Series Finale: Mad Men – “Person to Person”

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“Person to Person”

May 17, 2015

“A lot has happened.”

I spent part of Sunday afternoon watching the Mad Men marathon on AMC. I haven’t written about any of the seventh season thus far, which means it’s been nearly two years since I’ve . And the marathon made me glad for this, in its way: I realized that I hadn’t really properly oriented myself to the first half of the season before diving into the first, struggling at times to connect what we were seeing to the big picture.

That was definitely the biggest issues with these final episodes, which often spurned traditional seriality. The show has always been a balance of episodic and procedural engines, but the jumps in time and the revolving door of characters has made these final seven episodes scattered. However, it has also made them distinctive, such that revisiting them reminded me how much each had connected in some way or another. Although the purchase of SCDP by McCann-Erickson has ostensibly been the season’s arc, we never saw its initial implementation, and when the characters tried to turn it into an arc on the level of SCDP’s founding McCann-Erickson stepped in to tell them it wasn’t going to happen. This wasn’t going to be that season. Don, Peggy, Joan, Roger, and everyone else are not going to ride off into the sunset on stallions—they are more likely to fade into the distance like normal people, living normal lives.

“Person to Person” features characters resisting this. Don Draper’s trip westward features Don literally riding into the sunset, and the finale opens with him racing across the Utah salt flats as though to feel alive again. This season has been Don rallying against the loss of his individuality, gradually discovering that what he no longer had a place in the world. He thinks he and Diane have something special, and then it turns out she’s done the same things to other guys in other towns; he thinks he’s special to McCann and expects to go to a meeting on his own, but it turns out he’s there with every other creative director, listening to a research guy give the pitch he used to give. He’s tasked with writing a speech about the future of the company even before the McCann move, but he can’t even think of anything to say because he’s got nothing to look forward to.

That sounds ominous, and for a while “Person to Person” looks to be headed in that direction: Don is in bad enough shape before he gets on the phone with Sally and she tells him about Betty’s cancer, after which point he’s an alcoholic wreck. But as he moves closer to California, he starts to find himself by stripping himself of Don Draper: he meets up with Anna’s niece Stephanie, who knows him as Dick Whitman. While the new age retreat she takes him to—and leaves him at—is thematically central to the episode, it’s the stripping away of Don Draper that feels most important. Don’s only other connection once there is with Peggy, who is the one of the few people who has at least some sense of who Dick is/was, and the challenges within such a transformation. It’s as though Don Draper had to say goodbye to Betty, and Dick Whitman needed to say goodbye to Peggy, and the man was only able to be at peace once he had reconciled both relationships in his own way.

Don’s turning point in “Person to Person” is odd on the surface, but serves a compelling function. Much of Don’s job has been storytelling, and finding ways to connect with the people in the pitch. And while it’s a tad bit simplistic to equate group therapy with the pitch meeting as Weiner does here, I found my mind drifting back to “The Wheel” when Don quite literally used a pitch as therapy, convincing himself to stay with his family. That, I would argue, is the closest Don Draper ever had to a personal breakthrough, having spent much of the rest of the series struggling in one way or another to get his life together. And as Todd VanDerWerff noted before the finale, Don has very notably been away from the pitch throughout this season, with his only attempt interrupted by McCann half-way through. He hasn’t been forced to face the music like this, and so when he hears someone offer a reflection on depression that gives him perspective on his own situation, he breaks down.

That breakdown is part of an overall strong performance by Jon Hamm, who is given an interesting role here. He remains the center of the show, but yet life still goes on without him. His revelation at the end is that there are people who care about him, and who are worried he is gone, but at the same time McCann isn’t falling apart in his absence, and Betty doesn’t want him to take the kids, and he isn’t so crucial to that world that it can’t function without him. It’s as though the episode is Don discovering he is a supporting character, not the lead, in the big picture of life, a notion that requires a lead performance. Don’s smile at the end is simple but effective, pushing us to wonder what Don intends to do with this revelation. Did he create that Coke campaign for McCann-Erickson? Or did he die moments later from a heart attack? (I’m pretty sure it’s the former, for the record, but you never know.)

The uncertainty about the future is the interesting thing about human dramas like this one. Without a genre premise to resolve, and without a clearly defined arc that the entire series followed, there is no way to make this feel completely like an ending. The storylines around Don all play off of the tension of the sunset, as every character realizes that the individuality and purpose they felt in their journey to this point is being threatened by their current situation.

Joan—who is given proper focus here, and makes a strong case for Christina Hendricks come Emmy time—sees the sunset with Bruce Greenwood, but realizes that he isn’t comfortable with her pursuing her dreams, and starts a production company with her two last names like a goddamn boss. Pete, who we last saw working to reconcile with Trudy and considering a job offer, followed through on both of them, and is last seen sharing a nice moment with Peggy and boarding his company jet with his family. We last see Roger and Marie being that old couple in the French café, reading newspapers and eating lobsters and just sort of living, without any pretensions.

The three main women in Don’s life get closer attention. What I like about “Person to Person” is how—wait for it—the endings differ from person to person. Betty and Sally are on the opposite ends of the spectrum: whereas Sally has her whole life ahead of her unformed, Betty’s life is already over, as she smokes herself to the grave. It’s a bit morbid, but it’s also cyclical, and speaks to the show’s capacity to explore generational shifts as Sally grew into a teenager and Betty grew into a woman. Both characters were underserved in later seasons as they moved away from the orbit of Don and the majority of the characters, but their journeys still felt whole in their inevitable incompletion, and a meaningful part of the finale even independent of their phone calls with Don.

Peggy…Peggy is more complicated, and the part of the finale that I struggle with the most. Peggy is the only person who truly walks into the sunset, I’d say. We romanticize taking professional risks with Mad Men, but Peggy chooses not to partner with Joan and gain greater agency in her professional life. After an emotional phone call with Don, she calls Stan, and eventually they each realize they’re in love with each other, and we last see them blissfully happy as Peggy types away at her typewriter. Given that many online have shipped the couple, and given that Peggy’s complicated history of relationships has been a recurring thread, the ending is not without meaning, and obviously made many people happy.

But I struggle with it. There’s an undercurrent of “You can have it all!” to it that I feel reduces the character, pushing Peggy back to the secretary who’s primarily interested in finding a husband. Her journey to copywriter was a huge deal, and so to see her final moments be tied to romantic love as opposed to professional progress strikes me as strange.

Or, at least it does until I realize something important: Peggy’s life is far from over. Whereas Betty is literally about to die, Peggy has her whole life ahead of her. She will hopefully be alive in 1980 to see if Pete’s prediction about her being a creative director will be true, and she’ll be alive to see if her relationship with Stan is “happily ever after” or another bump in the road. Although there is no doubt that “Picture to Picture” ends with Peggy happy, that isn’t the character’s end, and the chances of things just staying this way forever are slim to none. Peter could get fired, Joan’s production company could flop, and Peggy and Stan could be halfway to splitsville by the time 1971 comes around.

That so much of “Person to Person” talks place over the phone is relevant to the episode’s title, and functions at least indirectly as a critique of The Good Wife’s inability to sell Alicia and Kalina’s friendship entirely through phone calls. The phone calls are tense and deeply personal, reflective of long-term relationships and a significant burden on the actors. They are isolated, on their own, asked to react to something they might not be hearing in that particular way. They were scenes that depended on history, whether between Don and Betty or Peggy and Stan, and spoke as much to the potential of phone conversations as it did to their limits. They were “finale” scenes, but without the finality we might associate with a series finale more broadly—rather than wrapping up stories in a pretty bow, the scenes acknowledged a complicated past and an uncertain future, delivering a compelling and ultimately fitting present to bring the show’s journey to a close.

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