It’s the Real Thing

Person To Person

“Buy the World A Coke”, the Coca-Cola Singers

Person To Person, Season 7 Episode 14


I. The product

            Happiness is fleeting and difficult to achieve, but it can and should be fought for. Amidst the lies of advertising and social presentation, the vices of sex and drugs, the petty interpersonal squabbles, and the desperate ennui of being an upper middle class WASP, this is the noble message Mad Men delivers in its last installment.

            The second half of season seven notably lacks a product pitch, a genius business strategy to tie together the characters and themes, but it certainly hints at one. Coca-Cola haunts the final 14 episodes, glimpsed in the background of domestic scenes, offered to Don as a McCann-Erickson bargaining chip, and referenced by the costuming at the Esalen retreat in this episode. Suffice it to say the closing moments of the series pay this off immensely.

            It’s fairly clear that in the world of the show, Don Draper made Coke’s Hilltop TV spot, the mega-popular and iconic ad to end all ads, not to mention a symbolic summation of the entire 1960s. It seems possible that he has finally found peace, equilibrium and purpose, synthesizing his various guises and numerous false starts into a new paradigm. And all the other characters get endings which mostly come across as blissful and definitive. At first glance, it seems too good to be true.

II. The client

            Now, viewers could certainly read these changings of the guard as problematic, at best. Don reduces the whole of the previous decade down to some stunt ethnic casting and hippie stereotypes. He stopped peddling deadly cigarettes only to switch to the sinful vice du jour of the 1970s, cola (and transitively, the new scourge it contributes to, diabetes). He’s painfully drying out at the commune after a lifetime of desperate alcoholism and smoking, while preparing to shill another addictive substance. All these hints made some immediately think that he learned nothing and sold out the movement in another desperate ploy to run away from himself, or that he never returned to that world and the ad was an ironic counterpoint to his contented life on the lam.

            You could attribute sinister undertones to many other endings as well. Betty is still dying, after all, and Sally seems to put her dreams on hold to keep the family intact. Despite his lucky second chance, Pete doesn’t have a great record with being a devoted, thoughtful husband. Roger is in the twilight of his life and career. Joan’s bold decision will strain her and her relationships more than ever. And Peggy still has a long, albeit righteous, journey to the top. But they are all inarguably taking steps forward, after so much stasis and uncertainty.

            Despite these burning questions of the cast’s final settling place or social standing, and their perfectly ambiguous answers, the specifics don’t really even matter. In the closing montage, for this one moment, all the characters on the show found their own happiness – something to give their lives meaning.

III. Past work

            But in a way, they’ve been doing that all along. The infinitely rotating Carousel Wheel is always an inch away from the Crash. You won’t believe how much it never happened, because you only live twice. The New Girl eventually becomes the Other Woman. Change isn’t good or bad, it simply is. Reinvention, repetition and renewal – spiraling slowly towards ecstasy. You’re moving to Brooklyn, or moving to Cos Cobb, or moving to Rye, so long as you’re always moving. Life is like a band of gold, a ring as circular as the paths these characters travel, starting as a song in the show’s first scene and following Don to a jail cell. It changes hands from Anna to Dick to Megan, then to Dick again and finally back to Anna’s niece, completing the cycle. Bob becomes Pete becomes Don becomes Roger becomes Bert, and the secretaries roll right along, one by one. Some years your colleague dies and you head up one floor; others, your pitch does and you head out to McCann-Erickson. March 1960 to November 1970 – where did the time go?

            In the end, it all comes back to change, the strength to persevere and the freedom to make your own happiness. It may be a fleeting illusion, but it’s the American dream, the fantasy of the 1960s. Is real change possible? Of course not – we are irrevocably who we are, and our environment, psychology, class and race always conspire to keep us in place. And yet of course it is; we do it constantly throughout our lives, and always strive for something better and different. These characters transform and learn and struggle in every episode. Whether it be a change of heart, a change of scenery or a change of occupation that would finally stick and keep them going, merely trying is good enough, and that’s where the show brilliantly leaves the people we have come to love. And now they’ve reached a new place. They’ve found connection and meaning, for the time being. This is the beginning of something, not the end.

IV. The strategy

            That’s been the plan for the run of the series: people coming to terms with an increasingly capitalist, socially chaotic, emotionally existential world. It has its ups and downs, but it’s always possible to persist and triumph. Whether Don makes the Coke ad out of crass exploitation, true love for his fellow man or some combination of the two, he has to start a new decade and accept who he is to realize something that’s been a long time coming. In the penultimate scene, he finds his personal epiphany in the arms of a random man who feels just as lonely and pathetic as he, and the two share that spark of unguarded human compassion and empathetic honesty that Mad Men has explored progressively with each passing year. Don espoused this idea perfectly in the first episode without heeding it, and Roger repeated it to him just a few episodes prior to this, when he most needed it. “You are okay”.

            Don’s mantra of fulfillment is in the small talk we make with each other, it’s what we think about in our time alone, and it’s even what the McCann executives of the world want their commissioned work to tell us. Every race and creed is represented in the benchmark clip that closes Person To Person. The confluence of disparate voices sing a universally likable melody about friendship and community which became a legitimate hit, foreshadowing the encroaching ‘Me Decade’. As the Coke song demonstrates, the Seventies commercialized contentment.

V. The creative

            These characters all believe the slogans they create, because they must, to avoid destruction and despair. So do we all. The personas we try on in life and the decisions we make can seem superficial and naive, like a canny tagline or the soda jingle on the hilltop, but they’re all advertisements striving for a better self, and they make for a beautifully resonant series finale.

            Peggy Olson’s love for Stan satisfies both her career ambitions and romantic aspirations. That synthesis of doing meaningful work and being emotionally fulfilled is the connection she was hungry for.

            Peter Campbell moves away from a toxic city and a damaged marriage to start again, much like his mentor. Shedding his heritage, his career and his irritable demeanor, he aches to go back to a place where he is loved.

            Roger Sterling may be old, finding suitable companionship, and becoming obsolete in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean he won’t live out his final years in good spirits and company. No matter what life throws at him or who’s arguing with him, if he doesn’t like it, he changes the conversation.

            When Betty Francis gets a terminal illness diagnosis, she at last possesses the dignity and maturity to temper her mercurial instincts. Instead, she weathers it out unsullied with her children and productively embraces the time she has left. Even though this silver lining is the only sweet thing in her life, the wrapper finally looks like what’s inside.

            Joan Holloway Harris’ new career venture blossoms after she has sacrificed so much for others, and she finally earns her rightful place as an independent woman and doting mother. That moral victory (not to mention the business) is something beautiful she can truly own.

VI. The tag

            Mad Men was a singular, incredible artwork – the cure for the common show, perhaps? – and it understood psychology and humanity as few others do. After a decade of searching for goodness and stability in life, Person To Person lets its characters bow out on just the right note. As Donald Draper might put it, maybe all you need in order to be happy and loved – to be okay – is a new day, new ideas, a new you.

            That’s the pitch.


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One Response to It’s the Real Thing

  1. Pingback: Reflecting On the Screen | Winslowisms

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