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Mad Men Don Draper
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At peace.
FRAME BY FRAME

Deconstructing the final scene of “Mad Men”: What does it all mean?

By Adam Epstein

From its opening credits to the show’s final scene, Mad Men always demanded a close critical eye. You could enjoy the show casually, but much of the fun lay in dissecting every image, wondering what, if anything, it all meant.

So to honor the show’s finale, we’re going to do just that. Here is an all-too-in-depth look at the last few shots Mad Men. Did Don find his peace? Did he really create that famous Coke ad? Let’s explore.

*  *  *

The sequence actually begins with a coda to the prior scene, when Don shared a moment of catharsis with another man, Leonard, embracing and crying together. It seems that, after the therapy session, Don headed to the coastline to take in the Pacific Ocean. This is as Mad Men as Mad Men gets: Don, a silhouette against the shimmering ocean, bathed in the sun, back to the audience.

It’s a visual parallel to the show’s famous opening credits:

But this time, the silhouette doesn’t jump. If Don is meant to be the credits’ mystery man in black, he’s a very different Don now.

The scene cuts from Don gazing at the ocean to a meditation session on the grass. The hippie flags in the background, the green hills, the brightness—they conjure up images of a certain commercial we’ll be seeing in a moment.

“Mother Sun, we greet you, and are thankful for the sweetness of the earth,” the spiritual leader begins.

From the spiritual leader, the shot cuts to Don, in a new shirt and looking fresher than before. Clearly some time has passed.

“The new day brings new hope,” says the group leader. “The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day, new ideas, a new you.”

Then the sound of a bell. Ding.

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The scene cuts to a wider shot. Rarely do we see Don surrounded by other people in this way. Many of the show’s seasons ended with a shot of solitary Don, as did all of the episodes in the final season. But here, Don is just one of nine, in harmony with those around him—similar to the aforementioned commercial, appearing any moment now.

He’s deep into the meditation. Ommmmm.

The camera zooms in slowly on Don as he omms, the others fading out of the frame. Mad Men has always been the story of Don Draper, and this might be the first time we’re actually seeing him, and not some version of Dick Whitman pretending to be him.

Also notice that Don is facing away from the Pacific Ocean, eastward, toward New York. California has always seemed like Don’s destiny, but now that he has found peace here, he’s turning back.

And then…

He smiles, something Don has done rarely over the course of the series. We’ve never seen him like this, perhaps because this is an entirely new man. Has Don found the inner peace he’s sought for so long? It wouldn’t be Mad Men if we were given a definitive answer, but it certainly seems like he’s finally managed to shed the guilt of his past, embrace the man he has become, and locate some sort of contentment.

Ding. Another bell, as Don smiles, almost like he has a good idea.

We cut to the legendary 1971 “Hilltop” Coke ad, which the real-life McCann-Erickson actually created. The heavy implication is that Don, rejuvenated, returns to McCann in New York and goes on to create one of the most famous advertisements in American history. But that’s hardly spelled out, so let’s consider the evidence that it’s Don’s ad.

The first face we see in the commercial looks quite a bit like Stephanie, Anna Draper’s niece, who accompanied Don to the retreat before taking off:

The receptionist at the commune also looks nearly identical to the pig-tailed woman in the ad:

Had creator Matthew Weiner been dropping hints about this along the way? All the way back in season one, Betty modeled for a Coke ad at McCann. While the hippies are noticeably absent, the bright green foliage and the general tranquility of the image reminds us of the 1971 commercial.

The final season doesn’t just end with an om, it starts with one, too! Here’s Freddy Rumsen pitching Accutron watches to Peggy in the very first scene of the seventh season. The camera focuses closely in on Freddy’s face, just as it does Don’s in the finale, and then you hear it:

“Wow, Freddy,” Peggy says, enchanted. “That’s a home run.”

And in the penultimate episode, Don even fixes (or, it’s implied that he fixes) a Coke machine. Here he is looking intensely at it—what’s he thinking? Is he already conceiving an ad?

If you want to look really deep into things (is there any other way to watch Mad Men?), here’s one more clue: On vacation in Key West, Joan snorts come coke, and really seems to enjoy it. Everyone loves Coke!

The beauty of this final scene, and the series as a whole, as that we’ll never really know for sure what happens next. Mad Men was at its best in its most ambiguous moments, its most puzzling and seemingly weird turns. There was really no other way for the show to end.

At least until it’s taken down, here’s the entire final scene: