Who would have guessed that all Don Draper needed was a hug?
In a somewhat surprising traditional finale, Matthew Weiner and Co. gave a sense of finality with our flawed but cherishes characters, almost all with seemingly happy endings. That’s what I mean when I say the finale was surprising. It gave so much closure to a show that has refused to bend to traditional narratives. And yet it felt earned, at some points perhaps handled a little sloppily, but earned nonetheless. And it ended with one of the most famous ads ever aired.
Every major character had a moment to shine on the episode. We saw Roger and Megan’s mother speaking French to each other at a posh restaurant. Peggy and Stan finally confessed their love to each other. Pete and Trudy headed off smiling as they boarded a private jet. Joan started up her own production company. Even Don got some much needed therapy, and sent the show off with a sly smile. Ever the survivor, that one. The only real character that felt a little shafted was Betty (it’s always Betty, isn’t it?), whose last image was of her smoking a cigarette while Sally washed dishes.
In so many ways, this episode gave fans everything they wanted, with Peggy and Stan hilariously so, but it still kept true to Weiner’s vision. We had a nostalgic look back at the 60s, tracing many arcs through the tumultuous times, that came to fruition during the last episode. A notable arc was the rise of feminism. This was displayed with the prominence of Joan in the finale. Faced with the chance with her starting her own company and establishing independence, she ditched the too-cool-to-be-tied-down jerk of a lover, prompting most of us to pump our fists at seeing how far she had come from being just the lowly secretary.We felt the wave of women empowerment with Peggy, who turned down a chance to be a partner with Joan, instead opting to stay at McCann Erickson and waiting for her chance to one day be a creative director. There was a lovely scene where Pete told her that one day people would say they were proud to work with her, something no one has ever said about him. But perhaps the most perplexing part of Peggy’s arc was her declaration of love for Stan. That moment felt intentionally comical, as he embraced her in a kiss, and yet still felt right for these two. They’ve always had a simmering tension between them, but their actual feelings never had to be explicitly stated. I’m not sure of the unabashed sentimentality of the moment worked–it certainly felt out of place tonally–but I couldn’t help but cheer for Peggy.
The most telling character arc to the show was the counter culture, which was in its infancy during the first season. At first a rebellion to the men in suits, it slowly became appropriated by those said men, and by the end of the show had become a means to sell sugar water. There’s the theory that Don created the coke ad at the end, one that the show heavily implies, but it doesn really matter whether you believe this or not. The commercial was real, it reflected the zeitgeist, and was a perfect way to cap the finale. There isn’t a stone that can’t be turned to make a profit, whether it be Pete Campbell seeing the potential profit in advertising to the black community or world peace. The real question is whether Don truly embraced the mantra he was chanting and find world peace, or did he see a perfect opportunity to exploit as a means as getting his professional life back?
Of course, we can’t really answer that question without going into speculation. That’s what happens when a show ends. The anticipation for the next episode is gone, and any further revelation gone with it. But what’s worth exploring is the meaning of that final commercial? There’s two popular ways of reading it: one hopeful and one cynical. If you look at it hopefully you see it as an earnest expression of finding peace with other people. That it’s an ad for soda is ironic, but heartfelt nonetheless. This reading reflects Don’s embrace with the man crying over the fact that he feels he’s been ignored his whole life. If Don created the commercial, the hopeful way of looking at it is that he realized he emphasized with the man and found peace.
The cynical way of reading the ending is that once again people’s own hopes and beliefs were exploited just to sell a product. Even more cynical is accepting the peace movement was just a façade. After all, the clinic Don visited wasn’t free, the woman showing him his room even accepted a tip. It’s a condescending view, and if we believe Don created the commercial, this reading means he never really changed, but went right to wearing the wolve’s clothing.
And yet, while these two readings seem to be divided, there’s a third way of reading it. One that suggests that there’s a been a reconciliation of dichotomies: that of the establishment and the anti-establishment, and one of Dick Whitman and Don Draper.
The commercial can be seen as a reflection of the man known as Don reconciling with the man known as Dick. Through love with one another they can come to hold hands, which is basically what the people in the commercial are doing. If a major company can embrace the counter culture, then there’s room to believe Don can embrace who he truly is. Which is what he seems to be doing in his yoga pose.
Whatever reading you take, there was a nagging feeling that was in the back of my brain, a gnawing feeling that this episode felt artificial. Something so sly about Don’s smile, and Peggy embracing Stan, that I couldn’t help but wonder if Matthew Meiner had made his own commercial, telling us that this is what we needed. Wrap it up in a pretty bow and leave the audience smiling. As much as I’ve tried convincing myself that there was true catharsis with Don, I can’t help but wonder if the real message to the show was that advertising will still go on, and it will continue guide your life, whether you want to admit it or not. Maybe that’s my fourth reading, the one I don’t want to hear. If there’s concrete thing that came out of the finale, it’s that it won’t stop being talked about soon.