“You only like the beginnings of things,” someone once told Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Well, Don isn’t the only one. As viewers, we love the beginnings of things: Remember the excitement of discovering this little 1960s drama eight years ago on some channel called AMC? The beginnings are always so full of possibility. Maybe that s why, for all of our wild theories about what will happen, the endings never satisfy us.
As I wrote last week, it’s often hard to tell the difference between endings and beginnings on Mad Men. Don Draper keeps starting over, only to find himself right back where he started. This show is a time machine, going backward and forward, always taking us back to the same place. “You can put this behind you,” Don tells Anna’s (Melinda Page Hamilton) niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz). “It’s easier if you move forward.” But moving forward is moving backward. Progress doesn’t exist.
When people talk about the 1960s, they often say that it was a time of great change. The irony is that Don is supposed to be this great symbol of that era, and yet his refusal to change has defined the show. That’s true right down to the end, as he heads back to California to return Anna’s ring and ends up joining Stephanie at an Esalen-style retreat in Big Sur. He s just had an emotional breakthrough with some stranger named Leonard, who tells a metaphorical story about closing the refrigerator door that echoes the show’s larger themes about doorways. Though when Don hugs the guy, it’s a bad sign of what’s to come. (“Does hugging feel honest?” the guru asks the group earlier in the episode.) The next thing you know, Don is sitting cross-legged on a cliff, listening to the guru insist that “the new day brings new hope,” maybe even “a new you.” Watching this, you might think, Don Draper has finally traded the corporate world for something meaningful! But the second you hear those voices singing in that Coke jingle, it s clear that he has taken this authentic experience and commodified it. He s just made the most famous ad for one of the most famous companies in the world. How fitting that a guy whose whole life has been a lie would invent a campaign called “The Real Thing.”
Is this a depressing ending? A happy one? Your answer probably comes down to whether you believe, as Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) does, that there s more to life than work.