This is what advertising does.
It takes authentic human experience, moments of genuine emotion or even art, and it turns them into pap. It wrings what is real from them and what is true about them, and it makes them suitable to sell products.
But it can also be beautiful.
Most of us get our advertising via television, and the best TV ads can have, buried deep within them, echoes of that initial emotion, a low-level hum that you don't really understand but respond to nonetheless. Ads keep pushing us back to our basest-level selves — people who long for love or family or connection and don't always find it.
The slickest poison any ad can sell is the idea that by consuming this product, you will become part of a community that wants you, instead of someone sitting, watching TV, all alone.
Don Draper has his authentic experience commodified into an ad
This is what happens to Don Draper. He's spent this whole half-season — this whole season, really — longing for a connection, and then he finally finds it in the middle of a self-help retreat that uses principles of transcendental meditation to attempt to attain inner peace. And then he finds it, with some dude in one of his groups, and in the weird miasma of things swirling around this retreat, he finds not just peace but piece — as in the ad that will presumably make his name all over again.
To Matthew Weiner's credit, "Person to Person" leaves ambiguous whether or not Don came up with the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad that ends the episode (as Eileen Sutton and I predicted last week). Yet the costumes in that ad are present at the retreat, and the man's monologue about feeling like he's stranded on a shelf in a refrigerator directly calls to mind a certain soft drink.
Maybe Don didn't come up with that ad — in our reality, a McCann creative director named Bill Backer did, and Mad Men rarely allows its character to take credit for real advertising ideas — but it's almost as if the atmosphere of the early '70s would have brought it to life sooner or later.
But I think the real ambiguity here is the tenor of that scene. It's a happy ending. Don finds a measure of connection, calm, and peace. "Buy the world" is one of those beautiful ads people remember. And the characters all find ways to move forward with grace and maybe even hope.
But it's also a cynical, despairing ending, another moment of genuine emotion commodified and made into something that can be put on a shelf and sold. Life stumbles on. The moments of truth and beauty you are privy to are quickly made shallow by the imperfections of memory. Comforting a man in his hour of need becomes buying the world a Coke. It's all mixed up together.
"Person to Person" is a beautiful, confounding episode of television. It's my favorite series finale since The Sopranos wrapped with even less closure, but I fully accept that "These characters will probably be okay, but who knows?" is not an answer every TV viewer wants to hear.
What "Person to Person" is really up to is right there in the title. The dissolution that dominated the first part of this set of episodes has given way to the tentative reconstruction of bridges between the characters. Not everyone on this show has experienced dramatic levels of growth, but everybody has experienced some, and this episode wants to underline and highlight that.
It's even present in how the episode is structured.
Almost no scene in this episode involves more than two characters
What's more, when there's a third character present, he or she is almost always dismissed.
Take Caroline, who exits so Roger can send Meredith packing. (Nobody actually thinks he needs two secretaries.)
Or consider young Gene, who leaves so his older siblings can talk about what's really happening with their mother.
Or think, even, of how all the scenes at the retreat ultimately boil down to two people having a conversation — with some reaction shots from other participants thrown in.
"Person to Person" puts in some of the scenes and moments we've been waiting for all half-season, like the conversation where Peggy and Don finally connect at the level they have before (in which she realizes how scared she is for him), or the part where Don doesn't have to tell Betty that he loves her — even after all that's happened — because she just knows. The episode is set around Halloween, and in the background of several scenes are cartoon ghosts, remnants of things past. It's fitting for an episode about finally casting aside what drags you down.
The second half of season seven, then, has been one long denouement, one long process of dissolution that could have given way to entropy but, instead, gave way to those tiny moments when somebody — to quote yet another ad campaign — reaches out and touches someone.
It's in these moments that Matthew Weiner reminds us what matters in life. Other human beings can't be easily placed in boxes and marketed. We can hurt them, or we can build them up.
In short, we can shove ...
Or we can pull closer.
In "Person to Person," when the characters leap out into the unknown, hoping someone is there to catch them, somebody is always there. That hasn't always been true on this show, but the finale wants to let us know that everybody has their own support net.
Peggy, so far as we can tell, didn't quit McCann to go work with Joan, but she knows all of these people who unquestioningly have her back. Betty might be dying, but she has the support of her daughter and both men she has married. She worries her boys will struggle without a woman in their lives, but she shouldn't, because Sally's right there to make sure Bobby knows how to use a frying pan. Roger creates a financial net for the son he can never legally acknowledge as his own. Pete has his family back, and he's headed for Wichita. And on and on.
The deceptive simplicity of this finale
The truth of the matter is that "Person to Person" is one long curtain call.
Much of its emotional resolution centers on Stephanie, a character we haven't seen in a while (and whose connection to the show's core is extremely tentative), and the decision to send Don to the retreat, far away from the heart of things in New York, occasionally seems like one literary gambit too far. (It feels like something that would have happened in one of John Updike's more meandering novels.)
But throughout, Weiner is giving every single one of the show's seven major characters a moment to shine, a moment when you know that if they're not living their best life, they might at least have a chance at doing so. He even does so for some of the minor characters.
Harry and Ken: Okay, yeah, Harry and Ken both end up swallowed up by larger corporate monoliths, but we know enough about the former to know he's probably happiest that way, and the one time we see Ken in this episode, he seems really happy to be building something new at Dow.
Stan: Stan isn't quite at the level of the main seven. He's more on the Megan Draper, "Thank you for dropping by the final few seasons" level. But he still gets one of the biggest, most romantic moments of the series, when he confesses to Peggy that, yeah, he loves her. It was so incredibly cheesy, but Jay R. Ferguson's impassioned performance sold it. I bought it. I bought the hell out of it.
A series of perfect curtain calls
And then you have the big seven, the characters the vast majority of the show's storylines have revolved around, and the characters who have been there from day one.
Roger: The series occasionally struggled to know what to do with Roger, who lacked an organic connection with Peggy to incorporate him into stories with the younger characters in the office. But his final season arc was almost entirely about gaining peace with his mortality, and here, as he committed fully to an age-appropriate woman and began making plans for who would inherit his considerable fortune, he finally seemed to understand that even if the family name dies out with him, his memory can still persist.
Sally: Sally's journey has always been marked by how she has to grow up in a hurry. It's been true since she was driving around her grandfather in season three (the first season where it felt like the show realized what it had in young actress Kiernan Shipka). Here, though, she finally gets both of her parents to acknowledge just how capable — and awesome — she is, and her simple act of kindness in helping Bobby learn how to cook indicates that her brothers will be just fine, too. I like to think Don will be a part of his kids' lives again once he's back from California, but if not, the boys will be just fine with their older sister around.
Betty: Betty's big curtain call was last week, when she decided she would die on her own terms. But in this episode, she has an early scene where she forces Don (on one of the person-to-person calls that names the episode) to not sully her last handful of months with fighting over the future of their children. She shames him, yes, but she also shares that lovely moment where so much that could have been, if only they were different people, passes between them.
Joan: You knew Joan couldn't stay away from the working world forever. After an extended vacation to Florida with Richard (during which she takes cocaine — a fun little foreshadowing of "coke," as well as a subtle nod to where American culture was heading), she learns from Ken that Dow needs someone to produce its industrial films. It's not much, but she leaps at the opportunity to start her own production company, and even if Peggy doesn't jump at the chance, she's finally out on her own and moving forward into the future.
Pete: So much of Pete's ending was also written last week (when he reconciled with Trudy and took the job in Wichita), but it's worth pointing out that he gets two small moments that show how much he's changed in this episode. First, he is gracious and kind with Peggy, someone with whom his relationship curdled long ago, finally admitting just how jealous he is of how effortlessly people seem to like her.
And then, he leaves New York. He actually gets on the jet and leaves. So much of his life has been about trying to find meaning in being part of the city's circulatory system, but now he will be able to define his own meaning somewhere else, somewhere out West. Sometimes on this show, the only way to find yourself is to escape where you are. Pete finally figured that out.
Peggy: Peggy's hardest to get a bead on, because it's easy enough to assume that no matter what she chooses to do, she's going to be just fine. She's Peggy Olson! It's tempting to read this season, with its frequent "almost" love connections between her and various suitors, as a strained attempt to force the character into couplehood. When it finally happens with Stan, it could feel a little sour.
But Peggy's the one who ties this episode together — literally, when the sound of her tapping keyboard underscores the final montage. She's the one who finally gets Don to realize how far he's gone and maybe even pull him back from the brink, at least a little. She realizes, finally, how similar she and Joan are. And she overcomes her own reticence to admit to Stan what he means to her. Of all the characters on the show, I'm least worried about Peggy. "Person to Person" suggests I'm right to not be afraid.
Don: Don spends most of the episode being called Dick. Don spends most of the episode seemingly on the edge of suicide. And then Don hears something in another man's words, something that finally pulls him out of his shell and makes him realize he can help others simply by caring about them, by being there. This is the second episode in a row to end with Don smiling, but as Weiner zooms in on his face, we get a sense of what might be behind that smile, the idea that comes to life in that moment.
Imagine, for a moment, a whole show about Leonard, the man whom Don comforts, a show where Leonard drifts through a whole decade feeling like he is ignored, unnoticed, slowly coming apart. That is, in some ways, the story of Don, but this is not a man who possesses Don's glamour and suave handsomeness. He is, instead, just some guy, out on the edges of life, waiting for things to make sense.
The genius of Mad Men is in how it suggests that everybody is that way, no matter how much they seem like they have it together. Don Draper's central flaw — that he constructs a Don Draper suit that he thinks covers up his bruised, aching Dick Whitman self — is the flaw all of us share. We all suspect people can see our worst selves, that they might push us away if they found out who we really are.
There are millions of stories just like this, behind the locked doors of houses we pass on late-night walks, sitting in the cars we find ourselves idling beside on the freeway. This is a big planet and a big country, filled with so many people and so many stories, but, really, one story — that of searching, endlessly, for someone who will see us and understand us and know us and not look away.
Please leave your thoughts in comments. I'll be checking in all day long.
It's a special occasion, so instead of the usual 90-minute chat, I'll be dropping in throughout the day when I'm not doing other things. Please, please, please send me your thoughts.
Whether you first read me here, or at The A.V. Club, or at The House Next Door, or at (God forbid) my old personal blog, talking about this show with all of you has been a genuine pleasure. I look forward to one last week.