(Warning: spoilers galore ahead)
In the end, Don Draper’s long search for himself led him to find the perfect ad.
The brilliant kicker to Sunday's series finale of “Mad Men” offered a blend of enlightenment, commerce and cynicism — a combination as unique and potent as the secret Coca-Cola formula itself.
The final scene of the AMC drama left us with dueling images: a beatific Draper chanting his latest catchphrase — “Om” — while meditating cross-legged on the grass at a California commune, against perhaps the greatest commercial of them all: the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony)” spot, with an international band of flower children packed on an idyllic hilltop, clutching soda bottles and blissfully singing about buying the world a Coke.
The implication is that Draper returned to McCann Erickson (the real-life firm behind the 1971 commercial) and used mis-learned lessons from his spiritual quest to make advertising history by pairing hippie culture with a soft drink. After seven seasons of one of television’s most compelling series, the meaning of “Mad Men” — and of Don Draper’s life — can be summed up in three words: “Coke is it.”
The ending capped a finale that at times seemed meandering, but, to paraphrase another caffeinated beverage slogan, ultimately proved good to the last drop. It marked an unexpected, but appropriate coda to the story of the 1960s as seen through a character who not only peddled illusions of familial happiness through material possessions, but saw products — like Kodak’s “Carousel” slide projector and the Hershey bar — as the path to his own salvation.
Not that Draper’s last long, strange ride on the carousel was a smooth one. Sunday’s episode opens with him wandering in the Utah desert, giving away his money, when his daughter, Sally, reveals in an emotional phone call that her mom, his ex-wife Betty, is dying of lung cancer — the result of those nasty cigarettes he used to promote. The very grown-up Sally and the finally mature Betty tell him not to come home, insinuating the family would be better off without him.
He winds up at the doorstep of Stephanie, the niece of the real Don Draper, the man whose identity he stole on a battlefield in Korea two decades earlier. She’s the only person alive who calls him by his real name — Dick Whitman, the son of a dirt-poor farmer and prostitute who died in childbirth. She’s running away herself — from the child she left behind — and leads Draper to the commune. He tries to convince her that she can reinvent herself like he did, but she’s not buying it: “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.”
When she deserts him, he calls Peggy Olson, his protégé in advertising and in denial — it was Draper, after all, who coached her through the secret birth of a child she gave up for the sake of her career.
Peggy is the only one who wants him to “come home.” But Draper is ridden by guilt about what he’s done to her and his family, and delivers the most honest words he’s ever spoken: “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am …. I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”
Draper, crumbled in paralyzed heap by the pay phone, is coaxed into a rap session where he’s brought to tears by a man who tells the group he feels like a nonentity to his family. The man shares his dream of being in a refrigerator, seeing smiling faces when the door opens and the light goes on.
“Maybe they don’t pick you,” he says. “Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”
Draper hugs the weeping man — and cries himself. For all the money he’s been throwing around, for all the people he’s tried to save on his bizarre travels in the final episodes, this is someone he has the ability to help: a man who sees himself as a product nobody wants. Draper might not know how to relate to people, but he knows how to sell products nobody needs.
The finale did reasonably well in wrapping up other key characters’ stories: Peggy, the young career gal, tempers her ambition and ends up with her pal and verbal sparring partner Stan in “An Officer and a Gentleman”-like sequence, sappy by “Mad Men” standards, but no doubt appreciated by many fans. Joan Harris, the older, latent career gal, lost her man but gained a business (and a taste for coke — as in cocaine).
Pete Campbell took off with his reconstituted family to a job in Kansas with Learjet. Roger Sterling ended up with Draper’s fiery French-Canadian ex-mother-in-law. Sally, the character who grew the most during the “Mad Men” years, appears poised to pick up the pieces of her shattered family.
Her father changed, but the jury’s out on whether he grew up. Don Draper stands as a cautionary tale of lost identity, reinvention and consumerism — a classic American story, just like Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men,” which ended its run with its place ensconced in television history as “the real thing.”
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multimedia NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.