The commodity is the better Jesus: On the Mad Men finale

Shadow Don
The Mad Men finale is doing two things at once. The first and most obvious is that it’s giving us some form of resolution for all our favorite characters. Most of these endings are happy — and even if Betty’s impending death isn’t saccharine sweet like the other plots, the way she’s handling it with dignity and autonomy makes it at least bittersweet. It seems reasonable to infer, too, that Don goes back to McCann and winds up writing the famous Coke ad that serves as the culmination of the series.

The second thing it’s doing is a Sopranos-style ambiguous symbolic ending. It doesn’t shout it from the mountaintops like Sopranos did, but that’s because Mad Men was always more densely “literary” than any previous television show. Hence the writers have practice weaving in subtle symbolism. There’s so much there that rewards analysis — and puts a sinister spin on everything. The very fact that the ending is so uncharacteristically sickly sweet seems to be a “meta” gesture toward the Coke ad, as is Joan’s experimentation with cocaine and even Don’s uncharacteristic beer binge (already, beer had been linked to soda through the “diet beer,” which would presumably become Miller Lite). We can’t expect a show that’s so witholding to suddenly give us what we want — the real thing, a real plot, a real resolution — without also casting a shadow over it. Was this really “it”? Was this what we wanted? Is this “love”?

The scene where the average slub breaks down in tears over going unnoticed is moving, as is Don’s uncharacteristic decision to “hug it out” with him. Yet the man is also picturing himself as a consumer good — presumably even a beverage in the fridge — and his questions about what “it” is anticipate future Coke slogans that we’re all familiar with. Don has completely divested himself of his symbolic image to the final holdout, Peggy, who he believes still idealizes him, but he still has one point of reference: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” We know from the first half of the season that work is necessary to save him, but he can’t be a cog in the machine. Now after fleeing from the generic consumer, he’s had an encounter with that beer-drinking mediocrity from Wisconsin and realizes: “These people need me!” His hug could be saying, “It’s okay — I promise I’ll go back and start giving your life meaning again. I’m so sorry I strayed from the One True Faith.”

Don’s exchange with Stephanie about how much damage Jesus does to people, what it does to people to believe things, was poignant to me as a Jesus-damage survivor. (And by the way, did they give Stephanie unprecedented freckles to make her match the girl from the Coke ad?) But in such a richly self-referential show, it also reminded me of his enigmatic line: “I’m not here to tell you about Jesus.” Think of the contrast between the cosmopolitan Coke ad and the close-mindedness of the few Christians we see. Don is a believer — the commodity is the better Jesus, the Jesus who truly gives us everything, who demands nothing, who accepts us just as we are.

“Just as I am, Lord, just as I am” — in Don’s case, as the image above shows, “just as I am” is a void. Perhaps this is a reference to the Sopranos fade to black, except that Weiner takes us beyond the emptiness. The question is whether that “beyond” is redemption (the surface reading) or an even greater abyss of nihilism (my preferred reading). Think of the horror: a man who truly believes in the promise of advertising, who directly lives it every day of his life. Think of a world that can leave that man feeling happy and content.

In any case, I regard the genre of television as completed now. The most critically acclaimed, culturally prestigious, artistically ambitious television show of all time — and judging by current trends, I include the future here too — has culminated in a tacky commercial. By doing so, it made us experience its moving utopian qualities and its sinister cult-like qualities. There’s nowhere else to go at this point. That’s “the real thing.” That’s “it.”

20 Responses to “The commodity is the better Jesus: On the Mad Men finale”

  1. Werner Herzog's Bear (@wernherzbear) Says:

    I’m with you here:

    “In any case, I regard the genre of television as completed now. The most critically acclaimed, culturally prestigious, artistically ambitious television show of all time — and judging by current trends, I include the future here too — has culminated in a tacky commercial. By doing so, it made us experience its moving utopian qualities and its sinister cult-like qualities. There’s nowhere else to go at this point. That’s “the real thing.” That’s “it.””

    A lot of the episode was the usual thing last episodes do, but oh wow that ending. It reminded me that this show was the first “new TV” show I ever started watching, the one that made me think television was actually worth my time. There’s other TV out there that I like, but nothing that _matters_ like Mad Men did when I first started watching it, and probably nothing else ever will (at least for the foreseeable future.)

  2. Flauschpolizei (@Flauschpolizei) Says:

    Interesting. I read the scene with Leonard totally differently. Throughout the last couple of episodes we saw Don shed more and more of his Don Draperness, becoming Dick Whitman again and living the life of an honorary hobo (which Dick was made as a child all the way back in season 1’s episode “The Hobo Code”). When he arrives in California he’s Dick since Stephanie never knew him differently.
    When Leonard describes his feelings of not being appreciated or even seen this resonates with Dick because that’s been the story of his life (with the exception of Anna perhaps). Dick has no-one who appreciates him.His brother is dead, and Stephanie even tells him he’s not part of the family.
    But Don Draper is a man who gets noticed, who is appreciated, even admired (and who doesn’t have to pay for sex like Dick has to in the finale). Jim Hobart even bought his agency just to get him. I believe that during Leonard’s monologue Dick/Don realises that. After all, Peggy just told him on the phone that people are waiting for him at McCann. Basically, Dick’s last act is to console Leonard (and himself). It’s Dick who dies, not Don. The last scene we see him, Don is Don again, complete with the Don hairdo. But he’s finally accepted himself as Don which is why he’s content.

    I agree with the cynical take of the final scene being the Coke advert appropriating the hopes of the counterculture. It’s something that goes all the way back to the second season with the arrival of the two young creatives (Smith and Smith?) who used a manifest by the SDS as a starting point for a coffee ad. In the early seasons we had a number of people from that culture (Midge’s friends, Peggy’s boyfriend) telling Don and Peggy they were “making the lie”, and at the time that seemed exaggerated but in the end it became true.
    I don’t think that Don’s existence is supposed to be a nihilistic reading of society or life. It’s just how life is – we try to get to terms, we compromise and we do end up in muddy waters more often than not.

  3. amaryahshaye Says:

    “Think of the horror: a man who truly believes in the promise of advertising, who directly lives it every day of his life. Think of a world that can leave that man feeling happy and content.”

    Yeah, I feel like this is the whole deal with creatives (who seem to interpret the show as an affirmation of the ‘creative class’ running the world). I don’t know if you watch Silicon Valley but it is really good at skewering this kind of “creativity and tech innovation will change the world for good” that emerges from people who truly believe in the promise of design and tech and branding and advertising.

    Anyways, I like the nihilistic interpretation. At my former office job’s holiday party, my only office friends and I were talking about how utterly depressing Mad Men is and our office manager was like, “Depressing? I always thought it was just fun nostalgia!”

  4. Adam Kotsko Says:

    This is definitely a white male privilege thing. Even though I “know better,” at the end of the day I find Mad Men pretty calming (except for season 6). The Girlfriend, by contrast, finds it hugely anxiety-producing because she identifies with the women — normally she can’t watch an episode without a drink to steel herself.

  5. Flauschpolizei (@Flauschpolizei) Says:

    Surprisingly many people seem to watch it out of a feeling of nostalgia or pseudo nostalgia because they weren’t alive back then but believe it to be some sort of golden era. I find this odd because it’s such a harsh critique of the time.
    As a woman I enjoyed the show a lot precisely because of its female characters and its feminist stance. The early seasons with all that raucous and deeply unprofessional behaviour by the men always seemed like a very vivid example of why men shouldn’t be in charge of anything to me. ;)

  6. Daniel Says:

    I had a hard time watching the first few seasons at all; I think it was the third time I tried to watch the first episode that I actually finished it, and I’m not sure I would’ve kept up with the show if Netflix didn’t make marathoning so easy. Every character just struck me as a deeply unpleasant person in a deeply unpleasant environment doing deeply unpleasant things — it was sheer nihilism without any explosions or punching to relieve the tension. I found the last couple seasons pleasant, though, and the finale had me genuinely laughing a good bit; Hamm has great comic timing. But if being a white male was supposed to make those first few seasons enjoyable, I’ve missed something — early-seasons Don just seemed like a huge dick who was never getting his comeuppance, and I had a hard time taking the show seriously when it was revealed that Don was actually Armin Tamzarian. I kept expecting that to get walked back somehow, or revealed to be a fake-out, but it was just a serious plot point in a serious drama. That Don was revealed to literally be a Dick was also a big groaner. Subtle that one ain’t.

    But opening the final episode with Don doing speed tests in the dessert was great. I was hoping we’d never cut back to New York.

  7. amaryahshaye Says:

    @Flauschpolizei I concur. As a black woman, watching mad Men is an indictment of patriarchy and white feminism. I don’t want any of them running anything (except John. I love Joan). But, per Adam’s comment, it also reveals how much nostalgia takes hold in the normative white imagination, such that Mad Men parties and haircuts and aesthetics are all current trends. I think this is what produces the anxiety in me of each episode. It feels as though I’m being assaulted with the dominant imagination of the present in this fictionalized past. For me, this makes clear the problems of the present, but that so many are able to read Mad Men as an affirmation of this present nostalgia suggests my anxiety is a marginalized one.

  8. amaryahshaye Says:

    And a little addendum, the reason I watch Mad Men is precisely because of the continuity with present white imaginaries. I don’t find pleasure in the aesthetic or the vintage ads or the ways civil rights and women’s rights break in on the periphery. What is pleasurable to me about the show is the ability to trace the kinds of narrative slights of hand at work within whiteness. In this sense, advertising really becomes the working out of white inability to address the social relations that so clearly shape it’s imagination and inhabitation of the world.

  9. denovodax Says:

    Was with you until the last paragraph.

    “In any case, I regard the genre of television as completed now. . . . There’s nowhere else to go at this point.”

    Huh? What’s behind this not-so-uncommon impulse to somehow (and rather definitively) declare the “end” of a given medium? Whether generally—the end of the novel, the end of film, etc.—or more specifically, like the end or “completion” or the aesthetic/narrative exhaustion of the (white) anti-hero genre, which people were very recently claiming Breaking Bad signaled.

    Open question . . .

  10. Raj Says:

    Subtle? I stopped watching Mad Men regularly in season 3 when frustrated (m)admen Pete struggled to pull his shirt and tie ((straitjacket) over his head with a gratuitous bit of balcony-fence shadow thrown in. (Episode 8, I think.) Subtle. Literally a LMBAO moment. I did comeback later in the season to watch the hyped They-Done-Killed-Camelot episode only to find Petey and Trudy sitting on a couch together watching the news with Pete still in his straitjacket “beneath” the fence. But everything must change, so by the end of the episode they are together in the same spot but now Pete is in … a beatnik black turtleneck. No mas.

    I do still credit Matthew Weiner with inventing the recursive cliche function though. As a math grad I can appreciate that.

  11. CHris E Says:

    “Every character just struck me as a deeply unpleasant person in a deeply unpleasant environment doing deeply unpleasant things — it was sheer nihilism without any explosions or punching to relieve the tension”

    I too fell into this category – I watched it because people I read recommended it repeatedly. I managed to make it through 4 seasons (mostly because of Netflix) before the whole thing started to feel too depressing in a rather nihilistic way. I found that I no longer cared what happened to any of the characters – and found a large number of them repellently empty. Don himself was a badly drawn sketch inhabiting a bit of nostalgic aesthetic.

    These posts, on the other hand made me want to revisit the series:

    https://itself.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/as-good-as-it-gets-mad-men-and-neoliberalism/
    https://itself.wordpress.com/2014/05/27/all-this-mad-men-and-the-persistence-of-the-old-regime/

    In the context of threads discussing the marginal role of minorities/females – as well as the reactions that people report above, I’d have to highlight the comment above:

    “also reveals how much nostalgia takes hold in the normative white imagination, such that Mad Men parties and haircuts and aesthetics are all current trends”

    even from a distance (not living in the US – and not sharing heritage with any of the minorities represented) it is obvious that this is laid on rather thickly on screen. It is certainly how I would see it – and I wonder the extent to which this is a factor in making it so popular in fairly conservative Christian circles.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Sometimes it really does seem like a particular genre’s formal possibilities have been exhausted. Maybe people jump the gun on it sometimes. Maybe I have in this case. But I don’t think the claim is invalid simply because people make it and you’re tired of it.

  13. smadallyn Says:

    its a silly debate really – but I guess because Mad Men so far as a series has been so much about personal anxieties and insufficiencies, I can’t help but be slightly obsessed with the question of whether Don Draper went back to McCann to do the coke ad. But given that the end seemed to suggest that we are ultimately voids consumed by the ideals of commercial space (albeit in an uneven process), most of all Don – I guess one has to recognise that it doesn’t matter. To be honest I thought your previous blog post about neoliberalism was slightly more apt and insightful than this one (sorry) – since I couldn’t help but interpret the end as Mad Men moving to a cultural and socio-political level in jaw dropping fashion, a dimension that it has previously been critiqued for lacking. Think co-optation of hippiedom and the new spirit of capitalism. Still one question is – as I go back on myself in rather inconsistent fashion – does that fact that the McCann coke ad has a history which has been documented, mean that Don didn’t go back to McCann and that he found some degree of self-peace (I’m sceptical about whether McCan would have let him back anyway), anyhow the history of the disturbing ad is documented here http://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-hilltop-story

  14. denovodax Says:

    Never said it was an invalid claim. I would say it’s a difficult and usually an unearned one, though.

  15. Cal Says:

    My reading was that Don represented in himself the crisis of the American Market of transitioning from the 50’s homey values facade into the progressive, sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. The Market had been absorbing slowly (as a commentor above pointed out) beatnik and alternative views. Don’s return to the abyss (in the Ohm) is the death of Dick/Don. He didn’t create the Coke commercial, but he didn’t have to. Maybe that’s too far. Don and Dick finally ‘die’, and the synthesis of the Counter-Culture is complete. His creative DNA was injected into what he left behind.

    Recalling the first episode when he tells Rachel “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one”, maybe he finally believes this. The anxiety from his trying to protect his identity as a respectable, family man and his desires to find what he’s looking for (in all the affairs, all the fleeing, all the dreams of California) is resolved. There is nothing but the hum of the Ohm as the Market, swirling and cycling.

    I appreciated the show for it’s horror quality. The emptiness of Draper’s life (repeated through the secondary characters) is enough to quake the bones. Existentially, it’s a place to consider whether this is a creation by the Maker of Heaven and Earth, or if all there is is an abyss.

  16. Cal Says:

    Also the Coke reminded me of the fact that Walter White makes a comparison of himself as ‘Classic Coke’ when compared to competitors as imitation store brand sodas.

    It’d be worth documenting the parallels in the frustrated creativity of both Don Draper and Walter White (both alliterated names!) Perhaps they represent different metaphysical arrangements. Breaking Bad posits a doctrine of sin, a foreign but a seemingly inseparable non-entity that unwinds and destroys as circumstances present the chance; whereas Mad Men is nihilism, there is no evil or ‘breaking bad’, there is either a wooden moralism or a creative dance over the abyss.

    Possible Book: It’s the Real Thing: The Creative Destruction of Walter White and Don Draper in Dialog….??

    cal

  17. Raj Says:

    Judging from Weiner’s discussion of the Mad Men finale, I didn’t miss much not watching the last four seasons. The campy mannerisms, the artificial dialog, the cliched characters (Carla anyone? or who can forget the odious, cliche-magnet Sal), the trite symbolism … the things critics assured me were arch or subversive that I thought representative of a thin intellect and a cosmetic artistic sensibility … well,

    “I’m not saying that advertising’s not corny. But the people
    who find that [Coke] ad corny are probably experiencing life
    that way and are missing out on something. Five years before
    that, black people and white people couldn’t even be in an
    ad together. The idea (was) that some enlightened state,
    and not just co-option, might have created something that
    is very pure. And yeah, there’s soda in there with the good
    feeling. But that ad, to me, it’s the best ad ever made. And
    it comes from a very good place.”

    it was all sincerely commemorative. Weiner appears to be a true believer in neo-/liberal progress to the wonder of the post-racial present. A hardy thank you to the stewards of consumer capitalism, a hardy thank you to the (m)ad men.

  18. Jane Barter Says:

    What do you make of Weiner’s NYPL interview which basically confirms the sentimental reading of the ending–that Don has grown, has peace, etc.?
    Also, Weiner is supremely uncritical of the Coke ad: “I think it’s the best ad ever made,” he said. “That ad is so much of its time, so beautiful — I don’t think it’s as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is.”

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Only a true believer like Weiner could write such an objectively cynical ending, just as only a sincerely devout man like Milton could write an epic poem where the hero is Satan.

  20. billrosethorn Says:

    But what about Don’s lines to his sort-of-family member at the retreat: “You didn’t grown up with Jesus, you don’t know what happens to people when they believe… I just know how people work.” He genuinely wants to give her good advice I think.

    I see Don’s crisis as also genuine, but he can help himself with being an ad-man. His own work and art are captured by the commodity, like the people his ads influence that we don’t see until that huggable guy.


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