Matthew Weiner explains the 'Mad Men' ending — or not
"I have always been able to live with ambiguities. I don't really understand a lot of things that regular people understand, that's part of it. So holding those things in my head, (someone might ask), 'Well, which is it?' Why does it have to be one or the other?"
This was Matthew Weiner early in his conversation tonight at the New York Public Library with novelist AM Homes, which he had promised would be the only public comments he makes for a very long time about the end of "Mad Men."
Those who came to the event (or watched the live-stream) expecting Weiner to run through a point-by-point explanation of the series finale — and particularly of his intentions for the final sequence, which implied that Don Draper had dreamed up the legendary "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" ad — likely came away disappointed. Homes seemed only casually interested at times in discussing the finale, or even the series itself, instead leading Weiner down tangential paths about Richard Nixon (albeit in the context of his parallels with Don) or the short stories of John Cheever. The Coke ad wasn't even mentioned at all until more than an hour into the event, when Weiner noted that it was one of the elements of the finale (along with Betty's impending death from cancer) that he settled on shortly after the contentious contract renegotiation with Lionsgate between seasons 4 and 5.
But he did eventually explain some of his intentions about using the ad, and about Don's larger breakthrough at the Esalen Institute. More importantly, though, he talked about ambiguity, which is at the heart of so much of "Mad Men," and particularly of that final transition from Don at peace on the cliff to the classic Coke ad.
We'll get back to what Weiner said in a bit (which wasn't as much as we might have hoped, but was still illuminating), but first I want to talk about the three days since the "Mad Men" finale aired. In those three days, I've had many long conversations, in person and online, about the meaning of that final scene. At first, the question was simply, did Don write the ad? After a while, the intent there — particularly in the way the Esalen receptionist is costumed exactly like one of the women in the ad — seemed fairly clear. Which led to the bigger question: so what does that mean for Don?
On the night the finale aired, my reaction was one of disappointment. Not disappointment for "Mad Men" itself, since I thought the finale, and the final season as a whole, did a lovely job of wrapping up so many of the stories of these people and this world. But more disappointment for Don, because the very purposeful nature of that cut — straight from Don's blissful, grinning face to the ad, with nothing in between, even, say, a brief glimpse of Don back at work with Peggy, finally looking at peace with this job and life — seemed to be saying to me, Hey, Don Draper went through all this turmoil, strife and mortification, lost or gave away every relationship and material possession he had, traveled across the country, had an emotional breakdown, and then breakthrough, at this New Age retreat, and he comes out on the other side with... a better ad campaign. It didn't seem dishonest to the character of Don Draper, whom we had frequently seen recover from breakdowns, promising to be better, only to revert to his old ways, and whom we had frequently seen look at genuine life moments and co-opt them into something he could use to sell floor wax. But if we had come all this way, in physical and temporal and emotional space, just to get right back where we started from, well... to borrow the Peggy Lee song that opened this final half-season, is that all there is?
Some of you agreed that this was the scene's intention, and laughed at the idea that "Mad Men" would allow Don to grow. The grin wasn't one of understanding, but of contempt: Don figuring out how to make a buck off these hippies. Some of you argued that the whole point of the final season was to show all of these characters growing — and it's inarguable that the versions of Peggy, Pete, Joan, Roger and Betty that we saw in the finale had evolved tremendously from who they were way back in "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" — and that Don obviously had to join in on that.
And you argued that Don being able to write a better ad campaign wasn't incompatible with Don being a better and more well-adjusted human being — that, in fact, only a man truly at peace with himself could have written that ad in the first place. Jon Hamm had some interesting things to say about this to Dave Itzkoff at The New York Times, looking at the notion that Don makes peace with being an ad man — not in a cynical way, but where his breakthrough "represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led."
And what I found as we all talked is that sometimes I swung that way and felt, Yes! Don is finally a whole man, and only a whole man can create that ad!, while at others, I thought, If Weiner wanted us to see Don as a whole man, he would have shown us Don back in his own world, no longer the aggressive imposter, but the contented lifer(*).
(*) One of the more interesting observations Weiner made tonight was something that only occurred to him at the end of the show: "Don likes strangers. Don likes winning strangers over. He likes seducing strangers. And that is what advertising is: 'We're gonna walk down the side of the road, and now we know each other.' And once you get to know him, he doesn't like you." (He noted that this was one of the reasons he chose Megan over Dr. Faye, who had come to know him much too well by that point.) And if that's who he's always been, then perhaps it is helpful to give some evidence — even a wordless scene scored to a part of the Coke jingle — of him being with one of the people who knows him, whether that's Peggy or Sally or the dying Betty (the three women in his life, Teddy Chaough-style), and no longer carrying himself like a cornered animal.
But this was a pleasurable argument, in a way that a lot of the debate over, say, the fate of Tony Soprano has not been. Both endings are ambiguous, yet this one seems openly so. It invites interpretation, functioning almost as a Rorschach test for the audience. There are definitive, concrete, inarguable conclusions for nearly every other character on the show (even Harry gets to shove a cookie in his face before he disappears from our lives), but Don's ending is whatever you make of it. If you want him to be a cynical hustler forever, he can be. If you want him to be a man at peace with himself and his career, that works, too. Hell, if you want him to have nothing whatsoever to do with the Coke ad, you can always rest on Weiner's earlier comments about not wanting to give his characters credit for real-life campaigns like "You've come a long way, baby."