Mad Men came to a perfect end last Sunday and although I am sad to see it go, I feel good about the way we said goodbye. The show holds a special place in my heart because its premiere corresponded to a time of significant change (for the better) in my life.
The Music of Mad Men
I often watch television with the closed captioning on. One advantage of this habit is that on certain shows, Mad Men chief among them, the captions tell me what song is playing. Most of the time I do not recognize the songs, but they create the appropriate atmosphere. I have read elsewhere that part of the reason Mad Men feels so authentic is because it takes into account not what a model home fresh out of a catalogue in 1963 would look like, but what an actual house in 1963 might look like. Most houses from a given year were not completely furnished with only wallpaper, appliances and decorations that were new that year. Likewise, too often on TV shows or movies, in order to indicate the year, the music featured comes from singles of that year. But that’s not how music works in real life. When Don is listening to his car radio, it’s appropriate for “Hello, I love You” by the Doors to come on. It was released in 1968 so it’s plausible it would still be in regular rotation in 1970. On the other hand, when Don’s staying in the small town motel, the motel owner’s radio plays “Harbor Lights” by The Platters. This pre-rock crooning fits with the tenor of that location. The Platters’ version would have already been ten years old at the time Don visited the motel, but the song itself is older than that and was recorded by1940s and 1950s singers, such as Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley.
Another nice touch: Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” playing during Don’s dream scene. The song was time period appropriate—it was released in 1969—and it perfectly paralleled Don’s persistent fear that he would be caught and revealed as a fraud.
Quiet Flows the Don
It seemed for awhile there like Don was going to kill himself. And although this possibility was hinted at in previous seasons, and rumors about Don’s potential death were circulating in fan circles, it is more authentic to Don’s character to have him carry on, reinventing himself along the way.
At the retreat, Stephanie tells him he’s wrong, you cannot just put the past behind you and watch your mistakes shrink in the rear view mirror. A few years earlier, he had given the same advice to Peggy, and she tried to follow it, with mixed results. For a moment, Don seems to express regret, and empathy (not enough to drag him down completely, however). One might complain that in this show, women are less able to let go and move on than men. But then again, the issues they were dealing with WERE very gendered. Peggy and Stephanie both gave up children, in Peggy’s case permanently and in Stephanie’s case indefinitely. Don and Pete may not have been very hands-on fathers, but they were still involved in their children’s lives to a certain extent. In addition, societys’ judgement of women who abandon their children versus men who do is different, so I think it’s fair to show the women struggling more with that issue. In addition, the central male characters on the show do not completely outrun their past. Don never stops fearing his true identity will be discovered, and after several years of womanizing and jet-setting, Pete realizes he has never stopped loving Trudy and Tammy. Don puts things behind him, but that’s who he is. Joan is able to put things behind her too.
And speaking of Joan, I loved her stepping into her role as business owner. Using her maiden and married name to create the two-name business was a perfect touch. That rich guy was just okay, and women’s liberation is underway. I have confidence that Joan will find someone to share her life with, if that’s what she wants.
Sweet and Refreshing, Just Like a Cold Soda-Pop
Mad Men has a way of tying elements together without being too cloying or heavy handed. The use of the famous 1970 Coca Cola commercial, several minutes after Peggy says to Don, “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” was, once again, perfect.
The show flashes from Don, meditating on a California Cliffside (I imagined it located in Carmel, near Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Nonviolence) to the faces of the world commercial. When I heard the opening notes of “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony . . . “ I was surprised—I was not expecting to see the real commercial footage. But leave it to Matthew Weiner to obtain the rights to use that commercial. It combined the bridge-building, love movement of the 1960s with American capitalism. What the audience takes away from the cut from Don to the Coca Cola commercial is open to interpretation: is Don dreaming of the famous commercial, or is it the commercial functioning as an omniscient commentator?
What made the use of that TV ad so perfect was the repeated singing of the slogan, “It’s the real thing.” The audience is left wondering, what is the real thing? In this show about appearances, facades and layers of reality, it is impossible to know what’s real and what’s illusion.
But for a show that has often ventured into very dark territory, the finale was refreshingly uplifting. Some alone and some surrounded by loved ones, the characters march on. As much as Mad Men has been about appearance and salesmanship, it has also been about perseverance. The hairstyles, the office, the marriages and the clothes change, but the people keep going.
I also thought the treatment of Betty’s illness was appropriate. We see her in the kitchen smoking, resigned to her impending death, with Sally, who has always had to be the adult anyway, taking on the household responsibilities. Our heart goes out to them, but Weiner chose not to linger or draw out Betty’s illness. This was the right choice because Betty has not been a major player in recent seasons and too much emphasis on her would have seemed forced.
Finally, call me a softy, but I was so happy to see Stan and Peggy get together. I have loved Elisabeth Moss in this role since day 1, and to see their frustrated, imperfect expression of love for each other was so fitting. I’ve enjoyed the Peggy/Stan relationship ever since way back when Stan accused Peggy of being uptight and she put him in his place by continuing to work with on their assignment–completely naked. Their story has been funny and sweet, and I get a kick out of Stan’s frequent hair tosses.
So in the end, some characters got second chances, some got many more than that, and some did not, just like in real life. Some turned over a new leaf and some were back to their old ways, just like real life. This show has always felt stylish and authentic and visually stunning, with excellent dialogue and character development. There never has been a ton of plot, and I’m ok with that. Most often, life is not excitingly-plot driven, the story lies in how we all navigate day to day. Shows based in real life can either be boring or engaging, and I have always found Mad Men to be the latter. The finale continued in the tradition of restrained authenticity, and I look forward to rewatching, along with the other six seasons.