It’s been more than a month since anyone at McCann has heard from Don. “He’s in a better place,” says Meredith, wisely noting in her child-savant way that even if he’s not dead, there are many places on earth better than McCann. That “better place” is Utah, en route to California. Sears bag in tow, Don is still on the Milk and Honey Route, traveling west with a bunch of drifters, driving fast cars, and having sex with hookers. Same old Don, different clothes.
His only connection to home is Sally, who can no longer keep Betty’s news a secret. But when she finally breaks it to Don, her biggest worry is about the best living arrangement for her brothers once Betty is gone. Don may be the first adult to recognize that Sally is taking too much responsibility for such grown-up decisions, but Sally has accepted that she has no choice. This tragic and unexpected news shakes Don to the core, so he does what everyone faced with a loved one’s terminal lung cancer diagnosis does: he lights a cigarette.
Betty takes a person-to-person call from Don — the only way he can place calls from the road. Her cancer has progressed in the last month, and though she’s visibly ill, she’s determined that her diagnosis does not disrupt her family (even though everyone knows). And that includes not involving Don in her final arrangements: “I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that.” They both break down on the phone, a deep expression of love and sadness for two people who so rarely show honest emotion.
Joan and Richard are also out of town, living the world-traveler retiree life that Richard envisioned for them. Joan is enjoying the lifestyle — as well as her first snort of cocaine — and Richard urges her to consider leaving New York to devote herself to a life of leisure. She’s tempted, but doesn’t say yes. Back in New York, Ken approaches her, desperately looking for a new film producer. Rather than give the work to another firm, Joan sees a potential business opportunity for herself — and for Peggy.
Peggy, meanwhile, fulfilled her octopus-porn-laden promise of being a badass executive at McCann, fighting for her place and intimidating the hell out of her coworkers. And the scriptwriting job Joan offered her is going so well that Joan proposes they break out on their own and start a production company: “Harris Olson.” (“You need two names to make it sound real.”) After being so poorly treated at McCann, this is Joan’s ideal setup: “We won’t answer to anyone. It’ll be something of ours, with our name on it.” And the promise of power and influence is pretty tempting to Peggy, too.
Peggy discusses the offer with Stan (whose beard has become even more glorious, if that’s possible). His reluctance to fully back a decision in which Peggy leaves McCann puts her on the defensive, turning the conversation into a bitter argument that ends with petty, angry name calling. Hurt and angry, he walks out on her.
While Peggy stews in New York, Don makes his way to LA and to Stephanie’s (Anna Draper’s niece) front door, ostensibly to give Anna Draper’s engagement ring back now that Megan is no longer wearing it. Their fortunes have visibly shifted since their last contact, when Stephanie was a pregnant drifter in need of Don’s help. Though Don tries to take the focus off him, expressing his concern when he finds that her baby is not living with her, she sees right through him: “I appreciate you trying to help me out, but I’m pretty sure you’re the one in trouble.” She offers him the only help she can, taking him with her to the most unlikeliest of places: a spiritual retreat.
Don, with his crossed arms and stony expression, is as uncomfortable as expected in this hippie oasis, and is making everyone else uncomfortable too. When Stephanie gets upset about her life choices during a group therapy session, Don offers her the advice he thinks worked so well for him: “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.” But she knows that’s not the way: “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” In a single, crushing blow, Stephanie rejects Don’s entire life philosophy. And she does it while calling him Dick.
Stephanie runs, taking her car and leaving Don stuck at the retreat for at least a few days. Don is desperate to leave, angry that he can’t, and devastated by the way “people just come and go, and no one says goodbye.”
Don finally calls New York, placing a person-to-person call to Peggy — the one person who has taken his life advice and seemed to thrive because of it. She’s livid that he took off so suddenly, but urges him to come back: “I know you get sick of things and you run, but you can come home….McCann’ll take you back in a second, they’ve done it before. Don’t you want to work on Coke?” Don is scared and is coming to terms with all the crimes he’s committed against himself and his loved ones: “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.” Peggy masterfully talks him down, but his despondent demeanor scares her. Once he tells her he only called because he didn’t say goodbye to her before he left, she’s in full-on panic mode.
Shaken up after this call, Peggy calls Stan. He’s still angry after their previous argument, but in explaining how her prickliness makes him feel, he comes to the heart of his feelings: “All I want to do is be with you. I’m in love with you.” In the most Peggy-like moment that ever was, she talks through her feelings, starting with “I don’t even think about you” (seriously, this girl has no filter), but surprising herself by realizing, “I think I’m in love with you too. I really do.” In a moment worthy of a Meg Ryan rom-com, Peggy realizes there’s no one on the other end of the line, but that’s only because Stan ran up to her office, drunk with love.
Is this fan service? Perhaps. But it’s also a natural ending to one of the most honest relationships on Mad Men, love borne out of years of friendship and struggle between these two strong and opposite personalities. In this moment, Peggy is the anti-Don; she may have taken his advice after having Pete’s baby, but she transcended her situation, rather than struggling against lies and guilt. And she transcended it with the help of the one person who knows her secret because she wanted him to know.
Roger is also in love — with Marie Calvet. In fact, they’re getting married, an announcement he gives Joan with typical Roger humor: “I met her through Megan Draper. She’s old enough to be her mother…in fact, she is her mother.” Joan looks wistful but is truly happy for him: “I guess somebody finally got the timing right.” After all, she also seems to have found her perfect partner.
But she hasn’t. Richard is clearly disappointed that Joan wants to get back into business. He openly worries that it will take her time and energy away from him, and that he’ll be “rooting for [her] to fail” so they can be together. Richard came to terms with Joan’s son, but he can’t accept that her life would be taken up with work, and he walks out on her. A feminist pioneer in her own right, Joan sees no reason why a woman can’t have it all. But to have a chance of having everything she wants, she has to give up a man who promised to give her everything else.
Back at the California retreat, a woman interrupts Don’s near-catatonic state and takes him to a group therapy seminar. Another man’s breakdown over his own feelings of insignificance stirs Don. He hugs the crying man, and cries along with him. He finally gets it. He knows that forgetting the pain doesn’t work, and it’s never worked, no matter how much he’s tried to convince himself that it has. He’s punished himself for his mistakes from the day he became Don Draper, even though he tried to convince himself he was forgetting them. Don thought he had nothing to lose, and he lost more. And once he truly and finally had nothing, he could see that he’s punished himself enough.
Pete and his family head off to Kansas, radiant. Joan owns the Holloway Harris production firm — those are the only two names she needs. Roger is learning French and about to be married. Peggy is at work, where she’s meant to be, with Stan supporting her all the way. Sally is accepting her role as an adult, washing dishes while Betty silently smokes at the table.
And Don…is still at the retreat, meditating. “A new day, new ideas, a new you.” And he’s smiling.
Cut to the iconic “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial, produced in 1971 by McCann Erickson, a perfect blend of hippie idealism and corporate advertising. Did Don return to McCann and make that commercial? And if he did, did he make it with genuine intention, or was he just using a so-called transformational experience to sell soda? Or, does it have nothing to do with Don’s story at all, and is simply Matthew Weiner’s comment on the falseness underlying anything touted as “the real thing”?
We’ll never know for sure, because this delicious and maddening ambiguity is the essence of Mad Men. Don’s life is not wrapped up in a perfect TV bow — it’s not happily ever after, and there’s no dramatic twist where Don becomes a famous fugitive or jumps out of a skyscraper. Nor is his “ending” a morose treatise on man’s inability to change. It’s so much more than that. But it’s so much less too. And it’s exactly right.
What did you think? Let’s keep the conversation going!
Mad Men‘s ambiguity will let us speculate on these characters’ lives forever. Here are a few questions to get started:
- Do you think Don went back to McCann or used the spiritual retreat as a springboard to a new life?
- What became of Roger-Marie? Stan-Peggy? Pete-Trudy?
- Was the rest of Sally’s like really “an adventure,” or did she step into her mother’s role after Betty’s death?
- Were you satisfied with the Mad Men series finale?
- If the Mad Men characters were real people, what would they be doing today?