Mad Men: “Person to Person” (2015)

mad-men-finale

On Don Draper’s Smile

— In perhaps the most enigmatic smile since the Mona Lisa’s, Mad Men comes to an end with Don Draper grinning ever so slightly, sitting cross-legged on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean at a self-help commune, chanting “om.” The wry facial gesture unfolds as the edges of his lips turn just a bit upward, as the show’s true creative genius, Matt Weiner cuts to footage of Coca-Cola’s most famous ad campaign, “It’s the Real Thing,” a co-optation of the counterculture to sell brown sugar water. Given that Mad Men is among the most cynical pieces of art ever made, the positive critical response to this ending is disturbing.

Because we interact with TV characters on a weekly basis over many years, we become attached to them regardless of their ethical standing. Jason Alexander frequently tells stories of being accosted on the street by Seinfeld fans. They gush, “I’m just like George,” not seeming to realize or care that Costanza is among the greatest jerks in the history of American civilization. Don Draper is the worst villain in American television history. His smile as the show ends is anything but something about which we should be pleased.

The ending destroys the entire redemptive architecture of the second half of the last season of Mad Men. For many episodes, the show had gone nowhere, representing Don’s infernal descent into a past where his diabolical behavior resulted not in self-awareness, but in hollow fame and fortune. The point seemed to be that such patriarchal, abusive activity would not survive into a new era, the 1970s. Just when we think Don is going to die of a heart attack a broken man, the show shockingly pivots.

At a therapy session, a bald man who looks suspiciously like Weiner retells a dream he had, about being a foodstuff in a refrigerator whom nobody chooses. Don unexpectedly gets up and hugs the crying man. We think, oh my goodness, Don has finally become the real boy that he we want him to be, shedding the strings of the advertising business. But Don reverts, stealing the man’s idea, emerging out of the desert of self-doubt armed with the greatest scam of his career. He silently, smugly realizes that the emotional content of the man reduced to consumer product, sitting alone on a shelf, will be the stuff of the most iconic campaign in the history of advertising. Don reduces all that he has seen during his wandering—a hippie girl with pigtails, the bucolic hill—to a nonsensical jingle: “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”

What is tragically lost in the Coca-Cola ending’s power to overwrite what came before is that the rest of the finale is beautifully built around the metaphor of the telephone. The episode, entitled, “Person to Person,” obsesses about people’s inability to connect with one another. Poor Peggy, Don’s protégé, is distraught when she cannot help him from New York City, when he tearfully calls her from the commune. Peggy’s “happy ending” is also a hidden nightmare: her creepy co-worker, Stan, declares his love for her over the phone, despite the fact that they are sitting only a few rooms apart from one another in a skyscraper. As she blathers into the phone that she too must love him, he does not hear her, because he is running over to embrace her in person. The phony commercial world that Don has helped to create will find its apotheosis in an even more diabolical invention of telephony, the cell phone, such that the phone itself becomes the coveted consumer object, leaving us at restaurants staring numbingly into the devices rather than talking with loved ones mere feet away.

That the commercial Satan wins at the end of Mad Men means that not only has Don been swallowed up by McCann Erickson, which early in the run of the show he referred to as a “sausage factory,” but that his cynicism, turning everything into something that must be sold, has finally ground us up with him. In 2015 as Mad Men ends, there is no such thing as a person-to-person phone call because the consumer cell phone culture has reduced communication to one point of narcissism, for which Don Draper is the ideal metonymy.

– Walter Metz