To discuss the series finale of Mad Men , culture editor Todd VanDerWerff will be joined by several of Vox's other writers. Check out the recap for this episode here, and follow the whole discussion here.
Libby Nelson: One of Mad Men's most prominent themes has been its characters' ambiguous relationships with motherhood, particularly in an era when having children was the default for most women.
The Mad Men landscape is littered with mothers who abandon their children, emotionally or literally. Dick Whitman's mother died in childbirth. Roger's daughter, Margaret, left her son with her parents when she took off for the commune, and Roger wrote her out of his will. Diana the waitress left her family, as did the mother of the nameless hippie who reproaches Stephanie at the retreat. Betty Draper never enjoyed motherhood and probably shouldn't have had children. Stan's mother didn't like him very much.
"You shouldn't have been with a lowlife, you shouldn't have gotten pregnant, you should have loved being a mother," Stephanie says halfway through the finale. She's talking about herself, and how she thinks her parents see her.
But it struck me that that statement could have come out of Betty's mouth, or Peggy's. Mad Men is full of lost children, and women who are mothers because it was their biological and cultural destiny, not their choice.
There are exceptions. Trudy Campbell badly wanted a child and appears to be a devoted and happy mother. Joan's decision to have and raise Kevin largely alone underlined a core theme of her character — that it's a good thing she's reliable, because she's surrounded by people who can't be relied upon.
The "shoulds" of motherhood came up earlier this season, too — in Peggy's stunning conversation with Stan about the stage mother she fought with that turned into her admission that she'd had a baby and given him up for adoption. But that scene served a purpose other than reconciling all of the series' ideas about motherhood. It was the conversation that, to me, made a relationship between the two of them seem inevitable.
Peggy and Stan's grand romantic scene felt as if Nora Ephron had dropped by Matthew Weiner's office and slipped a couple of pages into the script behind his back. Stan's confession of love was cheesy and sudden and glorious. It suggested that two complex and difficult people could end up living happily ever after. In other words, it wasn't Mad Men at all.
I am not ashamed to admit that I loved it.
That's not the case with another fan-pleasing moment dangled before viewers in the final hour. If Peggy and Joan had joined to form Harris Olson, it would have really seemed like audience wish fulfillment.
When it comes to actually working together, rather than separately representing different facets of female empowerment in feminism's second wave, Joan and Peggy's track record is rocky at best. (The slightly cloying tone of their post-McCann interactions rang absolutely true to me; absence makes the heart grow fonder.) Going into business together would have been a middle finger to the patriarchy. But it wouldn't have been true to either of their dreams.
And if our last view of Peggy had been of her march into McCann, I would have been fine with that. A romance with Stan seemed heavily foreshadowed enough that we probably didn't need to see it, and the way it unfolded was certainly unsubtle. But for three minutes and 21 seconds, Mad Men gave me a heart-exploding dopamine rush of pure joy. For all that Mad Men likes to depict darkness, realism, and anomie, joy and love are real parts of the human experience, too; I'm okay with the fact that the finale was broad enough to acknowledge that.
Endings tend to cast everything that came before into a different light, and now I'm stringing scenes from the fifth, sixth, and seventh seasons into a conventional Peggy-and-Stan romantic comedy. (It's actually not that hard!) And that brings us to why Mad Men is so difficult to wrap up: these characters don't have one story that comes to a neat conclusion.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," Joan Didion wrote. "We live entirely ... by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the 'ideas' with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria — which is our actual experience."
You don't always know what story you're watching until it's over. We thought we were watching Peggy's professional rise, and we were. But we were also watching a pretty conventional romantic comedy about how she started off hating Stan's guts and eventually realized she was in love with him.
We thought we were watching Don Draper get enlightenment, and we were really watching him get the idea for a Coke ad. We thought we were watching Sally grow up and away from her parents, trying to become anyone but Betty, but in fact we were watching her growing stronger, growing up because she's going to need to grow up.
Nobody has just one story. And like life, Mad Men rarely had a neat plot. We're never going to know everything that happens to these characters. I just know that I'll miss them.
Read the recap, and come back throughout the week for thoughts from other writers.