Monday, May 18, 2015

"The Real Thing"

Mad Men, Season Seven, Episode Fourteen, "Person to Person"

I was ten years old when McCann-Erickson first aired its legendary "Hilltop" Coca-Cola ad in 1971. I must have been captivated because I remember acquiring the sheet music to bring to my piano teacher so I could learn to play it. As excellent advertising does, this happy, feel-good, sugary commercial tapped into the emotional state of a war-weary country, still plagued with the previous decade's violence of political assassinations, urban riots, and police brutality toward civil rights and anti-war protesters. The youth counter-culture, at its best, represented an idealistic quest--perhaps naive, but genuine--for love, unity, and one human family that transcends boundaries of race and nationality. McCann expressed in its ad the truth that the violent, warring world could use a little harmony. And with that truth, enmeshed in and inseparable from the pathos of world peace, the big lie that Coca-Cola is "the real thing." If you want one, you need to buy the other. And with the choice to end this brilliant series about advertising and the quests, weaknesses, yearnings, struggles, and screw-ups of those men and women who create, exploit, dream, and consume it with this ad, we receive a glimpse into some of the show's main themes: that in our post-modern world, it is difficult--if not impossible--to discern what is "true" and "real," (if there even is any referent to those words), AND that while people and institutions can and do change and re-create themselves (I was happy about that one), such change is incremental and not linear.

Had someone asked me to list out possible final glimpses of Don Draper, sitting half-lotus, meditating on a California oceanside cliff would never have made it to the top 100. But, while preposterous, it also makes sense. Don has long been on a quest for meaning and always been attracted by California, the land of new starts and make-believe, and of one of his soul-mates, Anna Draper. Like the ocean, his psyche and spirit have been pulled toward a shore of growing self-awareness and authenticity--and back again toward the depths of oblivion, self-absorption, and con-artistry. It was the Season Two finale that saw him walking out into the ocean, arms stretched out, ready to be a part of the inter-connection that Anna spoke to him about. Despite years of attempting to run from his past, in Season Four's "The Summer Man," he recognizes in his journal that "when a man walks into a room, he brings his whole life with him." He's been trying to come to terms with this life for a long time and with increasing intensity this last season or so. From his truth-telling about his childhood to the Hershey clients, to the trip with his children to the whore-house of his childhood, to his last episode warnings and second chance offered to the young con-man of the hotel, Don has been attempting to be more authentic, to the point of leaving his work as a "con-man" advertiser. But, after each of these steps forward, Don--like any real human being--isn't completely transformed, never to revert back to earlier behavior. This episode finds him a drunken mess again after receiving the news of Betty's impending death. All journeys to the center of the self are, to some degree, selfish--even if necessary to be a better person in relationship with others. Betty calls Don on the selfishness of his hobo lifestyle with the punch-to-the-gut line about his children after her death: "You'll see them as much as you do now, on weekends. Oh, wait Don, when did you last see them?" Yet, it's only with Don that we see Betty able to cry over her death sentence. Despite years of separation after years of a deceptive marriage, they have a strong enough connection that they don't even need to complete their thoughts. "Birdie," he says through his tears. "I know...." she says before hanging up.

So, Don heads to California, to the home of Stephanie--as close as he can get to Anna after her death from cancer--the one person who will greet him as "Dick." Still not sure who he is, he goes to someone who knows he is Dick Whitman, while hoping that she will allow him to be Don Draper--to be her family. But, while she sees he is in trouble and invites him to the retreat with her, she angrily tells him, "You're not my family." After she abandons him there, a seriously despairing Don makes his second person-to-person call to Peggy. She tells him, "You can come home," but he doesn't know where that might be. Mystified and worried, Peggy asks him "What did you ever do that was so bad?" His confession centers on his transgressions against family: "I broke all my vows, scandalized my child," he begins. It is these sins that have left him with no home to go to. "I took another man's name and made nothing of it" reflects his fears that he has done nothing useful with his talents and his professional life. While there is much hokum at the retreat, and much that can foster a me-centered lifestyle, there is also room for genuine soul-searching, and Don finds his truth in the story of the very ordinary man who feels invisible: "It's like no one cares that I'm gone" has always been Dick Whitman's fear, born of having been a child who no one wanted to be there. Like advertising, the retreat is selling some things that people don't need, and offering some truth. What will Don do with this latest new revelation? Go back to New York and his children? Back to McCann to create the Coca-Cola ad that commodifies the yearnings of the sixties movements? Or is the juxtaposition of the smiling, meditative Don and the "Hilltop" ad a reminder that no matter how much we may learn about ourselves, there is also this cultural push and pull between awareness and commodification? That humans will never reach "nirvana," but will always vacillate between a desire for family, for "person to person" connection, and for worldly goods that can more easily assuage our existential anxieties and yearnings? I like that Weiner and Crew have provided no definitive answer to Don's next step. It leaves space for imagination, reflection, and relation to his character. Though some will always want a bow tied around a wrapped-up narrative, this show would not have been true to itself had it offered one.

And, while it might look like the other characters' story arcs have achieved more closure, that's not necessarily so. The Campbells are back together, boarding their Lear jet for Wichita, still after wealth and prestige, but also family unity and connection. The final image of them suggests happiness, but they have not yet reached their destination. Things are still "up in the air" for them. What will these New Yorkers think of living in a small Heartland city? Will Pete be able to remain faithful to Trudy as he'd promised? What is in store for them? We cannot know; a number of scenarios are possible.

The Peggy/Stan shippers will be happy, I am sure. While I wasn't rooting for them to be together, I like the final image of them: at work, Peggy typing, Stan looking over her shoulder. Has she found a way both to have her career and have some happiness in love? Stan has come miles from our first introduction to him. He has gone from a sexist jerk who did not want to accept Peggy as a professional to one who urges her to do what she is good at and is happy to do the work he enjoys from behind her. But, they have both had relationships before. We can't know how this one will work out.

Roger, too, is focusing on personal relationships, making provisions for Kevin in his will and entering his third marriage--this time with a woman close to his age. They both seem happy and keep bickering. We see them mid-toast, but can't know for sure how it will end.

Joan has chosen her work over her unreasonable man: "I can't just turn off that part of myself. I would never ask you to choose," she tells Richard, evidence that 1970 is a hard time for a woman to have both a committed relationship and a career. But, she has grown miles from the office manager she once was, whose goal was a husband and house in the suburbs. I hope that she'll make it in her new endeavor, but we cannot know for sure. She,  like Peggy, knows it's a risk.

The only character, indeed, about whom we can say with any certainty what will happen is Betty. She will die soon. But, she has grown and changed through this as well, allowing Sally to be with her and help her. Perhaps acknowledging that Bobby also knows what is happening. The ad--whether Don or someone else at McCann created it--tells us that Coke is "The Real Thing." Yet, it is not. The only thing that we can know for sure is real is that we will, like Betty, someday die. And perhaps that advertising will always lie to us. This show has always had an existentialist focus, and this ending carries it through: leaving us the image of a dying woman smoking a cigarette, and leaving open the question of what we--like the other characters--will do with the time we have remaining.

There is so much else that I could say about this episode, this season, and how they wrap up the series. I'll be thinking and writing more about those questions in the weeks to come, so stay tuned.


  1. Great reflection on the last episode. I, too, really appreciate the room Weiner left for us to decide what the connection was between Don and the Coke commercial. I've been thinking about this episode a lot today.

  2. Nice reflection, Cathy. I don't have much more to add, other than I loved Evan Arnold's monologue as Leonard, the 'invisible' office worker in the fridge. I thought the writing and acting in that scene were both outstanding. The words themselves could be laughable in the wrong hands, but the little-known actor (new to me for sure) makes a masterpiece of it.

    Most of us are Leonard; easily forgotten and there are times this creates an existential crisis in us.

    Don hugs him and later we see him meditating, outside with others.

    The show leaves us wondering: has Don discovered true inner peace and stepped away from the daily grind of life - striving for money, power, sex, status, admiration and all the other things advertising promises is ours (if only we buy this or that)? Or has he, all along, been working on the Coca Cola account and has finally cracked it?

    A couple of episodes back, Don walks out of a creative meeting while someone is giving a description of the average beer drinker. Joe Beer, it seems, is basically content with his life.

    Did Don realise there was something fundamentally wrong with that picture? That to sell Coca Cola (or indeed, anything) advertisers need to tap into a deep discontent? What was it? What was the discontent that we feel that can be exploited?

    Besides, he can't work like this — a dozen or so creatives working together; part of a committee. He needs to work alone and he will only be allowed to do that if he can bring home to McCann-Erickson something really special all by himself. The great white whale goes hunting.

    He finds his answer in Leonard - the disconnected, lonely, invisible man.

    Don hugs him: he has found the answer to his problem. We can sell connectedness; togetherness, optimism. Love. Acknowledgement. Thank you Leonard.

    Cynical? Perhaps.

    Maybe Don really has awoken from his selfish, manipulative sleep to enlightenment.

    Is Schrodinger's cat alive or dead? Neither and both, until we open the box.

    And now it is the end of the show. the box won't ever be opened. It comes down to our perception; whether we are an optimist or a pessimist.

    Will things work out for Sterling, Robert and Peggy? They are in the box too.

    One last point: Don can't say the words to Betty, "I love you", but "I know" she says.

    A truth well told? The consumate ad man starts telling lies the moment he speaks; but tells the truth when words fail him. Now we know. We should forgive Betty her coldness; it was all there inside all along.

  3. Thanks for your reflections, Philip. I love your image of the great white hunting. That seems apt. But, I think Don was genuinely hunting for himself and some meaning, while also--great ad man that he is--always ready to experience the world as material for the next great ad. I read a New York Times interview with Jon Hamm, in which he shared his interpretation of Don's final moment on the show. He sees Don as genuinely questing for his true self and that what he realized whlie meditating is that who he really is is an ad man. The two came together for him in that moment.