Don Draper in the series finale of "Mad Men."

Don Draper Wants the World to Buy a Coke: A ‘Mad Men’ Finale Recap

Meredith: “I really hope he’s in a better place.”
Roger: “He’s not dead, stop saying that!”
Meredith: “There’s a lot of places better than here.”

Meredith is right. The large offices on Madison Avenue aren’t for everyone. They weren’t for Shirley, who left the company after sharing a candid truth: that advertising “isn’t comfortable” for everyone. They weren’t for Joan, who learned standing up to sexism would literally cost her to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars. They weren’t for Pete, who found the fastest way to climb the corporate ladder is to take a personal jet to the top. And of course, the life at McCann-Erickson doesn’t exactly suit Don Draper, either. But more on that later.

While the entirety of “Mad Men” focused on the various iterations of Sterling Cooper and the careers of those within it (and within the ad man industry at large), the final season broadened the scope of what these characters could do. Why stay at McCann-Erickson when Peggy could, for example, join Joan in a new venture: Harris-Olson? Why not join one of the companies you represented, like Ken Cosgrove joining Dow Chemical? (It didn’t hurt he was keeping it in the family, either.) Or maybe you get headhunted and see the job of your dreams fall into your lap, like Pete Campbell and Learjet.

Don could have easily had any of these opportunities yet wanted none of them. After quickly abandoning his post at McCann without warning (typical Don), he hit the road on his own American odyssey. He went to Racine, Wis., to find a lost flame (and hopefully eat some Kringle, but that’s just what I hoped). He headed to Minnesota at the behest of a hitchhiker. He went to Kansas, Oklahoma and finally California, a promised land of sorts for Don.

“I was in California. Everything’s new, and it’s clean. The people are full of hope.”
— Don Draper, “Love Among the Ruins”

Don has quite a history with California; it was the home of his wife in name only, Anna Draper. California was where he went to celebrate the holidays or simply escape from his problems. It wasn’t a surprise to see him ringing the doorbell of the only tie to his old life that remains: Stephanie Horton, Anna Draper’s niece.

Sensing his pain, she lets him stay the night and convinces him to do something we’d never imagine the suit-wearing, Old Fashioned-drinking Don Draper would do: head to a New Age hippie retreat on the coast. (Given that this is the man who put on “Tomorrow Never Knows” and gave up about two minutes in, it’s safe to say such a retreat is a bit out of his comfort zone.) However, it turns out this would be the ideal place for Don to turn on, tune in and drop out — and potentially leave with a new resolve and sense of clarity.

Of course, it didn’t happen immediately. When a reluctant Don arrives at the bunker in which all the camp attendees sleep, Stephanie advises him initially to keep “an open mind.” And he tries, albeit halfheartedly — the shot of him walking around the therapy room, eyeing a plant in a macramé hanger with bemusement was pretty great.

But when Stephanie abruptly leaves, the judgment she perceives from her fellow attendees and Don too great to bear, he spirals. He snaps at the front desk clerk about the way people leave without so much as a goodbye, and she mellowly responds that people are willing to come and go from the retreat as they please — a simple fact that applies to just about anything life has to offer.

Don, crumbling to the point of crisis with nothing but a JC Penney bag, calls Peggy. After demanding he return home, she finally asks him, “What did you ever do that was so bad?”

It’s a nice parallel to one of the most quintessential Don Draper quotes: “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” But of course, that’s not the way things work. As Peggy admitted to Stan in “Time & Life,” it takes effort on her part to prevent herself from being consumed by her past choices. It’s the same way for Don, too.

With an invitation from one of the leaders of the retreat, Don once again joins the therapy circle, this time open to the experience before him. He finds himself so moved by a man’s story of feeling invisible and overlooked that Don crosses the room to embrace him in tears.

That takes us to the last scene. Don meditates on a cliff overlooking the ocean — given his aforementioned ties to California, this shot is nothing if not beautiful — and the instructor offers a mantra on which to focus: “A new day. A new idea. A new you.”

A chime breaks in the distance; the session is over. But for Don, whose relaxed face breaks into a slight smile, the day perhaps marks a new beginning. He opened up to the experience before him, as Stephanie wanted. He connected with others. He’s achieved a new sense of calm in a world of goodbyes.

And that’s when a familiar song plays.

While the Coke theory was one of the top three theories floating around the Internet ahead of the “Mad Men” finale, the concept coming to fruition didn’t at all lessen the experience for me. In fact, this ending beautifully underscored one of Mad Men’s founding principles in the boardroom: The effective power of emotion. Like Don’s Kodak pitch or Peggy’s Popsicle pitch later on, there’s nothing like emotion to pull people in and pull out their wallets — or hang on for seven seasons of well-crafted television.

Cheers, “Mad Men.” It was a great run.

Other notes:

  • Just a random thought I had about Leonard, the guy who got Don to cry at the end:

  • I’ll gladly join the joy over Stan/Peggy. Given how much of their time is spend on the phone with each other, sharing their feelings over the phone seemed fitting as well.
  • Also, I hope someone tells me something deep and personal so I can respond like Peggy with a big ‘ol “WHAT?!”
  • Many TV critics/viewers alike didn’t enjoy the late addition of Richard as some guy who swept Joan off her feet. I was glad to see him go, especially since this is the second time we’ve seen him resist a fundamental part of her existence: her child, Kevin; her passion for work.
  • That said, it was truly amazing to hear see Joan’s development throughout this season. She told Peggy she needed a two-name agency to sound legit, so SHE PICKED HER OWN TWO NAMES. That’s so incredibly bold/awesome.
  • Sally Draper for life, yo.