The Mad Men finale “Person to Person” provides an exquisite ending to an amazing series. It not only ties up many loose ends, but it links heartwarming (or fitting) endings with promising beginnings.
On the surface, the episode is named for two urgent person-to-person phone calls placed by Don. In those days, a person-to-person call, mediated by a live operator, was only to be accepted by the specific person being called or it cost the caller nothing. Can you imagine? A level down, multiple phone calls and interpersonal meetings featuring person-to-person influence propel the storyline. Deeper still, it’s a story about people finding themselves.
Of all the many ways people learn about who they are, some typical ways that adults increase their self-knowledge are featured in this episode. This includes characters receiving feedback from others, seeing themselves in others, doing new things that expand their understanding of what they’re capable of, and rejecting people, places, or things that hold them back from their own unique unfoldment.
Both Stephanie and Don realize more about themselves through confrontations and emotional discussions that provide them with feedback. Stephanie confronts Don from the beginning, and later, at the retreat, they both gain self-awareness through emotional discussions. Peggy also confronts Don on the phone, scolding him for leaving and demanding that he return to work. Reading between the lines, she’s saying that the work is right for him – it’s who he is.
Several characters find more of themselves through a love relationship, where the partners see something of themselves (their values, beliefs, etc.) in their “other half.” People in love also sometimes see their partners more clearly than the partners can see themselves, which means an ongoing love relationship can potentially continue the process of self-discovery as partners help each other along. Peggy & Stan, Pete & Trudy, and Roger & Marie all discover something about themselves through their love – and these three beautiful love stories make the episode especially heartwarming.
Don, who’s been seeking to understand himself throughout the series, appears to see fragments of himself in most of the people he connects with (as I’ll show later in this article). Interestingly, the women who mirror him most, and who he probably sees himself in most, are his daughter, Sally, his mentee and longtime work associate Peggy, and to some extent, Stephanie, as a proxy for her Aunt Anna – all women he loves, but not romantically.
When given the chance to become a producer and run her own company, Joan broadens her self-concept by taking on the new role. And at the end of the show, Don returns to advertising to create that great Coke commercial, where he blends his considerable talents with his new consciousness to do perhaps the best work of his career. Sure, Don previously knew himself to be an outstanding creative ad guy. But to create this particular commercial, he first had to discover more of himself in California and then integrate it into his work.
Finally, both Pete and Richard jettison something or someone that they feel no longer resonates with who they are or want to be. Pete leaves McCann because he believes the new job with Learjet better reflects who he has become, or wants to become. Richard seems mostly to be in love with himself, and it angers him when Joan refuses to play his passive shadow, mirroring his controlling personality by just going along. Joan is saddened that Richard doesn’t love her for all that she is. But rather than arguing further, she lets him go so that she can continue her self-discovery by building her skills and self-concept through the new work that excites her.
In addition, Marie has jettisoned her marriage with Emile in order to marry Roger. “Poor Emile – he suddenly discovered that he wants me . . . such a tragic figure,” she teases Roger. When Roger demands to know whether she slept with him when she went to Canada to divorce him, she responds with my favorite line of the episode, “Not everything is your business.” But it all works out well for them in the end, as they both leave their pasts behind to begin their new marriage.
At the beginning of the episode, we see Don in the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, involved with a couple of young men who share his enthusiasm for car mechanics and racing. It’s possible that he sees these guys as younger versions of himself. He helps them out with mechanical advice and cash, and they in turn provide him a ride to Los Angeles. Although Don appears to enjoy working with cars, he discovers that he doesn’t love it enough to stay with it.
Immediately, Don calls Betty person-to-person and asserts that he’ll come home and raise the children. Betty states that the best thing for the children is a stable home life, and that her brother and sister-in-law, William and Judy, can best provide it. Reminded of his own shortcomings as a dad, Don defers to Betty in frustration. However, they end the call with “honey” and “Birdie” and lots of affectionate choked sobs. Although it’s brief, they reconnect through their shared love – and the parts of themselves they once found through each other – as they begin to grieve its final loss.
At another point we see Don enjoying the afterglow of sex with a young, beautiful woman he’s picked up. Given the cheater aspect of his own personality, he recognizes it in this woman as well and suspects she’s stolen his wallet while hanging up his pants for him. He asks her point blank whether she took his wallet, and she acts insulted by the question. Skeptical, he grills her with “Should I go look? . . . Did you leave me anything? . . . Get your purse.”
The woman opens her purse and hands him the envelope where Don had stashed some cash along with Anna’s wedding ring. He then hands her the money from the envelope as a voluntary offering, showing that his own deceitfulness is balanced with a certain amount of good will. Far from being angry, Don kisses her more, apparently getting a kick out of her attempted theft. I believe he sees in this woman a reflection of himself, since both have outstandingly good looks and similar moral character. Yet their similarities don’t go deep enough to hold them together for long.
In Los Angeles, Don finds his way to the house where Stephanie lives. Dropping in on her, he tells her he’s retired and doing some traveling, but she quickly sees through it and understands that there’s something wrong with him. Don tries to return Anna’s wedding ring to Stephanie, but she rejects it because it doesn’t resonate with her lifestyle or identity. She then tells him she’s planning to go to a retreat up the coast and says he can crash at her place while she’s gone. Just before leaving, she decides to bring him along instead. Being a lost soul for so long, Stephanie sees that Don is pretty lost, too.
The “retreat up the coast” turns out to be the Esalen Institute or a similar place. Don is skeptical but Stephanie warns him to be open. In the first group event, people are told to meander around a room and then stop, consider the person nearest them, and express their feelings for the other person nonverbally. Don looks at the elderly woman near him and seems to find nothing relatable. The woman gives him an angry shove, and he deflects his gaze as if he doesn’t want to interact with her. Maybe he can’t see himself in her at all. Or maybe he sees something he dislikes (part of his own shadow self) and thinks it would be wrong to express it.
In the second group, Stephanie talks openly about how she thinks everyone is judging her for having gotten pregnant and given her baby away to the boyfriend’s parents. Next, a woman in the group warns Stephanie about how bad it felt for her growing up, having been abandoned by her mother. Stephanie, feeling judged, gets upset and runs outside. Ironically, Stephanie disses (judges) that woman as she runs away, followed by Don who also shoots the woman a hugely judgmental look as he runs to catch up with Stephanie and try to save her from her feelings. It seems that Stephanie herself is quite judgmental but doesn’t realize it.
Soon Stephanie decides to drive back to L.A. on her own and takes off without informing Don. Once he realizes it, he inquires at the front desk about how to get out of there. Learning that it will take at least a couple of days to arrange for a ride, Don complains, “People just come and go. No one says goodbye.” Of course, this is exactly what he’s done to his family and to his company, seemingly on a whim. Stephanie’s extreme independence and disregard for Don’s feelings and needs mirror a part of Don. As he begins to notice this, he takes stock of some of his most egregious behavior in life.
Don then places an urgent person-to-person call from a payphone at the retreat to Peggy Olson at McCann Erickson in New York. Accepting the call, Peggy leads with, “Where the hell are you? . . . Do you know how angry everyone is?” and she proceeds to explain how bad everyone feels since he suddenly left without a word. He finally gets it. Peggy also informs Don that he should return “home” to McCann and that the company will take him back.
Don’s voice breaks as he confesses to Peggy, “I messed up everything. I’m not the man you think I am . . . I broke all my vows . . . scandalized my child (accidentally exposed Sally to his sexual activity with Sylvia) . . . took another man’s name and made nothing of it (stole his commanding officer Donald Draper’s dog tag upon his death in Korea, assumed Draper’s identity so that he could quickly be discharged from the army, and escaped his own family by giving the dead man his own dog tag). . . I only called because I realized I never said goodbye to you.” In admitting these things to Peggy, Don taps in to a decent part of himself, the part that feels ashamed about what he’s done, cares about the harm he’s caused other people, and wants to do better. And in saying it all out loud, he becomes more aware of that part of himself, a part that he usually keeps well-hidden.
It’s true that Don has confided some of this behavior to various others in the past. But what’s different now is that he’s more connected to how he really feels about it, and he’s able to express his deepest emotions while talking about it. Moreover, he’s talking to Peggy, the one person alive that he feels truly knows and understands him. Don desperately desires Peggy’s good opinion of him because he sees her as a person of good judgment and high moral character.
Forced to remain at the retreat until the week’s end, and stunned by the extent of his failings, Don becomes despondent. Soon another retreat participant stops by and persuades him to join her in a group event. In this group circle, we see a man in an orange jumpsuit talking about how he generally feels unnoticed, personally and professionally.
He thinks his family members love him in their own ways, but he never feels very loved. He also describes a dream he once had about sitting in a refrigerator on a shelf and not being picked by the smiling person who opens the fridge. The man breaks down and cries, and Don is so moved that he walks over and embraces him, sobbing along with him because the man’s pain resonates with his own. It may be hard to imagine the tall, handsome, successful Don Draper feeling so ignored. However, his childhood flashbacks throughout the series indicate that he grew up without receiving much attention at all from adults.
The next day, we see Don and others sitting in the lotus position in an outdoor sunrise meditation, everyone dressed in white. There the facilitator speaks of the hope brought by the sunrise – a new day, new ideas, a new self. Don smiles as he chants along with the group.
The episode closes with the 1971 Coke ad featuring a racially and culturally diverse crowd of young people standing on a hilltop, singing the now-familiar jingle that starts: “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love….”
I believe Don has returned “home,” as Peggy says, to McCann, following the California retreat, and has developed this Coke ad based on his transformative experience. To those who believe otherwise, I’d ask why an entire episode would be built around Don’s expanding consciousness if someone at McCann who’s not highlighted in the episode also possesses the talent and consciousness to create the ad? Or, to look at it from another angle, why would the episode end with that particular ad if it weren’t integrally connected to the rest of the episode? From a literary standpoint, it makes no sense.
And logically, if McCann employs this other creative genius who developed this ad, then why would Jim McCann have been so excited about hiring Don Draper? We know that Ted Chaough, for instance, also has impressive creative talent, and he’s new at McCann, too. But we also know that Ted was very uninspired by California and not particularly gripped by wanting to bring the world together, which is the sentiment of this ad. Further, we’ve seen the plodding “creative committee” mentality at McCann, which suggests that most creatives there were worn down by the conformity of the process. Given all that, I believe it’s reasonable to assume that this inspirational ad was Don’s work.
Finally, the parallel between Coke’s tagline, “It’s the real thing,” and Don’s success in moving closer to “the real Don,” is a lovely touch. Moreover, it’s a fitting tribute to the movement toward authenticity that, by the 1960s, was snugly interwoven into Western social and intellectual thought. Thank you, Mad Men, for such a beautiful finale!
In my next Mad Men article, I’ll weigh in on what makes Mad Men such an outstanding television series. There I’ll share my thinking on how and why different viewers perceive Don Draper, and the show itself, differently.
Want more Mad Men? Be sure to pick up all the Mad Men DVDs! Many of them contain extras that have never been shown on television.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00XQH5O4G,B00M6X9ZTG,B009YR7UKI,B000YABIQ6,B001GCUER0,B002LITH76,B004HW7JH4,B00BUUAV08,B00M6X9ZTG,B00XQH5O4G]