"Mad Men" Series Finale Review

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

There are a lot of things worth touching on when it comes to "Mad Men" and its utterly powerful and satisfying series finale last night. I could discuss how Don Draper (Jon Hamm) finally found peace by letting go of everything. I could talk about how weird it was to see Joan (Christina Hendricks) doing cocaine. Or I could say how the final conversation between Betty Francis (January Jones) and Don - "person to person" - was crippling. And let's not forget how Roger Sterling (John Slattery) was hilarious and captivating in every one of his scenes - like always. And I should address the wonderful fan service of Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) finally kissing - which drew a round of raucous applause and cheers during the screening at the Gateway Film Center last night.

With all of that out of the way, I'll just get to the point. This was the best series finale since "The Sopranos" and I'm fairly confident that after I re-watch it - probably five or six more times - I'll end up finding it superior. It was a better finale than the recent ones done by "Breaking Bad," "Justified" and (obviously) "Sons of Anarchy." This was a masterpiece.

Matthew Weiner, "Mad Men's" creator/showrunner who wrote and directed the episode, put together a wonderful narrative that perfectly wrapped up the tales of the many characters we'd come to love over the last seven seasons. As a storyteller, Weiner has always been one to build a foundation in early parts of the seasons, sometimes to the frustration of fans, and bring out the best at the end. That's exactly what happened in last night's finale - Weiner saved the best for last.

Before we get to Don, his final scene and how that can be interpreted, I'm going to cover everything that happened back in New York City. While Don was busy speeding muscle cars in the desert, getting drunk (on only beer), realizing his family never needed him the way he thought (including Stephanie) and eventually finding enlightenment at an idyllic retreat - complete with Brett Gelman - the other characters of "Mad Men" had some monumental events happen.

Possibly the best aspect of this finale was how it managed to give us conclusions - as open-ended as some were - for nearly every major character. I was immensely happy to see Roger, Peggy and Stan - and even Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) - get happy endings. While Joan, Betty and Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) may not have gotten the happiest of endings and probably don't have an easy road ahead, they each found a place of contentment.

Roger and Marie (Julia Ormond) may not seem to be a match made in heaven, and their relationship could have disastrous consequences - which had to be a factor in Roger's decision to make sure he and Joan's son would be taken care of - but their post-coital argument and then final scene in the restaurant (where Roger orders lobsters and champagne for his "mother" in French) offered hope. I like to think both of them have realized their own flaws and shortcomings (as well as those of their partner), and have chosen to embrace them.

For Peggy and Stan, we all know how these two will support and love each other - over the phone and in person - as they take over the advertising industry in the '70s. I'm sure there are some fans who felt Peggy and Stan getting together was purely 'shipping, but damn if it didn't feel good. And still does. Of all the "Mad Men" characters, Peggy most deserved a happy ending, and I'm forever grateful Weiner gave her a magnificent one.

Where I was most surprised to have similarly good feelings was in Pete's conclusion In the early seasons of "Mad Men," I would've never thought I'd actually root for Pete-the-despicable- a-hole, but his journey - and personal growth - the last couple seasons has dramatically changed the character. He and Peggy are the two characters who have changed the most over the course of these 92 episodes. Pete has slowly become a good person, who realized that he will only find true happiness by caring and loving those - his wife Trudy (Alison Brie) and daughter - who only wanted to do the same for him. It may have taken Pete too long to figure this out, but in last week's penultimate episode he finally did. And he'd earned that revelation.

I'm glad Joan didn't end up with Richard (Bruce Greenwood) because I don't think he would have ever been able to let Joan's needs and desires come first. For someone who talked a lot about letting life take him wherever it pleases, Richard wouldn't accept Joan's agency to be that directive. Too bad for Richard, because Joan is a strong, smart and beautiful woman who looks to be doing great without him.

When it comes to Sally and Betty, there is surely sadness ahead. But both women have grown stronger due to Betty's cancer diagnosis, and their bond will never be broken. Sally may have hated her parents before getting on that bus back to school a few episodes ago, but now she's found that was only a youthful, teen angst-y digression. She has a role model in Betty, in her mom - a role model who's exhibited incredible personal strength in the face of the most harrowing ordeal.

Now we have to talk about Don Draper, his journey over the course of "Mad Men" and what this finale means for him. One could look at the blissful smile across Don's face while meditating and think finally this man, whose entire life was defined by angst, pain and deceit - in both his personal and professional lives - has found truth and peace in letting go. That smile could've meant that Don accepted everything he thought mattered doesn't. Or what does matter isn't tangible like money, success or power.

What matters is love - and most importantly self-love. Don has spent the entirety of "Mad Man" literally hating himself. That's why he threw away the Dick Whitman identity and "took another man's name." And that's why he "broke all his vows," "scandalized his child" and "did nothing with" the name he stole. It never mattered whether he was Don Draper or Dick Whitman, because he was always going to hate himself. It's what he'd been taught since he was a young boy - it was all he really knew how to do.

But in letting go of his self-loathing - by seeing how this type of dissatisfaction was destroying another man (Leonard) he'd only just met during one of the retreat's pow-wows and literally hugging that man, and that man's fears and doubts - Don found a new hope. Don could genuinely smile. Don could genuinely be happy - with his life and himself.

Or there's another, more cynical, way to look at that last shot of a smiling Don meditating, one that's colored by the actual last moments of "Mad Men" - the iconic "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad. One could look at it as Don merely returning to his old ways, and he's come up with his greatest pitch, one that will become the most legendary commercial of the '70s.

We've seen it before. Don breaks down in the face of his fears and failures, only to turn that into a miraculous ad campaign. The most glaring example of this comes in the Season 1 finale with Don's pitch to Kodak about the Carousel. Part of Don's brilliance as an ad man - and con man - is in his pain. Like many artists, Don finds beauty and inspiration in sadness. So with Don at his absolute lowest - his ex-wife (and children to some extent) asking him to stay away, his business no longer needing or caring about him and after saying "goodbye" to his closest confidant in Peggy - did he come up with the Coke campaign?

Well, it could be read either way, and I'm fairly certain that's how Weiner intended it. See, Weiner was a longtime writer for "The Sopranos" - another series about a self-destructive man who had money and power, but never happiness - that also had an ambiguous ending. I'm not going to spoil "The Sopranos" here, but even those of you who haven't seen the finale are probably aware of the long-standing debates about its conclusion. Did Don find peace in letting go? Or did he smile because he'd just thought of the Coke ad? Did Don realize that he'll never be truly happy, and the only times he's even come close is the fleeting moments when he's created something great for the advertising world?

The debates will probably rage on for the next couple of weeks, and I'm sure there are a number of "Mad Men" viewers who feel cheated by the finale's ambiguous conclusion. There were certainly "The Sopranos" viewers who felt that way. I don't feel that way about either of those series finales, and consider them to be the best series finales I've ever seen.