The Mad Men finale, that Coke ad, and the great white power structure

There are two debates occurring in the wake of the final Mad Men episode. (Spoilers within; this piece will be nonsensical unless you’ve watched the episode anyway.) The first and most popular debate has to do strictly with the elements of plot — did Don Draper / Dick Whitman return to McCann Erickson and write the famous Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial we see before the credits? Did another character write it? Or was it a non-expository, disconnected piece of advertising history to close out this era and the resolution of character arcs? This plot point doesn’t strike me as particularly ambiguous, and my own take is firmly in the camp that believes Don wrote the ad. There are too many extremely pointed hints about Don and Coca-Cola throughout the latter half of Season 7 for this to not be the case — whether it was McCann whispering “Coca-Cola” to Don rapturously, or Don staring with furrowed brows at the old broken Coke machine in the penultimate episode. Then there’s the girl with red-ribboned braids at the retreat; it’s unmistakable that she was Don’s inspiration for a strikingly similar girl in the commercial. Maybe there are disagreements to be had, but it’s more or less settled in my mind, and there are enough clues to parse it out.

The second debate is far more interesting. This one centers around whether the show ends on a “cynical” or “optimistic” note. This question is interesting because it gets to the heart of what exactly Mad Men is all about — what is its point of view, what is it communicating about these characters, their milieu and era, and what is it saying about advertising in general? These two viewpoints are elucidated in this interesting Vulture piece, with sunny optimism winning out for Matt Zoller Seitz:

I’ve been reading descriptions of Mad Men’s last few minutes — a meditation followed by a Coke ad — as “cynical,” confirmation that all Don really learned in season seven, and at the retreat in particular, was how to hug and get his job back.
I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I think the optimism is sincere, bordering on maudlin. The whole episode fits that description. The Coke ad — a Madison Avenue incantation insisting that the momentary happiness of soda is the Real Thing — undercuts this a bit, because it’s ironic and funny, and consistent with the rest of Mad Men. The co-opting of the counterculture has been a theme throughout the show’s run, starting with the beatniks and continuing through the hippies and beyond.
But still, even though “Person to Person” has many wrenching scenes, and much of the action takes place in New York in October, it’s as sunny as the Northern California coast.

It’s a persuasive piece, and it’s worth reading the entirety of it. But I disagree with Seitz entirely. The final moments of the episode were a brutal twist of the knife. It was Matthew Weiner finally laying his cards out about the narrow viewpoint through which we’ve been given access to these characters and their world.

There is one clarification I’d like to make about the “optimism” vs “cynicism” dichotomy — I don’t think the ending was cynical. I think it was tragic. And it was a tragedy that was less about these characters we’ve watched— none of whom will be in dire straits — and more about the tragedy of America as the rest of the 70s play out.

There are those who thought that Coke ad was the deepest expression of what Don had been trying to do with his art since the first episode — it was advertising as a meaningful force in people’s lives, communicating to them and making them feel wanted and whole. I don’t hold that view. I thought the show was communicating, in the span of seconds, the tragic conversion of idealism, optimism and revolution into something sour, cynical and lost — bringing us up to the current moment, without resolution.

In the span of an hour, Mad Men managed to critique and mock the 70s New Age Revolution, then converted into deepest sincerity, then flipped it into brand co-option. Just when soulful spirituality broke the surface, it immediately turned into the bleakest moment of the entire series. Don’s life transformation — the transformation of every anonymous white businessman experiencing their “life less lived”, and then turning to the new culture of healing and sensitivity with eyes opened — crushingly reconfigured into the most banal kitsch to sell soda. So it goes.
“I’d like to buy the world a Coke” as the final summation of the era, the moment the wave crested and began to roll back. Coca-Cola — It’s The Real Thing. Cue credits. To view the ad as an uncomplicated bit of maudlin optimism would go against everything we know about this show. This is the meaning of advertising in our lives, Weiner is saying: its power and purpose and ultimate sin. We are ultimately trapped in this feedback loop of genuine desire, cheapened into consumerist impulse, mirrored by the genuine desire to help people, cheapened by the necessity to help one’s self (to advertise, to sell products.)

There’s a problem, one the show has been hinting at and avoiding this entire time, and it just about comes to a head in these final moments. One hint of this problem was pointed out by thereemix in the Metafilter discussion of the episode:

This was a satisfying episode on so many levels and yet I am frustrated that we got to say goodbye to freaking Meredith and yet have no idea what became of Dawn. Her story just got swallowed up in the end by the others.
Don’t get me wrong. I love this show. Great ending. But it’s just so depressingly typical of Mad Men that the only significant African American character in the latter half of the series just vanishes before the end.
Sorry to be a downer guys.

It’s a very good point, and bewildering once you think about it. We were offered a resolution for a much more minor African-American character in the penultimate episode — there was a brief scene with Shirley quitting the advertising world, saying goodbye to Roger. (“You were… amusing,” she tells him; it’s reasonable to assume there’s some racial subtext there.) But Dawn always struck me as a fairly important character, even though she never got as much screen time as the others. In a sense, she was something of a stand-in for me as a viewer, the most relatable of everyone in the show. She was the one just trying to keep her head down, doing her job the best she could, trying not to get too caught up in the whirlwind of drama around these frankly self-obsessed, broken, kind of neurotic characters.

I’d always suspected the show’s viewpoint was to be understood as unreliable. We are given a look into a white, upwardly-mobile, affluent set of people, and it’s a narrow setting and set of concerns. These characters are carried through the turbulent social change of the 60s and into the 70s, a time of profound racial revolution and feminist revolution. Feminism is addressed through much of the show; blatant sexism is impossible to ignore in the first few seasons, and Betty Friedan and the upheaval of the McCann-flavored workplace sexism is explicitly called out by Joan towards the end. It’s a topic that greatly affects these characters, and no analysis of Mad Men is complete without considering it.

But what about race? It’s a curiously muted, tangential subject compared to sex and gender politics, and the show seemes to be tip-toeing around it often. There are moments where it pops up and is impossible to ignore — Roger’s blackface at a wedding; Betty’s maid Carla being mistreated; Kinsey’s black activist girlfriend; and of course Dawn’s storyline, which featured white characters doing and saying some cringeworthy things to her. Back in Season 4, Matt Zoeller Seitz warned that treating race “as a looming presence and nothing more is dramatically risky. Whatever Mad Men is doing here, it had better pay off.”

So, has it paid off? I’d argue that race has never went away in this world. Even lying on the narrative edges, it’s always been a central theme. It’s just that we’re given a narrow perspective through which to view this world: it’s a focus on the concerns of a white upper-class corporate set who simply were not thinking about race all that much. To take the characters’ lack of concern for race as a failure of the show would be to crucially miss its POV — it’s unreliable from the start, and there’s a great deal of misdirection where concerns at the outer edges of the show are hinted at, but ignored by most or all of the characters.

I wanted so much for there to be a final moment for Dawn. It would have been easy to simply have included her in the montage at the end. Maybe she’s fitting in to McCann. Maybe she’s moved on to something else. But why has she been removed entirely from the narrative? We don’t get the end to her story at all. It’s like she’s been utterly erased from the lives of these characters. She’s not of concern to them. She’s disappeared because she doesn’t fit into the narrow POV anymore, tragically.

I know everyone jokes about this. But here it is — It’s a show about white people, from the perspective of a group of white people.

I don’t mean that as condemnation. I think it’s a deep aspect of the show that is easily missed. It’s easy for us to fall into the minute-by-minute drama, and forget that what the show is revealing to us is just a tip of the full narrative and thematic iceberg. Ultimately, I believe it’s a show about many things: identity and the search for meaning in our lives, for example. This is where I might diverge with many, though: I believe it’s also a show about the white power structure through the 60s and into the 70s and beyond.

This is where I have to opt for a reading of that ending being a twist of the knife, because the alternative is that the show proves itself to just be damningly blind on race, power, and class, and I think it’s much too smart and self-aware for that. I think too many people are rooting for our TV friends to hug and skip rope into the sunset, when really I believe Matt Weiner is slyly encouraging us to question what we see and exercise some critical thinking. Take a step back from the emotions of the finale and look at what’s happening. The show ends on two notes of New Age faux-multiculturalism, the meditation/yoga session and the Coke ad; the former for wealthy white Westerners to find themselves, the latter to sell a fizzy drink (and Coca-Cola has itself been a symbol for encroaching globalism and cultural colonization for decades. See cocacolonization).

Don’s ‘OM’ is essentially the product of a classic Californian co-opting of another culture, and that can’t be ignored — the enlightenment is fraught and contingent from the outset. Don’s transformation was treated as genuine, and I believe it is, but he’s not going to experience any permanent lasting change from a week-long EST-ish retreat, just like no one else going through this stuff in the 70s did. Having experienced some self-help, they ended up going back to their lives of affluence and business connections and doubling down on it all. The crises of Don and Leonard (the guy with the refrigerator dream in the retreat sermon) were ultimately the crises of rich successful businessmen in a mid-life tailspin, feeling out of touch with a changing world, and feeling obsolete and useless. These are crises of privilege, as invested as we are in Don’s character arc over 7 seasons. They’re both going to be fine, and they always were going to be. In macro, these characters’ stories are the story of the reification of the white corporate power structure, and its survival through turbulent and revolutionary social change.

This is why the Coke commercial at the end was the perfect closing note. There might be more people of color in the final few seconds of the episode then in the past 7 seasons. I don’t think that’s an accident, and I don’t think that’s a note of optimism for an emerging post-racial utopia, either. Again, this show and its creator are too smart, too aware for that. It’s a story of the white power structure — a structure we’ve followed through its ups and downs over a decade — sensing its imminent fall and obsolecence, and, in the home stretch, learning how to change with the times and co-opt anything dangerous or real or revolutionary — to emerge triumphant, smiling, and comfortable, into the next generation and the generation after that.

Mad Men has always been concerned with how we got from March 1960 to where we’re at now, in May 2015. Those final moments bring this home, devastatingly. The final takeaway of advertising here is that, given a moment of sincere, meaningful change and progress, the forces that conspire for us to remain in the status quo will cheapen that human experience at every opportunity, will never hesitate to co-opt it for the needs of perpetuating the dominent social class and system. We may come to important realizations and learn to treat one another better, but we’re all still stuck in the rat maze, ultimately. And so Leonard’s crushing existential crisis, shared by Don as they hugged each other and sobbed over their (white, male) alienation and disconnection, becomes the new focus — the hole in our lives that’s being filled by the Coke ad, the Volkswagen ad, the Nike ad. The Apple ad. Facebook and beyond (we’ve essentially embraced an entire sophisticated ad system that exists to fill that void, right?)

It was a mostly happy ending for these characters, yes. But it wasn’t exactly optimistic and sunny. The tragedy — our tragedy — is lying there right under the surface. It becomes harder to ignore the more you reflect on how the show ended. Turn it all over in a new light, and the cracks will start to show.

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