Okay, Don wrote the damn Coke ad.
In my recap of “Mad Men’s” series finale “Person to Person,” written immediately after the episode aired, I struggled to reconcile what felt like the jarring disjuncture between Don’s apparent spiritual awakening and the smash cut to Coca-Cola’s iconic “Hilltop” ad, which seemed to instantly convert his epiphany into a marketing tool. The narrative rimshot felt glib and cynical and not at all “Mad Men,” a show that’s spent years working against the simplistic view of advertising as a place where creativity goes to die. Even if you didn’t immediately reach the conclusion that Don wrote the ad himself — with few exceptions, the show has shied away from giving its fictional characters credit for real-life campaign — the immediate swallowing up of his hard-fought moment of peace by the cola-industrial complex came off as a sneering rebuke, almost sophomoric in its suggestion that the house always wins. If the only thing Don accomplished in “Mad Men’s” final run was getting his advertising mojo back, we spent seven seasons investing in the story of a man coming up with a really awesome ad campaign.
Most critics embraced, or at least acceded to, this pessimistic reading: Don strips himself bare, enjoys a rare moment of communion with a total stranger, and it lasts just long enough for him to think, Damn, that would make a good commercial. But there’s another way of looking at it, one in which coming up with the “Hilltop” spot is at least a partial triumph. From at least as long ago as “Mad Men’s” first-season finale, “The Wheel,” the show has been devoted to the proposition that advertising — much like series television — can be both commerce and art. Sometimes it’s just an empty slogan (“It’s toasted”), but the show’s best campaigns connected products with profound and genuine emotions: a slide projector with the fear of mortality; fast-food burgers with the need for community. If Don goes back to McCann Erickson, where Bill Backer created the real “Hilltop” ad in 1971, that’s a significant defeat, given that “Mad Men” has painted McCann as a soul-destroying factory farm since its very first season. But maybe it’s still possible to do good, meaningful work in that environment, at least as long as Don stops running from himself. Don isn’t invisible, the way Leonard, the man in his encounter group describes himself, but he isn’t really seen, either, because he’s never let anyone see the real him. Perhaps the “Hilltop” ad is the real Don, or as close as he’s ever gotten to expressing it.
The final shots of “Mad Men”s seventh season episodes systematically emphasized Don’s isolation, the camera pulling away to show him either alone or simply ignored. (When a worried Peggy asks Don if he’s alone, he replies “I’m in a crowd,” but we know the two aren’t mutually exclusive.) “Person to Person” effectively has two final shots. There’s one of Don, his face glowing in the costal California dawn, chanting and finally showing the faintest hint of a smile as the camera tracks in — towards him, rather than away. And there’s the real final image, taken from the “Hilltop” ad, of a group of people singing “in perfect harmony,” embodying the community that Don has so long bought sought and feared. What brings them together? Coke, which might be the mysterious “it” that Leonard says is missing from his life, without every knowing what it is. If Don created “Hilltop,” who’s to say he didn’t come up with “Coke is it!” as well?
Although “Mad Men” could be a tough-minded, even obstinate show, Matthew Weiner, much like “Breaking Bad’s” Vince Gilligan, revealed himself to be more open to a fan-service finale that anyone might have guessed. Peggy and Stan got together; Roger finally met a woman who’s his sharp-tongued equal; Pete and Trudy are living the jet-set life in Wichita (though we’ll see how long that lasts); Joan loses her man but starts her own company, reclaiming her maiden name in the bargain. Why should Don be the only one left out? Yes, he uses his personal epiphany to pimp Coca-Cola. But maybe he’s using Coca-Cola to pimp that epiphany as well. Maybe the “Hilltop” ad is, as a singer proclaims just before “Mad Men” fades to black, “the real thing.” Just because an ad is fake doesn’t mean it can’t be genuine, too.
Although it’s no “Sopranos”-esque cut to black, “Mad Men’s” finale does leave at least some room for interpretation, if not about what Don did, then certainly about what it means. Let’s see where critics come down on whether Don’s selling Coke or selling his soul.
Scott Meslow, the Week
To my mind, the final scene in “Mad Men’s” series finale is a wonderful, bracingly cynical affirmation of the soulless philosophy to which Don subscribes. As he meditates in the middle of a spiritual retreat, at the end of a desperate, soul-searching road trip, he finally smiles, achieving the moment of peace and fulfillment he traveled thousands of miles to find. And then the punchline arrives… It’s a moment of raw, human connection — the kind of thing, as Don once argued, that people are always desperately hoping to feel. But when he feels it himself, his well-honed instincts as an adman take over. A lonely man bares his soul in a group therapy session, describing a crushing dream in which he was a picked-over item in a refrigerator; within 24 hours, Don’s subconscious warps it into a Coca-Cola commercial. The man leading a morning meditation describes a “new day. New ideas. A new you”; in an instant, Don instantly reverts to the old version of himself, whose version of a “new idea” is a new way to exploit people’s emotions as a shortcut to their wallets. It’s bleak — but knowing Don as well as we do by now, can you really be surprised, or even blame him for it?
So which one’s it gonna be, hotshot? Hope or cynicism? Note that both interpretations end roughly at the same conclusion: Life goes on, which can be taken either as a hopeful sentiment or an ironically fatalistic one. How very appropriate of Weiner to end the show this way and on these questions…. We’re inclined to believe that Don didn’t really achieve any form of true enlightenment. He had another breakdown, ran away, hit rock bottom again, and then used that to come up with a killer ad. It’s what he’s always done. And the idea that he did it again here, even as he was facing the destruction of his own family, and did it better than he’s ever done it before, tells us that Don Draper will never truly change. That wasn’t enlightenment at the end; it was capitalism, grinding ever on.
Logan Hill, New York Times
A new day. New ideas. A new you,” Don’s Esalen teacher intones in the final shot of the series. With those six words, she could be selling enlightenment or shoes or laptops or iWatches. Don might never find real peace or a real home, whatever that means. But if there was an eighth, ninth or tenth season, maybe Don could sell yoga mats. Or health spas. Or maybe even a new brand of sugary Coca-Cola drinks rebranded as healthy, vitamin-packed elixirs.
Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly
As for Don, did he end up learning anything? I would’ve loved to believe that Don Draper could’ve reinvented himself as Jack Kerouac, just like Bert Cooper implied, hitchhiking out West, following America in his shiny car into the night. I’d love to believe that Don could’ve endlessly followed the same milk and honey route that Kerouac’s hero, Jack Dulouz, followed in Big Sur, leaving everything behind at the height of his career to be alone in the California wilderness. But in the end, Jack Dulouz ended up right back in New York, and I’ll bet Don Draper did, too. The end is just another new beginning. And even in the New Age, you’re still the old you.
Matt Prigge, Metro
There appears to be some confusion over the show’s final moment, in part because the way it plays is subliminal: it cuts from Don, mid “OM,” at one with all the open-minded yoga-ers around him, presumably on the road to enlightenment, right to the seminal “Buy the World a Coke” ad. I’m not sure how else one would read this. It’s far less open to interpretation than “The Sopranos” ending. As others have pointed out, some of the people in the ad are even wearing the same clothes as the people in the episode (or vice versa). Those who think Don did something other than return to McCann Erickson are possibly in understandable denial, having fully bought that Don was finally — no, really, for real and true this time — turning a corner, and would never simply revert to his old ways, as nearly every single character this episode noted in dialogue.
But the truth is there’s no other way to read it. And it’s a great punchline, albeit a dark and cynical one — which is also why some people are likely reluctant to swallow it.
Ken Tucker, Yahoo!
Believable? Not for a second. Why would we ever think that this will be Don’s eternal bliss? This is a mad man whom we’ve watched spend years seeing through/getting tired of/scorning absolutely every answer to unhappiness. Don has always been doomed to be a clear-eyed realist. If this Esalen episode had been slotted in to, say, the third or fourth season of “Mad Men,” it would have been followed by a scene in which Don shakes off the mystical cobwebs in his brain, maybe punches out the smug therapist, and returns to Manhattan to drink himself that much closer to the gritty gutter.
Instead, the series closed out with the actual McCann-Erickson commercial for Coke, a mass peace-‘n’-love singalong “Buy the World a Coke,” aka, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony,” a sweet send-off that could also be interpreted (and what was the entire decade run of “Mad Men,” if not a playground for multiple interpretations?) as Matthew Weiner’s kiss-off to viewers as suckers, sheep who’d follow him anywhere.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
If Don really traversed this great land of ours, threw away all the trappings of Don Draper-hood, learned of Betty’s impending death and the shaky future of their three children, and finally heard someone articulate his own deepest feelings of unlovability, and he came out the other side having only acquired the inspiration needed to buy his way back into McCann(**) and write that Coke ad — and cutting straight from the look of pure bliss on Don’s face to the ad, without giving us hints of anything else he might do upon returning to New York, suggests that this is the only thing that ultimately matters to him — then that is a very cynical and dark take on a man I wanted better from.
But it also seems like an honest take on who that man actually was, and what “Mad Men” has been about.
James Poniewozik, Time
Don, the protagonist of the series, says almost nothing in his final act. He exchanges a few depressed word — “I can’t move” — with a group leader whose name we don’t know and we don’t care to. He goes to a seminar with her, has an opening to speak, and… doesn’t. The man of words, the guy whom we could always count on to deliver a tour de force, epiphanic pitch speech, instead sits back and lets the show’s final story — Don’s story, for all intents and purposes — be told through some guy named Leonard.
And it’s devastating. Because it’s not a pitch. It’s the realization of an actual feeling human who feels that his life has come to nothing, that he doesn’t have love, or worse, that he has it and is simply incapable of accepting or recognizing it.
And Don? Don has no clever speech. After having turned the full force of this character on us for seven season through the power of language. Jon Hamm is left to give us his final moments through action only. His eyes watering as he absorbs his own situation through Leonard’s. Through a desperate hug, sobbing. And finally, by turning to us, full faced — not giving us the back of his head as in the show’s credits — and letting his face, finally, relax.
No words. No story. Only: “Om.” Don’s story ends with a Coke and a smile.
Todd VanDerWerff, Vox
Maybe Don didn’t come up with that ad — in our reality, a McCann creative director named Bill Backer did, and Mad Men rarely allows its character to take credit for real advertising ideas — but it’s almost as if the atmosphere of the early ’70s would have brought it to life sooner or later.
But I think the real ambiguity here is the tenor of that scene. It’s a happy ending. Don finds a measure of connection, calm, and peace. “Buy the World” is one of those beautiful ads people remember. And the characters all find ways to move forward with grace and maybe even hope.
But it’s also a cynical, despairing ending, another moment of genuine emotion commodified and made into something that can be put on a shelf and sold. Life stumbles on. The moments of truth and beauty you are privy to are quickly made shallow by the imperfections of memory. Comforting a man in his hour of need becomes buying the world a Coke. It’s all mixed up together.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
But that’s also where the open-ended storytelling device Weiner employed was useful – we know that Don was meditating on the cliffs above the ocean (how are we ever going to forget Don Draper saying “Om”?) when the idea came to him for the ad campaign, but we also understand that he didn’t just get up and run off the lawn. He took what he experienced at the communal retreat/Esalen as a transformative life experience and employed it, we are to assume, as a changed man back at his job. The key part of the storytelling element here is that Don spent a lot more time at Esalen than the story showed.
Ben Travers, Indiewire
Don felt empathy, perhaps for the first time, and after a morning of meditation — where the teacher said it was a “new day” with “new ideas” — Don tried to pass that feeling on to everyone through the only method he understands: advertising.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture
It’s possible that Peggy, herself a McCann employee, created that ad, maybe with input from Joan, whose son is pictured watching “Sesame Street,” which was filled with sing-alongs that had a Coca-Cola hilltop feeling. But the dollying in to Don’s face followed by a ringing bell and then the ad — plus the fact that Weiner came to “Mad Men” from “The Sopranos,” and has indicated in interviews that this show’s ending wouldn’t be like that one’s — makes me think that in this case, the most obvious answer is right.
The next question isn’t what does it mean, but how does it feel?
It feels warm and hopeful.
That’s why I can’t accept that the Coke ad’s use is purely cynical — that it’s snickering at the viewer by suggesting that Don learned nothing from any of his life experiences, much less the last half of season seven, and that he eventually went back to New York and strip-mined the remains of the counterculture and California-style self help in order to sell cola.
That can’t be all there is. It would be out-of-character for a series whose stories, characters and themes were never about just one thing.
Maureen Ryan, Huffington Post
Truth be told, it’s a little deflating to realize that Don’s big revelation led him to the creation of a memorable jingle. I know that that’s how the show operates — the revelations Don encounters in his personal life often inform his work, which is really the only way he can consistently communicate with the world. I wrote a couple of weeks ago that I hoped that, wherever he was in his life or his career at the end of the series, if Don was in a place where he could feel, give and receive love, that would be progress for him. I am glad he got to that place. I just wish the finale had shown him sharing some of that love with his real family and his work wife.
Linda Holmes, NPR
One of the reasons I never signed on to the fan theory that Don was going to turn out to be D.B. Cooper — a theory, I should point out, that had some intriguing evidence to support it — was that it seemed like it would be too … cute for this show. Too “ta-da!” Too much like a very long story about a regular kid who perseveres that ends “And that young man’s name … was NEIL ARMSTRONG.” For me, going out on the Coke ad had a lesser but still palpable sense of “ta-da.” It was a little neat. It also made his entire road trip feel unnecessary as a narrative element, like a head fake by somebody who head fakes in every game, because the “Don Draper seems like he’s going to turn things around and then he doesn’t” is a story that has been told on this show over and over and over and over.