Written by Hannah Dunleavy


Mona Lisa smile

AMC’s epic trawl through 1960s Madison Avenue has come to its end. But what did that ending mean? Hannah Dunleavy waves goodbye to Mad Men. SPOILERS AHOY.

Don Draper meditating

All photos: AMC.

A man sits at a restaurant table. The screen goes black. Silence. Years-long debate erupts about the fate of Tony Soprano and the clues which may or may not have been littered throughout the years, months, weeks and minutes before the HBO masterpiece came to such an abrupt end.

It seems fitting that Sopranos alumni Matt Weiner has chosen to end Mad Men on a similarly ambiguous note. The internet has already exploded with theories on what that enigmatic smile on Don’s face meant in that final shot. Had he found peace? Did he finally feel something? Was it happiness?

Or was it the Eureka moment of his entire advertising career?

It’s easy to see it both ways. The cut to Coca Cola’s most famous ad could well be a comment on the industry. Don might have reached to the “better place” Meredith was hoping for, but the world goes on and someone else at McCann Eriksson was going to come up with I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing – (which, of course, they actually did). And wouldn’t that just be the way of it? Don finds a way to reconcile Dick Whitman and Don Draper and some Madison Avenue twat comes along and uses it to sell a soft drink.

Accepting this as the correct interpretation of that smile means you also have to accept that Don is capable of change. And given the rinse/repeat cycle of his life to date, it’s not exactly an easy sell. But in that extraordinary scene that preceded it, it did seem that Draper had experienced something life-changing. That Leonard’s gorgeous but tragic tale of isolation had finally articulated everything Don had felt so long, perhaps his whole life. He realised he wasn’t the only man who believed himself to be on the outside looking in. And he’d started to do something about it.

Joan on the phoneI’m with Betty (and more on that later) when she told Don she didn’t have much time left and didn’t want to waste it arguing. That’s how I’ve felt about much of this final series – when we’ve just seven hours to go who needs all the drama of Megan or Glenn? If you’d told me a week ago, that the final minutes of one of my all-time favourite dramas would be spent on a character we’d never even met before, I’d have probably been quite angry. So all credit to virtual unknown Evan Arnold for delivering on that awesome monologue.

So maybe Don can change. Look at Pete: not so long ago a seething pot of misery, he’s now so fricking happy he’s not only entirely unbothered that he’s not got the send-off he deserved, he’s actually giving his presents away. A thing like that.

But back at that hillside there’s the ding. A smile and a ding. And Coca Cola. OK, Weiner said he would never give credit for a real advert to one of his characters, but he also said he wasn’t going to do an episode about the assassination of JFK and ask Margaret Sterling how that panned out.

There are clues in Person to Person to suggest the iconic Hilltop advert is being notched up as a Draper. There’s the receptionist, whose look apes that of a girl in the commercial. There’s Peggy’s reassurance that Don’s certain to be taken back. There’s Stan’s statement in his call with Peggy (more on that later) that Don will return and her later acknowledgement that Stan is always right. And there are probably many, many more – if you chose to look for them.

“Don realised he wasn’t the only man who believed himself to be on the outside looking in. And he’d started to do something about it. ”

I’ve seen it twice and I’ve yet to make up my mind. Much like I’ve always seen Tony Soprano as Schrödinger’s gangster, neither dead nor alive, I like to think there is no right answer here. What you think of Don will ultimately decide his fate.

So, what of the fate of those left in New York? A few weeks ago Teddy pitched a tagline to nothing in particular: “There are three women in every man’s life.” Don called all three of his this week and while they were all pretty powerful in their own ways; it was his call to Betty that was most devastating. I’ve talked about the criticism January Jones has received in the role before, but I defy anyone to say she was anything but wonderful here, with that economic sign off (“Birdy.” “I know.”) being among the most gut-wrenching things the series has ever produced. Some lovely stuff too from Sally and little Bobby 5, children struggling to make the best of an uncertain future.

If I’m honest, I wasn’t too sold on the Peggy and Stan stuff. There’s been something special about these two since she stripped off in front of him in that hotel room in order to prove a point and the recent scene in which she told him about her baby was a thing of beauty. So, I’ve no objection to them being together. But the manner of it was so rom-com, so incongruous, that it icked-up a perfectly nice ending for two of my favourite characters.

Stan from Mad MenThat said, Elisabeth Moss’ delivery of that second “what?” in their phone call was perfection. As was that charming little smile she did when Joan told her that while she would look for another writer, “the partnership was just for her.” Moss has been so splendid over the last seven series and the future of Peggy has always been as important as that of Don.

Roger and Joan, too, get a happy ending of sorts. By accepting his offer to leave a fortune to Kevin she gave herself the freedom to start her own business, while he’s off to Montreal with a French firecracker. How very Roger. The scene in the apartment that no amount of money seems to be tempting Joan to leave, gave their relationship an amicable end and some of their best ever lines. (“Does Greg know?” “No, he’s just a terrible person.”/ “Are you OK?” “For the time being, but I am getting married.”)

Whether Don will play a role in any of their lives again is unknown. But I suspect they’re all going to happy in their own ways. And maybe Don will too. Enigmatic smile. Ding.

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Written by Hannah Dunleavy

Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.