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We Dissect Last Night's Mad Men Finale

tumblr_nojb6zFEyx1qi532yo6_500.gifPAPER editors Abby Schreiber and Eric Thurm go deep (very deep) into Mad Men's much-talked about series finale. Read their thoughts on what happened in the episode and the show's legacy and share your opinions in the comments below or tweet to Abby and Eric.

Abby Schreiber: Did you like the ending? Did you think it was satisfying?

Eric Thurm: I don't think it was satisfying at all, but I also don't think it was supposed to be? My strongest reaction immediately after the credits rolled was feeling royally trolled -- the entire seventh season has been spent trying to get me to invest in Don and maybe think that he could change and be a better person, and then at the crucial moment Matthew Weiner sucker punched me with the Coke ad.

Abby: I had the opposite reaction. At first I thought the episode was pretty 'ho-hum,' the kind of episode that would have been fine mid-season but I thought the Coke ad tie-in was brilliant! I agree that it did feel like we were played but on the other hand, it feels more realistic to me that Don would not have the capacity to change that completely and abandon his ego and former drives.

Eric: Yeah, I'm not suggesting that the gut punch is necessarily a *bad* thing, just that I was really upset about it for a while. Like, it's pretty artistically impressive to stick to your guns at the end and say something so horrifying, but it's also... you know... horrifying. I find the idea that Don goes on this whole journey so he can have a good ad idea repulsive. But then again, I'm not sure why, exactly -- for most of the show's run -- it's treated as exciting when Don has a brainstorm. Did you find it thrilling instead of awful?

Abby: I think from the perspective of a viewer invested in the character, I thought it was awful but from the perspective of a viewer invested in the show at large -- and interested in Matthew Weiner's way of thinking / storytelling -- I thought it was pretty thrilling. So I'm conflicted. In a lot of ways, I think what was thrilling was when the lightbulb moment went off in *my* head at the very end and I was like, "HE WENT BACK TO MCCANN AND DID THE COKE AD!" That feeling of 'solving the puzzle' (even though many, many people did, too), was thrilling in and of itself and, to me, part of what made it satisfying was also its confirmation that for all of his alcoholism, abandonment issues and general fucked up-ness, Don's still a brilliant marketer.

Eric: Confirming Don's identity as an ad man makes sense to me as a way of thinking through the finale, and it's probably a dramatically satisfying one, just one that also feels very depressing. The way I'm increasingly looking at Don's plot is something like "man has his quest for personal fulfillment subsumed by capital," a description that I think fits pretty much all of the buttons on the other characters. Joan rejects a life of leisure (and cocaine) with Richard, even though she never has to work another day in her life and her son is taken care of. She's just all about the hustle for its own sake. Meanwhile, Peggy and Stan finally give in to an obvious case of transference and realize that the closest they'll come to happiness is an office romance. Good for them?

Abby: Yeah, I thought the Peggy-Stan ending was a little like Matthew Weiner's way of giving some candy to the audience. One thing I was thinking about last night and tweeted was the idea that all three of those characters were, in their own ways, like the man at the group therapy session who describes being ignored by his family. Don, Peggy and Joan each feel like they need to fight to be seen the way that they want to be seen and that plays into their respective endings: for all her burgeoning feminism and career ambition, Peggy wants to be seen as a romantic partner; for all her sex appeal, Joan wants to be seen as a smart career woman; Don wants to be seen as a powerful, respectable man. In some ways they're all running away from their pasts: their pasts as the homely secretary (Peggy), as the mistress (Joan) and as the son of a prostitute (Don).

Eric: I think it's interesting, then, that the character with what I would say is the most unambiguously satisfying ending is also the one who embraces the past the most: Pete Campbell (love you, Pete). Pete's level of self-awareness, both in last week's episode and in his final interactions with Peggy, is pretty staggering. He knows that no one likes him, he knows why, and he knows that he's never going to do better in life than a partner who loves him and understands him and wants to help raise his child. (Also, he has a sweet job at Learjet, which helps.) Where Don seems like he's trying to exorcise his past, or at the very least transmute it into ad copy, Pete views it as something he can overcome through understanding. (In case it is not obvious, Pete is my favorite character on the show and I am very pleased that his ending was so well done.)

Abby: That's a good point. Maybe there's something there about how fulfillment cannot be found by escaping your past.You have to accept it and integrate it into your present, instead. (Now I sound like a Psychology 101 student.) Let's talk about Joan for a minute. Did you like how things ended with her?

Eric: I am... unsure.

Abby: Part of me wanted to be like "rah rah!" because she chose a career over a man and is going to be this kick-ass independent woman but part of me was sorry that she won't have a partner. (But, also, Richard seemed like a douche-with-a-capital 'D'.)

Eric: I totally understand why it's so satisfying to think about her being successful with her own production company, and being her own boss -- she becomes an avatar of a very particular type of feminism by the end of the show. And when she tells Peggy "The partnership is just for you," my heart melted a little bit. (I think that is how I will propose one day.) But I wonder whether the final beats of the story weren't rushed just a little bit. It's very clear that she has a good thing going with Richard, a man who has seemed to mostly accept and love Joan exactly for who she is. It's slightly less clear why Joan wants to go back to work. Certainly, she enjoys being a boss and carving out some power for herself within the workplace (given how many times she's been burned by men). But I guess I am just unsure whether Joan independently values working, or just wants to be financially secure? If it's the latter, I don't see the point of her ending. If it's the former, that's depressing in the same way as Don's plot. (With good reason.)

Abby: Right. I think she didn't like the idea of being another 'kept woman.' But, I agree, it was a little depressing.

Eric: To pull back a little bit, I feel like there are, in general, two types of series finales for TV shows: the "THIS IS THE END" finale and the "life goes on" finale. One totally wraps up the world of the show, or at least puts a definitive button on the stories of the characters, and the other gently nudges you out of the show, even though you can guess at the shenanigans everyone will get up to once you're gone. "Person to Person" feels like an unbelievably grim version of the "life goes on" finale, in part because of Joan being pulled, by inertia, back into the workforce. For Don, life goes on exactly the way it did at the beginning of the series -- he's a prized executive at an advertising agency pitching a famous campaign.

Abby: In some ways, the only person who has a trajectory that you probably couldn't have predicted and who, arguably, developed and grew the most was Peggy. Say what you will about the cheesiness of her ending up with Stan but that was out of character for her in some sense.

Eric: How so?

Abby: Well I think that she gave up the opportunity to further her career so she could be with Stan (whether she was aware of that motivation initially or not) and to so completely open up and expose her emotions and vulnerabilities like that was something we hadn't gotten to see from her.

Eric: Hmmm I didn't see it that way. Whatever problems you have with the industry, I think it's pretty clear that Stan is right in their first conversation -- Peggy loves advertising, and she has an incredibly specific career goal (to be the creative director of a big agency). Going to work with Joan in a related, but ultimately kind of tangential field felt more like a pipe dream to me than something Peggy would actually do. After all, she seems to be doing just fine at McCann! (Her and the tentacle porn.)

Abby: That's true. Finally, let's pour one out for Betty. I know the plot point was introduced last week but did you like (that's probably the wrong word for it) the choice to have her get a more definitive (and so, so sad!) ending?

Eric: I don't know if I like the decision to give Betty a death sentence (it occasionally felt like the writers were punishing her), but I do think it was spectacularly handled. She gets to demonstrate all of the qualities that make her so formidable, have dynamite interactions with her kids and with her ex-husband, for once in her life actually get to be clear about what she wanted and have it executed. (It doesn't hurt that January Jones did maybe the best acting she will ever do.)

Abby: Well said!

Eric: I'm not sure that a character *needed* to get lung cancer, but I also appreciate the way Betty handled it. One of my roommates, who has had cancer twice, actually went out of his way to mention how pleased he was with her general attitude.

Abby: There's something really awful about the idea that it took a terminal illness for Betty to become a better parent/person but I liked that eleventh hour growth just the same. I just feel so sad for the kids. Poor baby Gene!

Eric: Oh yeah, we haven't talked about Sally!


Eric: Kiernan Shipka tha gawd. Her ability to mimic January Jones' mannerisms is just spectacular.

Abby: Do you think that she'll grow up fast and be a super driven, responsible adult after having lost her mother at a young age and (probably) taking care of her younger brothers or do you think she'll fall off the deep end and be, like, a cokehead in the 70s/80s etc. I can't decide...

Eric: There are not many fictional characters I feel confident making statements about like this, but: Sally is going to be just fine. She's really intelligent and mature and empathetic, seems to have a much better relationship with her step-father, and, I think, no matter what Don does, he'll always be there for her.

Abby: She'd have turned 60 last year. Whoa.

Eric: What do you think the finale will do for the show's legacy as a whole? Will it change the way people think about the show?

Abby: I'm not sure if the finale will change peoples' thoughts about the series. I think it'll be remembered, along with The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, as one of the ultimate shows featuring an anti-hero and Don's ending cemented that legacy.

Eric: I'm not so sure if Don is an antihero, but I do agree that the finale won't do much to change the reputation of the show. Probably the most important thing about Mad Men (at least for me) is that it's aggressively non-linear -- you can view it as a loosely connected collection of stories about similar characters that generates its own system of meaning and is concerned with the same set of ideas, but it doesn't have to "stick the landing" in the way that, say, Breaking Bad did. So no matter what people end up thinking of "Person to Person," we'll always have (Joan) Harris.

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