Mad Men: Why the Ending Is Far Better Than the Speculation (And No Sell-Out)

05/22/2015 02:19 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's mind there are few."

-- Shunryu Suzuki
Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Mad Men is over. Yet life goes on for its characters. This is not at all what a great many critics and fans expected, especially for the show's relatively anti-heroic protagonist, Don Draper.

It's much better this way, truer to the character, far less a matter of melodramatic projection. And the ironic little twist at the very end, with a meditating Don, at last smiling in full-fledged happiness, seeming to think of a famous Coca-Cola ad, is no sell-out or cop-out for the character.

Why did Don go into advertising in the first place? Because he's good at it, something he learned early on after snagging a job as a fur salesman. He doesn't have to be selling cancer sticks or napalm.

Mad Men began and ended with Don Draper in silhouette against an iconic backdrop. In the beginning, the richly cluttered urban canyons of Manhattan in the show's evocative opening titles. In the end, looking out from California's shore on the seemingly limitless horizon of the Pacific Ocean.

Mad Men ends, and begins again.

A series marked by rich characterization, elegant style, and frequently subtle plotting, Mad Men is especially notable for refuting the "Chekhov's gun" thesis. Named for playwright Anton Chekhov, the dictum states that a loaded gun introduced on stage must be fired.

In Mad Men, creator Matt Weiner introduces the antithesis to Chekov. Let's call it the "Pete Campbell's gun" thesis. Remember the loaded rifle Pete got when he returned an unwanted wedding present, which he then kept in his office at Sterling Cooper? Many imagined that Pete would go crazy with that gun, perhaps turning into a Charles Whitman-style sniper, certainly turning it on himself. Of course, we never saw Pete, last viewed in the series heading off for happily-ever-after land with Trudy and their lovely little daughter, fire the damn thing at all.

As it happened, that's not the only thing that many critics and fans expected to happen which never did.

Why there were so many anticipated -- and in some cases, hoped for -- disasters for Don, Pete, and other characters is a question that deserves its very own in-depth examination. For now, it suffices to say that Mad Men's core characters, and there were a lot of them, turned out to have a very high survival rate.

Bert Cooper died, but he was elderly and unwell. Sal Romano was fired after rebuffing the agency's then biggest, and deeply closeted, bully of a client and disappeared from the storyline. But he didn't die, he was just somewhere else. Which happens all the time in life, fairly and unfairly.

Even Joan Holloway's much despised doctor ex didn't step on a land mine in Vietnam. He had twins with a nurse and lost interest in "his son" with Joan, who is really Roger Sterling's. Thus actually enabling Roger at the last to set up a trust for the boy, with the possibility of of the lad carrying on the Sterling family name down the line. That was something Roger, whose only other child is a daughter, had thought impossible as he ends up marrying a woman who's already had her kids.

That Roger ends up with Don's former mother-in-law -- that's '90s English rose movie star Julia Ormond (Sabrina, Legends of the Fall) deliciously and hilariously playing the tempetruous and bawdy French Canadian Marie Calvet -- only adds to the fun of it all.

As does Joan turning out to be the new entrepreneur, and late-blooming feminist, of the bunch. She rejects the life of leisure she'd have jumped at in the early days of the show with her rich dreamboat of a boyfriend.

And there are Peggy Olsen and Stan Rizzo hooking up at last, taking a chance at turning the perfect phone relationship into one much less virtual. She's sticking with McCann Erickson and he works there, too, for her, so it's very convenient.

I'm going to miss these characters. This isn't a melodrama decided by a big shoot-out. The falling figure in the opening titles was always a metaphor for a journey through '60s materialist America, not a prefiguring of a Don Draper high-dive.

So, given the absence of apocalypticism, the tale could continue. Yet it will not, at least as a series.

For Mad Men is a tale rooted not only in its exquisitely crafted and performed characters but also in an era. And the 1960s, though echoes reverberate still, powerfully and in unforeseen ways, did come to an end.

There's always been an interesting debate about when "the '60s" really ended. (Aside from the literal end of the decade, that is.)

Was it with the cultural high, as it were, of Woodstock in 1969? Was it the cultural low of Altamont in 1970? The break-up of the Beatles in 1970? The aspirational achievement of the first Apollo landing on the Moon in July 1969?

The last gasp of '60s left-liberal counter-cultural anti-war politics in the George McGovern for President campaign of 1972?

Or was it with Richard Nixon's first election, in November 1968, as Warren Beatty's classic Shampoo, a telling slice of life co-written by Mad Men consulting producer Robert Towne?

And of course Mad Men is also a show rooted in a place, New York in its heyday. The show, as has seemed fated for quite awhile, ends on the other side of the country, next to the Pacfic Ocean in California.

While most of the characters remain in New York, Don Draper's journey has taken him west, with much of the journey about casting off the old and seemingly important that turned out not be very important or necessary at all. It has taken him to the point of greater enlightenment and renewal in the West.

Does he stay in California? Or is it a jumping-off point -- pun intended -- for his future endeavors?

That's not easy to say. Which is really one of the main points here. Don Draper's life goes on. It just goes on in a different milieu than that of Mad Men.

The brilliantly evocative opening titles were always telling us important things about what we were to watch. But it was never so linear or so shallow as the prefiguring of the protagonist's suicide or destruction.

Don's long journey through "the best" of materialist America in the 1960s as seen through the prism of the "Mad Men," the New York advertising industry of Madison Avenue, is over. But Don's voyage through life continues.

Don began the show in silhouette against the backdrop of the cluttered urban canyons of Manhattan.

Don ended the show in silhouette against the backdrop of the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean.

The future, like what is to be found on that majestic, exhilarating, and not a little frightening horizon, is unknown, an undiscovered country.

Don's discovery of at least a form of Zen Buddhism doesn't limit that future one bit. It complements its possibilities. While it's possible to turn Zen, like any form of spiritualism or religion, into a complete lifestyle, as certain personality types demonstrate all the time, at its essence it's about essences. Which is to say about clarifying and simplifying. Unlike other major religions, it's not about a divinity. Nor is it about a dogma. It's about becoming mindful and aware. Undistracted by bullshit and ephemera.

Without the show announcing it, Don has been headed in a rather Zen direction throughout this year's final season. As I noted last week, he has been shedding quite a few things this season. His marriage and his hot girlfriends, his home and household possessions, a large part of his wealth, his illusions about his profession. And he's been becoming a lot more honest with and about himself, culminating in his confession to fellow veterans at an American Legion hall in Oklahoma that he had accidentally killed his commanding officer in the Korean War.

Consciously or subconsciously, it seemed inevitable that he would make his way to that place of meditation on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Finding his way to Anna Draper's troubled but searching Berkeley grad niece to give her Anna's wedding ring happened to be his path to Esalen, a key nexus in the growth of the human potential movement of the 1970s, infused with both the encounter group ethic which saw Don have an emotional breakthrough and the ethic of Zen-oriented meditation. (Which needn't involve any sort of chanting, however, Hollywood notwithstanding.)

What he's finding is a way to become absorbed in the moment, not "a silly idea of self, from which many problems flow," as Shunryu Suzuki, the legendary Zen monk quoted above, put it.

I was introduced to Zen Buddhism by one of America's most successful political figures, who is certainly in the political world if not necessarily of it. Here I am introducing the then former governor of California for one of the last speeches of his last presidential campaign. Incidentally, that's not Betty Draper Francis introducing me. Now he's in his historic fourth term as governor of California, after two straight landslide election wins. He's been well served by his ability to focus, and by his freedom from the conventional.

Could Don do advertising work after encountering these new insights and ways to clear one's mind of the mental bric-a-brac which marked his life in New York? Sure. He might even be better at it. But he can't do it as he has in New York.

Actually, he's more likely to come up with the big idea as a more mindful and unencumbered person than he was before.

Like, for example, that iconic Coke ad. A bouncy, we-are-the-world sort of encomium to an excellent product, harmless used in moderation combined with an active California-like lifestyle.

California actually became a haven for a different sort of creative in advertising beginning in the 1970s. It's November 1970 as Mad Men ends. Think different, as it were. Think, for example, the iconic 1984 ad for Apple Computer's launch of the Macintosh.

I was at the first public showing of that ad in Silicon Valley with my then future boss, Regis McKenna, the longtime marketing and PR counsel for Steve Jobs and Apple. It was clear from the reaction that the ad was very powerful and would have a lasting impact. Regis, my charge, so to speak, in Gary Hart's presidential campaign, didn't come up with 1984, he just approved it. (Regis did come up with the Apple logo, which you may have seen a few million times.) 1984 was the product of a little ad agency called Chiat/Day. It's always been very easy to see Don Draper in this sort of scene.

It's not a question of him becoming enlightened and then rejecting everything in the material world, or becoming enlightened enough to come up with a new advertising con. That's a simplistic view.

But it is a better and more constructive discussion than the constant drumbeat of Don's imminent (hoped for?) demise. That was just never going to happen. It's always been clear that he is a compleat survivor, albeit one of the not infrequently troubled variety.

The seeds of the ending of this show were clear in its beginning.

In creator Matt Weiner's brilliant pilot episode for Mad Men, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," easily one of the best pilots ever, we see the key ingredients of the show and keys to Don Draper's character. Don, who we learn at the end is leading a double life, is a pleasant fellow, if not always a nice guy, with an easy charisma, a realist bordering on a cynic, an existentialist bordering on a nihilist. He has a rather stark view of life -- dismissing love as something guys like him use to sell products -- and so he garlands it with sentimentality, bonhomie, and facetiousness.

Don already knows that much if not most of what he is doing is fundamentally in the service of bullshit. But he is good at it, so it's what he does. He is not only handsomely rewarded, he derives intrinsic satisfaction from it. "Psychic income," as Jerry Brown might say.

So if he can do what he does in a better way, in way that cuts back the BS, that reduces harm or perhaps even produces real benefit, why wouldn't he do that?

Don can sell better products and he can do pro bono work. His meditation and increased mindfulness and focus -- "enlightenment" in many respects is simply lesser distraction and delusion -- will serve this approach.

The human mind is the ultimate resource that we have so far and it should be a renewable resource. Don has found the way to make that happen without running the risk of cracking his mind on drugs. And with the ability to clear his mind of detritus, he has less need to deaden it with drink.

He can return anew to his "beginner's mind" referenced in the Suzuki quote at the head of this column, alive to a universe of possibility, unhindered by the canalized thinking and cynicism that often sets in with "expert" status. Yet he is an expert so his knowledge and experience will allow him to sift through a myriad of possibilities without getting bogged down or lost as a neophyte would. He can be both child and master at the same time.

Of course, Don could just be a smugger jerk using love to sell nylons. But I doubt it.

Everyone involved with Mad Men deserves tremendous credit for an outstanding ending that is also a beginning and for years of crafting one of the best shows of all time. And if Jon Hamm doesn't finally win the Emmy for best dramatic actor, there is no justice.

Mad Men is over. But its characters and ideas live on.

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