Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t finished Mad Men, read no further.
When I was a young man I used to go to sacrilegious shows and entertainments. I watched the antics of madmen.
~Augustine, The City of God, 2.4
It’s been several weeks since the finale of Mad Men, and the consensus is generally positive: creator and director Matthew Weiner found a way to end the series that has kept people guessing. What has surprised me, however, is that many critics have understood the final episode, “Person to Person,” as largely optimistic in tone, a kind of fitting fulfillment wherein each character “grows” personally in some important way. Take, for instance, Eric Deggans at NPR who calls the final episode “A Love Letter to Fans Filled with Mostly Happy Endings.” Joan becomes her own boss, Peggy finds love, Roger hooks up with a woman his own age, and Don invents one of the most iconic ad shorts from the 1970s. While there certainly is a kind of feel-good vibe in this episode, the vibe seems almost too good to be true. Knowing how good Weiner is with irony and dark humor, the fact that I feel like I’m watching a clip from Love Actually during that final montage makes me wary of agreeing with these positive assessments.
It is precisely the overstated, “happy” nature of this final episode that gives me pause and suggests that most of the critics, in fact, have got it wrong. In this short reflection, I want to propose an alternative, pessimistic (if admittedly playfully overstated) reading, dedicated to St. Augustine’s City of God.
The final episode of Mad Men, despite all appearances, emphatically offers an unhappy ending, part and parcel with the series’ predominant darkness. It is a dirge for America, imbued with a robust, conservative pessimism (“Bye, bye Miss American pie,” Don McLean, 1971 = so long, Betty Draper). Despite appearances to the contrary, the old (wo)man remains intractably sinful, the novus ordo rerum reincarnates a Capitalist Babylon presided over by an ad-(wo)man clergy (the Peter, Paul, and Mary cover of “Oh Sinner Man” concluding the episode “Babylon” drove home this point), and in the final verdict, even after the 1960s, no one has really changed (here, Deggans is right, regarding the race question: but Weiner intends this too).
To prosecute this late Augustinian reading of Mad Men’s cathartic exeunt, I want to briefly rehearse two more reviews of the final episode, the first by Fr. James Martin, S.J., at America, and the other by Emily Nussbaum, at The New Yorker. Fr. Martin’s assessment is perhaps a more nuanced version of Deggans’s positive read. While Don, lamentably, does not end up on a Jesuit retreat, in the end, Fr. Martin concludes “those tears were real.” Don Draper’s Nirvana, while not a full Catholic conversion, nonetheless functions positively to lead the show’s central character down the road toward redemption. Writes Martin:
Don Draper will become what he is: an ad man and a good one. And thanks to his time on the road, and on retreat, someone who knows a little bit more about love and being loved. And that’s not such a bad ending for a person after all.
While Martin’s reading has a certain appeal, I remain unconvinced. Viewed in light of the show’s earlier positive depictions of the thick religion of New York Roman Catholicism and Judaism, Don’s “settling” for West Coast spiritualism represents a underachievement. Not all tears, moreover, are tears of contrition. The damned also have their tears, and, when the Son of Man comes, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Two other moments shore up this reading. First, in an earlier series, before Don and Betty divorce, Don has a baptismal experience in the same Californian waves. He speaks person to person to the real Anna Draper as Dick Whitman about his love for Betty and his desire to kick his adulterous addiction. If California is Don’s spiritual homeland (or Neverland), this was his Augustinian moment of confession. His “person-to-person” confession to Peggy over the phone in the show’s finale is only a pale echo of the earlier scene, which sees Don in a suicidal frenzy, now permanently attached to his false identity.
A second shot in the finale subtly confirms this: at the cusp of his breakthrough, we see Don silhouetted against the California waves and the setting sun. The scene paints “Draper,” the man of many veils, disguises, and ruses, as a kind of homecoming Odysseus. But in Dante’s Catholic vision, Ulysses haunts the Inferno.
If Fr. Martin’s reading of Mad Men’s finale misses too much of Weiner’s irony, Emily Nussbaum’s assessment sounds a more resonant chord. Refusing to be taken in by Don’s apparent enlightenment, Nussbaum sees through the drapery:
What appeared to be Buddhist meditation was an advertising brainstorm. What looked like hippie revelation, punctuated by a yogi saying, “A new day, new ideas, a new you,” was Don tapping into the seventies Zeitgeist, hitting on the genius tagline that he would present to his new bosses, the cretinous advertising conglomerate McCann Erickson (who in real life actually did create the Coke ad, although not under these circumstances). In tension with Don’s supposed personal growth was perhaps the most cynical vision imaginable: our hero had hit on a way to sell sugar water by linking it with global peace.
This is a better assessment. Don’s smile is not Nirvana, but the glee of a crack addict who has unexpectedly stumbled upon a bag of abandoned coke (pun intended). Instead of the resurrection of Dick Whitman (the final season began on Easter Sunday), we are greeted with the reincarnation of Donald Draper, an ad-man for a new decade now donning the shoeless atheistic nihilism of his capitalist Moses and mentor, Bert(ram!) Cooper. The old man remains unregenerate, unable to stop cannibalizing his own life for the sake of selling the next “real thing.”
Of course for Nussbaum, Mad Men does not suggest that all change is impossible. Many of the people around Don, in her assessment, do seem to make progress: “They’re stronger, clearer, and also more ethical. Their relationships are authentic.” One senses that the show’s general disdain for the faults of the ’60s really does in a certain sense celebrate the dawn of the ’70s: Lucky Strike tobacco gives way to caffeinated Coca-Cola — a far less toxic addiction.
Perhaps Nussbaum has captured the nuanced picture Weiner was aiming to depict. Life does often move both backwards and forwards at once, God writes straight with crooked lines, and sin and sanctification are seldom fully extricated from one another, like wheat and tares.
However, thanks to Weiner’s understated narrative craftsmanship, even Nussbaum’s evaluation remains debatable. For the sake of argument, I’d like to suggest an even more pessimistic reading. In his last episode, Weiner capitalizes on the ironic momentum of the series to suggest that in fact, no one has changed, nothing is redeemed. If we think otherwise, we’ve fallen victim to Mad Men’s own thinly veiled presentation of the seductive allure of unmitigated power and moral ambivalence. In the end there can be no middle space between the City of God and the city of the world.
To prosecute this case, I suggest the following three theses. I do not suspect that each will be equally compelling, nor can I be sure that Weiner himself intended any of this — then again, sometimes our art gets away from us and takes on a life of its own.
Contrary to many assessments, the final montage suggests that no one has changed. It does not contain a series of happy endings, but an absurdist parody of the optimism of romantic comedies and the American watching public (which fails to recognize this). Don is reincarnated as the new shoeless Bert Cooper — Dick Whitman remains unresurrected in the tomb; Joan becomes a new Roger Sterling, unable to give herself to family and love; Pete Campbell’s reunion with Trudy is a parody of the marriage he owed Peggy; Peggy doesn’t really fight the system, but becomes the new Don and marries her secretary; Roger is clearly still Roger; Betty Draper is still smoking; Ken Cosgrove fails to write Mad Men. Matt Weiner’s final surprise is that Mad Men’s storyline is not linear and apocalyptic, culminating in resurrection (the common hope of Jews and Catholics), but anticlimactic and circular (“Carousel”), the revolution of selfishness and its repercussions, the visiting of the sins of the parents on their children and their children’s children.
Coke will be Sally Draper’s Tobacco. What definitively unveils the final montage’s utter pessimism is the one clip which isn’t, on the surface, happy: the image of Betty Draper, dressed in blue, smoking at the kitchen table while Sally, who has apparently dropped out of school, washes the dishes. This is perhaps the most important clip on the carousel because Betty, while an imperfect, unvirgin mother, is still the closest the series comes to a protagonist. She is the scapegoat upon whose head all the sins of Madison Avenue fall. Contrary to all narratives of progress, moreover, things don’t look any brighter for Sally — while she won’t likely be addicted to tobacco, she will be addicted to Coca Cola (teen drug use in the 80s and 90s isn’t far from the horizon either) — the drug of the boomer generation, which brings with it a new host of plagues ranging from obesity to diabetes. Sally will not have a “successful” career (like Joan) because she will not sacrifice her family. She will be as emotionally frustrated as Betty as she recognizes her unfulfilled promise. If anyone could write Mad Men other than Matthew Weiner, it is Sally Draper — or perhaps, even more autobiographically, Glen Bishop.
It’s all about addiction. What the series finale shows, then, is that everyone — and I suspect the folks over at Mockingbird will like this reading — everyone is an addict. The scene with Joan sniffing crack confirms this. Is it too much of a stretch to wonder whether Mad Men wants us to recognize ourselves in the erstwhile members of Sterling Cooper Draper Price? Mad women and mad men, there is not one righteous (Rom 3:10). Mad Men thus confronts us with the reality of our various addictions (particularly the “benign” kinds, like workaholism) and asks us to consider the destructive wake they leave on our people at home. In the end, there is no alternative to the city of the world but the City of God, no alternative to Babylon but Jerusalem. The repair of the world will not happen gradually, making space for psychiatric self-fulfillment, but through the self-sacrifice of real persons who lay down their lives for their friends. This is precisely the kind of conclusion that Mad Men does not offer—and that, to good rhetorical effect.
The featured image is “Coke bottles” (2006) by Lawrence Whittemore. It is licensed under Creative Commons.