Showrunner Matt Weiner always had a thing about the opening and closing of doors (elevator doors especially.) And in the finale, poor, suffering everyman Leonard describes his feelings of being invisible: He’s just a product sitting on a shelf inside an unlit refrigerator, going unnoticed when his family opens the door. That reference was what finally got Don to break down and embrace Leonard — and for Don to feel his own grief.
It could also be a reference to a Coke can, which led to the Coke commercial finale — which, as time goes by, feels flatter and more fizzled. It’s a one-size-fits all insta-answer, literally a “commercial” way of exchanging one flawed belief system for another.
But also, from Weiner’s point of view, the entire seventh season of “Mad Men” was a product “sitting in the can” on a shelf, unseen since last October because of AMC’s unpopular decision to split the ending into two half seasons. Was Weiner also working out his own anger issues with parental units AMC and Lionsgate over season after season of fights, slashed budgets and unnecessary hiatuses, when he and the cast were also sitting unseen?
With “mad” in the name, MM is probably the most densely psychological TV series ever created. Unlike Tony Soprano, Don never had a Dr. Melfi to open up to, although he did have plenty of anger issues. He couldn’t even look in a mirror, because he was hiding so much of himself. But he did spend a lot of time on the couch in his office.
And the show in essence allowed us all time on the couch. It offered a mirror into the country’s mass parental issues, mostly probing feelings of loss, isolation and abandonment, which are painful to analyze in the light.
How many MM mothers abandoned their children? Let us count a few: Don’s sad whore mom (due to death, just as Betty will be doing); Peggy; Anna Draper’s niece, Stephanie; Roger’s daughter Margaret/Marigold; and Diana the glum waitress. And if you recall in an early season, Duck abandoned his dog in the middle of Manhattan.
In reading about what would have been Marilyn Monroe’s 89th birthday this week, it struck me that she and Don were about the same age — and endured similarly horrific childhoods, the pain of which they kept reliving. Just like Don’s Kodak Carousel presentation, this is indeed the pain from “an old wound…a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.”
Norma Jean was put in an orphanage at age seven by her paranoid schizophrenic mother and afterwards, moved around from foster home to foster home, resulting in a sketchy background and education, just like Don’s. At age 16, she used marriage as her army experience — a chance to take on a new identity. And they both changed their names: DD and MM (like “Mad Men.”)
Because it was an ad pitch, Don could end the Carousel presentation with: “It takes us round and round and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” But in life, Norma Jean never had that place, and neither did Don. The slides of the perfect Kodak moments he showed from his home with Betty and the kids were false advertising, as the family was already split. Loathsome media guy Harry Crane had to run out of the room after seeing those pictures, faced with his own real-life hypocrisy since leaving his wife.
Although Don was great at making shit up and selling it, in the end, he was forced to see that his own lines he’d repeated to Peggy and Stephanie — “this never happened” and that it’s easy to “move forward” — were a bunch of crap. Don was a prisoner of his past, and continued to hurt others with his binge-cycles and disappearing acts.
But the woman in the Esalen “rap” group offered Stephanie the definitive answer on abandoned children: “That child will spend the rest of his life staring at the door, waiting for you to walk in.” So Stephanie had to run out of the room (just as Harry did) because she was facing her own hypocrisy in believing her kid was better off without her.
I thought the best season-ender of the entire series came in Season 5, during the visually stunning tracking shot showing Don walking out of the frame of the set of Megan’s commercial, and ending up in a bar, where an attractive woman asks, “Are you alone?”
That’s an existential question that can be seen on many levels. Don couldn’t really answer at that point, and wrestled with it for a few more seasons. The only real resolution or catharsis that Weiner gave us was in the form of a Burger Chef campaign: “Imagine a place away from the TV, where you can be a family.”
Yet, during one of his interviews, Weiner admitted that his parents wouldn’t let him watch TV as a kid, so it became a forbidden fruit. He said he got a tiny TV during his second semester of college and made up for lost time, mentioning all the shows and reruns that he watched religiously, and joking that “I could quote every line of ‘Quincy.’”
In its entire 92 hours, Mad Men is an astonishing creation: a much smarter, deeper and heavier view of the human experience than anything Weiner could have gotten from watching “Adam-12,” “Dragnet” or “Fantasy Island.”
Still, he failed to really bring it all home. It’s as if Homer never let Odysseus get back to his wife — but in the meantime stuck him in a Motel 6, where they at least try to make it homey by leaving the light on.
And I guess that’s its own genius. The “journey” never ends; the message here is that we’ve got to do the work, and look past all the fake fronts. In the end, all we have is the circle of life and human connection. We have to find and make our own families and our own homes.
Draw curtain, lights up, momentary silence, then standing ovation.
Beautiful summation and analysis, Barbara. The genius of MM's ending is that all the primary characters are still there, living their lives with their flaws and seeking their own views of happiness. Weiner and company created vibrant, rich and complex characters. Should they ever re-boot (and how easily they could) as a movie(s) or series, deal me in. I want to know what happens.
MM is truly one of the greats. Thanks, Barbara, for revealing its many layers.
92 hours of enthralling storytelling sustained over 8 years, the equivalent of about 46 feature films.
Gonna really miss this column, BL. I feel like we shoud be sitting shiva for it and for MM.
YOU might make all the columns available again from the first. Binge-reading. This finale column is your best, I think, wonderful, deep, and true.
I'm with Tom Messner, let's read them all again! During MM Season, the anticipation of Monday or Tueday afternooons and Dorothy Parker or Barbara Lippert's Mad Blogs were delicious. Please don't say this is the end ...
Seriously, send them out in a PDF--Netflix Barbara-style--so when we need references we can all have a single library of perfection with which to preuse.
Exellent way to finish, I have literally stood up from my office chair and applauded you Barbara. You have indeed uncovered so many necessary layers to the story than all of us would never have discovered.
See...other people think you should have a book, too. You do know that people have made their fortunes on being Shakepearean scholars. Weiner is the Shakespeare of this time and Barbara Lippert is the Weinerian Man Men scholar. Each episode wakes up with your critiques. Just because Don was touched in the end of this series, it does not mean there will be change from him. The changes around him force him into corners like talking to his daughter as a person rather than a child. And in those larger agencies, it is star one day and ignored the next. What have you done for me lately when writing up a sales order is not unexpected from the manager in the WAA.
"You have indeed uncovered so many necessary layers to the story than all of us would never have discovered." I absolutely agree with Doug R.
The episodes became more interesting once I read your column, and I often was surprised by what you saw and revealed to us. You made the pleasure, pain, sorrow, laughter all the more intense by the context you gave the stories. Thanks Barbara!
As you said in 2000, Barbara, the Coke brand is that " momentous unifier, that national marker." With so many psychological themes played out in MM, I have to admit, I too was looking for a different ending. But as you say also, "Endings are hard."
Fascinating post as always, Barbara.
The most amazing achieement of Mad Men IMHO was that every character, with the notable exception of Don, seemed like someone you could meet in the real world. Human beings with all their personal issues and foibles rising to meet the struggles of the workaday world every single day.
Don always seemed more of a fictional character to me than someone from the real world, but a compelling character nonetheless because of the demons driving his many incongruities. He helped Peggy during her time of crisis but essentially abandoned his kids. A mixed bag of a human being.
I agree with others in the comments -- there's got to be a great book of analysis and insight for you here, Barbara. Maybe it's simply publishing a compendium of each and every post in coffee table book of Mad Men shows. The MediaPost audience is an inside baseball audience compared to the mass of Mad Men lovers who would appreciate your insights.
Rather that just restate what everyone else has said about you compiling all your MadBlogs into a book of some sort, I'll just say, DITTO, and ask when will it be available? I'm in!