On Mad Men’s cynical finale

In an early scene in “Person to Person,” the series finale of Mad Men, Joan Holloway tries cocaine for the first time. “I feel like someone just gave me very good news,” she beams, offering an advertising tag. The coke-sniffing detail seemed odd to me at first—perhaps it was another way for the series to signal the end of the sixties, to introduce the next drug, the next product to fuel future decades.

The final moments of “Person to Person,” however, show that the cocaine scene is an early reading rule. Joan’s testimony of the “Good News” comes from artificial inducement. Impermanent, intoxicating, and addictive, the coke here prefigures the Coke at the show’s end. Fittingly, Mad Men ends with a television commercial, the 1971 “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke” Coca-Cola ad.

The ad itself is a genius piece of propaganda: Buy a Coke, become a better person. Not feeling so good? Buy some more Coke. This ad strikes me as a prototypical example of what Slavoj Žižek would critique a few decades later as “the ultimate form of consumerism,” products that allow us “to be a consumerist, without any bad conscience, because the price for the countermeasure, for fighting consumerism, is already included into the price of a commodity.”

What’s the countermeasure, the counterforce then? All those supposed-values of the 1960s, which Don plunders for his career-restoring campaign. He cribs this vision of peace, love, and understanding from the New Age hucksters who are only too happy to take what’s left of our ad man’s money.

Don’s insight comes through a (purposefully facile?) moment of catharsis. In group therapy, a man takes the empty chair that Don’s counselor would have liked Don to fill himself. Don is spared testifying; the stranger will perform in his stead. He tells a story about feeling like a product on a shelf in a fridge, isolated, alienated. The core of his little monologue is about not understanding love, not knowing how to love or be loved. In a rare moment of empathy, Don has his big important cathartic release, and hugs the man, who has reminded Don of what Don already knew, but had been ignoring: People want to feel loved.

Earlier in the season, Don shot down an ad idea that had to do with love — “Love again? We always use that,” he says (or something close to that). But here, disconnected (almost all meaningful conversations in the episode are mediated through telephones), he’s reminded that what people want is touch, the sensation or feeling of love. And he can sell them that: The feeling of the feeling of love. 

Here’s the show’s last moments:

The pat montage ties an unusually neat bow on the series’ major storylines. I’d argue that it’s best read ironically, something of a send-up of our desires, our wish for the characters we “love” to experience “love.”

This ironic reading bears out in light of the notes that punctuate the conclusion. The meditation-leader promises “new lives…a new you,” words that might be used to sell almost anything, from soap to hope. A chime then initiates om meditation, and the series ends with three notes: The chime, a smile on Don’s face, and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy a the World a Coke.” The chime recalls a ringing cash register, and Don’s smile is an epiphany of how to sell love. Matthew Weiner ends his seven season project with an ad, a cynical joke on the audience. I loved it.

Or maybe my ironic reading is wrong. Maybe there isn’t a cynical joke on the audience here. Maybe the simple resolutions were the best Weiner et al could do. Maybe the show is just a really good-looking glossy prime-time soap opera (it is), and like all soap operas it was designed to sell soap.

9 thoughts on “On Mad Men’s cynical finale”

  1. Sadly Don’s storyline was the only one that was coherent in the final episode.

    I think it’s also significant that the dream the stranger has in group therapy is that of himself being a product to be consumed. And it doesn’t sound like a dream, it sounds like a daydream Don would have, one of his “genius” flights of imagination that made him such a great ad man. So his embrace is ambiguous, people want to feel loved, empathy and so on, but here it is a guy just giving him the spark for an idea for a campaign. It echoes the opening scene of the pilot (I think it’s the opening scene, with Don and the waiter talking about Lucky Strike, but I may be wrong about that).


    1. Yeah, the dream/fridge/guy is totally a “product” in that dream, and ultimately the spark for Don’s new idea.

      I thought the other storylines were so cliched in their resolution to be, ultimately, jokes about desire and consumers—sort of a joke on the audience, with the coke ad being the big punchline at the end. Peggy and Stan together is not implausible, but the rush of it—the whole, look, It’s not too late for Peggy!—is a bit silly. (I like how Stan points the audience to realizing that most of the conversations in this ep are over the phone). Peggy also basically marries her Work Husband. The strand I was most disappointed in was Sally’s—Don gets to go to California and have his Jack Kerouac adventure, but Sally’s tethered to domestic life. No Spain for Sally.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a pity Sally got shortchanged, because in one level she is a stand-in for Weiner (who is writing about his parents’ generation), as he would’ve been her age during that time. Sometimes you can even see how they are framing things from Sally’s perspective, and I think it works (it’s no surprise at all that Glen is played by his son, he clearly gets a kick of it). So yeah, the show could’ve done more with her in those final moments.


  2. Thanks for this. I absolutely loved the finale, and think that it balances optimism and cynicism in the most fantastic way. I also enjoy the notion that, to some extent, the American public of the late ’60s-early ’70s are running with the ideals of freedom, creativity, and community that were sold to them by Madison Avenue so many years before. After sending these ideals out into the world, the toys have escaped the toybox, and Don found a way to refresh, re-appropriate and contain them once again. But, whichever way you read it, what a finale!


  3. Waiting for it to come on Netflix…thought though as I’ve read about the last episode that the Coke commercial probably was a perfect ending.


  4. A sudden epiphany for me – Don went straight back to type. The Coke ad at the end was his epiphany and he did exactly what Peggy asked – he did come back to work on Coke. The ad at the end was what he created…


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