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It’s Time To Talk About The Ending Of Mad Men, Or, Saturday Morning at 7:03am


Just in case, before you see something you’d rather not, this morning I’d like to talk about the ending of Mad Men.

We’ll wait a moment so those who haven’t seen it yet, along with those who don’t care, can skedaddle themselves out of here as fast as ever they can.

OK then.

Mad Men’s ending made me mad.

For those unfamiliar with the series, but hanging in here because, “Hey, it’s Saturday morning and why not?” the eight seasons of Mad Men focused on a Madison Avenue advertising team, from its creation in the 50s to an acquisition by McCann-Ericsson in the early 70s. In particular, the series chronicled the doings of Don Draper, Creative Director extraordinaire.

The finale found Don, after decades of professional brilliance and personal decadence, meditating on the lawn at Esalen. And goes on to suggest, in the final scene, that Don leverages his moment of transcendence to, wait for it, write a Coke commercial.

In my early inarticulate rage, all I could think was, “That wasn’t the ending I wanted!” But, if I tried to imagine what I did want, I couldn’t.

Finally, after a few days of messy but undeniable anger, and some internal muttering, I read reviews around the Internet. I slapped my forehead. “Yes! That’s it!” I felt betrayed by the series finale because Matthew Weiner, the creator of the series, ignored all the portents so carefully and beautifully set into his narrative.

All the shots in cars on roads without end. All the sacrifices of a career. All the women discarded. Mad Men’s portents bring to mind a walk on the beach, brown beer bottle shards and cheery green seaglass. Sand on your feet.

All used, in the end, as mere scenery. Bah humbug!

I often consider the state of narrative in the 21st century. At least in our technological societies.

We people have always told stories to make sense of our past and create our future. Think of cave paintings. How will modern digital narrative (what we call television, I’m just inventing language here), evolve? Carry on the great traditions of the cave, but also Dickens and Melville, to say nothing of authors I don’t know in writing in languages I don’t read?

I am familiar with three “art series,”  The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. And I care most of all about how they treated me. I’m willing to leave technique to those more schooled. Let’s talk feelings.

Mad Men abdicated its connection to the human heart. I imagine the producers cackling, “Let’s take our costume designs all the way to the bank!” Breaking Bad, in its perfectly crafted, all Ts crossed, unfaltering storyline, ticked just a little too mechanically for me. My favorite among this triumvirate remains The Sopranos. Sprawling, erratic, out of control in structure, character and plot — written such that our connection to Tony breaks in our own hearts. When we find out that Tony’s a sociopath, we realize we’ve had a crush on him all along. We look inward.


I suppose if I’m going to love and be willing to change for you Story O! Story, you need to respect my feelings. I like a trash tale as much as anyone, give me Dynasty, Scandal, Nashville o! Nashville. Connie Britton’s accent. But they pretend to be nothing else.

In the end, Mad Men didn’t make me examine much of anything but clothes.

And that’s it. This is all personal. One might argue that it’s only television, or, one might feel empathy with the woman on the floor of the cave. She weeps for the spear as everyone else cheers their new loincloths.

53 Responses

  1. The whole season (half season, I guess) was at times maddening. So much story wasted on Diana the waitress, all to lure Don to go West, I suppose. The finale was too tidy for me in some respects–Peggy and Stan and Roger and Marie Calvet, namely. I wanted Joan to have a career and a complicated relationship. Early in the season at a water cooler conversation about Mad Men theories, I predicted that Stephanie would somehow come back into Don’s storyline, so I was smugly happy to see I was right. As for Don’s “enlightenment,” I thought it was close to perfect. He hadn’t really changed. And, as it turns out, I hadn’t wanted really him to.

  2. Always happy to encounter another fan of Mad Men, I will, nonetheless, admit that I enjoyed much of the season finale… with caveats.

    First, I did not feel betrayed nor that the connection(s) of the heart were ignored. I was utterly entertained by the thought of Don Draper/Dick Whitman increasingly merging his past with his present, finding some small measure of peace, and the series delivering on our (anti)hero’s need to perpetually “move forward.” He does so by being more honest with those in his life, recognizing that he is more “every man” than he realizes (after the archetype every man breaks down in tears at the group session), yet still being the consummate creative — and clever — as he sits on that hill and comes up with the concept for the Coke commercial.

    What I also liked:

    – We can still imagine him screwing up, though we think possibly less
    – We can imagine he went back to NYC and not only took care of business but got involved in his children’s lives, at least to some degree, after Betty bites the dust
    – We see a realistic depiction of Joanie being forced to choose between the traditional view of women (and relationship) and a self-sufficient career (she chooses career)
    – We see how we all evolve, change in some ways, stay the same in others, and adapt, for better or worse.

    What I didn’t mind:

    – Pete and Trudy making up and taking off for Wichita (all roads lead to the wizard of Oz?)
    – Roger winding up married to Marie (Megan’s entertaining, feisty, mouthy mother)

    What irritated me:

    – Peggy and Stan “in love” — too fast, too tidy, not believable as executed

    All in all, I wish the show’s creator hadn’t felt compelled to tie up as much as he did in the typically American packaged way; while I liked the handling of Don’s imagined future, I was happy for the “queue de poisson” endings in general, where we are left to wonder whatever happened to so-and-so. So much more like real life.

    (My own musings on the topic, should you be curious, and I hope you don’t mind:

    1. @D. A. Wolf, Happy to have your reaction here – and links to your own blog are just fine by me when they are relevant like this. I didn’t include in this review – I mean, it’s long enough:) – my total distrust of the group therapy revelation and session. I was in California in this time, and even had “group therapy” at our hippie school. I have always mistrusted those circumstances and their epiphanies. The refrigerator guys “revelation” made me cringe, and laugh in discomfort. I imagine that with less personal baggage, I might have suspended disbelief, and therefore been more comfortable with Don’s evolution.

  3. I had mixed feelings about the ending of one of my favorite series. I have been loyal to this program for years, and have never missed an episode. Here’s what I liked and what I didn’t:

    – I very much disliked the too sudden love between Peggy and Stan. I never saw that coming, and I couldn’t buy it.

    – Betty’s illness beautifully portrayed her toughness and her practical way of dealing with what comes her way in life. I always liked her character, warts and all.

    – I enjoyed the scenario with Pete and Trudy flying off into the sunset and Roger and Marie finding a relationship in which he will finally have to take some guff from the woman in his life.

    – I thought that Megan and Don’s relationship could have been just a bit less vague at the end.

    – I thought Joan’s role ended very well–just the way I would have expected, given her evolution as a top notch businesswoman over the course of the series. The guy she was with was pretty self-absorbed and in the long run, he would have become too burdened by Joan and her son. Good riddance…

    – I didn’t understand Don’s relationship with Diana, except that it was the catalyst for his trip of self-awareness. Too much time was devoted to it for too little plot.

    – As for Don finding himself in an EST institute by accident–I think he was at a desperate point in his life, so I didn’t think this was totally off base. Obviously he went back to New York and again worked in advertising, as strongly hinted by the Coke commercial, but I wonder if he came clean with his real identity. That’s the only thing that will save him in the end.
    – I liked the series less as the shows got more and more into the mid-late 60’s. The essence of the show was the 50’s and early 60’s culture, and was a showcase for a sexist plot that was infuriating, even though it was necessary to the success of the series. It was fun to view the clothes, homes, furniture, and relationships, but it was time for and ending.

    1. @E. Jane, I think as the series got closer and closer to our era, it became more and more difficult to appreciate as a period piece, the details mattered less and the characters more. I too liked it better earlier.

      One small note. Don did not co EST, it was Esalen, or something equivalent. EST would have locked them all in a room. I never did EST, but I knew people who did. Esalen still exists. Here’s the link. I’ve never been either, but the workshops and approach I’m very familiar with.

    2. Sorry for the confusion regarding my EST comment. They (Esalen, EST, etc. are all of the same genre to me, probably because I never paid that much attention to any of them in their heyday. In my Minnesota young mother life, they seemed rather remote from the reality in which I existed. I do find it more interesting today, as in gaining general knowledge of my era, so thanks for enlightening me.

    3. @E. Jane, Oh gosh, no apologies needed! This discussion has brought back all kinds of memories of that era, and personal growth programs, etc. I was involved in them, one way or another, tangentially or in person, on and off, from the time I was 12 until I was 24. In other words, from 1968-1982. I don’t write about it, in many ways I’ve expunged that experience from the story of my life, and that’s a mistake. It all mattered. I am understanding now why I reacted so strongly to the end of the show.

  4. I loved the Mad Men finale. While I can accept that Don may have gained some personal insight during his spontaneous journey west, I would have been horrified if he had magically transformed at Eselan or anywhere else, for that matter. He could not escape his past…that would have been predictable and just boring. But in my mind after his raw phone goodbye to Birdie, he would return to New York to be close to his children and continue being the brilliant mad man that he was. I actually loved the inspirational moment on the lawn at Eselan, and see it as a brilliant depiction of what the 60’s and 70’s may have contributed to America…a legendary advertisement.
    PS. I also loved Pete and Trudy flying off to KC, or as the always astute DA Wolf observed, OZ. The Stan and Peggy ending was a little weak. I never worry about Joan.

    1. @Janey Ann, By the end, even, say, 3 episodes from the end, I knew he would neither die nor undergo a profound change. I just hoped that the subtle end would come down on the side of the portents. I am actually glad to hear that some people liked it.

  5. I watched a few episodes of MM awhile back, but it didn’t grab me. So I had permission to read the spoilers.

    We had a get together with some friends we don’t see often and the talk turned to MM. They were fans. I remarked that the Est thing about turned up on a show I am devoted to, “The Americans”, and we were off to the races discussing experiences with Est and Lifespring. It made for an interesting evening, even if it wasn’t directly about MM. The 60s were a very dramatic time with events that I’ll never forget, but the 70s seem to have been when it all started rippling through to everyone else.

    1. @RoseAG, Oh, the “personal growth” movement. Still underway, some for the good, some not. And I am sure you are right, that what I might have experienced in 1968 in Northern California, may have shown up at other times or very different guises in other places. I can’t tell you how many charlatans professed to lead people to transformative experiences.

  6. I am several seasons behind in watching Mad Men–but it did not bother me to read how it ends I’m fascinated by the use of Esalen as a backdrop. I think it probably fits into the whole storyline as a place where people went to find themselves. I love going there myself! I’ve had some of the best massages there out in the open air overlooking the ocean.

    I’ll have to think of this some more–and of course it would help to catch up with the series.

    1. @Susan, I think having Don wind up at Esalen was kind of fun. I’ve never been, would love to, but adore the region. I just wish the writers hadn’t toyed with my feelings. It is quite possible that I am too sensitive;).

  7. Lisa, I don’t think you’re too sensitive or wrong to be disappointed…just smarter than the average bear :).

  8. I thought the ending was perfect. Just like real life! People in the late 60’s and early 70’s really DID have profound moments doing things like meditation at Esalen, and at best they integrated some of it into their actual lives. I thought Don had some important moments on his trip West. At the very end, he went back to his real skill, advertising, and came up with a fantastic coke commercial incorporating the spirit of connection! And maybe he did have a bit more self-awareness than he’d had in the beginning.

    1. @Jadie, I am so reassured that some people liked the end. At least it tells me that Weiner wasn’t just taking the easy way out. And yes, I absolutely believe in profound moments. Meditation, workshops, vision quests, I’m a fan of the universe letting us know what to do. I just didn’t believe that moment where Don hugged the guy, because I couldn’t help giggling. I mean, he’s food in a refrigerator!?!?! To me that’s something you’d see in an SNL skit. Again, I fully admit that my personal experience with the personal growth movement colors my opion:).

  9. Dying to workshop this with you! If you lived in this country I’d force you to come round so we could discuss it in real life with a white board and some champagne. And some snacks.

    I thought the Stan/Peggy thing was so fake and weird.

    Pete and Trudy will not last. He will return to his crazy copy-cat Don ways and hurt her.

    Marie is good for Roger because she is feisty and a mother figure. As ever, he got the best lines.

    Don went back to McCann and wrote the ad but no way did he step up for his kids. After Betty died, Sally insisted they stay with Henry and they did.

    I like that Joan gets to forge a career and that what’s his name gets Roger’s money now that his daughter is “gone”.

    I like the way Pete Peggy and Harry admitted they’d never done lunch.

    Such a waste with the boring Diana story line.

    Don may have more insight but he’s still selfish and hurts people and can never commit. But he makes a great ad.

    The Sopranos was the best show ever, so much better than MM or Breaking Bad. I never understand people who don’t agree with me about this fact. I watch about a billion hours of telly a week and it’s the best.


    1. @Faux Fuchsia, Oh we SO need a white board! And I agree with every single one of your points – except I hold out hope that as Don aged, he did commit to his children. Especially once the grandchildren came along, and his powers of chicanery waned.

    2. I’ve never watched the Sopranos in any sort of “order”, and decided after talking with some friends at dinner last night, that the Sopranos will be my next binge series – so glad to hear that you think it’s the best, as do my friends.

  10. Your closing comment made me chuckle. I am not a fan of morally-ambiguous anti-heroes, so I’ve not watched any of the three shows, but I do have a seemingly desperate thirst for narrative (hence my blog-reading habit). I have watched more than my fair share of tv and film, exceptionally good, exceptionally bad, foreign and local, and everything in between, and I can so relate to the feeling of … betrayal at the writers’ pointless emotional manipulations. I am all for having my heart put through the wringer-but only if it serves a greater narrative purpose; the moment the writers lose track of a story, or abuse or disregard hours of painstaking character development and subtle references, I’m jarred out of the story, and am left looking with annoyance at a badly flawed piece of art. Because that’s what it is for me, ultimately: narrative is art, and I do not enjoy bad art- especially not after hours and hours of emotional investment.

    1. @Jules, Exactly. And I like a good morally ambiguous anti-hero well enough, but a steady diet is too much. I feel that in this day and age, real courage is in the happy ending. Which reminds me, did you ever watch The Comeback, with Lisa Kudrow? The courage of a happy ending.

  11. When I heard that Mad Men was ending, I tried giving the first season a go, but couldn’t get into it. I love a good Shakespearean anti-hero, enjoyed Sopranos, and Breaking Bad nearly blew my mind, but MM didn’t cut it for me. Too much surface: it felt manipulative to me from the beginning, so I can understand feeling manipulated by the ending. I really wanted to care about the stories they were telling; I’m always up for gender dynamics and media literacy. All these serialized epics toe the line between art and commerce, but for me Mad Men fell a little too heavily on the commerce side. Couldn’t do Boardwalk Empire, either, for similar reasons, even though I adore Buscemi.

  12. I, too, watched MM a few times in the beginning but couldn’t get into it. Maybe it was my own experience growing up in the 60s; young adulthood in the 70s; my working in pr and advertising in the 70s; and brief involvement with EST that made me not want to relive that whole era.

    1. @Jane, Oh so you really lived it! I would have been OK to relive it, authentically, with the real benefits and the very real dangers. :)

  13. I did watch the finale, however, and, like you, wanted to laugh at the whole refrigerator scene. I wasn’t sure what to make of Don breaking down and hugging the man. Aaahh, so glad that era is behind us now.

  14. Huge Mad Men fan from day one! That said, I will find myself quoting you on this:

    In the end, Mad Men didn’t make me examine much of anything but clothes.

    Aesthetically, it was second to none.

    1. @Dawn, When it focused on the 50s, since I was just a kid, I didn’t mind the emphasis on aesthetics – which were, as you say, brilliant. But as it approached a time in which I was personally invested, I grew to resent having ideas treated just like skirts.

  15. So glad to read this a bit after the show ended when I read obsessively about it. I have come to terms with MM. It took me years to watch it because like other commenters, I could not connect with the emotionally hollow characters. I finally became intrigued by the artifacts…seeing thematerial aspects of my childhood brought to life so meticulously:’ a harvest gold rotary wall phone in the kitchen, every adult with a cigarette in one hand and a silver-rimmed highball glass in the other, women wearing white gloves and hats, etc. So, in the end, the show to me was simply cultural anthropology. The medium was the message. Mad Men became the best advertisement ever made for an era otherwise no longer accessible.

    I liked construing the ending as ambiguous since Don seemed the last person on earth who would find his truest self in the workshop that spawned the self-help industry which dominated the rest of the century. (Look at how much floor space Barnes and Noble still devotes to that area.) But like the good ad men he was, he found some kind of inspiration from what he witnessed, never from what he actually felt. I was very suspicious about the impact of advertising at an early age despite all of the cultural norming to embrace it—I was in jr high when the Coke song took over the world. Thanks to Mad Men, now I know more about why.

    1. @M, Coming to terms. I think that’s exactly what I’m doing too. Maybe Mad Men was brilliant in its very betrayal. Art equalling life. xoxo.

  16. I have only watched a small segment of one episode of this series. It made me irritated and angry. Why? Because I lived it and I don’t like seeing this misogynistic series glamorized. Been there, done that. I know I must have this whole thing out of perspective, but I can’t understand the raving over this series.

  17. Mad Men’s main theme was about reinvention: especially Don’s, Peggy’s, Joan’s – even Betty’s. All of the reinventions were possible because of the constant changes happening in American lives during the incomparable events compressed into this time period of the 60s, and they were amplified by this historical context. These characters in another time period would not have been worth watching. Yes, I loved and obsessed over Sopranos, but the themes and characters in that show could have been set in any time period. Man Men was so unique and, for me, endlessly fascinating.

    I think that Mad Men’s secondary theme, that actually may have been similar to Sopranos, was about business, familial and personal relationships and what we get and need from them – how they sap us or fulfill us. In the Sopranos, characters were whacked when they betrayed. In Mad Men, they were fired, divorced or worse, rendered powerless and ignored.

    I think much of the last season was sublime, despite the ridiculous scenes with refrigerator man and Glenn and Betty in the kitchen. I must add my favorite line from this last season: McCann producer says to Joan when they are calling Joan’s clients, and she gets angry because he asks a disabled client about playing golf – “Who told you you get to get mad?!”

    1. @Jimmy Hake, “Mad Men’s main theme was about reinvention.” Dig it. I’d only add, reinvention by verbal spin [which is early age advertising in a nutshell] [which is the Weiner script in a nutshell]. Words. Which takes us back to the Don Draper roadmap he gave us in Season 1, Episode 1: “A man is whatever room he is in.” Man as malleable object, capable of changing to fit…whatever. The second roadmap Weiner gave us is the essential false identity of Don Draper.

      Given two false frames through which to view the series and the characters, how then could a viewer ever assume anything vaguely human going on here. Yet there is close reader Lisa with hurt feelings from Weiner failing to live up to her perception of portents, despite being adequately warned by MY perception of portents. Dig it.

      GOOD STUFF all around!

  18. That’s not quite what the ending meant to me (and I wouldn’t have liked it if I thought it was that simple). Also, some credit to my lovely ex-dramaturge husband here.


    To me it meant two things:

    1) We can never escape from ourselves. We are who we are, and we can find peace, but peace has to mean embracing our us-ness.

    2) Why Don was such a brilliant ad man all along is that what he was really looking for, and never able to find (until possibly the end, a little) was peace and connection, and nostalgia, and longing for something bigger than himself. It’s why his ads were so good (‘it’s not a wheel, it’s a carousel’) but it was something he never could find in his personal life, no matter how hard he tried.

    And then at the end he did. Or did he? Or did he? Because can we ever escape from ourselves??

    Did he literally compose a commercial in that moment, or not? Maybe yes, maybe no, but what I love about it is that you can read it both ways. And the whole series was full of that kind of complexity.

    In short: I adored the ending. But mostly because I didn’t think it was about a coke commercial, and I didn’t read it on an exactly literal ending. The whole show was written like a really great play, and in a really great play that would have played on a scrim slowly lowering in front of the meditating Don, interpretation… yours.

    1. @Meg Keene (@MegKeene), Interesting, because I thought about but decided not to discuss, because I went to school such a long time ago but I really wanted a tragic catharsis in the classic Greek sense. Such was not to be.

      BTW, I didn’t think the ending was simple, just that it betrayed what I loved most about the series. I went back to the first episode – the fly on the light in the ceiling. I was emotionally committed to the fly as harbinger of the effects of moral decay.

  19. So very happy now to say I never liked Mad Men. Tried. Just didnt therefore did not waste time on it. Loved the Sopranos. Yes, spot on, I loved Tony only to discover he was truly flawed. Kind of real isn’t it ? Now just don’t get me started on Game of Thrones which my college kids forced me to watch so I would be “with it”. Woah there! Now that’s a real mess…………..

    1. @susie, Games of Thrones, however, has made it very clear to me not to invest emotionally in any of the characters;).

  20. I liked the ending, and it’s been interesting to read this thread about how people felt about it, and what it meant. I can’t say I was terribly invested in the series for the last 3-4 seasons, but felt it ended in a way that felt true.

  21. My condolences. It’s difficult to end a television series well. I’ve been trying to think of a show I loved where I was happy with the ending, and I can’t think of a single one.

    1. @Wendelah, I liked the ending of the Sopranos – if only because I felt the real ending had happened previously, and it made sense to me that the writers eventually just fell down exhausted.

  22. I started watching Mad Men in the second season, mainly for the clothes and historical setting, and was immediately hooked. For me the ending was no surprise. I am a skeptic so Don leaving Esalen with a corporate idea didn’t bother me at all. No one I know who attempted group therapy in the 70’s discovered a thing about themselves.It was merely a temporary escape. I was more affected by Betty’s last scenes and her stoic reaction to her daughter. I don’t think she let Don back in their children’s lives. He felt obligated but he remains Don, self centered and entitled. I loved the series and plan to re-watch the Sopranos this summer.

    1. @Susana, I agree, Betty’s ending was much more affecting. And I felt as though I was seeing Sally take after her mother, which felt lovely.

  23. Yes! As M says, it was about cultural anthropology for me. My dad worked on Madison Ave for McCann-Ericsson in the 50s. He’d moved on to the network television side by the time I came along in the early 60s, but everything took me right back to the NY suburbs of my childhood.

    1. @Patsy, Yes, he said it was pretty close to the way it actually was, except for the amount of drinking and the hanky panky in the office.

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