After seven seasons, the TV series Mad Men finally came to an end with Season 7 Episode 14, titled "Person to Person." While it may be the last and final episode of the AMC series, the ending of the Mad Men finale definitely leaves some questions unanswered and is open for interpretation and analysis. Spoiler alert! What is the meaning of the Mad Men series finale ending? Why does Don Draper smile? What does it all mean?
After watching seven seasons of Mad Men's Don Draper drinking endless amounts of Scotch regardless of the day or hour, it's not really much of a surprise to find him in a rehab style retreat in California by the series finale, set in 1970. The retreat is full of what you could call "hippies" on a quest for enlightenment — the same kind of aimless young people Don Draper openly disdained early on in the series when he was still sure he had it all figured out as a powerful executive working at a successful New York ad agency on Madison Avenue. "Stop talking and make something of yourself," Don Draper condescendingly advises a young hippie in "The Hobo Code" (Season 1, Episode 8). "Like you?" the young man answers sarcastically, adding disdainfully, "You make the lie."
As Mad Men progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that not only does Don Draper "make the lie" in his job as an ad man on Madison Avenue, but that he is also living a lie, and that lie is wearing on him and perhaps starting to drive him a little mad (hence the show's title, Mad Men). His real name, after all, is Dick Whitman, a distressing secret that threatens his job at Sterling Cooper but actually destroys his marriage to Betty Draper. But women are a commodity more easily disposed of for Don Draper, especially when compared to his coveted position as creative director at Sterling Cooper. By the Season 6 finale, however, his cracking "Don Draper" facade has put even his precious job in jeopardy when he is forced to go on sabbatical after suffering a kind of breakdown during an important client meeting, revealing the true story about his childhood as a poor, unloved orphan.
After being ousted from his position on Madison Avenue, in Season 7 Don Draper finds new resolve in fighting his way back into the advertising world (though still actively hiding the sad truths about his life and his job from his family). Finally, Don Draper not only convinces his company to take him back, but after a somewhat miraculous merger somehow finds himself as a top executive at McCann-Erickson, an even bigger and more successful ad agency. Having redeemed himself and achieved what seemed at times like the impossible, you would expect Don Draper to finally find satisfaction in his new role at McCann-Erickson. But maybe his redemption was too easily won. Instead of giving the new gig a shot, he walks out during the first big meeting. In the series finale, Peggy, who always bonded with Don over their shared dedication to creating great ads, asks Don expectantly, "Don't you want to work on Coke?" ...Does he?
Leaving his New York job and life behind, Don gets in his car and drives out West, presumably in search of something more. What is Don Draper searching for while loafing around on the West Coast like all those drifters he used to look down on? Up until this point, his ultimate purpose in life was coming up with great advertising campaigns for increasingly prestigious brands and products. Is that still enough, or was Burt right when he sang the song, "The Best Things in Life Are Free" (Season 7, Episode 7)? What is the meaning of life? Sitting in the Lotus position on the cliffs above Big Sur chanting a new age mantra, Don sedately listens to smooth, reassuring talk of a "New You." A bell chimes. Is he really going to ditch his old "Don Draper" fake identity once and for all and finally become his ideal self? A smile slowly forms on Don Draper's lips... Then we cut to a Coke commercial.
Who made the Coke ad in the Mad Men TV series finale? Interestingly enough, the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial that played at the end of the Mad Men series finale was a real Coke ad released by the real McCann-Erickson ad agency in 1971, one year after the series finale is set. In this instance of art imitating life, we know that Peggy still works at McCann-Erickson, but Don's future there is not at all certain. In the finale's last moments, we see Peggy finishing up some work at her typewriter which her boyfriend Stan then reviews, nodding in approval. Was it actually Peggy who, inspired by her own imaginings of Don's wanderings, came up with the idea for the Coke commercial?
Some fan theories argue that it may have really been Peggy who created the Coke TV ad that plays at the end of the Mad Men series finale, but looking back it seems that Coke had been on Don's mind throughout his journey on the road out West. After fixing the broken vending machine at a motel, Don stares at the Coke machine contemplatively before walking away (Season 7, Episode 13). And there's no denying that the young people, the "Hilltop," and even the peaceful, gentle language used in the Coke commercial all bear a striking similarity to the retreat we just saw Don attending (see photo).
What is the meaning of the ending of the Mad Men series finale? Why does Don Draper smile? Don's smile suggests that he has indeed found inner peace and is finally at ease with himself. At first we might assume that he is going to retire from the ad game and try for the first time to be the real Dick Whitman. Is Don finally realizing that all those hippies were actually onto something? It's nice to think that Don's path to spiritual enlightenment may be "the real thing," but his somewhat slick smile seems to be, yes, a sign of self-acceptance, but perhaps also of newfound inspiration.
Was Don's trip out West ever really a soul-searching spiritual journey to self-discovery, or was it actually just a meandering search for a more profitable form of creative inspiration? Was Don just moonlighting as a hippie so he could in turn capitalize on 1960s counterculture to make a buck? Throughout Mad Men the political and social turmoil of the 1960s—Nixon, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, and so on—looms behind and occasionally touches the lives of the series' privileged, upper class characters.
In the "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" commercial, however, all of that fear and uncertainty is carefully removed, distilled into an innocuous message of love and peace that everybody could enjoy, old and young alike. I don't know if it's "the real thing," but it's definitely what the world was ready for in 1971. If this was Don's final comment on the 1960s, this highly popular ad would have truly cemented his entire career in advertising. Thinking back to Betty's brief stint as a Coke model in Season 1...
Maybe it was just Don's destiny to finally make that Coke ad.