For months, AMC has touted the final episodes of Mad Men as “the end of an era” – an ending that coincides with both the figurative end to the fictional 1960s timeline and the literal end of the series. But such a tagline provides more than enough room for failure.
With this show’s Sterling track record and fans’ laundry list of demands that typically accompany a series finale, it’s safe to say the bar was set at an unprecedented level. While I went to bed slightly disappointed and unsure of what to take away from “Person to Person,” I revisited it with fresh eyes and was able to see it for what it was: perfection.
“There are a lot of better places than here,” notes Don’s former secretary, Meredith, during a conversation with Roger. Indeed there are, Meredith. And Don, who has been slowly making that realization himself the past few episodes, has found his better place. However, it turns out his “better place” was also synonymous with his starting point.
Some of television’s best and most interesting characters are those who are deeply, undeniably flawed—Walter White; Tony Soprano; hell, even someone like Michael Scott. There is no question as to whether or not Don Draper falls into that category. To be blunt: Don is fucked up. That’s his mystique. It is part of what makes him memorable.
Mad Men spent seven seasons chronicling Don as he meandered somewhere between happiness and curiosity while laboriously trying to fuel the flames of both extremes. His result became a self-induced purgatory of shame, regret, and guilt. Looking on as Don spent the better half of Season 7B trying to purge himself of those demons, it’s become easier to see, even after all the despicable things we’ve watched him do, what makes him such a redeeming character: He’s still only human.
That humanity is brilliantly apparent as the final minutes of “Person to Person” draw near, when Leonard, a random and completely unknown character, acts as a catalyst for the final stage of Don’s liberation. Leonard, while talking about his family, says, “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; people aren’t giving it to you. And then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.”
It’s in this moment, in an undisclosed location along the coast of California surrounded by hippies, that Don finally witnesses the same thing as viewers. He is observing himself through the scope that he formally reserved for everyone else in his life. He can finally see himself for what he is, inadequacies and all.
Still, as impeccably polished as this finale was, that perfection comes with a price. With each character’s story being “wrapped up” rather neatly—Joan starting her own business, Roger settling down, Don finding contentment—there was one scene that, while charming and clearly serving as a hat tip to fans, felt slightly lazy, if not mildly uncharacteristic. Yes, watching Peggy and Stan finally verbalizing their love for one another was endearing. And, yes, watching Peggy recognize and acknowledge her own feelings in real time was nothing short of magical. But the rest of the process seemed a little too trite, even if it hit its mark overall.
Though the door viewers have had the privilege of peering through the last eight years has finally sounded its last weary creak, knowing that each character’s fictional life continues to play out just outside of our view is something to celebrate all in itself. Ambiguity may not always play the right role when it comes to art, but this time it adequately served its purpose. At least it didn’t just fade to black.