The 1970s pop song that might foretell the “Mad Men” ending
Okay, okay, I know by now you’ve heard all the theories on how “Mad Men” will end. Don invents the Coke “I’d like to teach the world to sing” slogan. Don is famed hijacker D.B. Cooper. I love those, but I have one of my own and it’s been gnawing at me, so I’ve decided to put it out there at the risk of looking like a total idiot a few days from now.
When the promo shots came out for this final half-a-season, the characters were all at some sort of gathering in a garden. A “garden party,” if you will. Knowing how Matthew Weiner brilliantly integrates pop music into every episode, especially at the end, this caught my attention. I know the penultimate episode took place in 1970, but in 1972, former 1950s clean-cut teen-idol Rick/Ricky Nelson released “Garden Party,” a song based on a real incident that took place at Madison Square Garden around that time, when he tried to adopt a new identity, and it didn’t go well.
Instead of me recapping what happened (since I was born in 1979, I’m probably not the best source), let’s hear it from good ol’ Wikipedia:
Nelson came on stage dressed in the then-current fashion, wearing bell-bottoms and a purple velvet shirt, with his hair hanging down to his shoulders. He started playing his older songs like “Hello Mary Lou”, but then he played The Rolling Stones’ “Country Honk” (a country version of their hit song “Honky Tonk Women”) and the crowd began to boo. While some reports say that the booing was caused by police action in the back of the audience, Nelson took it personally and left the stage. He watched the rest of the concert backstage and did not reappear on stage for the finale.
But that’s not the end of the story. Nelson went home and penned the eventual Billboard Top 10 hit “Garden Party”. These were the opening lyrics:
I went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends /
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again /
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name /
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same
And here’s the chorus:
But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well /
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself
So… does this foretell the ending of “Mad Men”? Well, hear me out for a moment. When we last saw Don, he was sitting alone at that bus stop. My guess: he has a revelation. He realizes that his relationships are the only thing in life that are actually real. That even behind his lies, he truly cared about his female co-workers (well, Peggy and Joan), his daughter, and even his dying ex-wife. So he comes back to a gathering… in a garden… and the occasion is Betty’s funeral. And he returns not as Don Draper, but as Dick Whitman. He has come to the funeral to bury both Betty AND Don. He has come to accept his real self — flaws, mistakes, wounds, and all — just like the veterans did (before they kicked the shit of him), and he hopes that everyone will do the same and accept “Dick”. But he’s the one who will be buried. Everyone will know his name, just like in the song, and that will be the problem. They can’t forget the person they remember. The crowd also won’t let him switch his image the way Rick/Ricky Nelson did, and they will, essentially, boo Don off his stage.
I believe Weiner, cleverly, has tricked us into thinking that they will be able to forgive and forget Don’s mistakes. So much of the previous episode revolved around Pete asking Trudy to take him back. At first, she tells him that “things can’t be undone” and that she can’t forget the horrible memories from the end of their marriage. Then she comes around and decides that she, indeed, CAN forget. Yet we all know certain lies are bigger than others. Cheating on your wife? Big deal, obviously. Cheating on two different wives, ignoring your children, abandoning several jobs and doing it all under a false identity? That’s deception on a biblical scale.
But we know that nobody is better at forgetting than Don. He is the champion — the Floyd Mayweather — of forgetting. This is the guy who, after Peggy went through childbirth, the single most memorable event in a human being’s existence, told her, “it will shock you how much it never happened.” But we know that was bullshit. and Peggy knows it too. This season, Peggy has come to realize that, actually no, you can’t forget when a human being pops out of you.
Don has always thought he can spout bullshit to frame reality however he pleases. It’s his gift. My guess: he will come back, knowing the same bullshit won’t work, but thinking an earnest “I-have-learned-my-lesson” plea for forgiveness will. Unfortunately for him, it won’t. Nobody will accept him back, and nobody will be able to forget his transgressions. THIS will be the lesson he learns well. Don will realize people don’t forget. Ever. And now he won’t be able to forget either. He crafted his sham of a life so he could always please himself, and now, he will be alone and completely free to please himself, but all the joy will have been sucked out of that, along with the possibilities. He’ll have no job, no family, nothing.
My guess is the series will end on a note similar to that of the classic Season 5 ending. In the final moment of that season, after Don leaves Megan at her commercial shoot and walks straight into a bar, a woman approaches him and asks, “Are you alone?” Don doesn’t say a word, and yet, his response says everything. He is alone, he has always been alone, and he will continue to be alone, no matter what. To me, that is the perfect way to end “Mad Men” — with Don in his natural state, and this time, instead of him abandoning everyone else, he’ll be the one abandoned. And as he walks away, Rick’s/Ricky’s song will play. The sound of a man who had trouble changing his image will be Don’s/Dick’s sole accompaniment.
Or, at least, I think.