(SPOILER ALERT. Because obvi-fucking-ously.)
For the better part of a decade now in watching the series finale (or, more accurately, the final scene) of The Sopranos, audiences have asked, "Does Tony live or die?"
There are people who will swear that the cinematography of the scene demands that Tony died. Yeah, okay. I doubt that the creator's intention in filming his last scene was to make every viewer take a film course to understand it. Besides, that's a meta-analysis. The only reason to suppose that Tony died is because it was the last scene of the last episode. Ask yourself: if this had been the ending to an average episode of The Sopranos, would we still be convinced Tony had died at the end? And so we stare deeply into it, demanding that the Rorschach test reflects back what we already think we know.
Except, as long as we're doing a meta-analysis, up until James Gandolfini's untimely death there had been talk of a Sopranos movie. Which would almost certainly mean that retroactively the last scene just depicted an average, maybe even halcyon dinner with the family. Now that Gandolfini has died, we can't go back and say, "Well, that proves Tony Soprano died because now there can be no sequel featuring him."
The problem is, we've been asking the wrong question. Eight years of silence from the creator on the subject should have taught us this. Instead of asking "Does Tony live or die?" we should be asking "Does it matter whether Tony lives or dies?"
Because, no, of course it doesn't. Whether Tony is shot in that actual scene - and, yes, of course, it's set up to imply that's a possibility - doesn't change the fact that he lives under the eternal cloud of his own mortality. We all do, after all. Perhaps an amoral mob boss more than the average accountant or mechanic, but still. Tonight could be my last dinner with my family if I just so happen to get hit by a car tomorrow. So the only thing to do is to continue on, cling to what we have for support, knowing that someday we'll bite it, but until then we can't stop believing that we won't.
In looking at the Mad Men finale I wonder if we're looking at another Sopranos ending, writ small. Don smiles and then...the most famous Coke commercial of all time. Maybe the most famous commercial of all time period. I dunno. Is this like the Holy Grail of advertising? Certainly, it's something the show's been teasing since the beginning, that Don would create something iconic (and it would probably be Coke.)
So Don smiles and...
a) It's a smile of contentment. He's finally found peace with being Dick Whitman. Peggy, his protege, creates the Coke commercial.
b) It's a shit-eating grin. The sharkish Don Draper never really died. He just sees all the people seeking truth and emotion around him as a crass thing that can be exploited to sell sugar water.
It's sort of like The Sopranos all over again. You could go either way. There will be a segment of the population that holds forth the girl with ribbons in her hair from the commercial - almost identical to the one working the lobby at the California retreat - is proof positive that Don returned from his latest walkabout with a brilliant new advertising scheme.
But then again...
Don hugged a guy. A total stranger. Or should I say, Dick hugged a guy. This season has been all about Dick Whitman exorcising Don Draper. "Don Draper" was not just amoral like Tony Soprano. He was something closer to utterly incapable of emotion. He was what I guess we'd call a sociopath, but instead of becoming a serial killer he became an ad man.
Almost all of "Don's" behavior came from a sense of obligation, or a desperate desire to feel something, anything. Happy people don't drink and smoke like that. Content people don't cheat on their wives with everything on two legs. Loving people don't abandon their families at every conceivable opportunity to work. And dedicated people don't make a mockery of their work, screwing over everyone who works hard and sleazing by on their charm and good looks.
I'm not certain "Don Draper" ever felt anything. The only time I recall seeing him show genuine warmth or compassion was when he was free to be Dick Whitman, with Anna and her niece Stephanie.
I'm sure a superfan could pick all this apart. I imagine someone could point out something that would explode all my theories. (Of course, that's part of the fun of the internet, so feel free to have at it in the comments.) Don Draper is a complex, baffling, fascinating, sexy, horrible, miraculous character. He's at the center of what's considered the Golden Age of Television. Of course there's no way to boil him down to a few sentences on an out-of-the-way blog.
But let's say the former explanation is right. Let's say this character's story arc is that he stole another man's identity because he thought it would be like stealing the keys to the country club. (Or a car. Cars are very symbolic. Pete can't drive one. Don gives his up at the end. The company is always after one. But I digress.) But what he thought was a rich man's suit turned out to be a suit of armor, keeping out the world, that eventually developed into a wall comparable only to Pink Floyd's.
Then this man, Dick or Don or whatever, realizes that every time he knocks a brick out of the wall he feels a little less suffocated. He comes clean to Anna, and eventually to Betty, and finally to his children, but that's not enough. He spends the final season tearing down the wall. He gives up everything that made him Don: his company, his position, his family, his home town, his money ($1 million to Meghan and $2 million in severance to McCann), then finally that symbolic car, and ultimately that totemic ring of Anna's (his first and last ill-gotten gain from a stolen life.)
He is even, in a sense, absolved of his crime in the penultimate episode. Look at the almost Catholic way he confesses (to the veterans), pays a penance (being beaten), and then goes forth and sins no more (gives his car to the kid.) If this is the character arc of this person, and Dick is finally free, and he knows it because he is finally capable of feeling human emotion again, and cries at this sad little stranger's story and hugs him, then the entire show, the entire series is undercut by the idea that he would go back to Madison Avenue.
Now I just spent a few sentences arguing why Don must have gone back to advertising (the seemingly stronger claim), and what feels like a book arguing why it couldn't possibly have been true (the seemingly weaker claim.) This may be the great debate of Mad Men's finale, the same way whether Tony died was the great debate of The Sopranos'. But then, maybe The Sopranos can be a blueprint for us again in "settling" this debate.
The thing is...there is no debate. There's only what we were shown on the screen. Not "Did Don go back or not?" but "Does it matter whether Don went back or not?" We're shown Don...or maybe Dick...finally giving in and doing yoga, and then he smiles about...something. And then we're shown an iconic Coke commercial. And...
That's the series. In a nutshell. Advertising is a falsehood. It's a total fabrication by people who want to sell you soda and candy and crap you don't need. But it's also about something real. It's about capturing the Zeitgeist, or it doesn't work. Commercials that are on TV today are surreal and meta, and speak to Millennials' refusal to trust that what "the man" presents to them as real. That's a "real" feeling that commercials started reflecting well before television and movies and other media were, because commercials have to be deft. They have to sell you something or they don't work. So they have to be both patently false and somehow ring true.
That's what Mad Men's about. The truth in the falseness. The Coke ad of 1971 captured the attention of the people of 1971, just like "Where's the Beef?" would in the '80's and "Da da da" would in the '90s, and Flo the wacky insurance lady does today. Commercials are simultaneously deep and shallow, and they're made by people who are simultaneously deep and shallow. Even this blogpost is simultaneously deep and shallow. It doesn't really matter whether Don/Dick went back to New York, because as he pointed out to Peggy, the entire advertising industry didn't collapse with his departure. Commercials would still get made. And this brilliant series was the story of a few of them, and the people that made them, and maybe you had a good time watching it, and, hell, if you want to get really meta, maybe you bought some of the crap that was advertised while you were watching it.
And...fade to black.
***UPDATE: Apparently, Matthew Weiner came out this week to explicitly state that Don wrote the ad, making this entire post essentially horseshit, one of the eternal dangers of scheduling posts ahead of time. Yay, word of God.***
"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov
Hi, I'm horror author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."