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'Mad Men' series finale review: Have a Coke and a smile, Don

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on the series

Jon Hamm as Don Draper on the series finale of "Mad Men," which aired Sunday, May 17, 2015. Credit: AMC / Justina Mintz

Sometimes, when in doubt about something, like in doubt about the finale of Sunday's "Mad Men," "Person to Person" -- it is a reasonable impulse to turn to Twain for guidance. This quote seems as good as anything under the circumstances: "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

Applied to "Person to Person," we have apparently thought and assumed a great many things about "Mad Men" over 92 episodes, but most of them were (apparently) bogus.

Or were they ... apparently?

So this series really was, in the end, about new beginnings, and the redemptive power of romantic love, and that it really IS darkest before the dawn after all, as Batman once said, and that Roger and Pete really are decent, good-hearted--and quite possibly God-fearing--ad executives who will live happily ever after, and so will everyone else?

And go ahead, have a Coke and a Smile, too.

No, don't worry. "Person to Person" wasn't about all that. Not remotely. As fans, we say we want endings of beloved shows that are dramatic and memorable and final. But what we are really demanding is reassurance about our tightly held assumptions and worldviews as explored and expounded upon over the previous seasons. We may have been projecting those onto the screen, but that's part of the mysterious bond between the fan and the show.

"Mad Men" has done a much better job than most shows at nurturing that bond because it's allowed us to wander into its dark corners, where there was only more darkness. The danger of endings is they offer or promise light, and we may not end up liking what we see.

Here's what we saw Sunday night in those corners: Refrigerator Man (as I will always know him), or Leonard (I think that was his name), and the long, lachrymose breakdown that led to Don's own breakdown; the "I love you's" exchanged between Peggy and Stan in a TV series where love was always for suckers; the sudden, petulant departure of Stephanie Horton (Caity Lotz) from the spiritual commune she and Don had gone to because her absence would force Don to finally confront his own spiritual desert.

And speaking of deserts, the desert.

You could almost you could hear the machinery grind as "Mad Men" made its way toward a conclusion, any conclusion.

To switch metaphors, "Mad Men" has always been about the small strokes, but in the rush to the finish line, Sunday night seemed more about the big, broad flourishes. Ambiguity, "Mad Men's" steadfast partner, was tossed to the side. A new age had begun. Don smiled.

There's little doubt that Matthew Weiner, in the biggest brush stroke of them all, sought to rescue "Men's" worldview in the closing seconds, with the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" close; that creeping smile across Don's face?

Maybe this will be the very ad he will create upon his return to McCann. A new dawn -- "Don," of course, a new day, a new you.

 A new idea.

No more Mr. Lonelyhearts, like Leonard, sitting on a refrigerator shelf, but a world of Leonard's bound together by the promise of a new world and new beginning, where all the peoples of the global community can live in harmony and peace, with a Coke in hand.

A broad stroke and a broad wink, and, in the final seconds, a recapitulation or restoration of the true Don and true "Mad Men."

Don is Don. Nothing changes there other than inspiration. Don makes ads. That's what Don does. Refrigerator Man, or his desperate dream, seeded Don's future, and restored his confidence and faith in himself. That hug was a hug of thanks as much as a hug of emotional release.

Remember when Jim Hobart of McCann a couple of episodes ago said "Coca-Cola ...!!," as if invoking a satanic demiurge? That was the genesis of Don's smile. A Coke smile. A final ironic inversion after all.

Nothing and no one changes. Everyone remains the same. How to reconcile the other "endings"? Stan and Peg in each other's embrace: Sorry, but this won't last, and "Person to Person" -- a title relating to both phone calls and spiritual gatherings and all other manner of human contact in between --- provided enough evidence to establish that romantic love for Peggy and Stan may be necessary in the moment but also fleeting, or, at the very least, problematic.

Those champagne-swilling lovebirds, Roger and Marie Calvet? La meme. (I give this days, not weeks.) Joan and Richard? Sunday night, he simply reaffirmed who and what he was already: a petulant, self-centered sexist.

Pete and Trudy boarding that the Lear jet? Recall the final song from last week's episode, "Everyday," by Buddy Holly, who would die in a plane crash two years after it was released. A fate foretold? Not necessarily, but then "Mad Men" never was about spelling out fates as much as implying the deep unknowable mystery that guides them.

At last winter's TV critics tour, Weiner said of his finale, "I am trying to delight [fans] and confound them, and not frustrate and irritate them. I don't want them to walk away angry."

I think "confound" is the right word here. His instinct was to end our shared history, seven seasons of these characters, on an optimistic note. His other was maintain fidelity to the characters: Don't suddenly turn them inside out, and make them people they never were; and finally, I suspect he wanted to remind us that character defines fate, and that, back to Twain -- "when we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained."

Don was never going to jump, never going to tumble out of the upper floor of a Manhattan office building. (He was never going to run back to Betty and the children either. As Betty somberly reminds him, "How many times HAVE you been here?")

Don was going to fall, figuratively, and start climbing again. Life goes on. His life goes on.

In the end, he found his utopia, his Shangri-La (to cite a cultural inspiration from a couple of episodes ago).

"Mad Men" needed to end the journey, our journey, this way.

Mission accomplished. Good finale. Now, let's have a Coke and a smile.


 And's my review in Tuesday's Newsday:


My say: Most TV series finales have a Goldilocks challenge. You know: Too hot, too cold or just right. Too much ambiguity in a finale, even for a series wrapped in ambiguity, can leave fans grumpy and confused. Too many neat answers leave them in the same mood. What "Mad Men" fans -- true fans -- really wanted was a coda establishing that their long devotion was not misspent. They certainly didnat want anything to revise the series' sardonic worldview.

What they wanted Sunday night, they got -- and more. This one was just about right. Perfect? Not really. At moments you could almost hear the machinery grind -- Peggy and Stan's fervent yet cool embrace, or Don's spectacularly eccentric detour to the Bonneville salt flats, or Leonard's chest-heaving refrigerator confessional. The thrill of this wrap is that everything else did work to near-perfection.

"Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner had more than Goldilocks to worry about in "Person to Person." His instincts -- the correct ones --were to end this on a high note. But how? "Mad Men" always was about that obscure object of "happiness" and about how everyone wants it, but no one knows how to keep it. His solution was to leave all of our beloved characters in the "up" part of the happiness cycle -- on the cusp of new careers, romances, marriages -- with just enough ambiguity to suggest that what goes up...will come down.

But the best was saved until last. From so many great lines, this one by Don stayed with me: "It'll get easier as you move forward." Always the survivor and pragmatist, our Don -- flashing that Mona Lisa smile -- finally knew he had figured out how to BOTTLE happiness.

Bottom line: Terrific end, affirming our devotion.

Grade: A+

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