As we steel ourselves for life after “Mad Men,” there’s one question that remains in focus two days later: What does that ending mean? The final sequence, and what it portends for our man Don Draper, has drawn a line in the sand for audiences. There are those cynical viewers who think Don has turned his enlightenment into yet another commodity, and there are those hopeful audiences who believe, as Indiewire’s Ben Travers elegantly argues, “Don felt empathy, perhaps for the first time, and after a morning of meditation… Don tried to pass that feeling on to everyone through the only method he understands: advertising.”
According to a New York Times interview with Dave Itzkoff, Jon Hamm stands somewhere in the more “optimistic” camp. In the last scene of “Person to Person,” we see Don sitting in lotus pose on the sunny edge of a cliff, finally locating a moment’s peace after hitting rock bottom again (again). Smash cut to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial, and we see that out of Don’s bliss, an ad is born. How are we meant to understand this ending?
“It’s a little bit ambiguous,” Hamm said. “We had talked about this ending for a long time and that was Matt [Weiner, the “Mad Men” creator and show runner]’s image. I was struck by the poetry of it. I didn’t know what his plans were, to get Don to this meditative, contemplative place. I just knew that he had this final image in mind.”
So what’s Hamm’s interpretation of Don’s big breakdown during a group therapy session? “When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. There was a void staring at him. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger.”
And what of the future of Don after the series ends? “My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man… There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, ‘Wow, that’s awful.’ But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.”
I agree with Hamm that the touching montage of the characters going about their new lives, happily or otherwise, guarantees nothing. “There’s people saying, oh, it’s so pat, and it’s rom-com-y, or whatever it is. But it’s not the end of anything. The world doesn’t blow up right after the Coke commercial ends. No one is suggesting that Stan and Peggy live happily ever after, or that Joan’s business is a rousing success, or that Roger and Marie come back from Paris together. None of it is done. Matt had said at one point, ‘I just want my characters to be a little more happy than they were in the beginning,’ and I think that’s pretty much true.”