The finale: Is Om the answer?
Let’s start with the montage of images at the end. There’s Don standing before the mighty Pacific Ocean, a smile on his face, possibly devilish, possibly just a smile. Then there’s Don in a group of a dozen men and women in lotus position receiving the blessings of the morning sunlight and chanting Om. The trinity of images is completed with what is arguably the greatest TV commercial of all time: a chorus of multinational kids singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing / in prefect harmony” and “I’d like to give the world a Coke” and then the tag line, “It’s the real thing!” The commercial made its TV debut in 1971.
The ambiguity of the ending is perfect for our hero, who may, reverting to his character as we’ve come to know it, return to Madison Ave. armed with a new vernacular derived from his experience at Esalen in Big Sur, or wherever Don and Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie have gone for spiritual healing and group therapy. On this view, Don gets to work on the Coke account after all and this is what he comes up with – a good idea made great by the composer and writer of the jingle. (As it happens, McCann Erickson produced the commercial.)
But it is also possible, as no causality is given, that doing such work for Coca-Cola is precisely what our rootless wanderer has renounced in his journey westward – first to Racine (which means “root” in French), Wisconsin, and then to various locales in the Midwest and finally to California, up the coast from LA -- as he discards his property, his clothes, his car, and reaches the ideal nothingness of Existentialism or King Lear from the Fool’s point of view.
Is Om the answer? In that case, as Gertrude Stein would say, what is the question?
I have to interrupt myself. When the commercial came out I was living in Paris. At the time there were commercials before the feature film in Paris movie theaters, and it is was in its French translation, in a Left Bank theater, that I first heard the Coke jingle – “Soif d’aujourd’hui” (“Thirst today” or “Today’s Thirst”) to the tune of “it’s the real thing.” That same year I read Henry James’s story “The Real Thing.” I had the idea of writing a piece comparing the two things, the Coke “real thing” commercial and the James story. I still think it’s a good idea, though I never brought it to fruition.
It was, by the way, a Coke machine that Don fixed in last week’s episode, showing off his mechanical prowess.
A second digression but quicker: how well do I recall the obnoxious encounter groups of the period! Phony, embarrassing, fascistic in their drive toward conformity, power struggles concealed beneath a veneer of gentleness and concern, nasty revelations (“I kidnapped my girlfriend's son and drove past state boundaries”) papered over and always concluding with a plea masked as a query: “Has anyone’s opinion of me gone down?” Ugh.
Back to the finale. I’m glad that happy endings were arranged for some of our favorite folk – Joan, who is sure to make a huge success of her production company that was born in her crowded one-bedroom; Roger, who marries Marie, Megan’s indomitable mother, and who, despite his native xenophobia, orders lobster and champagne in French and jokes that Marie is his Mama; Pete and Trudy, wowed by their new status as Kansas plutocrats as they step into the company plane; and Peg, who gets not just one proposal but two in the course of the episode.
First it is Joan who bends Peggy’s ear with a career-changing offer: a partnership in Harris-Olson, the production company Joan is launching. This must have come as Mannah to the Israelites in the desert who envisioned a sequel to Mad Men focusing on Peggy and Joan in a decade during which the feminist rebellion won its victory.
But Peggy says no to Joan because of an argument made by Stan, the art director who seemed obnoxious when he joined cast and crew but has developed character and complexity over the years. The argument – in the second sense – spurs Stan to declare his love, and come to think of it, they have spent a lot of intimate time together, though mainly on the phone, so why not? Peggy declares right back and it seems a better match for our gal than anyone since Abe before he grew hirsute and self-important and she bought that awful Upper West Side brownstone, which would doubtlessly be worth a large fortune today.
In the very first episode of Mad Men, some of the fellows are going drinking and celebrating with Pete, who is about to get hitched. The well-wishers are Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove, Paul (the pipe-smoking Princetonian whose lack of talent and charm lead him into the clutches of Hare Krishna), and Sal (the closeted art director who is punished for his homosexuality). This time around it’s a valedictory drink, but only Harry is left of the old guard, and Peggy turns them down when they ask her to join them.
It is not easy to forecast what will happen in the next five to ten years with Peggy, Joan, Pete, and Roger. There are no guarantees that the happy endings just announced will last even a year. As for Betty, doomed though she may be to an early demise, serene though she may be, she remains who she is, smoking cigarettes at the kitchen table.
But with Don the task of making a forecast is impossible. Don is unpredictable by nature, an enigmatic stranger in the cloak and fedora of ordinary if sophisticated urban life. Don’s destiny remains unfixed, though it does seem as though he has come closest to zero in California, at Esalen or its facsimile, and therefore, by this reasoning, he might just be capable of totally revolutionizing his life.
There was a season that began with Don reading The Inferno (John Ciardi’s translation). He has gone to hell and come back many times. There was the time when he lived alone, got drunk nightly, fucked his secretary. There was the time when he fucked his secretary, married her, and cheated on her with the woman who lives downstairs, whose husband is also his friend. And now this. . .two divorces down . . . the merger with McCann. . .the absence of a love life. . . the conviction that he has made a mess of the opportunity he had seized when the explosion went off in Korea.
At Esalen Don reaches the state of aloneness that may precede any life change. Don is deserted and rejected by his faux-niece, Stephanie, who brought him there – and who points out that he is fooling himself if he thinks that she is “family.” There is no exit for him – no car, no way of getting out. He has felt the sting of rejection, or of self-imposed anomie (as the sociologists used to say). He has children but they will not be in his custody. He has had two wives but one is dying and the other may be marvelous but she’s not right for our boy, either because of the age difference between them or because he expected their boss-secretary relationship to persist in their marriage.
What we know about Don is that he is handy, a strong swimmer, good to have in an emergency, favored by fortune in looks, capable of holding his liquor, and liable to act and react to events in thoroughly unpredictable ways. He doesn’t know who he is, but that s because he is a product of his own invention. Like Gatsby he sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. Like William Holden in The Bridge on the River Kwai, he has traded places with an officer during a battle scene – an act of impersonation that is profoundly interesting beyond its intense dramatic function. He sits in a corner of the lounge, orders an old-fashioned, and wouldn't be surprised if either Daisy Buchanan or the stiff-lipped British polymath played by Jack Hawkins should take the seat across from him.
What we didn’t know before Mad Men is that the existential hero existed not only in army jeeps on foreign soil or Montparnasse cafes but in suites of midtown Manhattan offices where, in some cases, as much intelligence went into the making of a TV commercial as into a song or a poem.
I’ll miss him, I’ll miss the show, and I’ll miss the chance to trade insights and observations with you, Amy. I can’t wait to read what you made of episode the last!
Love, your buddy in Madness,
Oh, the moment has come. I am sad the show's over, and a bit forlorn our collaboration has therefore run its course. I'm thankful Matt Weiner took the helm at the end and was solo writer/director for his last episode. That felt exactly right, and I think all in all, he acquitted himself excellently. His 7-year novel ended with momentous events/peak emotional moments in the lives of his characters, yet events that, as you observed, contain rich ambiguities. Decisive plot developments aplenty take place, which you enumerate, yet all story lines are left wide open, in great or small ways.
Anything could happen:
--to Peggy and Stan's new love relationship (and what of Stan's cute, redheaded, ultra cool, joint puffing, nude modeling nurse wife? was she kidnapped by aliens? accidentally vaporized by an experiment in nuclear medicine at the hospital where she was employed? did she run off with one of the doctors on M*A*S*H? )
--to the freshly, tenuously reunited Pete and Trudy (Trudy looking like Jackie O. with long hair, in her pink Chanel suit and hat in the last shot we see of her...)
--to Don, who has broken down completely, and then arisen into a kind of enlightenment, or at least a surcease of pain, to the tune of finger cymbals
--to Joan who has realized that she loves working, and any man who can't respect that can't really love her. (There is more than one kind of “coke” in this episode: Joan snorts cocaine for the first time and seems to really like it. oh, Joan, this is a slippery, snowy slope! will the white powder be passing fancy or dangerous obsession?)
--to Roger and Marie, who will torture each other, until it stops being fun
--to Betty, making her peace with a suddenly truncated life and trying to do her best by her children, in a way she never has before, attaining an almost holy focus and resolve
--to Sally, compelled now to grow up fast and become capable of adult tenderness. What will comprise Sally's inheritance? Betty’s beauty, skepticism and pragmatism? Don's candor, charm, flexibility, secretiveness, addiction to risk taking and imagination?
--Pete and Peggy part, surprisingly, on terms of mutual affection and (slightly imbalanced) respect
--Don and Betty, without ever saying so, forgive each other in an almost wordless long distance telephone conversation, where both are weeping silently, choking with grief, trying not to let the other person know how devastated they are
---Roger and Joan have an amazing interaction, intimate and open and real, almost giddy, in which Roger informs Joan he's leaving a good portion of his wealth to their son.
I'm not a big TV watcher. Never have been. (Not that I'm proud of being so outside the culture. I know it's shameful.) So the Mad Men devotion was a real aberration for me. I started watching it because of you, David. During the first season, when you told me how remarkable you felt it was, how sharp you thought the writing, and that there was a character reading Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems in a bar (did I get that right?) I watched once out of curiosity and was hooked. So I'm not a television expert, but for me this show was as perfectly cast and exquisitely acted as anything I've ever seen in that medium.
Indelible Moments from this last installment:
1. The depiction of how awful encounter groups were in the 60s and 70s! Such a toxic mix of dime store psychology recklessly and blindly applied, mob dynamics, faux innocence, sexual desperation, mistaking cruelty for honesty, and encouraging dangerous levels of vulnerability in a situation that portrayed itself as safe and was actually anything but. I’m old enough and was sufficiently curious and naive to have participated in some of these nasty gatherings when a teen, and I must say Matt Weiner and co. captured it all perfectly: the crying, the hugging, the brain-frying silences, the predators posing as facilitators, the misplaced trust, the narcissism parading as self-exploration or team spirit, the perversity, the terror, the pretend empathy, the outrageousness, the inadvertent comedy. I squirmed watching those passages in the show, which were so spot on: when the hostile old lady shoves Don; when the depressed, nebbishy guy says, in trying to describe his agonizing feelings of alienation, “I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator,” which is at once pathetic and hilarious; when hippie-ish, necklace wearing, facilitators keep intoning, ad nauseum, in fake-serene voices “how did that make you feel?”
2. Sally and Bobby's conversation about their mother's impending death, containing just the right notes of age appropriateness, exigency and forced sudden maturity. At the end of the scene, Sally gives her younger brother a cooking lesson, because he's going to need to learn.
3. The phone conversation between Sally and Don in which Sally tells Don Betty is dying. How Sally takes charge, not with hostility, but pure urgency.
4. The phone conversation between Peggy and Don when Don calls from “Esalen.” I didn't love all the writing in this scene, but the acting was searing.
5. I loved that the last word of the show was “Om.” Beautiful. Perfect. And exactly what does Om mean? Like zillions of people, I have been repeating that round sound before and after yoga classes for years now, without ever inquiring into its meaning very deeply. The almighty, all knowing Wikipedia declares “Om,” in a lovely bit of slant rhyme, “a mystic syllable.”
Valerie Reiss, in the Huffpost blog, is a little more voluble and enlightening:
The sound appears to have first cropped up in the Upanishads, a collection of sacred texts that inform Hinduism. The Mandukya Upanishad, which is entirely devoted to om, begins like this: "Om is the imperishable word. Om is the universe, and this is the exposition of om. The past, the present, and the future, all that was, all that is, all that will be is om. Likewise, all else that may exist beyond the bounds of time, that too is om."
Good luck and Godspeed to all the brilliant actors who made Mad Men what it was. I look forward to seeing your future endeavors. All hail Matt Weiner, whose brainchild gave so many such pleasure, even an avowed anti-TV curmudgeon like yours truly. Can’t wait for his next project. Maybe he should consider a “dramedy” set in a creative writing department of an American University, possibly hiring a couple of poets as high paid consultants? David, does that sound good to you?