Monday, May 18, 2015

Mad Men End on a Perfect Note of Bullshit

What to make of the Mad Men finale?  Surely I was going to be disappointed considering:

1  finales are usually disappointing (can’t please everyone), and;
2. Mad Men, while great, has been declining since season four.

Regardless of my feelings about the escapades of Draper and Co. since about three seasons back, I must say that few shows manage to juggle so many characters this well and sustain my interest for that long.  The complexity that Mad Men reached at its zenith was not unlike the polyphonic novels of Dostoevsky complete with wacky dream sequences and the occasionally labored symbol. (“It’s not your tooth that’s rotten” says the ghost of Adam Whitman to Don Draper.  Yeah, got it.)

But even groundbreaking TV shows have a tough time sticking the landing.  Mad Men is no different.  I may be alone in feeling that the Stan loves Peggy/Peggy loves Stan thing was tacked on (everyone seems to be all gushy over their romance), but what makes sense when I examine their trajectory only makes me irked that the seeds of their love were not better sown.  They probably belong together but their union was rushed at the end.  Not to mention Peggy got her satisfaction from her job, which seemed a hard won victory, one that she deserved, so why sap energy from that triumph by making it seem that job satisfaction is not enough and that a man has to save this tough talking career girl?  I call bullshit.

Everyone else, save for Betty, got moved to a nice place—a sensible marriage for Roger, a business of Joan’s own and guaranteed financial security for her son, true corporate power for Pete and a second chance at domestic bliss—but, of course, we need to talk about Don.

The last thing Draper did that made me happy was walk out of that fucking room.  Once he realized he was a small cog in a big machine, he split.  The function of this is up for debate, but I saw it as a chance for him to realize that the manufactured image he had created, and subsequently bought into, was bullshit of the highest order.  Such a realization could only result in him tearing down his life.  And that’s pretty much how things went for the last few episodes, and while his Kerouacian road trip was hardly exciting, it made sense.  Once he hugged that crying dude at the feel-good session, I thought, well he’s got his catharsis and now he’s either going to drop out of society and live among the hippies or he’ll have found enough peace to return to NYC and search for some kind of happiness or, at the very least, stability.  That is if he hasn’t pissed away his fortune. 

But the final meditation scene would have it both ways.  He’s in the lotus position voicing the big OHM.  And then he envisions the perfect Coke commercial that’s been dangling before him and us ever since he succumbed to the McCann acquisition.  My first reaction was surprise.  Then annoyance.  So Don imagined that iconic commercial that has always struck me as the best example of corporate bullshit cashing in on a social trend.  But it makes a lot of sense, actually.  Don is not healed.  He’s managed to take the lessons of his time among the hippies and create his masterpiece of Madison Avenue manipulation.  He’s tapped into the optimism that was fading at the end of the 60s and repackaged it as possibility, unity, peace, community, love.  And fucking Coca-Cola.  Genius. 

It seems that this is the best ending for the show.  Don has grown a little but he’s still thinking of ideas that will stoke his fragile ego, ideas that validate his meaningless life, ideas to sell to the public so that they can find transient joy while corporations become richer.  Which is fine—Don has always been an apologetic ad man, very pro-capitalist.  And he’s smartly responded to the beatniks and hippies of the show who have accused him of being an evil pusher of products.  But that doesn’t mean the beatnik/hippie accusations, as obnoxious as they are, lack substance.  Don, as the vision of his father tells him, makes bullshit for a living.  The show has spent a lot of time portraying Don and Peggy as proponents of the idea that advertising is art.  They have done a pretty good job convincing us, the viewers, that this is true.  But we have also seen how advertising blends art with kitsch, how the feelings Don and Peggy skillfully elicit in the clients and, by extension, the public are facsimiles of something real that work well enough to sell cigarettes and Coca-Cola but fall short of true art.  The ads are temporary at best and and, at worst, mirror the cultural zeitgeist in a way that then informs it.  That Coke ad is a classic, one that has become a part of American culture.  That’s how the best ads work: they replace good songs, good paintings, good books, and good movies as cultural markers.  They look like art and they stick in your head, but their manipulation is crass. Don and Peggy talk the talk very well, and they believe it, but really they make bullshit for a living. 

What better commercial to end on than the 1971 Coke ad with the smiling people atop a hill?  They all look so perfect.  Happy.  Multicultural.  Harmonious.  Phony.  Frankly, kind of creepy.  Perhaps I'm a cynic, but that’s how it seems to me: simple ideas about world peace brought to you by dumb young people whose earnestness would be admirable were it not brought to you by Coke.  The last image of Don is of that handsome face smiling ear-to-ear in deep meditation, but the ad— which some have said is there to make us proud of his ultimate creation—reminds us of who he is and what he does: he makes bullshit.

By the way, Sally Draper is the hero of the show.