Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
What Don doesn’t realize is that he’s doing Peggy a big favor by providing some closure to their relationship (even if, depending on how you interpret the episode’s final moments, their separation is only temporary). “You’ve got to let [Don] go,” Stan tells her — because, of course, he’s the first person she calls when they hang up. Earlier in the episode, they have a painful fight after Peggy breaks the news to him about a job offer (from Joan, no less) and he says she’d be crazy to leave.
Mad Men isn’t a show that offers much in the way of fan service, so it was important to make Stan and Peggy’s long-awaited romance feel earned. For that to happen, Peggy had to realize that Don wouldn’t always be the center of her universe; although he’s ultimately more of a mentor/father figure to her, there has been plenty of unconsummated, sometimes wholly non-sexual romance between them over the years.
In a subtler way, I think Peggy also needed to admit that she was done having to prove herself. At a meeting early in the episode, she decided to throw her weight around, earning both a project and the respect of a superior in the process. And her resolution with Pete, seven full seasons in the making, consisted of him expressing his unqualified respect for her talent.
Stan, of course, tells Peggy she’s brilliant at every opportunity. So when he gets to the end of the speech he makes to her over the phone — which, it must be said, reeks of romantic comedy, in the most tolerable way possible — and confesses, “I’m in love with you,” we know what that means. Peggy doesn’t lose anything by letting herself admit that she loves Stan too (!!!); he’s come a long way (baby) to become a man who not only accepts but straight-up can’t live without a woman whose creative genius outstrips his own.
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In a sense, Peggy gets the ending we might once have wanted for Joan, and vice versa. After what very much looks like a cocaine-fueled awakening to her own potential in Florida with Richard, she meets with Ken Cosgrove, who wants her help tracking down a producer for an easy-money project. Joan immediately realizes that she’s capable of taking the job herself.
The first thing she does is nail down Peggy to write. For fans — especially those of us who saw some sort of feminist potential in the coming together of Joan and Peggy — it’s thrilling to watch them eat lunch together and fantasize about a production company Joan proposes calling “Harris Olson.” But Mad Men could only fit so much “You go girl!” into the finale without becoming a different show, and the thing is, while it’s nice to see them part on good terms, Joan and Peggy were just never going to be best friends. Their partnerships would have been a tense, competitive nightmare. And that’s fine! These are very specific characters, and the fact that they don’t work happily ever after together doesn’t necessarily say anything about the relationships between capable, high-powered women.
What’s more important, in Joan’s case, is that she loses Richard — who, let’s face it, was always a bit of creep — and finds her real passion. The production company is her greatest success ever, largely because it’s something she uses her intelligence and experience, rather than her body, to get. This wouldn’t have been an honest finale if there wasn’t some sadness mixed with the triumph, and it’s quite possible that Joan will never find the man she deserves. But she certainly doesn’t look too upset about it in the closing montage.
Let’s stop here and review that closing montage, which Twitter has already debated to death, albeit with an unsurprising lack of nuance:
Photo Credit: Justina Mintz/AMC
All of this brings us back to Don Draper, who finally has his ding-ing revelation in the midst of — what else? — a meditation class. He has recently had what the industry calls a “breakthrough” in another session, with a man named Leonard, who “has never been interesting to anybody” and has a vision of being an item on a refrigerator shelf that no one ever picks up. Leonard is the ultimate victim of advertising, the guy who keeps expecting other people to give “it” to him without ever discovering what “it” is supposed to be. When Don hugs Leonard, I think he’s realizing — simultaneously — what harm he’s indirectly done to this man and that, as someone who also keeps fruitlessly buying into the things he’s selling, they’re basically the same person.
There are a whole lot of ways to interpret the Coca-Cola spot — perhaps the most successful advertisement of all time — that ends the series. And contrary to what Twitter would have you think, those interpretations are not mutually exclusive. It’s very possible that Don sublimates his moment of zen into a Coke ad — and the red-ribboned braids on both the retreat employee and the woman in the ad support that interpretation. If it makes us happy, we can even think of it as the most successful collaboration between Don and Peggy; maybe that’s what we see her writing at her desk, as Stan looks on with pride. (The real advertisement was, in fact, created by McCann.) Hey, there’s even a distinct chance that one of them insisted on hiring Joan’s production company to shoot it.
But I’m not convinced that any of this is nearly as important as what the ad represents — and let’s be clear: the ad doesn’t just represent one thing. For me, it’s the moment that confirms Don Draper isn’t a character so much as a metaphor. In a lot of ways, he’s barely existed in the physical plane this season, so it’s fitting that his resolution is a moment rather than any particular “future.”
And by detaching from desire for that one moment, he gains his greatest-ever insight into it. Whether he writes the ad himself or some distant copywriter, be it Peggy Olson or someone he’s never met, co-opts his revelation, the point is that Don represents advertising (and the American Dream, which basically reduces to advertising) in its purest form. Yes, it’s artificial by definition, propaganda for buying goods and services that you probably don’t need. But the best advertisements work because they’re suffused with honesty about the human need for fulfillment; and they stand in for the fact that it isn’t really possible. A genius advertisement is a monument to human tragedy.
Then there’s the meaning the Coca-Cola ad imposes on the montage that precedes it. Those final images of the characters we loved (and often loved to hate) were by far the most saccharine moments in seven seasons of Mad Men — yet, at least in my living room, we cooed and cheered and maybe even teared up a little over them anyway. Like the best Mad Men music cues, the Coke ad pokes a bit of fun at us viewers, for allowing Weiner and co. to manipulate us the same way Don Draper manipulates America (and himself). Remember, that song is saying: this is all a fiction, and you bought in to it.