Last week, in my valedictory for “Mad Men,” I wrote that the show was at its best when concerning itself with the nuts and bolts of advertising, and at its weakest when it did soap opera.
For those of you who advised me politely to, ahem, rethink my position, I will confess that creator Matthew Weiner has forced me to do exactly that. Because the biggest lesson of Sunday night’s slow but satisfying final episode is that the show was always about the nuts and bolts of advertising.
The Twitterverse and the commentariat can’t seem to decide whether Don Draper indeed turned out to be the inventor of the iconic “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Weiner chose the famous commercial to close the episode, right after giving us a close-up of Don’s peaceful face as he meditated at a commune in California. Did Don go back to McCann-Erickson and come up with the ad campaign? Or did he bum around California, in which case we’re presumably to see the idea as a larger comment on the end of the era? By not telling us — by letting us guess and argue - - Weiner is showing what he learned from his years writing for “The Sopranos,” whose creator, David Chase, crafted an ending of similar ambiguity.
Weiner’s ending echoed the conclusions of other iconic shows, too. Betty’s decision to let the cancer take her rather than spend years or months in a battle she was likely to lose was prefigured by Dr. Wilson’s identical decision as “House” ended its run a few years ago. The handing off of the reins to the next generation — Don to Peggy, if one reads that last agonized phone call right — conjured memories of the final episode of “The West Wing.” On Twitter, fans drew other comparisons: “I can’t believe everyone on #MadMen was dead the whole time and waiting for Don to show up in Purgatory.” (If you don’t get the joke, I won’t spoil the ending of another show.)
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Yet if their tweets are any guide, viewers were frustrated as so much of the final episode was spent following Don around the commune. Viewers wanted more detail on Peggy and Stan (whew, happy ending, squeezed into mere minutes of screen time) and how Betty’s family would cope with her coming death (no Henry sighting, but one had to love the heart-stopping line from a wide-eyed Bobby Draper when his big sister returned early from Miss Porter’s: “Is it going to happen now?”). For that matter, again to judge from Twitter, lots of fans waited excitedly for the rug to be pulled out from beneath slimy Pete Campbell’s ambitious feet — but no, Weiner offers us a last glimpse of Peter and his wife and daughter racing from limousine to Learjet and their stock-option-lined future.
All the glimpses were quick. The show mainly stuck with Don. Once he learned that his ex-wife was dying, he shared a tearful conversation with her — the Twitterverse seemed to consider it the best one they had during the show’s run — but then, rather than racing to her bedside, Don continued on to California. There his niece-non-niece Stephanie dragged him to what she called a retreat. Participants practiced tai chi in between seminars where moderators kept asking how they felt. The encounter groups dragged on and on. We kept wondering when we’d see more of the other characters. Weiner kept giving us more of the commune. What was up?
If the yes-Don-invented-it faction has it right — and I admit I’m with them — what was up was the inspiration for the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign. If you were so minded, you could even study the commercial and pick out faces not unlike the faces of some of the commune’s berobed instructors. Or so you could tell yourself.
If the no-Don-didn’t folks are correct, then the Coke commercial is coda, summarizing the final episode’s larger theme. Pete had a happy ending because he decides he loves his wife after all. Peggy and Stan are in love. Roger might or might not be in love — and so we know his ending might or might not be happy. We have no idea whether Betty is in love, but her love will help her children bear her death. In this case, Don won’t be happy unless he winds up in love.
But the fact that there’s an argument at all proves what we all should have known since Don’s disastrously honest pitch to Hershey’s: His ideas, in the end, come from life. We can’t understand the working of his creative talent unless we see big swaths of his daily existence. I suspect the show’s boomer-heavy audience came for just the reason so many have cited over the years: We wanted to understand what made our parents tick. We may not have learned that. But, watching year to year, we probably discovered a lot about ourselves.
Truly great literature works that way. Instead of minute- to-minute action, it offers deep understandings of the human spirit, by helping us understand the inner lives even of characters whose outer selves we come to despise. They force us to think. “Mad Men’s” 93 episodes linked together work like a fine novel, provoking serious thought and reflection. We see that in television rarely, and may not see it again for some while. That, too, is a reason to celebrate the show’s genius.
By the way, about the ending that was surely “Mad Men’s” final and most spectacular product placement. A couple of hours after the closing credits, Coca-Cola tweeted: “A bright idea indeed, Don. Thanks for thinking of us.”
So it’s official. The campaign was Don’s. The client said so.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.
© 2015, Bloomberg News