Tuesday, 19 May 2015

MAD MEN, 7.14 – 'Person to Person'

Tuesday, 19 May 2015


Series finales are hard to do; especially for successful shows like Mad Men, which have become emblems of a cultural sea change in television drama. You can't and won't satisfy everyone. "Person to Person" was an efficient episode with a few nice highlights, but it didn't impress me. Or dazzle me. Or leave me thinking about the show hours later. I was disappointed because I expected to be bedazzled, but I'm aware much of that is down to outsized expectations. This was never going to knock your socks off, a la Breaking Bad, now was it?

It's easier with an episode like this to recap how the series left its main characters. Joan (Christina Hendricks) is happily unmarried to Richard (Bruce Greenwood) and intended to form a television production company with Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), which Ms Olsen didn't accept; Peggy herself got a very different happy ending, when Stan (Jay R. Fergiuson) unexpectedly confessed his love for her during an office phone call; Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Trudy (Alison Brie) left for their new life in Wichita on a jet plane; Sally (Kiernan Shipka) again demonstrated she's more mature than her parents in so many ways; Betty (January Jones) was resigned to her terminal illness, last seen drawing on another cigarette; Roger (John Slattery) went to live with Marie (Julia Ormond) in Paris, having subsequently learned French; and Don (Jon Hamm) accompanied his niece Stephanie (Caity Lotz) to a Californian spiritual retreat, to help her get over the fact she's given her child away, and found a connection with a stranger over their shared feelings of being ignored by their families.

My lasting impression of "Person to Person" was that it resolved some things nicely, and was pleasingly ambiguous in spots, but ultimately I didn't think it was special enough. I like finales that feel like confident endings, but less knowledgeable viewers could be mistaken for thinking there's another Mad Men episode coming next week. Nothing about this hour felt grand or final enough to me, which was a shame. Not that I demand a major character to die on-screen, or a love-hate time-jump to 1995 or something, but there just wasn't much to feel giddy about. The season just coasted to a decent enough ending—which is fine, but not to my particular taste.

The one undoubtedly great moment was the final scene, with Don sitting in the lotus position with a group of New Agers on a hilltop. After a wry smile from Don, the scene segued into the famous Coca-Cola "Hilltop" commercial from 1971 ("I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke...")—which was either a funny way to parallel were Don Draper's story ended, with his cherished soda's greatest advertising hit offering a phony version of the true harmony he found; or an intentional nod that Don must have come out of retirement and used his spiritual rebirth as inspiration for Coke's most famous ad. Who knows which theory is correct, but the ambiguity is great fun to chew on.

Beyond that parting moment, there wasn't much to get excited about discussing post-viewing. Peggy's sudden realisation she's in love with Stan was extremely nicely played by the actors, but also very "rom-com" sentimental; but the emotion of Don and Betty holding back tears during their "farewell" phone conversation (Don having to agree his kids will go live with their aunt after his ex-wife dies) was the one moment of this finale that touched my heart. Don and Betty were such a vital part of early seasons, that this moment resonated very strongly with me. It was the hour's best call back to the origins of Mad Men, really. Kudos to Hamm for his work throughout this episode; he was geographically separated from every regular character, but still managed to make three important phone calls (to Sally, Betty, and Peggy) really mean something. I don't know if the other actors were off-camera giving Hamm a live voice to respond to, but that wouldn't negate the difficulty.

Overall, maybe I'll grow to like Mad Men's series finale more over time, when its subtleties have sunk in deeper and other people's opinions help inform my own, but it felt like an acceptable finale to me... and not a bravura send-off to seven seasons. I'm not sure what could have made it "better", as it would have been worse if Matthew Weiner had twisted the story to add some bolder endings or shocks, but there was definitely something missing for me. Some things just seemed to appear out of the blue, or resolved too easily, and the vagueness of the ending is the sort of thing I know will drive many people nuts.

written & directed by Matthew Weiner • 17 May 2015 • AMC