The ending of ‘Mad Men’ is deliberately ambiguous. It’s not frustratingly ambiguous in the way that the ending to ‘The Sopranos’ is – this finale’s ambiguity is far more satisfying, and its satisfaction lies in the way that, whichever way you choose to read our last sight of Don Draper (and they are very different readings), you are drawn, inescapably, to the same conclusion.
In brief, and without giving away what has led to this moment or revealing the fate of the other characters, here is what happens in those final moments.
Don Draper sits on a clifftop in the lotus position. We hear a yoga teacher’s voice:
‘The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led.The lives we’ve yet to lead. New day. New ideas. New you.”
We hear the ching of a Tibetan bell and the group begins to chant ‘Om’. Don joins in. We see his face in close -up and, as we have done so many times over the seven series, we wonder what exactly is going on in his head.
We hear another ching and the edges of Don’s mouth deliver an enigmatic smile.
Then we hear the words of a song “I’d like to buy the world a home…
We see the girl who is singing and then pull back to see others singing with her.
‘I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love, grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves….
It is the famous ‘Hilltop’ Coke ad from 1971, a version of The New Seekers’ song, and it is this ad that ends the series, playing out over the titles.
There are two ways of reading this ending.
One is that Don Draper, moved by his group therapy session, having driven as far as he can on the self-destructive highway of hedonistic materialism, has undergone a form of rebirth. He has left advertising and will not return. Instead he will rebuild himself – he may, who knows, even assume another name, another new identity with which to embrace a new spiritually satisfying future. New days. New ideas. New you.
The other way of reading this ending (and I think this reading is the more convincing) is to see this clifftop moment as the one in which Don Draper has the idea for the famous Coke commercial. Perhaps the yoga teacher’s reference to ‘new ideas’ needs to be read differently. Perhaps the Tibetan bell chime is not so much an aid to meditation but more the ‘ping’ of that lightbulb moment. It could even be the ‘ping’ of a cash register, an appropriate accompaniment to the birth of a milliion-dollar idea. And perhaps that enigmatic smile is not one of a new-found spiritual contentment, but the smile of the eureka moment.
The clues for this reading are everywhere. Don has been working for McCann-Erickson, the agency that made the famous ad. In this episode Peggy has asked him why he doesn’t want to come back and ‘work on Coca-Cola’ and Don has even been asked to help fix a Coke machine.
If we are to assume that Don returns to advertising and makes the McCann hilltop ad it is clear what he does – he appropriates the details of the hippy retreat to serve his own commercial purposes. For hilltop read clifftop. For the girl with the red ribbons in her hair in the coke ad read the girl with red ribbons in her hair at the retreat.
Whichever way you read it, though, the message seems inescapable. If Don Draper does not return to advertising, but embraces a new way of living, what does the playing of that ad say about Don’s new-found peace and understanding? Does the ad function as a kind of choric commentary on those hippy ideals of spiritual harmony and non-materialism, showing that their only value lies in how they may be used to serve some larger commercial purpose?
And if Don does have that lightbulb moment on the clifftop and returns to McCanns to make the Hilltop ad what does this say about him and about his world? That the pull of the ad world is too strong for him to escape it? That those sixties values are not worth serious consideration – by all means use them but don’t believe them, and definitely don’t think of living by them.
Either way, the finale to ‘Mad Men’ marks the commodifcation and appropriation of the hippy ideals in the service of… what? Nick Carraway’s words in ‘The Great Gatsby’ come to mind – ‘in the service of’ a vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty’. Whether Don continues his spiritual journey towards a different kind of life or whether he returns to McCanns to dream up the ad hardly matters.
What matters is that advertising wins. Advertising has the last word – or, in this case, song.
And talking of songs, here’s a great one it made me think of (check out a very young Nick Lowe miming very badly)