Rest in peace, Don Draper.

“Mad Men”

Series Finale

During his last appearance in the “Mad Men” series finale, Don Draper (Jon Hamm, “30 Rock”) is at peace. His eyes are closed and his mouth rests in an uncharacteristic smile. The collection of roles and jobs that bound him to his harsh New York lifestyle — husband, father, mentor and hotshot advertising executive — barely register on his still face. He is still alive and breathing, but Don Draper is dead.

One of the major themes running throughout “Mad Men” is the malleability of identity. When Dick Whitman pulls the dog tags off his friend’s corpse and returns home from the Korean War with a new name, he’s abandoning the baggage of his traumatic childhood and becoming, quite literally, another person. He is a chameleon, changing who he is to fit the demands of the new job and life he chooses for himself. And he is not the only one: The Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss, “The West Wing”) of Season 7 couldn’t be more different from the demure and impressionable secretary we met in the first episode. “Mad Men” allowed all of its characters to change and shift course countless times during its seven-season run — to rise, fall, relapse, live, die and come back again.

“Mad Men” raises its dramatic stakes in its finale by forcing each character to make a final choice about his or her priorities. There’s no more running away. What’s more important: work or life?

Betty (January Jones, “The Last Man on Earth”) doesn’t have a choice. Her lung cancer has metastasized, and she’s got six months to live, if that. Sharing the news of her impending death was the one part of her life she could still control, and even that has been taken away from her. Her daughter Sally (Kiernan Shipka, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) lets it slip to Don that Betty is dying, and even the littler kids know something is wrong when their mom sleeps through dinner and schleps around the house like a zombie in a nightgown. In the first of the episode’s many crucial phone calls, Betty tells Don that she wants him to keep his distance from their children after she dies, citing the fact that he hasn’t been around in months as evidence that he’s not ready to be a full-time father any time soon. Betty plans for the future her children deserve, and when the work is done, she sits down at the table to smoke a cigarette and read the newspaper. Her character bows on a composed and dignified note, evocative of her resilient character.

At the beginning of the episode, Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks, “Firefly”) seems poised to choose love over career. She quit her job at McCann Erickson because of the sexist work environment, and her new boyfriend promised marriage and a luxurious life together. But when Joan is offered a freelance commercial production gig, she can’t resist the opportunity to be her own boss. She could start her own production company and even hire Peggy to be her partner. When Peggy turns her down and her boyfriend makes her choose between work and supposed love, Joan picks her career. No man is worth giving up all the progress she’s made in her tenure and all the dreams she still hopes to accomplish. The name of the production company she creates (“Holloway Harris”) says it all. Joan raised a child, gathered her strength from the wreckage of bad marriages and toxic relationships and sat at the SC&P partners’ table before the office closed. She can do everything, all on her own.

As her friendship with Don has cooled, Peggy is flourishing with independence. While Don runs away from all his problems, Peggy confronts hers head-on. She’s thriving at McCann Erickson, poised to become the next Don and even more. However, she still harbors a soft spot in her heart for the mentor who gave her the spark of hope for something more than secretarial work. And as distant as Don could be, his relationship with Peggy was one of his most genuine and meaningful. In a despairing moment late in the episode, Don calls Peggy, remembering that he never said goodbye to her in person. He confesses his sins: Hunched over the payphone with anguished eyes, mentor seeks comfort from mentee. Peggy reminds him that he has a home and a family to come back to — a work family, but that doesn’t make it any less real. Moss and Hamm deliver some of their best performances of the entire series, and the scene aches with the pathos of their shared desperation.

Immediately after this call, Peggy gets another from Stan Rizzo (Jay Ferguson, “The Lucky One”), who suddenly confesses his love to her. It’s a bizarre development, considering that their relationship always read as mutually respectful and supportive — never romantic. When Peggy realizes that she might have feelings for him, too, and he bursts into her office to kiss her, the scene is almost too good to be true. Historically, “Mad Men” has taken a cynical approach to love, and with so little evidence for Peggy and Stan, their passionate smooch comes off a bit too pat to be believable.

In fact, “Mad Men” so rarely depicts unfiltered positive emotion that whenever a character has a happy ending, I have to wonder if series creator Matthew Weiner is just messing with us. Roger (John Slattery, “Desperate Housewives”) and Megan’s mother are a particularly curious case, because the show has done little to establish if he is really a changed man. Roger Sterling would never choose a challenging, independent woman of age over a sexy secretary in a short skirt — or would he? Their impending marriage felt like too neat a send-off, too convenient a way to tie Megan’s storyline back into the show. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser, “Angel”) also has a suspiciously cheery send-off. His reconciliation with Trudy (Alison Brie, “Community”) in the previous episode was sweet, but, again, contrived. After Pete’s infidelity and lying, Trudy would be much more wary to trust him again. Pete is the only one who actively chooses to pursue a family and work life, but, given his history, success in both seems unlikely.

Don Draper doesn’t want to choose between work and life. He’s had his share of both — seven seasons of brilliant advertising pitches and late nights in the office and a few months’ worth of aimless wandering and drunken brooding. When he arrives in Los Angeles and ends up at the hippie retreat, Don is already looking the part of Dick Whitman, wearing his hair in a boyish side part and donning some rugged denim jackets that are uncharacteristic of the ad exec persona he left behind in New York. But he outgrows those clothes at the retreat: He explores a new part of his identity entirely separate from Dick and Don. He has a sincere moment of connection with a man who describes feeling insubstantial, more like a can in a refrigerator than an actual human man with a wife and children who love him. Don knows this feeling of emptiness well. Despite the fact that he’s offered glimpses of vulnerability to his children and to Peggy, he wonders if there is even a man under the disguises he’s grown so used to wearing.

He buries Dick and Don in the California sand and emerges a new man, eyes closed and legs crossed and meditating. He smiles, offering viewers a quick glimpse at the man he has become. Then the screen cuts to a Coca-Cola advertisement, which Don might have created if he went back to McCann Erickson.

The show doesn’t provide a definitive answer if he actually created the ad. All we are left with is the image of a peaceful smile and a group of people singing about love, harmony and human connection. It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending to a show that always challenged its viewers to question and engage and to impart their own meaning on every episode. Don is a blank slate and it’s up to us to determine his new identity.

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