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Mad Men earned all those happy endings

Joan's happy ending felt simultaneously well-earned and surprising.
Joan's happy ending felt simultaneously well-earned and surprising.

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.

Amanda Taub: Mad Men is over. I laughed. I cried. I googled "hotels in Big Sur how much to go to one right now."

Libby, I had a very similar reaction to yours while watching this episode. Having seen all of these characters struggle for so long, I was happy to leave them in moments of happiness.

On another show, that happiness might have felt like fan service. But on this one it didn't. We've seen all of these characters have moments of triumph in the past, only to squander them or see them snatched away. We know all too well that this could all be temporary.

Peggy's relationship with Stan could splinter, devastating her personally and professionally. Joan's business could fail. Pete will probably find a way to ruin his marriage again. Roger has chosen an appropriate partner, but hasn't necessarily learned how to be one. And Don has always struggled to hang on to his California clarity once back in New York.

But at the same time, all of the characters' happiness felt like it had a weight to it that we hadn't seen before — an earned stability that might at least make these moments last a little longer.

Why Joan and Peggy's happiness might last

Joan's arc was especially pleasing, because it was simultaneously well-earned and surprising. Her production company plays to her strengths extraordinarily well. This is the rare happy version of a "people never change" arc on Mad Men, because Joan has always been able to manage people and tasks with effortless ease. Remember "Shut the Door, Have a Seat," when everyone else was sitting around trying to figure out how to sneak off to found their new agency, until Joan marched in, announced that she had made a list and hired movers, and got the show on the road? Of course this is a woman who can start a business.

Joan hasn't changed, but the world around her has — whereas once her competence at reviewing TV scripts created a job for a man to replace her, now her competence at management is creating a business niche for her to dominate. That's the surprise — the world may not have changed enough to get rid of creeps like Ferg Donnelly, but it has changed just enough to let Joan run circles around them. (#TeamHollowayHarris)

That's thrilling to see. But the show has spent years laying the groundwork for this development. That means it doesn't feel like an unearned happy ending, it feels like an earned moment of optimism.

And in the end, that's what I want for these characters. I don't need to see Peggy have it all, but it was a joy to see her love someone who not only loves her for the things she herself values most, but also knows her deepest secret: that she got pregnant, secretly gave birth, and gave the baby up for adoption.

Don's inability to confront his past destroyed his relationships with the people he loved, over and over again. But Peggy's new relationship won't be tainted by the original sins of secrecy or shame. That might not be enough to make the relationship last, but it is enough to make it significant in her life now, and that still matters.

Even Don's contentment might last

And what about Don? Last week I said that I was skeptical that he would reach his happy ending, because he seemed to be committing Mad Men's "ultimate sin": a refusal to change with changing times. The 1960s persona he had created was out of step with the 1970s, and his road trip seemed to be taking him back in time, not forward. And for most of the finale, he clung resolutely to the past: even when he arrives at the institute in Big Sur with Stephanie, he's dressed in a slim '60s-style polo shirt and slacks. He looks totally old-fashioned even compared to ordinary people from the 1970s, and completely at odds with the hippies surrounding him at the retreat.

But it turned out that the happy ending reached him, despite his best efforts to evade it. He hits rock bottom and reveals his worst secrets to Peggy, but when he gets to the final, worst sin on his list — that he stole another man's name and made nothing of it — Peggy tells him with quiet certainty that that's not true. And it isn't. Don may be a terrible father and husband, and a deeply unreliable colleague, but that doesn't mean he has made nothing of his life. Peggy's own career is a testament to that, as is Sally's calm maturity in a time of crisis. And so is Don's own work: turning an act of consumption into an act of love may literally cheapen love, but it also makes it more accessible. That's not nothing. It's powerful.

And that seems to be the thing Don finally realizes during that last group session. Much has been made of the fact that Don breaks down and embraces milquetoast office worker Leonard after he compares himself to a product in a refrigerator. But in watching the scene, the moment Don actually reacts to is when Leonard talks about how desperate he is to feel loved, and his realization that he is loved, he just isn't able to recognize it.

Leonard explains that he fears "no one cares that I'm gone," and the camera cuts to Don, who feels this so deeply that he physically jerks, as if he has been shocked.

Mad Men

Don recoils when he hears Leonard describe his emotions. (AMC)

And then Leonard goes on, giving voice to a perfect encapsulation of Don's true problem, the real reason he "only likes the beginning of things," the real reason he's always searching for something new that will satisfy his craving:

They should love me. Maybe they do. But I don't even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking that you're not getting it. That people aren't giving it to you. ... And then you realize, they're trying. And you don't even know what it is.

Like the other characters' happy final moments, Don's realization in the session feels grounded in the show's history. No one can accuse Mad Men of being subtle with its themes, so anyone who has seen the show knows Don is always searching for love and approval but cannot appreciate it when he gets it. And the show has also made clear that he wants this road trip to be a new moment of reinvention, a way to shed the trappings of the "Don Draper" character that has become such a burden for him.

But it's also surprising to see Don realize just how much of "Don Draper" is real, not a construct. Megan once told him that "nobody loves Dick Whitman, but everybody loves Don Draper," and he angrily dismissed her. But now, in the end, he is realizing how true that was: Don Draper has people in his life who love him, and have been saying so, but he hasn't been listening.

And the real Don Draper is an ad man. As it turns out, when Don searches deep inside his soul, he finds a Coca-Cola ad. The world has given him a revelation that has brought him peace. In return, he wants to buy it a Coke.

Read the recap, and come back throughout the week for thoughts from other writers.

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