Monday, May 18, 2015

'Mad Men' Series Finale Review: "Person to Person" (Season 7 Episode 14) - "Seems like this could be a chance to build something..."

Mad Men concluded its extraordinary eight-year run tonight with the final episode, “Person to Person,” and for one last time, I have an in-depth review and analysis of the hour. As always, to do this final episode justice, this review contains spoilers, so do not read until you have seen the finale.

Spoilers for “Person to Person” after the jump…

“People just come and go, and no one says Goodbye?”

“I’m sorry. But people are free to come and go as they please.”

Heading into the final episode of Mad Men, that little piece of wisdom the seminar receptionist gives Don was more or less my attitude towards the finale. There are plenty of television shows worthy of having heavy expectations for the ending – Lost, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, etc. – but Mad Men, to me, was never one of them, because it has never been particularly plot-driven, and the journey was always meant to matter so much more than the destination. That is part of what I loved about the series – part of what made it feel so much like a slice of real life. As I wrote last week, all I needed from the finale was a good episode that felt true to what Mad Men was; its legacy was unlikely to be significantly tarnished or meaningfully bolstered by whatever Matthew Weiner devised for the very last installment.

And for a good chunk of the running time of “Person to Person,” I felt the finale did indeed feel good and true to what Mad Men was, but without necessarily doing anything more than that. The last few episodes – “Time & Life,” “Lost Horizon,” and “The Milk and Honey Route” – have been so spectacular, so bold and engaging and satisfying on every level, that Weiner had already, effectively, brought many of these characters to places of closure, and more than anything, much of “Person to Person” simply felt obligatory to me. Peggy standing her ground at McCann to reclaim the Chevalier account is a very nice scene, for instance, but when we saw Peggy march into McCann two weeks ago – cigarette, sunglasses, and octopus fornication painting in tow – I think it was pretty easy to imagine how this scene would play out. The same goes for Sally coming home to visit her family, and taking over the cooking of dinner when it’s clear Bobby is in over her head; it’s a lovely little moment, wonderfully played by Kiernan Shipka and whichever Bobby Draper we’re on at this point, but when we saw Sally enter the kitchen last week and put Gene on her lap, comforting her brothers when her parents could not, a scene like this is only reiterating character moments we already know. Even Don and Betty’s final phone conversation, while a marvelously written and performed scene from all involved – one can palpably sense just how far Betty (unintentionally) sticks the knife in when she says “I want to keep things as normal as possible; And you not being here is part of that” – felt a tad redundant when we had already had the perfect Don and Betty farewell, in the Francis family kitchen, back in “Lost Horizon.” That Don would be heartbroken by the prospect of Betty’s death, that his instinct would be to go back for the kids, and that Betty would feel they were better off elsewhere, is all information we could reasonably extrapolate from what had already been provided.

So I watched much of “Person to Person” unfold, feeling slightly disappointed there was nothing more revelatory going on, but happy to accept that Matthew Weiner simply wanted to underline the ‘closure’ of his series a little more forcefully than I maybe needed. This was not, perhaps, the most artistically satisfying Mad Men conclusion I could imagine, but I never needed that in the first place, and whatever my personal preference, this was good enough.

And then Don reaches a point of lonely desperation in California, and Peggy picks up the phone in New York, and we hear the words “I have a person to person call for Peggy Olson from Donald Draper.”

And all of a sudden, Mad Men kicks right back into its highest possible gear, one last time.

It is hard to describe just how powerful that final conversation between Don and Peggy is, but of course, like many of the great moments over these last few episodes, it lands with the impact it does because it carries the weight of eight years of narrative on its back. Mad Men begins on the day Peggy Olson first starts at Sterling Cooper, and the complex, ever-evolving relationship between her and Don Draper was perhaps the show’s single most important component. More than anything, the simple idea of Don reaching out to Peggy, above all other people in his life, at a moment when he is as emotionally broken as he has ever been, resonates as forcefully possible.

That the ensuing scene is perfect in every way almost feels like a bonus. But it is perfect, because Peggy responds exactly as she would in this moment – with anger, at first, feeling betrayed that her friend and mentor would just up and leave them all without so much as a goodbye – and Don leans on her emotionally in the way he never would with anyone else. And as Don opens up, and spills the contents of his broken heart and soul to Peggy over the phone – and Peggy modulates from anger to worry to reassurance to fear – Mad Men grants us one final, glorious duet between Jon Hamm and Elizabeth Moss. This was not an obligatory scene in a somewhat unnecessary finale – this was a vibrant and heart-wrenching culmination of eight years of storytelling, the kind of scene that will be remembered and spoken of in hushed tones when Mad Men is discussed from this point forward. And as often happened over the years on Mad Men, I found myself writing every word of it down, just to feel this hauntingly beautiful writing move underneath my fingers.

“Don. Come home.”

“I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.”

“Don. Listen to me. What did you ever do that was so bad?”

“I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. Took another man’s name. And made nothing of it.”

“That’s not true.”

“I only called because I…realized I never said goodbye to you.”

I’m tearing up again just looking at those words, and thinking of the scene. Elisabeth Moss is excellent here, obviously, but the moment ultimately belongs to Jon Hamm, who wears the broken, bleeding heart of Don Draper and Dick Whitman on his sleeve as clearly as he ever has before. Over the course of this final season, we have seen Don divested of everything: His wife, his possessions, his apartment, his money, his job, his car, his family…and now, even, whatever sense of self he had left. The man speaking to Peggy on the phone, listing the sins he considers most egregious, is a man broken to his core, an exposed nerve writhing in a pool of grief and guilt that seems impossible to escape from. Like Peggy, we feel sympathetic and scared, watching Don like this. He is at his lowest, and that Peggy is the person he would ultimately confess to – the last human being he believes he has not hurt irreparably – feels both dramatically satisfying and emotionally stinging.

And if that was the only great scene “Person to Person” gave us – hell, if Weiner wanted to end the whole series right there, with Don saying goodbye – that would be enough.

But then he goes and gives us the most swooning, magnificent, utterly romantic sequence in the history of the series, and at this point, I don’t even know what to feel, and have mostly been reduced to an incoherent sniveling wreck.

Between Pete and Trudy reuniting last week and Stan and Peggy confessing their undying love tonight, it turns out there was a secret romantic hiding inside Matthew Weiner all along – and given the splendor of this exchange in particular, I wonder if his next gig should be writing the greatest Hollywood romantic comedy of all time. Because that climactic exchange between Stan and Peggy was simply – forgive me for repeating this word – perfect. Having so much of it take place over the phone, as Stan and Peggy often conversed over the life of the series (and where they were usually at their easiest and most open with one another), was a little stroke of genius. Moreover, the specific way each character winds up admitting their feelings is so true to character it hurts. Stan can only confess love through the lens of awkward frustration, of course – “I don’t know what it is, but when I stand in front of you, I bring out something terrible – and Peggy, brilliant ad-woman that she is, can only talk herself through the logic that brought her to this point. “Because you’re there. And you’re here,” she says, grabbing her heart (and making me sniffle). “And you make everything okay. You always do. No matter what. I mean I must be, because you’re always right. I can’t believe this. I think I’m in love with you too. I really do. Stan, are you there?”

And then he runs in. And if you aren’t completely emotionally overwhelmed at this point, it can only because you are a robot, and are incapable of feeling. Because that. Was. Spectacular.

Again, so much of the power here comes from the years of build-up that brought us to this point. Peggy and Stan never needed to be a couple, I don’t think, but the two had become so close since Stan was introduced in Season 4, and especially through Seasons 6 and 7, when Stan essentially became Peggy’s greatest human anchor, that I have no trouble at all accepting they were meant to be. Stan is attracted to Peggy’s talent, her intelligence, her independence – all those things that have scared other men (Abe, Ted, whoever that pathetic mousy guy she was dating in “The Suitcase” was) away over the years. In turn, she feels safe with him, at ease, like he is the one she can reach out to, no matter what, when she feels emotionally adrift. All of this has been well established over the years, and while all of these individual components do not, as I said, necessarily have to add up to ‘true love,’ I am awfully glad, in the end, that they did.

Because when we get to that climactic montage (scored not to a period-specific song, but to an original piece of series composer David Carbonara music, which felt right), and we build to Peggy, at work, right where she belongs – working, I have to imagine, on the next great ad campaign – with Stan there supporting her, I once again got choked up. Peggy is my favorite character on Mad Men, which shoots her right near the top of my list of favorite fictional characters ever, so seeing her get more or less the perfect ending – professional and personal success and happiness, finally and comfortably intertwined – I felt about as satisfied as possible.

The thing is, most everyone in that final montage gets a happy ending. Pete boards the plane to his new life with Trudy and Tammy, Roger is comfortably together with Marie Calvet (and learning French, no less), and even Joan, who we left in a fairly dark place at the end of “Lost Horizon,” is living the dream by starting her own production agency, answering to no one but herself (which makes the name of her company – Holloway/Harris – so damn perfect I wanted to applaud). There is obviously a certain amount of sadness to where we leave Betty and Sally, but even if Betty is dying, she still gets to go out on her own terms – represented here by sitting at the table and smoking – and while Sally will lose a mother, she also gets to finally inhabit the ‘adult’ role in the family she was always born to play. Whatever happens in the future, we are left knowing that Sally and her siblings will be okay.

All in all, it is an awfully optimistic set of endings for these characters to receive, and yet I would not actively argue even one of them feels ‘wrong’ (I wrote about the complexities of giving Pete a happy ending last week, but the more I think about it, the more I think those complexities are the point).

Given the fundamental optimism of nearly every narrative thread, then, what do we make of the ultimate destination Weiner crafted for Don? And what does this say about the final ‘message’ and worldview of Mad Men as a whole? There is an audacity and density to those final moments I find rather daunting, and I suspect this is an ending that will live with me for a long while, my thoughts on it bound to evolve as the years go by.

For now, though, I think the key again lies in the idea of Don being ‘broken.’ The man who calls Peggy and confesses his sins is not a man with any extant sense of self, and as any of the Eastern spiritual texts his new hippie friends are no doubt reading will tell you, a person must break oneself apart – must find and isolate the core of one’s suffering – before one can rebuild one’s life and identity into something sustainable and satisfying. As scary and dangerous as Don’s breakdown can seem, it is also the healthiest thing in the world for him to be doing. The divestment of all worldly possessions, the cross-country wandering, the emotional breakdown on the phone…all of these pieces are steps in a journey of self-discovery, and what I love about the final minutes of Mad Men is that ultimately, that journey points inwards. Because that is, of course, where Don Draper must look if he ever wishes to stop hurting.

In the seminar, Don hears another man, Leonard, explain why he has come to this retreat. And in this stranger’s mouth Weiner places, in a sense, the philosophical thesis of this show:

“It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. Maybe they do. But I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying. And you don’t even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door, and you see them smiling, and they’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you. And maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”

Of course Don reacts to that. I react to that, and I suspect most people react to that, because that profound sense of wandering and loss and displacement from oneself and one’s surroundings Leonard describes is absolutely fundamental to the human condition. Hence the importance of putting these words in the mouth of a stranger, to underline how universal these sensations – which have been explored so deeply over the life of Mad Men – truly are. Of course Don Draper falls to pieces hearing his innermost anxiety voiced. When he goes to hug Leonard, and let it all come out, I feel like crying too, because there is something so profoundly cathartic about every word, gesture, and moment of that sequence.

In the very last scene, Don sits on a hilltop overlooking the ocean – a symbol, in Mad Men as in all art, of transcendence and rebirth – and meditates with the rest of the group. Following in the optimistic footsteps of every other main character’s ending, we might say this is exactly where Don needs to be. He has broken himself down, divested himself of everything, and is now calmly focused on healing his bruised interior. The question has always been whether or not Don can genuinely heal himself, can earn a fresh start and orient his life in a positive direction, and the answer, here, seems to be the same as it has always been. He can if he is willing to put in the work, and is willing to reach for that happiness within himself. Not through a desperate marriage. Not in the eyes of clients and coworkers. Not through another name, or a new town, or the careful crafting of a new identity. But within himself, by quieting the noise of the world, and trying to discover, deep down in his heart, who this man we call Don Draper and Dick Whitman really is.

And when he looks, he imagines the most iconic Coca-cola ad of all time.

Here is one of those audacious, astonishing, immensely thought-provoking endings I imagine people will be talking about for years. Don Draper breaks himself down completely, settles in to gaze inside his own soul – ready for, as the meditation leader declares, a “new day, new you” – and sees the ad man, once again, dreaming of something more ambitious and iconic than ever before. He attempts one of the purest and most healing experiences of his life, and cannot help but take that experience – of the hippies, of unconditional love, of reaching out ‘person to person’ and offering acceptance – and visualize it as a stirring advertisement for Coca-cola (which is, as the song tells us, "the real thing").

I don’t know if that’s a damning statement, an inspiring ending, neither, or both – but I am quite sure I love it all the same.

The beauty of this ending lies in the ambiguity. Peggy tells Don he can come back to McCann whenever he wants, that they will welcome him with open arms and that he can work with Coca-cola, just like he always wanted. Are we meant to think he will? That he will take what he has learned on the road and at the seminar, return to New York, and march into McCann with the single greatest pitch of his life? And if so, what does that imply for Don Draper’s future? If his heart is truly fixated on advertising – and advertising is, as these final episodes in particular have made clear, toxic – is he then doomed to continue repeating the destructive cycles we saw him engaging in over and over through the life of the series? Or could this actually be the start of a brand-new day for Don, in which he goes back to work, but does so in a way that integrates a purer, better part of himself? Don has always hidden a stealth hippie inside himself. Perhaps by embracing it, in both his personal and professional lives, he can be both the ad man and a good man, as he always wanted to be. Maybe he can take the lessons he learned over the 60s and use it to build a brighter 70s, for himself and the people around him.

Or maybe whatever happens next does not truly matter, because the wondrous ambiguity of that final moment is the point – and that whatever interpretations or conclusions we wish to come to, nothing shall be more powerful than the suggestion itself. Because within that concluding suggestion lies the heart of what Mad Men was. Don Draper meditates, and we see an advertisement, the mediation of personal and social happiness through a product – the core of what advertising is – rising to the forefront at the moment Mad Men says farewell. Whatever that notion implies for Don, or for the human condition in general, is less important than that the notion exists. One of the underlying theses of Mad Men was that a person cannot be viewed independently of their culture – that history, society, media, and more are all fundamental factors in the human experience, part and parcel with what makes a person dynamic and complex. To end with a sequence that quietly and slyly voices this point feels, above all else, right.

Summarizing the impact Mad Men has had over these last eight years – to both myself and to the television landscape at large – is a task too large and immediate to tackle here. And why bother, when the finale itself so perfectly encapsulated, at so many points, much of what I would have to say in the first place? This was the greatest television series to air in my lifetime, one of the most meaningful and impactful works of art I have ever encountered, and one I know I and many others shall cherish and revisit for decades to come. Tonight, in the direct afterglow of the finale, I cannot say where “Person to Person” ranks as a Mad Men episode, or exactly what effect it shall have on this show and its legacy. But for one last time, Matthew Weiner and company made me laugh, made me cry, and most important of all, made me think. The series ended in a fashion that felt as true to itself as possible, as complex and rewarding and thought-provoking as the many terrific hours that preceded it.

The mystery of whether Don Draper will ever find personal fulfillment lives to be debated another day, as it probably should be. As for the question of whether or not Mad Men would ultimately satisfy its viewers? Well, I think we’ve known the answer to that for a long time. Tonight was just the final bit of proof.

Other Thoughts

  • “I translated your speech into pig latin.” “That was a joke.” Oh Meredith. You got one of the best send-offs of all. I think you’ll land on your feet too.
  • Pete’s big farewell did indeed happen last week, but he had one great scene here, in his final exchange with Peggy. I’m so glad they took the time to put a bow on that crucial relationship, and that Pete got to put his best foot forward with her in the end. “Someday, people will brag that they worked with you,” he tells her. “What am I supposed to say to that?” Peggy replies. “I don’t know. No one’s ever said it to me.” Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
  • Also: Harry ends the series waiting by the elevator, a box of pity cookies his only companion. This seems right.
  • I think it feels appropriate that Peggy would stay in advertising for the long-haul, rather than jump ship to be a partner in Joan’s new agency, but I like the suggestions, throughout the finale, that Joan and Peggy shall remain friends – better friends now that one of them is out of the business, in fact, than they ever were under the same roof.
  • It also feels appropriate that, for all the big romantic gestures these last few weeks, Weiner didn’t try convincing us that Bruce Greenwood was the love of Joan’s life. He’s a decent guy, but not the man proactive Joan Harris/Holloway needs, and it is so much more satisfying to see Joan, in the end, married to her work, and presumably kicking ass at it.
  • “Greg had twins with some nurse. As far as he’s concerned, Kevin never happened.” “So he knows?” “No, he’s just a terrible person.” Go. Joan. 
  •  "But you'll be standing there all day. You can thank Charlie Manson for that." And thank you, Mr. Weiner, for trolling those awful Mad Men conspiracy theorists one final time.

And finally, while this marks the end of my week-to-week Mad Men reviews, I have a full week of retrospective coverage planned. Starting tomorrow, there will a four part series counting down my Top 20 favorite episodes of Mad Men, and on Friday (or perhaps Sunday, if I need to push it back), I will publish one final retrospective piece to wrap things up. Mad Men is finished, but it will of course live on, here and elsewhere.

Read all my previous Mad Men reviews and coverage at this link.

Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.

No comments:

Post a Comment