Hi (for the final time?), and welcome back to The Carousel: Revisiting Mad Men.
Miss Rim did a beautiful job bidding farewell to Betty with her writeup of “The Milk and Honey Route” last week, and for a while I was feeling stuck how to review the series finale in a way that had anything new to say and was really about the episode, not just a covert review of the entire series.
Where I started was with abandonment, though the title and famous refrigerator speech from Leonard would suggest it’s really an episode about person-to-person connection. Every storyline this last week involves abandonment, usually of the deep-rooted childhood variety.
Roger, for the first time, stakes some sort of claim over his abandoned (or, at least, unacknowledged) child with Joan, who has in turn been abandoned as a parent by Greg, as a lover by Richard, and as a businesswoman by Peggy.
Peggy allows herself to prioritize a future with Stan, reversing a lot of the self-denial she’s had to commit to ever since abandoning her child and choosing a career instead. (Men get a work life and a personal life; women choose. Peggy has resigned herself to this state of affairs for years, but I read her arc ending on a personal note rather than a work one as a sign she’s done choosing when nobody else has to.) (Also shacking up with a coworker is a pretty good way to be able to have both.)
Stephanie has abandoned her child, leading Don to abandon her, leading Don to remember how guilty he is about abandoning Peggy. Pete is done being absent for his child (and wife), at least for the time.
And finally, exactly who should abandon who swirls around the storyline at the Francis house, where Betty – a mother long accused of neglect by the Mad Men fanbase – is about to abdicate her motherly responsibilities whether she likes it or not.
Sally thinks it’s Henry’s job to be present for the kids. Betty thinks it’s her sister-in-law’s job. Don at least wants to think it’s his job, though he knows it can’t be. In the end, Sally is the one who fixes Bobby’s burnt toast.
And in amongst all of this deep-rooted abandonment, past, present, and yet-to-come, there’s Leonard’s speech about being the only snack not picked out of the refrigerator. And Don’s feeling of connection to Leonard, and his understanding of that sort of childhood abandonment that’s shaped his life for so long.
And then there’s a Coca-Cola commercial with a bunch of international, diverse actors holding hands who clearly aren’t meant to know each other; they’re not characters in a traditional story. They’re avatars for the idea of humans connecting with other humans, for an abstract universal connection to the idea of people in place of a real one.
People aren’t always there for the people in their lives in real and concrete ways, as the repeated focus on childhood abandonment reminds us. But humans in the abstract can be there for each other. With the help of Coke.
It is, in sum, a very Don Draper ending. He can’t be there for his kids after all this time; he can’t be there for Peggy just yet (though, of course, a return to McCann is implied); he broke his vow to be there until death for Betty. But, through the power of vaguely Eastern meditation, he can be there for personal connections in the abstract, and feel a new spiritual connection to humankind, and use it to sell sodas.
It can be a very bleak ending, depending on how you feel about advertising and Don returning to it, and depending how much you think the people making new commitments to be there for each other will actually change. People never changing is, of course, a central theme of the show. But I think the writers want us to think there’s some reason to be hopeful. If Roger can marry an age-appropriate woman and pay child support, anyone is capable of anything!
Not Harry. Harry’s not capable of much.
Peggy and Joan had the respective perfect endings for their characters, and I will not hear a word against either. (That’s not to say I wish they hadn’t kept a more typical Mad Men tone when writing and directing Peggy and Stan’s big scene, and not all of a sudden shifted to the tone of a Julia Roberts movie.)
People criticizing Peggy’s ending for being “un-feminist” or “un-Peggy” because it centered around her love life and not her work life – and there were many such people – drove me insane.
Peggy has never been a person who wants to be single her entire life, or necessarily childless, and certainly not friendless and with no place she fits in at work. She has been a person who’s accepted these things as the price of being a woman with a man’s job, and because she still prefers her job to the alternative. Even if she has to work twice as many hours for half the human connections.
But her self-denial has always been around her personal life, and Joan’s self-denial has always been around her career. Joan’s path has been realizing that what she says she wants – a rich husband, a baby, a house in the countryside – isn’t what excites her. Peggy’s path has been realizing she shouldn’t have to deny everything she wants, and everything about her true self, just to have a job. (I mean, Peggy literally denied she was pregnant for eight months. They weren’t exactly subtle with the message.)
Therefore Peggy gets love and Joan gets a new business. They can have other things, of course, but that’s what hints at forward change for both of them. Rant over.
“Yell at me slower, or in English.”
Don calling Betty ‘Birdie’ in their final phone call pains me deep inside. He hasn’t since they were married, yes?