Warning: This article contains spoilers.
“It’s the real thing!” proclaimed a hillside full of hippies in the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola ad that served as Mad Men’s curtain call.
The irony to the ad was then, as it is now, that Coke isn’t the real thing at all. That was a carefully constructed advertising campaign designed to tap into America’s most sentimental desires for world peace and harmony. It wasn’t a lie—not exactly. Very likely, the dozens of comely young shills did want to buy the world a home and teach it to sing, but it was injected with a powerful lie: soda pop is part of the deal.
For seven seasons, this is what Don Draper has done. There are few characters in any American medium more willfully self-destructive, but he’s not delusional. He’s on the road to hell, but he understands exactly what kind of hole in his soul he’s trying to fill with power, attention and women. His genius has been in translating that void into ad campaigns. He knows what people want, because he knows where he hurts. He understands deep truths about himself, and he knows how to embellish them with powerful lies about how those hurts can be soothed with things.
The only thing he doesn’t know is how to stop hurting. You’ll find people who criticize Mad Men for glorifying casual sex or alcoholism, which is a bit like criticizing the story of David and Bathsheba for glorifying adultery. The show was never about how much Don Draper was able to get away with. Quite the opposite, actually.
Mad Men is more than just the best TV show of all time. It is, as Alissa Wilkinson said a few days ago, the Great American Novel. People desperately wanted it to be about the ’60s, or feminism, or men, or clothes, or drinking, or family or sex. And it was about all of those things, only in the way that life is about all of those things, because Mad Men is about us. It’s about our relationship with our time, and how we try to find a spot for ourselves in an era that’s going too fast to pay much attention to us. It’s about our real selves and the selves we dress up in to protect ourselves from the world—and vice versa.
Throughout the seasons, Draper’s supporting cast came to be as vital to the show as he was, and the finale did a fine job of sending them off. The final episode centered around Draper’s three phone calls to the only three women in his life who have stuck with him through his frequent flights of fancy.
His first call was with his daughter, Sally, who has become a grown-up without Draper even realizing it. She tells him about Betty’s cancer, and then powerfully asserts her own voice over Draper’s dismissal of her. When he insists that he’s coming back to New York to take her and her brothers in, she tells him no. “I’ve thought about this more than you have,” she reasons, and Draper’s astonished look says it all. The consequence of abandoning your family at will is that they, eventually, learn how to get along without you.
His second call is to Betty, his ex-wife with whom he has patched together a cautious sort of friendship. “I want things to stay normal,” she tells him. “And that means you not being here.” He pushes back with one word: “Birdie,” and it’s as heartbreaking a line as this show ever delivered. As Betty, January Jones has been frequently criticized for her icy delivery, but her work this season has been Emmy-worthy. The fragile life she’s built is irrevocably crumbling, and she’s set on letting it dissolve on her own terms.
Draper’s final call is to Peggy, a woman who has become almost as much Mad Men’s protagonist as Don Draper. She’s been his secretary, his apprentice and rival, his confidante and even the closest thing he really has to a friend. In the finale, she tries to operate as his voice of reason, as she rightly figures that he’s in an emotionally dangerous place.
“I broke all my vows,” Draper sobs to her. “I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He’s never been this honest with anyone, and it’s fitting that Peggy’s the one who hears it all. She tells him that he can still come home, but she fails to understand that Draper doesn’t have a home anymore. Maybe he never has.
But Peggy is wrestling with her own self-realizations. Mad Men rarely dealt in emotional satisfaction—preferring instead to orbit its characters’ tensions and non-resolutions. But when Peggy calls her steadfast work buddy Stan to vent her anxieties, she suddenly finds herself coming to grips with a confession of love. The scene is so sweetly delivered it almost feels dropped in from a different TV show altogether, but Peggy’s seven-year character arc has earned some happiness.
Draper hasn’t necessarily earned any happiness, and faces that in the little commune where his surrogate niece Stephanie abandons him. He ends up in a touchy-feely group therapy session where a man named Leonard is talking about his depression. At first blush, the two men have nothing in common. Leonard insists that he’s uninteresting, and whatever else Draper may be, he’s certainly interesting. But the more Leonard talks, the more Draper recognizes a kindred spirit. Leonard senses that his own personal happiness is forever just out of reach, tantalizingly dangled in front of him by others. It’s not that he doesn’t believe in love and it’s not even that he doesn’t have people in his life who love him—it’s just that he’s at a loss as to how to receive it.
When Draper embraces Leonard, it feels less like a transformation than a recognition. For all his self-introspection, Draper’s never understood that the loneliness he feels isn’t just because he’s living under an assumed name. Everyone is lonely, and Draper’s suffering doesn’t make him special—it makes him one of us.
In the show’s closing moments, everyone is seen moving on. It’s a relief to see Joan finally being taken seriously as an intelligent, powerful woman. It’s crushing, and ever so slightly reassuring, to see Sally handling the dishes while her mother smokes away what’s left of her lungs. It’s soothing to see Peggy continuing to push her career forward—here’s hoping she makes creative director before 1980. Somehow, against all odds, Pete seems to be the character who has found the most redemption, having stitched his family back together. Even Roger seems prepared to settle into his twilight years.
And Draper? Well, the last we see of him, he’s ohm’ing on the California cliffs. At first blush, he’s looking to find his spiritual center, but then you see that little smile and Coke ad, and the implication is that he’s found yet another healing moment to spin an ad campaign out of (kudos to Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff, whose prediction was on the money.) Draper still doesn’t know how to accept grace, instead using it to further his own aims. And, in that, we see a character who continues to be redeemed in spite of himself.
That should feel familiar to anyone who’s ever grappled with the grace of God, and this has been Mad Men’s secret all along. There was never any reason to be jealous of Draper. There was nothing glamorous about the ’60s—at least, nothing more glamorous than there is today. There are no advertising geniuses and no grandly tragic anti-heroes. There aren’t even any mad men. There is only us, and the terrible mercy that looms large over each and every one of our constructed realities.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.