Mad Men ends: What the TV series says about the ’60s and the present (Contains Spoilers)

Don Drapper (Jon Hamm in the final episode of Mad Men -- Image from AMC video segmnet
Don Drapper (Jon Hamm) in the final episode of Mad MenImage from video segment

The following article contains spoilers about the final episode of Mad Men.

Giving advice comes easily to Mad Men’s eloquent and composed Don Draper (Jon Hamm). In this week’s series finale, Don passionately gives his most common piece of advice to his niece Stephanie before finally taking it to heart himself: Move forward. Whether he’s motivating his secretary-turned-copywriter Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) after her unplanned pregnancy, consoling a wet coworker being sent to dry out, or rallying the agency staff during a pep talk, the Creative Director of Sterling Cooper and Partners insists that life is unidirectional. As the series comes to a close, Don’s well-worn adage takes on a deeper meaning for Mad Men’s characters and viewers alike.

Most of the final half of Mad Men‘s seventh season has focused on exploring how each character couldn’t ‘go home again.’ Joan (Christina Hendricks) is unable to regain her status in the offices of McCann Erickson; Peggy discusses the sense of finality and loss surrounding the birth and adoption of her baby; and Don fails to inspire his employees with his silver tongue. But now we’ve turned the page in the American narrative. You can’t go home again, but everyone is entitled to a new start.

Scholars such as Joseph Campbell and Dan McAdams explore common narratives that ring especially true. Americans find a distinct kind of truth in stories that rely on struggle, unique personal gifts and ultimate triumph. This narrative of redemption and its intimate relationship with the American dream can be found throughout Mad Men, revealing its overarching commentary on the United States in the 1960s and how we continue to imagine it.

Historical dramas reveal more about contemporary issues than the era in which they are set. Roots said more about race relations in the 1970s than in the antebellum South; Deadwood explored a rapidly changing media landscape; and Boardwalk Empire commented on the modern war on drugs. Mad Men’s focus isn’t the ‘60s. It’s the way we represent, interpret and act on our memories of the decade that seems to take up more than its share of the last century.

The ’60s appear as a watershed moment that catapulted America forward, but not completely for the better. Instances of bigotry and misogyny in Mad Men show us how far we’ve come, but also how little has changed. Globalization and the Vietnam War fundamentally altered America’s mid-century position as an (practically) unrivaled world power. Parallels to contemporary changes in information technology, the war on terror and the continuous struggle for equality help us ‘read’ Mad Men through Don’s words of advice.

Matthew Weiner’s lovingly crafted and carefully executed homage to the ’60s allowed Americans to analyze our collective history as well as our relationship with the past. The overwhelming presence of spooky elements in the last seven episodes of the series — ghostly apparitions, eerie music, “rumors flying around like bats” and an abundance of Halloween decorations — suggests that the decade defined by conflict and change continues to haunt us as we struggle with our own rapidly shifting world.

Weiner’s Sopranos-esque endings for his characters remind us that we develop our own narratives, including the stories we tell about others. Watching Pete, Joan, Roger and the rest embark on new chapters in their lives felt like reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel — to have Peggy and Stan live happily ever after, turn to page 64. The futures we see for these characters seem obvious to us, but compare your theories to a fellow fan’s and you’ll quickly realize how subjectively — and exquisitely — Mad Men ended.

“This is America. Pick a job and then become the person that does it.” Bobbie Barrett (Melinda McGraw) may have spoken those words all the way back in Season 2, but they seem especially relevant to last night’s episode. Don has no choice but to take his own advice, to move forward with his newfound serenity and apply it the only way he knows how — by selling it. He chose to be an ad man and he became that person. Ten years later the industry, the country and the world at large have changed enough that it requires a different kind of person, but only slightly. He may trade in libation for meditation, but he’s still selling the American dream.

Don, who reminded viewers over and over again that people don’t, in fact, change, seems to be poised to at least develop, even if he doesn’t reinvent himself. A decade of addiction and despair – not to mention professional success and millions of dollars – has finally led to a modicum of growth for our troubled protagonist. The characters of Mad Men continually try and fail to change their behavior, only occasionally learning from their mistakes. Nevertheless, they move forward. Perhaps that’s all we can hope for, as individuals or as a nation.

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