The final bow of the forever significant and relevant Mad Men serves as a stark reminder of that phrase made popular by Mick and the Gang: You can’t always get what you want…
I would argue that the penultimate episode “The Milk and Honey Route” was a much stronger hour and would have served as a fine finale; “Person to Person” felt more like wish fulfillment than anything else, at first glance. However, there were moments of sheer brilliance sprinkled amongst the “tidying-ups,” and when one looks beyond the surface, this magic curtain call might just be one of the most magnificent — and ultimately tragic — ever.
She took my money; that’s good sign.
– Don Draper
“Person to Person” refers to the episode’s anchor, in three phone calls made by Don to the women he loves: first Sally, then Betty, and finally, Peggy. Moreover, it carries the overarching theme of relationships and how exactly each character chooses to define them. We begin with Don still on his Odyssey, racing cars to their limit out in some Utah desert, breaking land speed records and chasing skirts — namely a comely wallet-stealing bedfellow, who basically serves as a reminder of all the women Don has bedded in the past… a bit of a hump down memory lane, if you will. He phones Sally and, when pressed, she informs him of Betty’s condition but warns him not to let Betty know. Being Don, he immediately hangs up and dials Betty. What transpires is one of the more supremely poignant moments in the show’s history: so much is said and unsaid in this last exchange between two people that have always been in love with the idea of the other. He begs to come home, she begs him to stay away; there’s some bickering, some sniping, some confessions and feelings, and it is just so perfect.
Instead of heading home, Don takes the exact opposite route, heading instead to Stephanie Draper’s home, out in good ol’ California. Time has still not been great to hippie Stephanie, who has now lost custody of her son. She’s on her way to a retreat of sorts – a communal healing place — and decides last-minute to drag drunk and emotionally-ailing Don along. While attending seminars headed by the OG Supergirl herself, Stephanie has a breakdown, unable to confront the realities of her life, her addictions, and the decision to abandon her son. When Don – he who loves the broken things – attempts to reach out, Stephanie leaves him, basically marooning him amongst the hippies. He breaks down, suddenly not able to leave after roaming for so long. He’s trapped.
Don calls Peggy “just to hear her voice.” I thought I was a wreck during the Betty/Don exchange…I was wrong. She castigates him for a few moments, then begs him to come home. He confesses that he has messed everything up. When she asks what he did in his life that was so truly wrong, he lists his faults. Ever the stalwart friend, Peggy urges him to see the beauty he has created, to see what he did for her. And with that, Don hangs up the phone, completely broken, confronting the realities of this life, and he finds “peace” among the hippies. More on that in a moment.
The Ballad of Stan and Peggy
Peggy is still, well…Peggy, making waves at McCann – demanding clients, demanding to be seen. She buries herself in work, and unable to make a prearranged goodbye lunch with Harry for Pete, shares a moment with the latter in her office. It’s all full of nostalgia and heart. Pete recognizes Peggy’s gifts, telling her that one day, people will brag that they worked with her. He offers her a cactus that one of the secretaries gave him, and in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it throw away line says, “I’ll be back.” Not from lunch. Not necessarily from Wichita. Weiner is letting us know: this whole fairytale Pete is selling himself will ultimately come up short. The last glace we get off Pete is him hopping on a private plane with Trudy and Tammy in tow (say that three times fast). It’s merely a dream, dear reader; you know Pete will some how muss that up, but at least we got to see what it was like for Pete to resemble a human being for once.
Back to Peggy, as she gets the offer of a lifetime from Joan – hold that thought for now. She asks Stan’s advice, who really just reminds Peggy of exactly who she is: a creative type that is always looking for more, and that there is more to life than working and being your own boss. In fact, it is through turning down said opportunity that Peggy discovers she’s in love with Stan! — well the realization, and the fact that Stan basically goads her into it over the phone by first confessing himself. Here’s that wish fulfillment. As much as I would like to believe in hearts and unicorns for these two – who really can probably only make it work together – Peggy is too much like Don, and one day, Stan will be walking out her door, charcoals and pastels in his hand, tears streaming down his face, as she holds her Cleo tight to her chest.
Roger is preparing his home for the arrival of his new bride Marie Calvet with his two secretaries: stalwart Caroline and Meredith, whom he has been carrying hoping Don would come back. Unfortunately, McCann is no longer okay with Roger having two secretaries, and he has to let Meredith go – the lady takes it surprisingly well, all smiles and sunshine, per usual. At the end Roger is all about the sunshine as well, bequeathing half of his fortune to little bastard Kevin in the event of the latter’s death, which Joan accepts for her son. Speaking of Joan, she shares a similar scene to the Pete/Peggy farewell with Roger, each appreciating the other in the presence of Kevin.
Whether he is just tired of all the tail-chasing, or Marie finally wore him down, the pair seem happy as the hour comes to a close, snuggling up and speaking French to each other. Like Don, Peggy and Stan, and Pete’s escape, I cannot quite believe this is for real, forever, but just based on the time constraints, I think Roger has the best chance of making a full change.
Joan, You Amazing Creature
Joan and beau Richard (Bruce Greenwood) have been traveling and enjoying the sweet, beach-y life, but it seems our resident buxom redhead wants something more. She’s more than willing to settle down with Richard – as long as she does not actually have to get married; consequently, Joan has always wanted to be known as more. When Ken Cosgrove offers her the chance to produce television spots for Dow, she jumps at the chance. It costs her probably the last real relationship she’ll ever have, choosing the exact opposite life than Peggy. Yes, there is more to life than work, but this is about so much more for Joan. When the ad campaign works out, Joan offers Peggy a partnership in her new production company, which the latter ultimately turns down. Richard does not want to play second fiddle to Joan’s rising star; the last glimpse we get of Mrs. Harris is her coordinating production schedules out of her home with her own secretary. Turns out, I was not all that far off from my bad prediction!
Not So Fast, Sunshine
Whilst stranded at the commune, Don has this telling exchange with the front desk worker:
Don: “People just come and go, and no one says goodbye?”
Worker Bee: “People are free to come and go as they please.”
It’s that whole double-edged sword thing. The final moments of the series show everyone at their current destinations: Ken has become a cog in the machine a Dow – never to be the creative type he so craved; Joan works at her new home office, but she is alone, raising her son; Peggy and Stan seem happy at McCann, but can she make a relationship work when she is so married to her job? Roger and Marie flirt in a café; Pete and Trudy escape on a plane to Wichita (yeah…don’t see that working out); Sally comes home to a depressed Bobby and Gene; Bobby knows something is up and is trying to make dinner. Sally tells him the truth of her mother’s illness, and in this moment, decides she must be the adult. We see her washing dishes and carrying for her family, as her mother sits at the table, trying to hold onto any resemblance of her former life; and finally, Don is seated on a hill, meditating with other hippies. We push in, Don is still, eyes closed, and a small smile creeps across his face.
Cut to: the very real “Hilltop: I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial from 1971. One could read this a variety of ways: Don is hallucinating. It’s happened before, but I quite doubt it this time. Or Don accepts that he will always be an Ad Man, goes back to McCann to beg for his job back, and will be one of the many on the team that comes up with the ad (one that was actually produced by McCann Erickson). OR, most likely, Don remembers who he is, heads back to McCann guns blazing, drops this idea fully-formed in their laps, and reclaims his rightful throne… for about as long as the Coke ad lasts. (Remember, New Coke is in their future, too.) Everyone is in a somewhat contented place, but eventually people break up, lose jobs, die, despair. All of that is in the future, and hinted at quite frequently throughout the episode.
Though we missed a final Don Draper pitch, the likes of Kodak or Hershey, what Weiner gave us was subtle and bittersweet; sublime and quiet; calm but resonating. It was a fitting end to an era.