Commentary

Once More Into The Brief, Don Draper

madblogAt the risk of beating a dead finale, I do have a few recent revelations to chew over — straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

Last week, “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner gave a solo, post-series interview to novelist A.M. Homes at the New York Public Library. I was there, stalking him as usual, when he gave the definitive answer: "I have never been clear, and I have always been able to live with ambiguities," he said. "In the abstract, I did think, why not end this show with the greatest commercial ever made?”

So I was wrong: For Weiner, writing this ending wasn’t a cynical act at all. It was quite the opposite, in fact. A former scribe on “The Sopranos,” Weiner decided to do a reverse David Chase: to cut to commercial, which he saw as a way of allowing Don to live, while "The Sopranos" cut to black, implying that, bam, this is Tony’s brain on ice.

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The only hitch for “Mad Men” purists, of course, is the niggling detail that “Hilltop” was a real commercial, created at McCann by Bill Backer, a real ad guy, who is very much alive and kicking. Weiner had never attributed real work, done by a living person, to Don before, and the showrunner didn’t address that aspect when defending his earnest choice. Instead, he said he’d thought the ad was the definition of pure and beautiful, and that “there isn’t enough empathy in the world.”

Talking about how disturbing he found “the cynicism,” he said: “The people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something. Five years before that, black people and white people couldn't even be in an ad together!”

He added: “Unless your heart is made of ice, it’s hard not to react to faces that pure.”

Okay, so we will call a bit of disingenuousness on Weiner’s part. It’s interesting that he mentions ice, which characters often shouted for in Sterling Cooper offices as a palliative to plunk into the gin, to facilitate more manipulation, more hound-dogging and more boozing. If that’s not cynical, what is?

Never mind. The point is, instead of falling from a great height — the implied ending for Don as seen in the regular animated opening — he ascended to the mountaintop. Don was literally turned on his head. That was clever, as was the blocking for the yoga class high above the Pacific in heavenly Big Sur, which matched the blocking of the “Teach the World to Sing” Hilltop group in Italy. Don is wearing white, the color of purity, and beige pants, to blend into the earth. And yes, that meme of the girl at the Esalen desk in the peasant top and ribbons in her hair matched that of the pure-faced, peasant-shirted lip-syncher on the hilltop.

Certainly, there were other clues. Jim Hobart’s speech welcoming the Sterling Cooper partner group to “advertising heaven” seemed merely evil, and just another knock at McCann. But it makes more sense now. Hobart tells the partners they will work on the best, most coveted accounts, and ticks off all the brands. Then he gets to the final one (the finale, if you will) and can’t even use his normal voice, because that would sully the name. Instead, he pronounces the four syllables with a reverential whisper, like it’s a mantra, or the secret meaning of life: “Coca-Cola.”

And indeed, for Don, a fictional character in a fictional show, creating that ad for Coke is the real thing. As Weiner said at the library evening, “Don likes strangers, he likes seducing strangers. That’s what advertising is.”

Don is finally ditching Dick and all his destructive demons and accepting himself as Draper, weird fake identity and all, to do what he’s good at. I’m hopeful, to extend this fictional universe, that once Don returns to New York and a semi-stable life in advertising (after winning every award there is for “Hilltop”), he can be there for his kids.

In an earlier episode this season, when Don was tapped to write that speech about the future, he brings Peggy into his office to pick her brain. She complains that she hasn’t ever gotten a review from Ted. And so Don tells her he’ll do it. When she confides her dream about her work — to make something lasting — he responds: “And you think that you can do that in advertising?”

“This is supposed to be about my job, not the meaning of life,” Peggy spits back.

“So you think those things are unrelated?” Don asks.

So the world did not end in fire, or ice, to paraphrase Robert Frost, but with advertising. D. B. Cooper-believers held out until the very end, and considering that Weiner used a real-life commercial, that wasn’t so farfetched a theory. Others insist that Peggy did the Coke spot. Weiner made clear that it was Don’s concept and he went back and created the ad, but it’s certainly credible to think that Peggy helped.

All in all, it was a pretty great way to bring the show full circle. It wasn’t a terribly artful ending, but it was substantial and satisfying. Or, as Weiner said, it was “a way to have your cake and eat it, too.”

Meanwhile, this whole “Mad Man” edition Mad Blog experience has been exhilarating. Thank you so much, readers — along with the commenters who have added an amazing amount of humor, depth, insight, historical accuracy, and just plain fun into the conversation.

Speaking of which, please humor me through one more "Mad Men" column next week: The world needs more empathy, as Weiner put it. And I think it’s also lacking one last analysis.

32 comments about "Once More Into The Brief, Don Draper".
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  1. Dana Dwinell from D2 Communications, May 28, 2015 at 12:54 p.m.

    Moving on already.  Yawn.

  2. Bob Gassel from NBC Universal, May 28, 2015 at 1:10 p.m.

    I think the conflict a lot of people are having is while overall it was a fitting ending for the "Mad Men" saga, it wasn't a particularly great standalone episode...

  3. Dorothy Crenshaw from Crenshaw Communications, May 28, 2015 at 1:11 p.m.

    I don't know which I'm more bereft about: the end of Mad Men, or the final Mad Blog. Barbara, thank you for adding so much wit and insight to this iconic show; it deepened the experience immeasurably. Please consider tackling another show - the next True Detective? Happyish? (it has an advertising tie, right?)

  4. Bob Shiffrar from Lehman Millet, May 28, 2015 at 1:16 p.m.

    //Weiner had never attributed real work to Don before//

    Not true. Don supposedly created "It's toasted" for Lucky Strike (in the spur of the moment during a client meeting). Obviously, somebody other than fictional Don came up with that. In fact, Lucky Strike was using that line as early as 1917.

    BTW, thanks for all of your wonderful recap work on Mad Men, Barbara. It was a blast to read, and I looked forward to them almost as much as I did the episodes. Compared to most of the other vanilla recaps out there, yours were toasted.

  5. david marks from self, May 28, 2015 at 1:21 p.m.

    Tell you this, when Barbara Lippert writes, and in this case, about Mad Men, I realize how much of what I see, I miss. This is the kind of brilliance that makes me want to watch that finale over and over again, with an eye on all the nuances of Weiner's writing and drama. Great piece, Barbara, as always.

  6. Larry steven Londre from Londre Marketing Consultants, LLC and USC, May 28, 2015 at 1:21 p.m.

    Can't wait till next week's article.  I would look at Matthew's reference to the greatest ad or best spot (commerical) ever...."Adweek," "AdAge" and " TV guide all made Chiat Day's "1984" Apple/Macintosh the best, top spot on their lists. Just for reference.
    Even if Don did go back to McCann (ambiguity) hundreds worked on that Coco-Cola "Hilltop" spot. Let's give the art directors, directors, production house and producers some credit too. Add the client too. 
    All the best. 

  7. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2015 at 1:33 p.m.

    Very true about the hundreds who worked on the Coke ad (and a shout out to art director Harvey Gabor, who updated it for a Google series.) And mea culpa on the "It's Toasted." True dat. 

  8. Steven Threndyle from media tent, May 28, 2015 at 1:36 p.m.

    I have to admit, I did have to think a wee bit about it… seeing the ad at the end of the show was a bit jarring, especially after Don’s beatific (mmmaybe not, more like “ah-ha – I’ve got it!”) smile at the end. I was kinda hoping Don was going to go all zen master on us and take up surfing, but upon reflection, nah, that was never going to happen.

    What the show does, though, is portray America’s ‘new equilibrium’ – the business of advertising may still be done in New York, but its ideas will now come from the coke fuelled culture (Joan: “I feel like I just got good news!”) of California. America is still in a real rough patch, psychologically. As George Bush exhorted people post 9/11 - 'go forth and buy stuff.'


    As we know, Don never really ‘gets’ the Sixties throughout the show, (nor the 70s, he’s really all about the 50s as his dress style suggests) – but then, with his ‘a-ha moment’ at Esalen, he is able to magically synergize the most famous drink in the post war world – and America’s biggest ‘brand export’ – with the fatuous idealism and, as Peggy said - paraphrasing, here, “a slogan (or whatever it was) that everyone will remember…”


     So, in a sense, looking to the future, the Sixties idealism ends with this advertisement. Idealism is co-opted by Don, the great 50s ad icon, to sell more product and make people feel good about themselves for doing so. If that isn't a truly "mad" idea, I don't know what is.


    You know, it’s funny because a couple of weeks ago I was in Vancouver's Gastown and went into John Fluevog and Kit and Ace (Chip Wilson’s new store) and there are HUGE corporate manifestos about self actualization and respect and nurturing, etc. Don’s vision is alive and well today in everything from Nike’s Just Do It to the personal affirmations on the side of a lululemon shopping bag. Consumers are schumucks. Minds can be so easily manipulated. Don Draper, Steve Jobs, Phil Knight, (not to mention Dieter Ramm, and Ram Dass) are high fiving each other as we reach in our wallet for what actually is the most revolutionary consumer product of all time.


    The “priceless” credit card.

    Thanks, as always Barbara, for your witty and trenchant analysis.

  9. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, May 28, 2015 at 1:37 p.m.

    I will add my vote for Barbara Lippert continuing her insightful column for some other show.  It would be a shame to lose connection to this dedicated fan base.  

    Lord knows Happyish could use some explanation.  

  10. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, May 28, 2015 at 1:52 p.m.

    So dead on, Steven T! The quest for change was gone by the early 70s, and the "me generation" thing and self-actualization grew. And that has continued. With few to no answers, except consumerism. Don was a man out of time till Esalen. But I am so grateful that his obvious lack of facial hair and widened ties did not mean that he was already dead, as many people suspected. 

    and thank you, FF. After the next MM-themed blog, I will review Happy-ish. (If I don't stick knitting needles in my eyes from how real-life bleak it is!)

  11. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., May 28, 2015 at 1:55 p.m.

    Thanks, Barbara. I love how people are still disputing the ending that Weiner explained. It's symbolic of how people believe they should ALWAYS get what they want.

    Spoiled children. Wah-wah-wah!


  12. Mark Paul from Mark Paul, May 28, 2015 at 1:55 p.m.

    I also seem to remember that at one point they were working on Samsonite and already had the gorilla concept, although we never saw the final cut, like Hilltop. In fact, the commercial was for American Tourister, via DDB.


  13. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, May 28, 2015 at 2:08 p.m.

    You were not the only one who had the more cynical view of the ending. Despite what Weiner says, I still took away my own cynical meaning (I'm stubborn that way). I'd also dispute his opinion on the greatest commercial of all time. Maybe it's because I'm just a bit younger than the Teach the World generation (by all of 2-3 years), but Mean Joe Greene is #1 in my book (still for Coke).

    As far as shows you should write about next? I'm in favor of "Mad Men, A 6-month Retrospective." I still love the reruns.

  14. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, May 28, 2015 at 2:23 p.m.

    Barbara, a couple of thoughts now that we've spent some time digesting.  1) Bill Backer began his career at McCann in 1953, so by the time this most famous campaign was created, he had been there for some time, not a newcomer.  He wasn't a lifer, however, as he eventually left to co-found Backer & Speilvogel in 1979.

    And 2) I still believe that Don's smile wasn't a cynical one, just a recognition that following his breakdown in the group session and on the phone with Peggy, he had a breakthrough and thanks to the Esalen folks, was finally able to face himself and put his demons to rest.

    My interpretation of Mr. Weiner's decision to end with that spot was satire, intended to demonstrate how advertising eventually co-opts every new cultural development, even the 'peace & love' movement.  Those 'pure faces' were just being used to sell soda pop.

    Thanks again for all of the inspiring thoughts and insights.  They will be missed.

  15. Kate Berg from Collective Bias, May 28, 2015 at 2:36 p.m.

    Barbara, I've recently introduced my 87 year old mother to your blog as a "media-pairing" treat and your analysis and wit brought real value for her (moi aussie) as she often scratched her head at the show and didn't see any depth beyond Don's seemingly unending quest to ahem, score. She was married to an actual 'Mad Man' -- my Dad worked for D'Arcy MacManus Masius Worldwide "back in the day" and she complains about the show's represnetation of the 3 martini lunches and hound-dogging as my father dutifully schlepped home on the 6:10 to New Canaan for 15 years. Martinis (Old Fashions actually) happened upon his arrival home. This is not a documentary I explain, but she's touchy on this point. Funny. Which brings me to my recommendation for your next show (I'm a career tech industry and media gal): what about ....Silicon Valley? Thank you Barbara from the bottom of my binge-watching heart. 

  16. Patrick Scullin from Ames Scullin O'Haire, inc., May 28, 2015 at 2:41 p.m.

    Agree with Kate Berg–– "Silicon Valley" is well worth watching. It has some of the smartest, sharpest writing on TV, and great performances.

  17. Susan Patton from Susan Patton, May 28, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.

    Yes, yes!  HAPPYish!  Barbara, this ad biz Showtime offering (which I LOVE) absolutely needs your wise, witty analyses every week.  The Keebler Elves having sex?  The Geiko Gekko as victim of domestic violence?  Please, Barbara... who is going to explain this stuff if not you??  xox

  18. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, May 28, 2015 at 7:04 p.m.

    Then and now, those "pure" faces creeped me out, as did their cloying apple-trees-and-honey-bees-and-snow-white turtledoves song.  By the time they proclaimed "What the world wants today" (Really? A girl in pigtails presuming to speak for the whole world?), I was glaring at the TV. The commercial doesn't evoke Weiner's empathy in me because I don't feel I share anything with those people on the hillside (despite the facts that I dressed like most of them at the time, had pacifist/humanitarian leanings, and was/am a lifelong Coca Cola/Diet Coke devotee). For me, the Hilltop ad feels fake and late -- one of the most maudlin pieces of let's-exploit-a-trend advertising ever. 

    Betty's imminent death -- and catching some of the earlier MM episides in the marathon -- did make me feel more empathy for her. In fact, I found it interesting that Coke played such an important part in the show on the heels of the episode where we learn that Betty is dying -- Coke (and Hobart) did a lot to hurt Betty back when she thought resurrecting her modeling career via a Coke commercial would be a good thing. Because Hobart used Coca Cola as the lure for Don before, I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised to see the two of them snaking their way through the storyline at the end. 

    Speaking of whom -- who was the real "Hobart" at McCann during the Mad Men years? I've Googled but can't turn up a name.

    P.S. Re: balking at earnest teens telling me "what the world wants today," I admit the contradictioni of being receptive to Dionne Warwick telling me "what the world needs now." I think it was because she was older, presumably had real-life experience with love, and was singing beautiful lyrics that the Coca Cola boys could have taken a lesson from ("Lord, we don't need another mountain").  

    I'll gladly humor you through any number of additional columns, Barbara -- anticipating your takes on things makes me watch closer and listen more, which makes everything better. Plus, you have one of those names-you-don't-hear-anymore, like Ethel, Thelma, Bertha, Mildred, Gladys, Edna, Ida, Doris and Dorothy (!), so I like to help give you visibility so more people consider naming their daughters Barbara. 

  19. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 28, 2015 at 8:01 p.m.

    @ Cynthia, having been there when the 'greatest commercial in TV's history" was aired, none of us saw it as anything more than an image thing, giving everyone a warm, fuzzy sensation. So I agree, it certainly didn't drive Coca Cola sales relative to Pepsi, nor was it meant to. Just my opinion, of course.

    As for the "big guy" at McCann-Erickson, as I recall, it was Marion Harper, the chairman, who was ousted in the early 1970s----after the agency went belly up and had to be reorganized.

  20. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, May 29, 2015 at 1:23 a.m.

    Coke Spot: When it came out I like the song, but the rest was not relatable to me and I was surprised, maybe because the mouthing of the words never matched the music. It looked fake. As to left in a zen den....he was invited and then was left there, left to fend for himself. Stephanie was no Anna and he would not be turning to her again. There was nothing there for him there. In NYC, he had ties and still could hide in the crowd. ....Saved from distruction for another week.

  21. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, May 29, 2015 at 8:39 a.m.

    Marion Harper did have a brief spell in the very late 60s with Ron Rosenfeld and Len Sirowitz before he disappeared to Tulsa, Oklahoma and lived out his life in a little frame house teaching the world not to sing, but to hide out. Interesting bio of him, the creator of the holding company, that I read a while ago and whose title now fades from memory. The first ad they did was for Swissair ("Heidi Lied" full page NY Times) and they never topped it almost like Hoyt Wilhelm hitting a home run in his first major league at bat and then never hitting another one for his next 20 plus years.

  22. Tim McMahon from McMahon Marketing LLC, May 29, 2015 at 9:30 a.m.

    Great. Now give me 25 tags by Monday!

  23. George Parker from Parker Consultants, May 29, 2015 at 6:09 p.m.

    Barbara... Barbara... You have to accept, its over. There will be no more "Mad Men." Yes, you have promised us the ultimate recap next week... But why do I have this nagging feeling that there might be an uber-recap followed by an uber-uber recap? You can get confidential help on this infatuation... I promise not to blow this all over AdScam... For a reasonable fee. I can recomend experts. Then you can assume the "Chair of Mad Man Studies" at Columbia University with my blessing. What more could you ask? Never forget Don Draper is not real... I am...
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  24. George Parker from Parker Consultants, May 29, 2015 at 6:47 p.m.

    Oh... And by the way... Proof that Weiner never worked in the ad biz... The Coke spot was not the world's greatest TV spot... That accolade belongs to the VW "Snow Plow" commercial.

  25. Cynthia Amorese from JAL Enterprises NY, May 29, 2015 at 7:36 p.m.

    A car ad is one of my favorites, too -- the original Nissan commercial with G.I. Joe and Barbie.

  26. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, May 29, 2015 at 8:56 p.m.

    Let's not forget Clara Peller asking, "Where's the beef?" in that famous Wendy's commercial, guys.

  27. Ruth Ayres from Harte-Hanks, May 29, 2015 at 10:27 p.m.

    I'm with George Parker on "Snow Plow". It is the perfect ad.

  28. Jim English from The Met Museum, May 30, 2015 at 11:45 a.m.

    Not a bad ending I suppose, a sweet song with sweet people for a sweet beverage.  "Greatest commercial ever made" though?!  Presumably a hammer-tossing radical promoting a high tech product would not register as strongly on Weiner's consciousness.

  29. Jim English from The Met Museum, May 30, 2015 at 11:45 a.m.

    Not a bad ending I suppose, a sweet song with sweet people for a sweet beverage.  "Greatest commercial ever made" though?!  Presumably a hammer-tossing radical promoting a high tech product would not register as strongly on Weiner's consciousness.

  30. Sharon O'Connell from Green Topaz Productions, May 31, 2015 at 12:42 p.m.

    Provocative, so smart and fun as ever, Barbara. More I think about the ending, it was 'fitting' and disappointing at the same time. It worked but it feels like so much less than Weiner is capable of. I will miss your blog posts as much as the show. On to the next ... ?

  31. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, June 1, 2015 at 8:44 a.m.

    SNOWPLOW CREDITS: David Herzbrun and Paul Wollman, DDB Dusseldorf.

  32. Carolyn Schuk from Santa Clara Weekly, June 1, 2015 at 7:06 p.m.

    Why shouldn't there be many, many reflections? Shakespeare died 500 years ago, but we're still talking about his dramas? As I write there is probably a professor in some endowed chair penning, "Negotiating domains of false consciousness in contested visions of Don Draper's mimetic quest for a postmodern locus of reification within mass market heterosexist artifactualities."

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