Essays · Features and Columns

The Ending of ‘Mad Men’ Explained

We look back at the ending of the iconic TV series and consider two ways of looking at Don Draper’s final epiphany.
Mad Men ending first and Final Shots
AMC Networks
By  · Published on June 29th, 2021

Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider two ways of looking at the ending of the TV series Mad Men. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

Ending a beloved television series is no easy feat. Some finales are critiqued for being too vague (see the ending of The Sopranos). Some are disappointingly cliched and predictable. And some are deemed too ridiculous, disappointing fans who have spent months or even years of their lives devouring a show (lumberjack Dexter, you know we’re looking at you!). But the ending of Mad Men manages to be wholly satisfactory and doesn’t leave any pesky loose ends. It is also entirely unexpected. 

The Mad Men series finale, entitled “Person to Person,” finds Don Draper (Jon Hamm) totally out of his element in an oceanside retreat on the coast of California. Early in the episode, he pulls another one of his typical stunts of leaving a company meeting and not coming back. But this time, he goes too far, literally, driving to the other side of the country. Upon his arrival out west, his niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz), brings him to the retreat but unexpectedly abandons him with no way to get home.

Don has hit rock bottom harder than ever before. Yes, even harder than when he painted Roger’s mom’s funeral with his lunch, or even that time he told the executives from Hershey that he was raised in a brothel. Surprisingly, Don calls Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) in a rare moment of vulnerability. He confesses that he stole another man’s name, broke his marriage vows, and scandalized his own daughter, and then he tells her that he just wants to say goodbye. Peggy says he can still come home and take back his old job at McCann Erickson, but he seems uninterested and hangs up.

In the penultimate scene of the Mad Men series finale, Don sits in on a therapy session at the retreat. One of the group members, Leonard (Evan Arnold), explains that he feels like a piece of food in the refrigerator that everyone ignores. Listening to this, something finally clicks for Don. He breaks down and cries, and he hugs Leonard. In the final moment of the episode, Don no longer appears to be a broken man. His demeanor is changed. He sits in a lotus position in front of the beautiful backdrop of the placid California beach. He meditates with other members of the retreat and then flashes a subtle smile.

What is he smiling about? An idea for an ad, of course! Specifically, the famous “Hilltop” TV spot for Coca-Cola. But why this ad? And why this ending for Mad Men

The “Hilltop” commercial is one of the most influential advertisements in the history of the medium. After its debut in the summer of 1971, the ad immediately became a staple of popular culture. People started calling radio stations asking them to play the “Buy the World a Coke” jingle from the commercial. That tune was then re-recorded without references to the soda and retitled “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).” It quickly climbed up the charts in the US and the UK.

Not only was the ad an enormous success in its time, but today it’s an important relic of that era. In the early 1970s, Americans were still reeling from the ongoing conflict in Vietnam, and things looked to be only getting worse. The counterculture hippie movement, initially predicated on peace and love in response to Vietnam and the general proliferation of nuclear weapons, as well as, more positively, the sexual revolution, had experienced some very dark moments at the end of the previous decade.

The once seemingly harmless hippies were now also associated with more radical political groups, rampant drug use, and worst of all, the Manson Family murders and the deadly Altamont Free Concert. And by 1971, anti-war demonstrations on university campuses were resulting in violence and tragedy, while large-scale efforts such as the May Day protests in Washington, DC, were less peaceful than those of the past.   

The fact that what would become one of the most famous ads in history takes place in a traditional hippie setting, then, is significant. California waves roll in the background. Smiling, carefree girls wear flowing braids. The crowd is effortlessly diverse. The lyrics chime the flower-power “peace and love” mantra as the carefree youngins sing of “perfect harmony” and furnishing homes with love. “Hilltop” is ultimately a deep and thoughtful reflection of the hippie spirit of the late 1960s while boldly attempting to reclaim — and obviously further mainstream — the movement’s pure and simple focus on peace and love. 

So, what does it mean that Don, of all people, was the one to think up this real ad? Especially when the strait-laced, old-fashioned, suit-and-tie company man has vocally criticized hippies many times throughout the series?

Well, for starters, it’s a great commercial. Coca-Cola had been regularly discussed as the advertising “white whale,” with ad men being bribed with the mere prospect of the chance of writing copy for that sugary drink. It is used as a motivator, a reminder that this is what they’re working towards. And so, in many ways, it is the perfect victorious ending for Don. After throwing a grenade into most of his relationships, drinking himself almost to death, and essentially demolishing his flourishing career, he finally rises from the ashes stronger than ever before, like a devilishly handsome, smooth-talking, impossibly well-dressed phoenix.

At least, that’s one way to look at it. From another perspective, Mad Men has one of the most cynical TV show endings out there. On a personal level, Don has finally admitted that he has major shortcomings as a father, a husband, a friend, a person even. And presumably, he is now intent on becoming a better man. On a cultural level, Don has finally really digested all of the 1960s. He finally understands the counterculture movement that is so appealing to his children and his second ex-wife, Megan – a movement that caused a great deal of conflict in his relationships.

So, he seemingly decides to embrace peace and love and all of the things that are pretty much antithetical to the capitalist machine of advertising. A movement that he vehemently fought against as an ad man — he was often criticized by so-called hippies for perpetuating capitalism, and then he, in turn, criticized them right back for being lazy and unpatriotic. But on that hill by the ocean, Don has reached nirvana.

And what does he do with that newfound state of mind and knowledge? He exploits it to sell people Coke. 

However you interpret the ending of Mad Men, one thing is for sure: Don Draper is always one step ahead of the ad game. And, who knows, maybe he’s right to exploit happiness. All happiness is, after all, in his own words, is “a moment before you need more happiness.”

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.