In Praise of Narrative Ambiguity (or, Why You’ll Never “Solve” the ‘Mad Men’ Finale)


A strange thing happened on the Internet this morning: pretty much every news outlet, reputable and otherwise, that has any interest in Mad Men (so all of them, basically) reported that Matthew Weiner had explained the ending to the show’s last episode at a talk with novelist A.M. Homes last night. As an example of the perils of churnalism, it was pretty impressive, because if you watch the video of the event, Weiner does no such thing. Instead, he explains that the end of the show is as ambiguous as it appears: “People are like, ‘Which is it?’ and I’m like, ‘Well, why does it have to be one or the other?'”

Weiner also has some interesting things to say about ambiguity in general, namely that it seems to make audiences uncomfortable. Homes observes, “One of the things that starts coming up when you read all the blogs is people’s insecurity with ambiguity… It seems to be anxiety-making for a lot of people,” and asks Weiner how he sees this in the context of his work. Weiner’s response is interesting: “I’m totally unaware of it. I don’t like ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake… It’s just that I believe a lot of meaning is non-verbal. As soon as you start parsing things into words, you’re in a hole. It doesn’t mean anything.”

This certainly makes sense in the context of Mad Men, a show where the protagonist never tells anyone anything, and Weiner goes on to speak eloquently about how Don Draper’s generation was defined by an inability to express their feelings; Jon Hamm’s genius is in expressing so much of his character’s personality while saying so little. In the context of the show’s ending, though, we’re denied any such wordless explication — instead, there’s just Don’s ambiguous little smile, the ring of a bell, and a cut to the famous Coke ad that’s been so widely discussed in the last week.

Homes is dead right: ambiguity does make people uncomfortable, and it’s interesting to think about why this is. We have an instinctive need for stories to be neat, to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. We see this in our most common narrative archetypes, and even the language we use to describe stories — we want them to have a “resolution.” We use the same word, “conclusion,” for the end of a story and the lessons to be drawn from it. If we’re lucky enough to reach such a point in relation to some sort of challenge in our lives, we say we’re “closing the book” on it.

That doesn’t happen a great deal, though, does it? When you think about that, you start to see the role stories play in our culture: they’re things we tell ourselves to make sense of the world (or, as Joan Didion so famously simplified it, to live). The earliest forms of storytelling revolved around allegory and didacticism, existing to teach you something about the world you lived in. Stories are simplified, idealized forms of reality — Alfred Hitchcock famously said that drama was “life with the boring bits cut out,” but you might just as easily argue that it’s life with the complicated bits cut out.

This is all very well, and it’s a form that’s served us for thousands of years. But equally, there’s an argument to be made that if a story has a point to make about the world, it should represent the world as it is, not as it should be. And what is life but ambiguous? You’re never really sure if you’re doing the right thing, or what other people mean when they say things to you, or what to make of any of it. There’s no narrative at all — there’s just a series of events that are transmuted into imperfect memories. Nothing has a definable meaning. Things happen.

This is not to say that a story constructed on these ideas can’t have a meaning behind it, though. Indeed, some of our most memorable modern narratives have been more powerful for their inherent ambiguity — take Infinite Jest, for instance, which is 1,000 pages based around an event that is never narrated, and features one of the most ambiguous endings in all of literature. Or take… well, Mad Men. Would the series’ ending have been more powerful or meaningful if we’d cut from Don’s smiling face to the boardroom at McCann Erickson, where a cleaned-up Don was pitching “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” to a rapt audience? Or if we’d cut to Peggy doing the same thing?

I don’t think so. The lesson I took from the finale is that even the counterculture in which Don finally finds some meaning will be co-opted into advertising, repurposed to sell sugar water to the masses. It doesn’t matter who made the ad — if it wasn’t Don, it was someone like Don, maybe Peggy, maybe not. There’s no mystery to solve here, no conclusions to be drawn beyond what’s there at face value: Don Draper has finally begun to look within himself for answers as to why he is who he is, and whatever he finds may well be just as good at seducing strangers into buying products as anything else.

Regardless, whatever you think of the Mad Men finale, Weiner is right that ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake is obnoxious, and more often than not used to mask the fact that the writer in question probably doesn’t know how to end his or her own story. But ambiguity as a reflection of reality, as a narrative device that emerges from the story itself — that’s something to be embraced. Sometimes a story doesn’t need to tell you the answers, and sometimes there are no answers to tell. That’s the way the world is — and a story that tells you that is one that has more to say about life than any neatly wrapped chocolate box story with a moral and a happily-ever-after.