Admit it, you always knew it would end with Don Draper meditating in California, his back to the ocean in a yoga pose surrounded by sedulous hippies. Our last glimpse of Don at the conclusion of Mad Men certainly made a lasting impression. The hard-living ad man pulled out of an epic late-season tailspin and, in a moment of countercultural inspiration, dreamed up the 1971 “Hilltop ad” for Coke.
At least that’s what most viewers deduced. Jon Hamm weighed in with The New York Times:
When we find Don in that place, and this stranger relates this story of not being heard or seen or understood or appreciated, the resonance for Don was total in that moment. There was a void staring at him. We see him in an incredibly vulnerable place, surrounded by strangers, and he reaches out to the only person he can at that moment, and it’s this stranger.
My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.
Don got a happy ending not by turning his back on Madison Avenue, but by once more recharging his spiritual batteries in bright and sunny California. As Hamm notes, the showrunner and control freak Matt Weiner had said, “I just want my characters to be a little more happy than they were in the beginning.” Imagine the happiness the Coke ad could offer its creator.
For Don, meditation, yoga, therapy or other balms for his rotten soul serve to free his now becalmed mind, restoring his creative imagination. Matt Weiner wrote much of the last season of The Sopranos. Tony’s therapist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi, came to realize at long last that years of talk therapy enabled Tony, refining his strategies as a mob boss and displacing his guilt through sentimental weeping about pets, children, and how little love he had received from his mother. Don knows all about the costs of a paucity of maternal love. A retreat with hippies does for Don what medication and a sympathetic ear did for several seasons for the boss of New Jersey. His California counterculture epiphany makes Draper a forerunner of today’s yoga yuppies.
Atlanta’s Mad Men
The show’s finale resonates in a unique way in the ATL. For starters, the first thing Hamm did after it aired was to hop a jet over here. “I had to leave right after the screening last night, from L.A., and fly back to Atlanta on the red-eye,” he reports. For those who haven’t noticed it, Atlanta has absorbed much of the filmmaking business once rooted in Don’s favorite state.
That leads to such headlines and updates as these:
Jon Hamm has been in Atlanta for a while now filming “Keeping Up With the Joneses,” a buddy comedy with Zach Galifianakis.
Jon’s no stranger to Atlanta, having worked on “Million Dollar Arm” here a few years ago, and has popped up here and there since arriving for his current project.
With no shortage of fun ways to spend his downtime in the ATL, here he is at the Hawks playoff game. Way to get aboard the bandwagon, Jon!
Hamm’s recurrent presence in our fair city is but one local connection to the finale. There is also the tweet heard round the world:
Emily Miller is a copy writer at BBDO Atlanta, so naturally she was watching the “Mad Men” finale closely. And, naturally, based in Atlanta where Coke is, she knows the “I Want To Buy The World A Coke” ad inside and out.
Put that together and you get this tweet, which uncovers perhaps the single biggest clue of where the final episode of the show was going.
The young woman on the left explained to Don why he could not quickly decamp, paving the way for his cathartic hug, meditation and epiphany. The woman on the right is in the actual Coke ad, tangible evidence that Weiner wants us to see the ad as Don’s creation.
The most profound connection, however, is the long history of Coca-Cola in its hometown. After seven seasons in which many businesses are depicted in a wide variety of ways, the show concludes with an actual ad for one of the best-selling products of all time. Weiner and the executives at AMC were not above giving Coke some incredible free publicity. “The free exposure is ‘pretty unprecedented in the history of television,’“ according to an industry expert. “It’s turned the singalong spot into an instant viral hit 44 years in the making; with Coke already having gotten two weeks worth of consumption around them in less than a day.” Whether the show and its fans are celebrating or mocking Coke’s pretensions is another matter.
Atlanta has never been shy about Coke boosterism. A quarter-century after Don’s meditative stroke of genius, Coke brought the world to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics. Even today, in a city far less dependent on the Coke brand for its cachet, Atlanta is prepared to ignore the widely known evidence of the sugary soda’s devastating impact on public health in this country and the water supply in places like India. Coca-Cola’s cash is welcomed by city officials and the Atlanta BeltLine, an odd pairing for a multi-use project intended to make us healthier. There is also this current High Museum’s exhibition:
The Coca-Cola Bottle
An American Icon at 100
Coke’s staying power makes it a natural fit for Don, a man whose lives have been all about reinvention and resilience.
It’s now well known that this “Hilltop” ad from 1971 is among the most famous in TV history, and that the idea came from an ad man at McCann. When McCann absorbed Sterling Cooper & Partners this season, Jim Hobart enticed Draper by whispering the words, “Coca-Cola.” Alas, Don’s distaste for the bland, bloated culture at McCann prompted him to pick up his roast beef box lunch and leave New York. Did that really mean he was leaving the agency, and the Coke gig?
If indeed we imagine Don returning to New York to sell McCann on the Hilltop ad, it would be the culmination of a dream Hobart had nourished since the first season of Mad Men. Set in 1960, Hobart’s first turn as a kind of serpent tempting Don to leave paradise involved a a transparent ploy to make Betty Draper a pampered Coke model. In a phone call, Hobart urged Draper to jump ship from Sterling Cooper to join the big leagues at McCann, where he could take on such accounts as Coke and Pan Am (“it’s a panty dropper,” Hobart assured him).
By 1970 Hobart is still a sexist egotist (witness his destruction of Joan) and McCann is still luridly depicted as “a sausage factory” (as Draper had dismissed it in Season 3, when the agency bought PPL and Sterling Cooper). However, in other ways, both Don and Coke have come a long way. In the early seasons of the series Don resented having to hire young writers to cater to Boomers, and he quickly lost touch with Sixties music and culture.
The corporate ethos and advertising strategy of Coke remained arch-conservative well into the Sixties, as Thomas Frank discusses in a chapter on “hip versus square in the cola wars” in his book, The Conquest of Cool. Pepsi posed a serious challenge to Coke’s soda hegemony with various incarnations of its “Pepsi Generation” campaign, while Coke struggled to find its retort. “It’s the Real Thing” — a brazen claim to authenticity — truly resonated once McCann sold Coke on the Hilltop ad. “Starting from opposite sides of the American cultural divide,” writes Frank, “Pepsi and Coca-Cola had somehow met in the middle: the counterculture was now all-American.”
Don recovering and writing the idea for this ad for Coke is truly the empire striking back: a triumph of the resilience and cynicism of the establishment. On the other hand, it’s really a return to form for the man who began Season 1 pulling “it’s toasted” from thin air to launch a great run with Lucky Strike.
Although uneven and at times disappointingly scattered, the half-season AMC aired this spring finished smartly. Don in the Seventies would not have to relocate to Atlanta (and even if he did, would that be as bad as Pete Campbell remarrying and moving to Wichita?), but his crisis-driven insight takes Madison Avenue manipulation to the next level, a fitting conclusion for a show that taught us to stop worrying and love those who create want.