The Pain from an Old Wound

all images courtesy of AMC

all images courtesy of AMC

Mad Men ends on an inhale, with the ping of a brilliant idea.

"The new day brings new hope. The lives we've led, the lives we've yet to lead. A new day. New ideas. A new you."

I'm reluctant to write about this. Part of the fun of finales like "Person to Person" is that we get to keep thinking about them forever. We can project ourselves onto them over and over again. We can think about them in the context of the book we're reading, the play we just saw, or that crazy moment we had the other day with that stranger on the bus. We can let them wash over us again and again.

Mad Men as a series functions in the same way. It never offers a simple answer. It always contains multiple, sometimes competing truths, and it always keeps us on our toes. It remains more devoted to exploring the inner lives of its characters than perhaps any other show in history. How fitting that its final moment would leave its main character, Don Draper, in the middle of what looks to be a wholly internal revolution. It's cathartic. It's sad. It's hilarious. It's expansive. It is surprising and inevitable. It is roiling and peaceful. It is incomplete and complete.

I wonder if I should feel bashful at how profoundly highly I regard this show. With the exception of one notable flaw (its frustrating and uncharacteristic lack of interest in minority characters), I'm hard pressed to receive it with anything but gratitude. I don't watch it looking to decide whether I agree or disagree with how it was written or executed. I don't try to guess what will happen, and I don't rebel against what does. And yet I don't only love it. I watch it actively, trying to understand what's happening, and why and how. Watching this show has made me smarter. It has helped me articulate what I most value as a writer. I care deeply about its characters, which makes the end more painful for knowing I can't know what will happen to them next. Like the complicated people in my life, I will forever be trying to figure them out. And I mean that in a good way.

I guess I'm going into all of this because I'm not particularly in the mood to pick apart this episode. Watching it was an emotional experience for me; I've found myself resisting trying to put that reaction into words, not least because I want the freedom to reinterpret repeatedly. I don't want to be quoted on this. On the other hand, there's so much to talk about! My brain whirs with the lovely details, the surprises, the implications and the hopes of this final hour of my favorite show. I suppose I just don't want this essay to mark the limit of my dialogue about Mad Men. Can you blame me?

With all that in mind, here are a few things I can't wait to keep thinking about forever.

Don Draper and the real thing

"Be open to this. You might feel better."

We've seen Don Draper break down before. Indeed, more than once, his body has literally broken down, rebelled against him, the stress of his deception and his shame too much for him to bear.

"Person to Person" takes Don to the brink one last time, with the most significant women in his life guiding him to the precipice. Sally, our impossibly grown-up little ballerina, granddaughter of Gene, speaker of truths, breaks Betty's news to her father. She calls him "Daddy" here, and she makes a valiant effort to steer him in a preternaturally wise direction: Bobby and Gene should not go to live with William, as Betty wishes. Nor should Don come to sweep them away. They should stay with Henry. "They should at least be in the same bed and at the same school." Sally is the adult on this phone call, and she seems to have steeled herself to play that role for some time to come.

Next up is Betty, in the most painful scene of the show's history. Betty's treatment of Don here is something new. It's a bit of a callback to the night she confronted him about his true identity and, shocked by the depth of his horror at being exposed, became as solicitous toward him as we'd ever seen her. But this is different. This is Betty almost beyond Don. When she says, "Don, honey," we know she's about to get real. "I appreciate your intentions, I really do. But I'm not going to waste the rest of my time arguing about this. I want to keep things as normal as possible. And you not being here is part of that." The weight of this statement hits him visibly, her loving delivery sharpening rather than softening the blow. In the silence, they both acknowledge that these children, in a very real way, don't have a father. "Birdie..." he says, and all that remains between them hangs in the air. "I know," she replies. There's no "everything's gonna be okay" this time.

When Stephanie takes Don (still stunned and hungover from his call with Betty) along to "some kind of a retreat," he enters as a skeptic. As the leader coaches the group to walk around the space with "no aiming, no purpose other than to move your legs," Don walks around with his arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows raised. He couldn't be more closed off. With his khakis and his fitted shirt and his perfect hair and his smirk, he couldn't be less open. He is presenting himself in the role he's been playing his whole adult life: Don Draper, White American Male. I found myself wondering as I watched him whether he truly felt uncomfortable or whether he was just indicating discomfort because he's so used to pretending. There's always been an element of Don that I didn't quite buy. The aggressively masculine element: whenever he gets rough or commanding sexually, for instance, or when he so cruelly denies Betty when she calls him out on his cheating. Something about his affect in those moments never seems right. He seems uncomfortable in his own skin, as if he's trying too hard to "be a man." He acknowledges it himself when Betty pressures him to use force to discipline Bobby, and he confesses that the beatings he suffered from his father when he was a child have made him reluctant to beat his. The same dissonance is recognizable here, as he stands in the circle and, rather than engaging with his partner, watches Stephanie play with hers. Whatever Don is doing, whoever he is playing, it's enough to make the old lady across from him want to push him with all her might. Maybe he makes her feel anger. Or maybe she just wants to wake him up, to shake him out of the performance in which he's trapped himself.

Don gets shaken again, watching Stephanie testify during their second seminar. She speaks of feeling judged by her parents, by the world: "You shouldn't have dropped out of school. You shouldn't have been with a low life. You shouldn't have gotten pregnant. You should have loved being a mother."

That last sentence seems particularly resonant to Don, who we know told Peggy to leave her child and never look back, who spoke openly to Megan about having to pretend to love his own children, who has just been told by Betty that he is essentially not a father to them. In a season that has returned repeatedly to the theme of parents abandoning children, Mad Men's final hour refuses to reunite Don with his. But it does take him in a new direction. When he follows Stephanie outside and desperately delivers his worn-to-shreds pep talk ("You can put this behind you. It'll get easier as you move forward."), it's clear that's he's as concerned with his own life as with hers. And Stephanie's response (what a remarkable delivery from Caity Lotz) is totally, heartbreakingly new: "Oh, Dick. I don't think you're right about that."

Someone's finally telling Don to try another approach. Today's truth is, "Your baby is going to spend the rest of his life staring at the door waiting for you to walk in." We've come a long way from, "It will shock you how much this never happened."

Speaking of which, when Don wakes up to find Stephanie gone and himself stranded at the retreat, he calls Peggy. The show makes beautiful use of the distance between them here, with Peggy looking like she wants to jump into the phone and drag Don back to safety. Don is on the verge of collapse, and she senses his distress quickly; this is as maternal as we've ever seen Peggy. She tries granting permission ("You can come home."), coaxing ("Don't you want to write for Coke?") and finally commanding ("Don: come home."), but she can't reach him. We share her alarm. In this moment, it feels like anything could happen; we've seen Don brought low before, but this is the nadir.

"What did you ever do that was so bad?" Don is devastatingly ready with his response: "I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man's name. I made nothing of it."

In the end, Don is saved by strangers. What a stroke of luck: to completely fall apart in the middle of a hippie retreat. Whatever Don was resisting before, he has no more strength to resist now, in his third seminar. In his vulnerable state—paralyzed, panicked, flattened—he forgets to pretend. He lets the curtain drop, because he's surprised by someone else. In "The Suitcase," Don loses it when he looks up and sees Peggy sympathetically watching him. In a similar moment of unexpected release here, he clicks into what this other, very different White American Male is saying, and Don lets his body lead the way, driven by desperation to live fully in the moment.

Anything could happen next for Don. Maybe this breakthrough is the permanent one. Maybe he returns to New York, at peace, ready to be himself and no one else, to care for his children. Maybe he writes that Coke ad, having finally genuinely lived the thing he's selling. Or maybe he doesn't. We'll never know.

All we can know is that the last time we see Don Draper, he's sitting cross legged, chest up, back straight, open to the universe, breathing. Smiling to himself. Something is happening within him, and he's paying attention to it. That can't be a bad thing.

Joan and Holloway Harris

Here's the thing about Joan: she seems like she's having great fun with Richard (only Joan could be so utterly charming on cocaine), and it remains refreshing to see her in such a frank and respectful relationship with a man. But we don't see her come alive until she sits down to a business dinner with Ken. As she later tells Richard, "I can't just turn off that part of myself." He reminds her that this isn't just happening to her, that she is making a choice—which is true, and wonderful. Joan lets him go (off to invest in Studio 54, probably), and we see her, one last time, gather up her heart and put on a brave face for the sake of business.

Joan's proposal scene with Peggy (get ready: I'm about to make a statement) is the most exhilarating moment in Mad Men history. I was fortunate enough to watch "Person to Person" in a sold-out movie theater, and I didn't even catch Joan's line, "You need two names to make it to sound real," because everyone was still cheering deliriously over the heaven-sent "HARRIS. OLSON."

Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss are having a lot of fun here, with Moss delivering the deeply-felt reaction of our dreams. She is into this, man, and she gets how much it means coming from Joan. These two women have been antagonists in the past, even as their professional trajectories brought them closer together, the moment in history and their natural allegiance getting harder and harder to deny. We have very rarely gotten to see them as the ass-kicking feminist duo that a less nuanced show might have let them become. This moment feels earned and realistic, laden with the characters' history, which makes it all the more romantic. Whatever comes next, their mutual admiration and their very real potential for success is a giddy reward for an audience who loves these two women as if they walked among us.

And then: Joan ending up in business on her own is even more right. "Holloway Harris." All I can do is shake my head and cry. I ask you.

Peggy and Chevalier and Samsonite and Joan and Stan

This is how to feel good about Peggy's finale regardless of your thoughts on Peggy and Joan, Peggy and Stan, Peggy and McCann:

Peggy has decisions!

Slowly but surely—she's still realizing it herself—Peggy has come into her own. Pete's summation: "Someday people are going to brag that they worked with you." (Let's not get into Peggy's response, which was another shake-my-head-and-cry moment for me. I may also have made an embarrassing noise in the theater.)

Peggy's decision to stay at McCann isn't the most glorious choice she could have made. But we've been given good reason to believe that it's a solid one. The headhunter predicted she'd be out of there in three years, her salary quadrupled. We see in this episode, with her deft handling of the Chevalier shuffle, that she's not going to have trouble working the system to her advantage at McCann. (Notice the two accounts Peggy mentions in this episode: Chevalier, which prompted Don's throwing money in her face back in "The Other Woman," and Samsonite, the account Don kept Peggy to work on in "The Suitcase." Don is never far from her.) Peggy is never going to be just a cog in this machine.

And, perhaps most importantly, she seems to hear what Stan says: "Work isn't everything." This idea cuts right to the heart of many of Peggy's past difficulties: “I mean, I know what I’m supposed to want, but it just never feels right, or as important as anything in that office.”

Work has always been everything to Peggy, not least because she genuinely loves her work. It's fair to imagine that Peggy, like Don, wouldn't enjoy being a partner. She has never seemed to click as a manager of staff, so focused is she on the work and her own relationship with it. While Joan was clearly put on this earth to wrangle, manage, and lead, Peggy has always seemed ill at ease with it. As intoxicating as the idea of Joan and Peggy going into business together is, Stan has a point: it's a bit of an arbitrary move for someone who has been so very clear about her dreams and goals from the beginning. To Peggy, copywriting has always been art. She does have a rare gift. You guys, maybe it's Peggy who writes for Coke.

I've rarely dared to imagine a life for Peggy where she can have the commitment and passion for her work without the personal pain, loneliness, and confusion that has come with it in the past. Maybe that's what this is. Don and Peggy's relationship is one of my favorites in television, movies, literature, you name it, ever, but Stan arguably knows Peggy as well if not better, and he provides a convincing counterbalance to her beloved brand of insanity.

Speaking of insanity, the Peggy-Stan love scene is joyful bordering on nuts. Even through my lovelorn haze for Mad Men and my deep wish to see Peggy happy, I felt a twinge of incredulity here. But the closer I looked, the more I bought it. As with almost every moment of this show, this scene works because it is some combination of well earned and well executed. It is packed with payoffs from characters we've loved for a long time. Stan's confession rings true as one of those conversations that turns serious suddenly and accidentally. Stan knows Peggy well enough—and so do we—to let her work through her realization slowly rather than giving up on her when she opens with, "I don't even think about you." Their words might seem a bit on the nose, but not one of them is false to these characters or the history that's been delicately woven between them over the years. Like many of the best moments in this show, we experience this happy one layered with all the sad, difficult, and hilarious memories from before. Peggy spurned by Pete; Peggy struggling to be included in the office; rejected by her mother; searching for a roommate; clashing with Joan; stripping with Stan; stabbing Abe; embarrassing herself with Ted; dancing with Don; drinking with Roger. This is a character so fully drawn that every gesture means something to us. And this scene is a gift to our continued hunger for her, our abiding love.

There are other things to think about. The phrase, "I scandalized my child." How Joan says, "Harris. Olson." the same way Jim Hobart says "Coca. Cola." Betty's perfectly manicured nails as she sits smoking in the dark kitchen, Sally doing the dishes behind her. Peggy's "Octopus Pleasuring a Lady" painting hanging on her office wall, festooned now with decorative Halloween kittens. The implications of Don's years of work selling cigarettes. Sally's haunting delivery of "Gene, go watch TV," Betty incarnate. Poor Bobby's grilled cheese. Roger and Marie and the way fighting is like a dance for them. Roger and Joan and their "little rich bastard." Trudy's outfit. A thing like that! But let's leave it for now and come back to it later, when we've mellowed.

There will always be more to think about. What a gift that is. What a joy this has been.


Erika Schmidt is an award-winning writer living in Berkeley, California. She is the 2013 recipient of the Chicago Tribune's Nelson Algren Award for short fiction. A graduate of Northwestern University's Creative Writing and Theatre Programs, she has trained as a writer at StoryStudio Chicago and Narrative Magazine, and as an actor at the School at Steppenwolf.