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.”