounded than most of the characters.

tvbingetop5. said...

I truly enjoyed the ending. But I can see what you mean about Sally and I would hope Don does end up seeing his kids more.

Marco said...

Mad Men for me is the show where after almost 25 years I really *cared* about the characters again since I saw other TV shows - even I greatly enjoyed them - as nothing but entertainment.

I was on the edge of my seat, I could not await the Mad Men finale more than I did. Many of the final moments were brilliant and entertaining and just great (Roger, Pete, Joan, Don), others I "only" liked (Peggy and Stan)

To me it's clear that Don created the Ad - it all comes together here and makes full sense and Don/Dick finally realizes who he is an what is his "meaning in life". He will be the one to create this iconic Coke Ad. I loved it as much as I loved the whole show. I will miss it.

Tracy said...

Matthew Weiner had previously said he wouldn't have the show or a character on the show take credit for a real-life ad campaign, so while I expected the Coke ad to show up, given the timing, I wasn't sure how he'd handle it. Guess he bent/broke his rule.

Loved the finale, though Robert Z's would have been even better.

Greg Ehrbar said...


Thanks again!

I've got to be honest and attribute "Lots of pith" to Woody Allen. It's one of those things we say a lot in my life.