It ends –or almost ends- with Don Draper sitting in a half-lotus position, doing meditation. An end that made me laugh and cry and laugh about it all again. What did the last three minutes do to you?
Over the last weeks I have tried to figure out how "Mad Men" could possibly end – without finding a good solution. Shortly before the start of the last season I attended a master class with Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, at the Berlinale Talent Campus. Of course he didn’t mention what would happen in the last seven episodes. But he said that he had wanted to satisfy the viewers. The ending should not leave them worrying for the rest of their lives about the future fate of the characters. (Matthew Weiner had been a staff writer for “The Sopranos” for several years before he got “his baby”, Mad Men, done. So somebody in the audience asked if the finale of the Sopranos was what he meant by “satisfying”. A lot concerned murmuring followed this question. After all, the very last moment had Tony Soprano sitting in a restaurant together with his family, and there maybe a bomb in the room that could go off any moment, but doesn't as long as the cameras are on, so the Soprano family stays forever suspended in the limbo, which was almost unbearable for the fans). Weiner laughed and said that he had not been part of the staff anymore when the last season of “The Sopranos” was written, so everybody could relax.)
I had been very excited by the part of Weiners speech in which he had explained what had made “Mad Men” so personal for him and how Don Draper was his alter ego. The interviewer had been quite surprised, because Weiner comes from a wealthy Jewish family, his father is a neurologist, so what dark secret in his past could possibly connect him with Don Draper, who was the child of a whore and an abusive drunk and changed his identity to be accepted by society? Weiner explained that it had actually been his being jewish that had made him feel like he did not belong to the people around him. He also said that it would have been awkward to address this directly in a story and that he had not mentioned this before as being the inner place where the character of Don Draper came from. He thought that most people would have found that pathetic since he had been a rich an privileged kid. So he chose a completely different background for Don Draper, one that would make the viewers understand, that Don was ashamed of who he was. But Dons social alienation and all the minute reactions that came from it where based on Matthew Weiners very private experiences. And he said he was sure that is was that what made the character of Don Draper so believable. He also said that he had freed himself through writing this character. He had been severely depressed as a young man and felt that he had transferred most of this on Don Draper and was now a much happier person. I was fascinated because what he described was what I wanted also, for my writing and for my life.
After this talk I was even more eager to find out how Weiner would do it. If Don Draper was his alter ego, would he rescue him? Or would he throw him down from the roof of the building to get rid of him altogether, like the intro suggests right from the start?
Don’t go on reading if you haven’t seen the episode yet. You will deeply enjoy it, trust me, even more so if you don’t know the truly amazing punchline in advance.
During the final episodes Don had been on a journey to nowhere. He had left his job without saying good bye and was heading south. He had given everything away, first he gave Meagan a check over one million dollars for the divorce, and it was quite clear that there was not much left for him. Then he gave his car to a countryboy that had just tried to steal his money and who clearly reminded him of himself at the same age. He tried to find the waitress he had fallen in love with who had lost her child, but he never found her. In the final episode his daughter tells him on the phone that Betty, his exwife and mother of his children has lung cancer and will die soon. (Somebody HAD to get lung cancer because the very first ad that we saw Don create in the first season- "Lucky Strike- it's toasted" was invented to make people forget that studies about cigarettes creating lung cancer had just appeared. It was always clear that this pistol that lay on the table in the first act would have to kill somebody from the cast in the last act- and it is poor Betsy who got caught).When Don talks to Betsy and offers to come home and care for her and take the boys, she says that all she wants him to do is to stay out of her life for the few month she has left. She wants them to be normal for her kids and normal means without Don. After that he goes to see Stephanie to return Anna’s ring. (Anna, the last connection to his old self Dick Whitman, the widow of the real Don Draper, had died).Stephanie sees that Don has a kind of breakdown and takes him with her to a retreat at a typical esoteric place of the seventies, probably Esalen. But after a confrontation in a therapeutic group she leaves without goodbye and leaves Don without a car in the middle of nowhere surrounded by more or less ridiculous truth searchers. He calls Peggy in New York because, as he says, he realized that he never properly said good bye to her. There it becomes clear, that the deep connection between Don and Peggy many viewers have probably hoped for (I certainly have) will never happen.
From this moment on you get worried that Don might kill himself, and so is Peggy when she puts down the phone. At this point there are only, like, five minutes left. That does not seem enough for a happy ending of any kind. Although you know enough about the structure of such things to see, that this should be the last turning point and if our hero is so deep down now, that means that the end should head in the opposite direction. But how could they do that? There is nobody left who could provide Don with a meaningful happy end, there are one extras around that neither you nor Don have ever seen before. What?!! do you think, in despair, what can happen now?
A woman that leads talking groups sees Don huddled on the ground. She takes him by the hand and drags him into the group. He sinks in a chair, he is finished. The guy who is in charge says whoever wanted to share something should speak up. And you think: ok. So it comes down to a final monolog. And right: Don is about to speak. But another guy is faster, a guy you have never seen before - and now there are only three minutes left. This guy is excessively normal, middle aged, getting bold, a clerk. He says he has no big problems, except that nobody really cares for him. Not even his wife and his children. When he comes home they don’t even look up. Somehow there is nothing real between him and them. You can see that Don is shaken by what he hears. The guy tells a dream: he was stored on a shelf in the refrigerator. It was dark. Then somebody opened the door. He thought: will I be what they are looking for? Will they pick me? And then the door is closed and it gets dark again. He was not the real thing. The guy starts to sob. And Don gets up, does what you have never seen him do before: he goes without hesitation to this guy, takes him in his arms an hugs him. They are both crying.
Next thing is there is group of soul seekers sitting outside the building on the lawn; In the middle of them Don, in a fine half lotus position. Eyes closed. The leader of the meditation intones an “Ommm” and you think: that’s not possible. I know Don. He cannot stand what is going on here. And right: there is a tiny movement in his face that makes you think that he will get up and move out of all this bullshit. But then he opens his mouth and there comes a deep and beautiful “Ooommm”. And you think: they cannot do that! That cannot make him sit in this cheesy self-help surrounding, they cannot have him fold his legs to a brezel and make him sing an ommm and let that be the last thing that you will hear from him. You are on the verge of laughing, of maybe fixing you a drink for this ridiculous last moment; but you are also touched, that you feel that you will soon start to cry. And right then it happens. Don who sits there among all this pathetic but deeply human persons starts to smile, his eyes are still closed, and then an expression of pure bliss floats over his face. And you understand from a place deep inside that what you see t is what Buddhists call sudden supreme enlightenment.
And there the music starts. Cut. A group of young people and a young girl with flowers in her hair starts to sing: “-I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony!” And you understand that this is the end, and you desperately try to form an opinion, you think: that’s impossible! Matthew Weiner can’t do that. And at the same time you start to cry for good. And because you are crying, it takes you, like, five seconds to realize that all those young singers have Coca Cola bottles in their hands. You hear the next line, that says: “I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.” And now it’s time for your sudden revelation: this expression of pure bliss you saw on Dons face appeared when the idea for the Coca Cola commercial suddenly flooded his mind; and there you burst out laughing, and it makes quite a strange sound because you are already crying and this laughter comes on top of your loud sobbing .
The tag line of the song comes up: “Its the real thing”. And it comes to you all at once: that Don Draper had been on a quest for seven seasons searching for an answer to the question, who he really was. And then there was this guy who felt the same: that he was not the real thing. And when Don took him in this arms he understood, that everybody felt that way. That everybody was looking for the real thing. So that’s what he could offer to the whole world: “the real thing” that’s how he would name Coca Cola. He had brought everything together. Like in the amazing scene at the end of season one, where he could use all his daemons about memory and longing for a family for the presentation of a commercial for the Kodak carousel slide projector.
Still crying and laughing at the same time you also get angry now because that seems so cynical. They made fun of you, they draught you into this sentimental journey, just to tell you: “look, stupid, it is not about being one with the universe, it is about advertising ; its capitalism, stupid, so it has to be about Entfremdung” . And you are very angry with Don because he used the deep anxiety of this poor guy and even his dream about the refrigerator and turned it into something, that WAS the real thing in the refrigerator, and that was the Coca Cola bottle. So, you think, he did not really connect with this guy when he took him in his arms. How vicious of them to make you believe this and then turn it around in such a cynical way. But then your feelings change again, or rather they are all there at the same time. Because you actually saw that it was real, you knew what Don felt, because the actor played it truthfully and so it was the truth for Don. It was deeply true - and he used it. And maybe that was not even a betrayal of his inner self, because it was what he does best: using the deepest truth for advertising phony products. And you feel that that is pathetic but it maybe the human condition. And you know for sure, that there was also a possibility for love; although nobody knows what that means. That's what the anonymous guy said in his fantastic and sad monologue: that nobody knew what love was, so nobody could recognize it, not even when it is right befor your eyes. But somehow those folks from Mad Men gave you a glimpse of it. That’s what you came back for every week: to see a guy that was alienated and didn’t know what love is. And you wanted him so so much to find out. And then you felt this possibility- for him, and for you, maybe- but he didn’t get it, not consciously, he used this gift from the universe for advertising, but it was there, and therefore you love him, although he was not real, only a phony character in a television show. And those writers who created this love of yours, they did it for fame and for lots of money and now it’s over, but they also created the feeling that there was the possibility for something else – for Don Draper; for you; in life in general. Because what you felt when you watched this ending, that was IT: THE REAL THING- or wasn't it?