May 18, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “Mad Men”


Matthew Weiner had always cultivated an air of mystery around MAD MEN (those impenetrable promos!), and the show itself has been its share of enigmatic at times, which made many wonder if tonight’s series finale would be some kind of a cryptic bone to chew on, one that would cause viewers to puzzle its meaning like The Sopranos, or worse yet, to understand it all too well like the fatal conclusion of Lost.  In fact, Weiner achieved a fine mix of tones, fully resolving most of its storylines while leaving things a bit tantalizing for its protagonist.

The finale, written and directed by Weiner, returned to the overarching theme of the series:  the possibilities, and limitations, of reinvention in America.  It would have seemed unlikely when the series began its story in 1960 but Joan (Christina Hendricks) wound up being the most adventurous character of all, allowing her rich beau (Bruce Greenwood), who was more than willing not only to provide some experimental cocaine (it was 1970) but to marry her, to go away, in favor of starting her own production company.  Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), as we found out last week, reunited with ex-wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and moved to Kansas to be a big shot at Lear Jets.  Roger (John Slattery) really did marry Megan’s French-Canadian mother Marie (Julia Ormond), although not before he made arrangements for half his fortune to be left to the son he’d had with Joan.  Sally (Kiernan Shipka) ended her rebellious teen years early, forced to watch over her brothers as her mother Betty (January Jones) slowly died of lung cancer on her own stubborn terms–the last we saw of her, she was puffing on a cigarette.

Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) got an ending that may have tipped a bit into fan-fiction.  She turned down Joan’s offer to partner in the production company, deciding to duke it out at McCann-Erickson doing what she loved.  As she was making that decision, though, Stan (Jay R Ferguson) declared his love for her, and somewhat to her own shock, she reciprocated.  One certainly can’t say that Weiner hadn’t laid the groundwork for the two of them as soulmates over years of Mad Men, but the way it played out, with a cutely impulsive phone conversation that felt like it came out of an ordinary rom-com, was perhaps too pat for a series that’s always prided itself on embracing a complicated view of life.

That left Don Draper.  Jon Hamm has never been less than superb in the role, and Weiner didn’t take it easy on him for this final episode, with much of his performance limited to reactions to the characters around him.  Don had continued the stripping away of his persona that we’d watched over the last several episodes, traveling with a plastic bag of belongings and an envelope of his remaining cash, part of which went to a prostitute (of course, and of course she initially tried to rob him–one last journey through Don’s mixed-up relationships with women).  He then made his way to his home away from home in Los Angeles, where he was known as Dick Whitman to Stephanie (Caity Lotz), the niece of the real Don Draper’s now-dead wife.  His final stop was an Esalen-like New Age retreat in northern California, where he observed the yoga, meditation and group therapy, until all of it, including the news of Betty’s illness, and being left again by a woman (this time Stephenie) caused him to break down, in a call to Peggy that seemed to imply a possible suicide in the offing.  (This may have been a nod to all the theories about how the series would end, which may also have been the point of a Charles Manson reference.)

When we left Don, he had seemingly found a measure of peace, joining in a dawn meditation, with a slight smile on his face after listening to a prayer that spoke about rebirth and renewal, exactly the themes by which Don/Dick had always led his life.  In case that was too obvious, though (and it may have felt that way, especially following some awfully on-the-nose sequences in the group therapy sessions, in which other guests discussed issues that clearly applied to Don), Weiner cut to the finale’s final masterstroke:  the classic “I’d Like To Buy the World A Coke” commercial, one which brilliantly echoed the contemplative scene we’d just watched, but now used to sell soda.  Was it meant in a specific way, to suggest that Don Draper was going to return to Madison Avenue and write that ad?  (Peggy had said that McCann would take him back in a minute.)  Or as a general commentary on the way advertising, and America itself, remakes everything as commerce, even the most spiritual moments?  Both would make sense in the context of Mad Men, and it was left for viewers to decide.

Remarkable as Mad Men was, with its incredible cast and its spectacular photography, costumes and production design, it may be the case that the series was more written about than watched–its ratings were never more than moderate, especially compared to its network AMC’s later blockbuster The Walking Dead.  But the odds are that there would never have been a Walking Dead without Mad Men, at least not on AMC.  Mad Men was not only one of the smartest, most distinctive dramas in TV history, but one that changed its medium, opening the doors for a myriad of cable networks and streaming services to–in an echo that even Matthew Weiner couldn’t have envisioned–reinvent themselves as something cooler and more valuable than they’d been before.  Netflix, in a way, is Don Draper, and that may be the greatest irony of all.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."