Saturday, May 30, 2015

Why the last minute of 'Mad Men' was storytelling genius

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Warning: This post contains spoilers; proceed at your own risk. If you haven't seen the Mad Men finale, what are you waiting for?? You can watch it here.

For most of the Mad Men finale, I was underwhelmed. I’ve seen far too many disappointing finales in my time, and I tend to watch them now through a scrunched face wincing against the disappointment that seems sure to come. In this case, what I saw wasn’t bad; nothing outrageous or ridiculous, and nothing amazing either.

But in the last minute of the show, that changed.  

In that minute, Don Draper has a breakthrough at a hippie commune/institute, and as a result of it, comes up with arguably the most iconic television commercial ever made. There are several opinions on the nature of that breakthrough, and what exactly the commercial reflects. Some people argue that like the Grinch, Don Draper changed fundamentally that day—he found peace, personal growth, and fulfillment, and the beauty of that was channeled into the commercial. Others argue that no, he’s the same old Don Draper he ever was, and the breakthrough was just do to with how to exploit the cultural zeitgeist for the purpose of his clients. 

I fall closer to the second camp, but that’s irrelevant for the purpose of this post. I don’t want to talk about who’s right or who’s wrong, I think both opinions are valid. I want to talk about why the storytelling device they used in that last minute is such genius. 

The simple aspect of the genius is that the above ambiguity itself turns the device into a Rorschach test, and regardless of where you fall, ends the story in a personally satisfying way. That alone is not easy to do. 

But there’s a more complex aspect, as well. As writers, we’re always on the search for not just a good device, but for the best device to transport our readers to wherever we want to take them. To bring up not just the setting but the emotions, the sensations, the feeling of a time and place. To bring who the reader is in to what we write, and to make our writing a part of them.

The juxtaposition of Don’s meditative smile and the ‘Hilltop’ Coke commercial did all that in a most brilliant way: it called up our associations and attachments to that original commercial, and then mutated them through the lens of Don’s journey. I was barely more than a sparkle in my daddy’s eye when that ‘Hilltop’ commercial first aired, but it was still a huge part of my cohort experience. The song and the subsequent commercials, they became an anthem for my parents’ peace-and-love hippie generation, and thus an inevitable part of my cultural experience. But not, it turns out, in as simple a way as I had previously thought. 

When the commercial started to play during the finale, I was first transported to that time in my childhood when those idealistic values ruled the day and people really did believe in potential human utopia. I instantly, reflexively, smiled and sang along, a flush of happy memories fluttering through me. 

But that juxtaposition framed this viewing of the commercial with the ethos of Mad Men itself, and the knowledge given me by cultural hindsight. Those kicked in as I watched the camera focus on a Coke bottle, and then on an entire row of Coke bottles. I was uncomfortable, disconcerted; while I was undeniably seeing the original commercial, it didn’t match my memory of the cultural phenomenon. This wasn’t the idealism of a generation, and it wasn’t a message of peace and love—it was a commercial, and an obvious one. They were trying to sell me something, not a worldview but a soft drink that had absolutely nothing to do with peace, love, and harmony. Other associations flooded me: obesity, diabetes, corporate irresponsibility. 

As the song hit its crescendo (”It’s the Real Thing! What the world wants today!”), I watched the overacted face of the singer, and blanched at the bombastic lyrics. In a few short years, the idealism of this generation would turn into the ‘ME’ ethic of the 1980’s. Greed is good, watch out for yourself, the polar opposite of ‘love your neighbor’. And as the baby boomers who populated the commercial and the world came into power, financial markets would collapse, eerily similar wars would be fought, and the world would remain, in most relevant respects, the same as it was before their revolution. Was this an inevitable part of human nature? Would it always be this way?   

Goosebumps ran across my skin as the message came full circle. That’s what the show has been asking, all of these seasons. Advertising, well, they’re selling you what you want to buy, so you’ll buy what they want to sell you; it’s not real. Don Draper was the king of this, of cloaking the product in whatever garment would make the consumer feel they'd morphed into the person they wanted to be, in the world they wanted to inhabit. He embodied that fundamental message of the advertising world: people are what they are, and you can’t change that, but you can manipulate the illusion. Still, at the same time, Don railed against that cynicism, wanted to believe in something more about the world and the people in it; that was the push-and-pull that tortured him throughout the seven years.  

If you believe his struggle ultimately changed him and his new zen mindset was reflected in that commercial, you may have had a different cascade of emotions and associations during that last minute than I did; then again, maybe you didn’t. It doesn’t matter, because the device worked its magic either way. It took your life experiences, your rich network of cultural beliefs, and called on them to help tell you the story. Made you look at those experiences and beliefs through the context of the show. And in one single minute, without a single word of dialogue (other than the pre-existing song lyrics), it took you on a journey that made you contemplate deep questions about the human condition, while putting a cap on seven seasons of the show for you.

I call that powerful storytelling.

Should this be discouraging for those of us who work only with words, who can’t put in a video or audio clip into our work? Are we capable of less? No, absolutely not. Every medium has its own pluses and minuses, and I think there is an interesting discussion to be had there, but at the end of the day, that’s the challenge and the allure of writing: we use words to weaving magic. We’re called by the desire to create worlds, experiences, emotions, and new thoughts in the minds of others. And no matter the medium, when we see someone do it this well, with such deceptive simplicity, it’s stunning and awe-inspiring.  



  1. I think you're right. Welll thought. I loved where this show went.

    1. I love anything that explores tough dichotomies in human nature...:)

  2. Don didn't create the Coke commercial and the show does not directly imply that he did. Instead, someone else at McCann created it while Don was having his breakthrough, which, I agree, is more about a new method of exploiting the cultural zeitgeist in order to peddle his clients' crapola than an indication he has transformed into Leo Buscaglia. Draper never bought into any of that drivel, whether it was early '60s bohemianism or late '60s paisley, long hair, flared pants and facial hair. He wore the same slim cut Brooks Brothers suit from beginning to end and was far too cynical to believe that anything matters except how much money you have and what you look like. I also think the entire last episode was excellent, with the Betty subplot the most stunning and interesting. After acting like a child throughout the series, she becomes a Zen master when faced with the most difficult part of life...never cries or complains, acts rationally to protect her children, puts Don in his place when he demands custody of the children (oh, I'm sorry, when was the last time you saw them?). I'm not here to bust your chops -- using the Coke commercial was a brilliant stroke for many of the reasons you mentioned, but I do not believe it was his work, and that's a key point.


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