After the runaway, viral success of The Intergenerational Report on House Of Cards, associate Austin Mackell asked co-writers Jeff Hewitt and Kenny Laurie whether they wanted to get the band back together and write about the Mad Men finale. Before they could even say, “You’re goddamn right we do – where’s the groupies?” Mackell was off and running, doing the writerly equivalent of getting to the rehearsal studio two hours early by committing his thoughts to paper before the final two episodes had even aired.
Each writer carried out their own investigations into the end of the Mad Men era (19 July 2007 – 17 May 2015), before reporting back to the group. True to ImportantCool methodology (which includes but is not limited to radical journalistic transparency), each writer’s complete findings are available to read as artefacts, the links for which are at the bottom of the page.
Over the course of seven seasons and 92 episodes, Don Draper became an unlikely pop culture icon, a disaffected and depressed 60s ad man for the 21st century. From the very first episode, the Mad Men universe was one in which retro style, slow-burn human drama, and existential angst all converged. By the end Mackell appeared to have tired of it:
It’s still flawlessly executed, but I’m not having any fun…It’s all a bit too real. The company (and therefore the world of the TV series) is being swallowed whole and digested by the ubiquity of corporate America. I’m feeling depressed after I watch an episode. They’ve managed to create exactly the kind of creeping ennui and existential angst that we turn on the TV in large part to escape.
Mackell may have been fed up with it all like Don Draper, but little did he know how prescient he was when he wrote:
Don is drifting into late middle-aged oblivion, becoming a lonely old loser – something added to by the fact we’ve not seen him use his talents once this whole season. This also means an important element of the TV show’s unique experience is missing. The glimpses at how the cultural and commercial world we live in might have been dreamed up were part of the fun. I wanted to see him do Coca-Cola. The mention of that possibility was so far the most exciting part of the series for me. We might have seen our hero slay one last dragon – or fail.
This of course touches on that memorable final scene: the abrupt transition from Don Draper meditating on a hilltop to Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 “hilltop” ad, set to the strains of “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke”.
Both Laurie and Hewitt were quite taken by the final scene, but walked away with different interpretations of what it actually meant. Laurie thought it suggested that Draper got his groove back and reconciled himself with a changing, corporate world:
The simple cut from Don Draper’s face to the advert, that millisecond, did the work of endless boring, difficult scenes of him going back to New York, grovelling, and getting back to work, not to mention all the scenes showing off his new acceptance of his place in the world. Just a superb piece of craftsmanship, as well as a fitting ending.
Hewitt also admired the craftsmanship and thought the ending was fitting, but saw more room for ambiguity within that millisecond:
“That’s the real thing!” the young spruikers sing. It’s a finale rich in irony. Does Don convert his real-world hilltop experience into a phoney marketing one, or are we witnessing a juxtaposition between his embrace of “the real thing” and Coca-Cola’s bullshit peddling thereof? We know thanks to Internet research that the real McCann Erickson made the real Coke ad in 1971, but in the fictional world of Mad Men, did Don Draper have anything to do with it? Having spent most of his life pretending to be someone else and selling bullshit for a living, Don achieves an ambiguous state of grace. He remains a mystery, and what we think or hope happens to him says a lot about our own values and aspirations. Don Draper, like advertising itself, is the abyss we gaze into that also gazes back into us.
A Matthew Weiner interview with the Hollywood Reporter seems to suggest that Laurie could be correct about Draper creating the Coke ad, although Weiner also acknowledges the ambiguity: “I have never been clear, and I have always been able to live with ambiguities. In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made? In terms of what it means to people and everything, I am not ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake. But it was nice to have your cake and eat it too, in terms of what is advertising, who is Don and what is that thing?”
Like the proverbial blind men touching the elephant, our three intrepid reporters provided insights into different aspects of the Mad Men edifice. Mackell pondered what happened to the Ghosts of Mad Men Past, such as Megan Draper, Salvatore Romano, Paul Kinsey, and Michael Ginsberg (all of whom were absent from the final episode), whilst Laurie made some rather somber but plausible observations about the likely futures of the Draper children:
Sally Draper slowly becoming her mother was a depressing thought, particularly for such a rabble rouser. The final scenes of Sally remedying all problems by telling Bobby to go watch TV was all you needed to know about the way Sally’s life will go. Betty still smoking the cigarettes that have already killed her only lends more to the idea that the household is full of people who are addicted to the problem.
Hewitt, meanwhile, attempted to set the world record for Most Pretentious References In A Single Article, comparing Mad Men to a “Shakespearean comedy”, and describing it as “Chekhovian” and “like an Edward Hopper painting come to life”.
Hewitt also highlights the show’s references to Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (seventh season) and Dante’s The Inferno (sixth season), before suggesting that the quintessential Don Draper text could possibly be James Wright’s classic poem, Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota:
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.