Thoughts on the ending of Mad Men

I finally finished Man Men last night. It’s been a long time putting it off, but quarantines will do this to you. This post is going to be written in a fast and loose style, and will not be about theories about the ending. Rather, I’m going to focus on my reaction to the ending and where it took my thoughts.

It is a show that ended almost five years ago, but you know, spoilers ahead.

Ideas get jumbled. This is always a by-product of having thoughts and being human. We also focus a lot of attention on ourselves. So it’s no wonder that we imagine better versions of ourselves than exist in reality. We bend events in our heads so that we are right and they are wrong, that nothing could have happened any other way and we ought to be absolved of our sins. This is most clearly elucidated by Akira Kurosawa in his landmark film Rashomon.

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing… Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem.

Akira Kurosawa, Something Like an Autobiography, pg. 183

But this self-aggrandizing attitude is also true in it’s corollary form: self effacement. We imagine that the bad things that happened to us were our fault and out fault alone, that we are victims of past circumstances, that we are irredeemable, lacking, and unworthy of love and connection.

Don Draper is a character who has embodied both of these characteristics to the utmost. He is a slovenly drunk who self-medicates in the worst ways possible, and then yells at the people he is closest to in life (usually the women) and berates them for not living up to his standards.

But he also breaks down in his quieter moments, trapped in doubt and self-pity when he is unable to confront the traumas of his past. He was a child bereft of parental figures, whose first real mother-figure molested him while nursing him back to health. In the early seasons of the show, he makes Betty go to therapy while he does not dare subject himself to the same kind of introspective examination.

I knew essentially what the ending of Mad Men was years ago, before I even started watching it in earnest – my mother told me about it. And my mom is not a person who watches a lot of shows, let alone prestige television. Her latest rave is Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, an Australian crime drama period piece with “really great hats.” So I was intrigued when she couldn’t stop herself from explaining to me what she got out of the ending of Mad Men. The famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial was, in my mother’s words, one of the most powerful ads on television in its day. She remembered it being everywhere, and everyone talking about it. This was also noteworthy because my mom was rarely, if ever, an avid television watcher in her twenties. This commercial captured something so powerful about an entire generation coming out of the sixties.

I never looked it up at the time, but my context for the Hilltop Ad was the “remix” that Coke made in the 90’s. It featured all the people from around the world, now 20 years older, gathering on the same hilltop, with children running into the open arms of their parents… while enjoying a fresh glass of sugar-water. I remember it because the song was catchy, and the slogan stuck with me: “Can’t Beat the Real Thing.”

Only that wasn’t the slogan. The slogan in the 90’s commercial was “Can’t Beat the Feeling.” The slogan for the 70’s commercial was “It’s the Real Thing.” It’s the Real Thing vs. Can’t Beat the Feeling. These slogans jumbled together in my mind. And it gives me goosebumps, imagining it the way it was in my head, with the melody jingle playing underneath it. The urge to re-imagine things better than they were is ever-present.

These slogans, even the imagined ones, are a way of Coca-Cola rooting for itself against its competition. But it’s also a truth of life. You can’t beat the real thing, because people have an instinct and recognize what is false, eventually.

This is Don’s search. He’s an Ad man. He has lived his life in the pursuit of gaining strangers’ acceptance and validation. But strangers can eventually become friends, even family. And the more you get to know people, the less strange and mysterious they become. The more they can disappoint you with the reality of their humanity. And if you are forced to look inward, the more you may find yourself lacking in contrast to your own self-image. This is why he always creates ads showing off the ideal American life, full of pleasure and promise.

Try as he might to outrun it, Don can’t escape his own pained yearning for the Truth, with a capitol T. Although he runs from it, he can’t help but look inside. He needs to know, as a young hippie says in an earlier episode, “if anyone loves him.”

In the final moments of the last episode, Don has finally taken a chance to be introspective. Amongst strangers, he finds solace. Silent in the crowd, he looks into himself and sees what he really wants. He wants connection, validation and love without needing to look over his own shoulders. And what does he do with it? He makes a piece of art. He makes an ad. One that doesn’t recreate the old tropes of what an ideal American life was, but what a new world of connection between the whole world could be. A world as we all secretly want it to be.

And that’s what Mad Men captures so brilliantly. The search, and acquisition, of truly understanding yourself, with all your inadequacies, battle scars, sins and imperfections. The search is bitter, but the reward is sweet. Because when you can finally see yourself, you can finally see the world as it is. That’s true. That’s real.

And you can’t beat the real thing.©