The Internet is in no need of any more analyses of Mad Men’s big wrap up. But that—along with so many other things in this world—is exactly why it’s getting another one. From prickly cactus metaphors, to booze benders, to Oedipus complexes, the Mad Men finale successfully gave people the narrative that they wanted, which for a show that’s all about giving people what they think they want, isn’t terribly surprising. Enough loose ends were tied to give a believable next chapter for each major character, as well as enough allusion to keep us contently wondering how another season might have looked.
Since the airing of the first episode back in 2007, perhaps the most impressive thing about this entire series isn’t its style, its darkness, or even its 60’s charm, but how it has created a universe for characters to grow, while also not ever really transforming them into dramatically better or worse people. Mad Men is not about self-betterment, nor is it about any sort of loss of innocence, but instead a saga of self-understanding.
Peter is still as unpleasant and slimeball-ish as ever, though now he has mostly accepted it. Harry is still just an asshole. Ken still isn’t a writer, and enjoys the notion that he could’ve been one as petty emotional leverage in his work life. Peggy still feels unappreciated at work, which she has discovered is as much the source of her unhappiness as it is her motivation. Joan, despite all of her intelligence, remains governed by her need to feel at the center of things, and will take it over being loved. Roger continues to employ his money and charm as a means of supporting his incredibly selfish life choices. Betty, after years of drowning in her own cold narcissism, now will very appropriately die of lung cancer.
Then we come to Don, the ultimate embodiment of the stagnant character that the series has been touting since day one, the claim that people never really change much or dramatically diverge from their true nature. But they do learn things. Don’s final surreal bender of the series eventually puts him face to face with the fact that, for all of his feelings of loneliness, failure, and isolation, his longings largely come from a personal fear that he is as incapable of giving love as he is of receiving it. This new-found honesty with himself, as far as we can observe, does not put him onto any real path of self-improvement, but instead self-embrace. The show’s final moments close with him sarcastically smiling, panning in to one of the most successful and immeasurably pandering TV commercials in American history:
As that international cast of optimistic baby boomers says farewell to the 60’s and hello to globalization, viewers of Mad Men are left not only with their finale fix, but also a very conceited message from the subversive writing of Matthew Weiner. Coke, a beverage of no real substantive value, the ultimate symbol of American success through superficiality, is what Don’s moment of self-actualization looks like. He has not become a better person, but a more effective version of the man who was selling the 50’s dream a decade earlier. Don knows that very atavistic human instinct of choosing a simple myth over facing a complicated reality is something that can easily be taken advantage of. That truth is embodied in modern history by how America’s idealistic boomer generation eventually grew up to be even more capitalistic than their rigid parents.
There is an inherent beauty in such a statement. While most critiques of a globalized, money-oriented world aim to make the point that there is something inhuman, or unnatural about our modern world of trinkets, money, and messed up relationships, Mad Men seems to suggest that there is actually nothing that could be more human. It’s as if all of us are as guilty as Don is for perpetuating a world founded on superficial acquisitions and status-oriented choices. The blame for the shallowness that comes with advertising, something the show started out saying came from the minds of those men on Madison Avenue, is now equally upon each and every one our shoulders, for it is we that not only take the bait, but demand ever fancier hooks.
The commodification of our feelings is not something that we are really so upset with, but for the most part something we actually embrace. Is it sad that there are people in the world whose jobs revolve around making Coca Cola commercials, or is the true sadness that fact that someone can make a silly jingle about a soda and it will actually move individuals to buy significantly more of it? Is there hope for any of us in such a bleak view of the world? If there really is any message of hope here (not that Mad Men is obligated to provide one) it might be that such an insight into ourselves could motivate us all to make more informed choices, regardless of our nature, rather than simply react. Or, as Mad Men implies, a better view of our own weaknesses may just be used as a means to exploit the weaknesses of others.
And while that message may be a very conceited one, sometimes it’s also the one that we should think more about. Like the advertising business, Mad Men, too, has a great deal of hidden messages to be found behind its glamorous facades and clever writing. But at least when Matthew Weiner is being subversive, he’s selling subtext instead of cigarettes.