Don’s still on the road in ‘Person to Person’, the series finale, and as my enthusiasm for road-trip episodes of TV isn’t unlimited, my patience was wearing a little thin with this plot arc. However, he’s starting to feel the tug of home, and he has phone conversations with the three most significant females in his life.
Firstly with daughter Sally, who tells him about Betty’s illness. His subsequent phone call to Betty is a thing of beauty throughout; their clipped exchange of “Birdy”, “I know”, was the sort of pared-down and hard-earned writing that works when you’ve had seasons to get to know characters. And then a call to Peggy, whose furious “Where the hell are you?” is borne out of year of putting up with Don and his ways. It’s significant that she’s in charge throughout their conversation; whatever their relationship in the past, it’s now her who’s the adult, telling him that he can come back to McCann Erickson and work on the Coca-Cola account, while he runs through his failings: “I messed everything up… I’m not the man you think I am… I broke all my vows, scandalised my child, took another man’s name and made nothing of it”. There’s a hint that he might be contemplating suicide, but it doesn’t come to anything, and might even have been fan service, as there’s always been a sizeable body of opinion which saw that as the show’s likely conclusion.
These phone calls, though, are made while Don is at a coastal retreat with Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, who is, I think, the only person alive who knows him as Dick. (And for a second I thought that my suggestion in last week’s review was going to be Don’s endgame, sort of: Don “dies”, Dick survives.) I’m afraid that I found this kind of irritating: I can see that it illustrates the late ‘60s/early ‘70s counterculture, but putting a hippy commune on top of a road trip meant that I was never entirely on board with Don’s storyline in this episode.
Everything else, though, is terrific. Roger regretfully sacks Meredith, Don’s secretary, because it looks as if Don isn’t coming back. (And not for translating Roger’s speech into pig Latin.) “There are a lot of better places than here”, she reassures Roger, who has a great week: he tells Joan, who suspects that Roger’s playing with the secretaries again, that in fact he met his new lover through Megan Draper. “She’s old enough to be her mother… actually, she is her mother.”
And I wondered whether we’d seen the last of Joan a couple of episodes ago. I’m glad I was wrong, because Christina Hendricks was on drop-dead sensational form this week. She tries coke – the other kind – in Malibu with Richard, and although he foresees a life of leisure for the two of them she doesn’t want to be that person for the rest of her life; she’s got things to do, having been thwarted or demeaned throughout her career.
So when Ken Cosgrove asks her to help out with making a short film for Dow, she sees the possibilities immediately, and asks Peggy to write a script for it, then come in as partner on a production company. “We won’t”, promises Joan, “answer to anyone”. And the path is smoothed when Roger, unprompted, promises to put their son in his will. Peggy ultimately decides to stay at McCann – I was actually quite surprised that the offer was made at all, given how spiky their relationship has always been – and Richard decides that if Joan’s starting a business then he’s just not going to be getting enough attention. This is, of course, staggeringly selfish, but it’s probably worth bearing in mind that Richard knows exactly how much work is involved in building a business from scratch. Anyway, he walks out.
Peggy then recounts her adventures to Stan, who tells her that he’s in love with her. Peggy talks through her feelings, and somewhat to her surprise comes to the realisation that she feels the same way. They kiss, and it’s borne as much out of affection as lust; it’s an unexpectedly lovely moment, which once again works because we know these people.
Which takes us nearly to the end of Mad Men. We get closure of sorts on just about everyone. Pete manages a graceful farewell to Peggy, then heads off for his new job with Learjet, finally getting the professional and personal adoration he’s always felt entitled to. Joan starts her production company. Roger and Marie, on honeymoon, bicker amiably. Betty’s still defiantly smoking. Peggy’s at the typewriter, with Stan in her life.
And Don’s still on retreat and meditating, then we cut to the classic 1971 “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” advertisement for Coca-Cola. I’ve seen more than one interpretation of this, but as far as I’m concerned there’s really only one possibility: Don heads back to work – as he always does – and creates the ad (which was, in real life, also done by McCann Erickson). Any other interpretation is, as far as I’m concerned, stretching for something which isn’t there. I suppose one could argue about why it happened – did his encounter with the other unloved middle-aged man provide an emotional awakening, or did the atmosphere at Hippy Central fire his creative synapses? It doesn’t matter much. It’s a happy ending for Don, for everyone else, and for us; even if this episode wasn’t wholly successful, Matthew Weiner unequivocally stuck the landing as far as I’m concerned.
Which is good, because Mad Men – particularly in its first four seasons, but generally throughout – was a show which made a substantial contribution to the way in which TV is now regarded. It wasn’t just great TV, although it was great; it wasn’t just one of the best series ever – although it was that too. What Mad Men did, though, was confirm beyond doubt that TV can be regarded as an art form, and a sui generis one at that; not just an inferior long-form version of cinema, or a novel with moving pictures. For that alone, those of us who unashamedly love TV will forever be in Matthew Weiner’s debt.