So what’s the moral of Mad Men’s story? Even without some distilled lesson, we should be able to chart a few transformations under the auspice of the American Dream where, at least ostensibly, an individual could start with nothing and grow and improve to become, oh I don’t know, a millionaire ad man.
Now how do we rectify that with the show’s creator, as well as this episode’s director and writer, Matthew Weiner’s quote from a recent Rotten Tomatoes interview saying point blank, “people don’t change”? Our beloved characters’ last hurrahs in “Person to Person” might lead you to think that Peggy’s emotional forthrightness with Stan was out of character or that Pete’s recent sincerity towards Trudy and Peggy does not mesh with the Pete we knew season one. Sure Pete’s demeanor and Peggy’s honesty with herself have morphed over the seasons, but overall I contend that the characters’ underlying motivations and selves remain in tact. Let’s first look at Don.
Don’s final destination has been decidedly murky since embarking on his unannounced cross-country road trip over the past few episodes and this instability is definitely nothing new. Mad Men’s compelling pilot introduced us to Don’s double life as a philanderer and later on his more long-term double life as Dick Whitman impersonating Lieutenant Don Draper. Since those earliest moments Don’s story has been a great unraveling of a superficially stable and successful life as a wiz advertising executive living in the suburbs to a thrice divorced ad executive with a giant, empty Manhattan apartment. Don’s increasing instability can be traced to certain aspects of his character that have remained relatively static, i.e. his penchant for deception, his knowledge of people and a difficulty with commitment – which all pan out this episode.
Against all odds and without a car, Don ends up in Utah when Sally calls to inform him of Betty’s lung cancer. A wizened Sally coaches Don on parenthood, a thought echoed by Betty in a stirring phone conversation with Don. Betty uses a surprisingly display of strength to remind Don that his sole consistency has been transience. The early portion of this episode lags under the weight of so many conversations having to tie up seven seasons-long character arcs, but nonetheless both Betty and Sally deliver strong performances reminding Don that even impending death will not fundamentally change him into an honest, committed father.
As a result Don moves on from Utah to Stephanie Horton’s house in Los Angeles, thus ending his journey with the closest person to the greatest (platonic) love of his life – Anna Draper. Stephanie drags Don to a hippie retreat in California causing Don to reassess his emotional reclusiveness surrounded by an openness unseen in New York. Don bonds with a staightlaced man named Leonard, who chronicles the depth of his perceived insignificance where nobody in his life would care if he dropped dead. Don firmly embraces Leonard, physically bridging a gap with a show of intimacy heretofore unprecedented from Don in any context. A call with Peggy rushes back to Don because despite his transience and unreliability at least one person sincerely cares about his wellbeing.
The logical conclusion would be on many other shows that Don realizes his self worth and leaves the ad industry to pursue his love of cares falling in step with his blue collar upbringing. However all indications from the perfectly chosen final scene don’t suggest this sort of predictable transformation. Don sits on a promontory meditating with a diverse group of hippies, perhaps the same group he had scoffed at doing tai chi the previous day. Don chants “om” and then a smile curls on his face – before we cut to one of the most memorable commercials of all time featuring a diverse group of young people sing about buying the world a Coke.
Sure Don got his mojo back, but just like the first episode where Don comes up with a Lucky Strike pitch from something a waiter mentions, he uses this rambling experience as source material for an ad, a hallmark ad sure, but an ad nonetheless. Don might have changed his approach from drunkenly mining ideas from a dark, dingy bar to a sunlit wellness retreat on the California coast, but through and through Don knows how to manipulate people.
Peggy and Joan, our other foci for the episode, have also grown while remaining the same. After Peggy tries to comfort Don, she and Stan finally verbalize the feelings they have both had for some time. In a sputtering reveal, Stan tells Peggy he loves her and Peggy comes to the conclusion she loves him too, which all seems at odds with her singular focus on work that catapulted her from secretary to copy chief. Still the final pan on Peggy starts off with her typing at the typewriter well into night before Stan is revealed behind her massaging her shoulders. Peggy’s passionate pursuit of work achievement is strong as ever, but now she also happens to have a man behind her.
In a seeming role reversal, the less traditionally feminist Joan chooses a budding production company over her new boyfriend Richard. Joan’s arc may have involved the most change from a character largely defined by her relationships and sexuality to one defined by her tenacity to succeed in business. In fact, we are reminded of Joan and Roger’s relationship when he visits to discuss the assets he plans to leave for Kevin in his will.
Ultimately when considering the eight year age difference between Joan and Peggy and given Joan’s discomfort in settling for a well off married life with Greg, it is likely that societal pressures more strongly impeded Joan. Joan goes so far as to tell Richard, “I can’t just turn off that part of myself,” suggesting business acumen has always been there and had just to be unearthed.
If there is a moral to the story of Mad Men it’s not some lesson that hard work and grit will get you what you want (see Joan’s firing from McCann). Instead I would argue that the characters never really changed, but rather learned to be more honest with themselves about who they are and what they want. In that way the resolution of Don’s character arc was less of a change and more of an acceptance of who he has always been. Don may truly have benefited from the retreat and yoga, but he wouldn’t be Don if he didn’t use that knowledge to make an ad.