It’s all over but not the debate. Both commentaries in the New York Times (in Logan Hill’s blog online on 5/18/15 and in Alexandra Stanley’s printed review on 5/19/15) discuss the ending as a clear message that Don Draper is back in the fold, “creating” the iconic Coca Cola ad that ends the show. I don’t buy it. That is a possible reading but an incredibly cynical and tone death one to me.
The only reason to think the Coke ad is Don’s creation is the smile, or smirk, he has as he’s meditating just before we cut from him to this saccharine but famous ad. It feels to me lthat he has found something more valuable than advertising and that the ad belongs to the world he’s left behind ever since Marie vacuumed out his apartment and he realized that those “things” were nothing he truly needed. Isn’t that realization what propels him to walk out the beer ad meeting that would have been a chance for the old Don to truly shine? Consider all the other experiences and changes he’s gone through in the last two episodes:
*The strength of character he displays in returning the stolen money to the vets without exposing the identity of the true thief. He lets these men think the worst of him, if they choose, because he’s done the right thing and has no need for their forgiveness or acceptance.
*His conclusion of the divestment that began with the loss of his apartment’s furnishings, involuntarily, and now culminates it giving away his car and whatever other items were in it, voluntarily, apart from that little bag of overnight essentials, to the man who stole the money and needs to find his bearings.
*His open confession that his CO died because of his carelessness and that he stole his identity. It’s the first time he has willingly owned up to the falsehood behind the life he’s built for himself. It’s been based on deception not unlike the ads he’s created and has walked away from. He later repeats and elaborates on this confession to Peggy.
*His entire experience at the Esalen look-alike (shot on located right there by the sea, the beautiful sea) including:
*His willingness to go there at all.
*His shift from Mr. Zombie who irks the woman in front of him with his stony silence so badly that she shows her feelings by giving him a big shove.
*His heartfelt hug with the bereft man whom he cries with at the pivotal encounter session.
*His shift from a desperate urge to flee when he finds himself stranded there on his own to turning up, freshly dressed in off-white slacks for the first time in the entire show, for meditation by the sea.
*The real grief he expresses, non-verbally, to Betty as he tries to offer some words of comfort only to realize that “normal” for his own kids has come to mean him not being there.
*His collapse on the ground as a miserable failure after his confession to Peggy only to see him rise and accept an invitation to join the encounter group where he will at last discover his depth of feelings.
Does all this not suggest a genuine transformation? To give him credit for the ad is to see all this as posturing and pretence, soon enough forgotten. It is a discredit to the moral complexity of the show.
The clever but pathetic parody of what makes life meaningful embodied in the Coke ad strikes me as Weiner’s final send up of the valueless world Don has left behind. He could never find a real goal or purpose in this world of half-truths and deceptions; he no longer needs to create a false front or fake persona, in life or in ads. None of his colleagues could give him a worthwhile goal that they’d fight for when he did his informal survey for Roger’s speech, but he does find something of value when he looks into his own heart, even it is at Esalen, an easy to mock target for the excesses and blind spots of New Age awareness, but a model of what we need to do to gain greater self-awareness all the same. Don’s new level of awareness—of the woes and suffering of others and of his own long suppressed feelings, seems genuine. And it clearly fits the mold of the road trip as journey of self-discovery that figures so massively in American movies and novels from Easy Rider to On the Road and well beyond.
Assigning the ad to Don is clearly possible: Weiner does not rule out that possibility, and even Jon Hamm himself thinks it’s a viable conclusion in an interview he gave: “With a final ding, the screen cut to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop” commercial—a sign that, depending on how you read it, either Draper has found the enlightenment this famous ad was trying to commodify, or was responsible for creating the ad himself.”
My money’s on the former choice of enlightenment but clearly part of the genius of the show is that the ending can be read two ways, at least. That so many critics seem to see it as obviously and totally clear in its meaning suggests a massive “failure to communicate” in the final moments of this extremely memorable program. Why would we want to discredit all the transformations we’ve seen him make? What does that say about the possibility for change, especially given that all the characters have evolved and grown more into themselves over the course of the show? Are ads the final expression of what truly matters in life? Don’s “fall” in the opening credits now clearly reads as a fall from pretence and illusion, not from grace. He doesn’t quite end up in an easy chair but he is clearly, as he sits there in a full lotus position, meditating, at one with himself, perhaps for the very first time.