The show that transformed how men dressed during its peak years has, like the clothing and styles it so immaculately replicated, gone in and out of fashion during its nine year run, but the quality of the writing – the substance to its style – rarely dipped.
In the end, although it was never quite as tense, exciting or memorable as the other TV drama heavyweights of the era, you sense Mad Men may well be remembered the longest; for what it had to say about the great project that is America, its social history, and capitalism, its defining experiment.
Always an ensemble piece, speculation about the end of Don Draper may have dominated the headlines, but for fans, the fate of the other characters mattered just as much.
Here, we rank the endings of the major players, in order of least satisfying to most.
6 | Pete Campbell
Pete’s importance to the show slowly diminished over the last two seasons of Mad Men. Once the tension between him and Peggy (as lovers) and Don (as rivals) faded, it became difficult to see where Pete slotted in to the broader themes of the show.
So it was wise that, for his send off, the writers returned to the one relationship that made Pete Campbell feel like more than just the weasel you’re supposed to love to hate: with his estranged wife Trudy.
Pete’s ending saw him arrive at a belated epiphany that being rich and screwing around (being like Don, basically) does not bring happiness. So when he lands a cushy job at a luxury private jet company and his career ambitions are finally realised, it is only by bringing Trudy and their daughter along that he feels he has finally ‘made it’. Other reviewers have suggested Trudy’s distinctly ‘Jackie O’ look as they boarded the (private) plane to their new lives struck an ominous tone, but to me, it looked like a happy ending – whether viewers want it to be or not.
5 | Peggy Olson
The trajectory for Peggy’s character from the very beginning of Mad Men was clear: to rise through the ranks of advertising through a mixture of determination and talent, defying the sexism of the age to emerge as the show’s feminist hero. So resolutely was this her fate that Peggy’s defining act as a character was to give up her own child in season two, enabling her to focus on her career.
So it was an unexpected twist, to say the least, to see her realise she was in love with co-worker Stan, her long-standing confidante whose advice to her was always – as he says in the final episode – that ‘there is more to life than work’. Was Mad Men really implying that Peggy, of all people, needed to find a man to be truly happy?
Not exactly. In this and the penultimate episode, we saw clear signs of how far Peggy has come and how comfortable she now is as a professional in a world that managed to beat down even Joan (who enjoyed her own triumph over sexism – more on which later). The conclusion was actually even more positive, that women can ‘have it all’ – a successful career and a happy home life – without making the kind of awful sacrifices Peggy has had to in the past.
The only problem, really, is that as a storyline it felt like a bit of a blindside. The phone call scene where Peggy and Stan realise they are in love was well-acted but felt a little too contrived, in a The Newsroom sort of way. It niggled, because the most believable and well-written of all Mad Men’s characters signed off with its least plausible ending.
4 | Roger Sterling
We left the character we’ll miss the most sat in what we assume to be a Parisian café, now engaged to Marie, the mother of Don’s ex-wife Megan and – most significantly – a woman Roger’s own age.
The idea was supposed to be that Roger had finally ‘grown up’ by no longer pursuing vacuous conquests half his age, but ironically, the truth was that he had finally found someone who made him feel young again. Marie shares Roger’s wit and lust for life and holds him to account in a way none of his mistresses have before. As they joke about becoming like an elderly couple sat near them in the café, you realise Roger no longer fears growing old. It was the subtlest of all the characters' endings, but somehow felt like the most substantial and transformative.
3 | Betty Francis
Betty’s ending was tied up in the penultimate episode when she discovered she had advanced lung cancer. Unlike all the other character resolutions, it was harsh, unexpected and seemed to make no sense – much like cancer itself.
What made it particularly sad was that Betty was finally showing signs she had shed the dutiful wife / mother role she was so entrenched in when we first met her all those years ago to embark on her own journey of self-discovery by becoming a mature student. But fate decreed that it was too little too late: Betty would never get to find out what she could have done with her life if she hadn’t succumbed to societal pressures and married Don. She’d never get to be a Peggy or a Joan.
Not that Betty’s story was without small triumphs. Faced with death, her fraught relationship with daughter Sally reached a new level of understanding. “I always worried about you because you marched to the beat of your own drum, but now I know that’s good. I know your life will be an adventure,” she wrote in a note to her daughter in one of the saddest moments from the final episodes (the other being the unspoken "I love you" during her last phone call with Don). Betty’s ending was cruel, but she bowed out with a wisdom and composure that would have been beyond her in the early years. It was a quiet revolution, but no less impressive than any of the others.
2 | Don Draper
None of the excitable theories about Don’s end – throwing himself out of his office window to splatter on the Manhattan street below (as per the show’s credits) or hijacking a plane – proved correct, despite Weiner’s clever teasing regarding both possibilities through these superb final episodes.
Instead, in the final installments of the show, we saw Don run away (properly this time) from his job, slowly discard his material possessions and end up at a hippy camp in California where he had the much-awaited mental breakdown over the failings of his own life.
This was precipitated (and partially caused) by Don sharing a final moment – fittingly, over long distance telephone – with each of the three most important women in his life: daughter Sally, Betty and Peggy. What linked all three conversations was the sense that these women had finally moved out from under Don’s shadow to no longer rely on or look up to him. Don had spent seven seasons pushing the people he cares about away, daring them to leave him alone: finally, they had.
In a bold but brilliant move from the writing team, it wasn’t left up to Don himself to articulate the root of his mental collapse, but a new character. A stranger – and fellow guest at the hippy camp – called Leonard opened up in a group therapy session about feeling unloved:
"I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off. And I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off."
It was a clever inversion of the many pitches Don has delivered to advertisers through the years, and it overwhelmed him to the point that all he could do was hug the man and cry. The slick façade of Don Draper finally dropped after nine years, and it felt cathartic for all of us.
And so, instead of suicide, we leave Don crossed-legged at the start of a yoga session, ‘umm-ing’ his way to nirvana with a small smile on his face (how funny to think back to Don mocking hippies in earlier seasons). It was a comic about turn from Don, the ultimate embodiment of consumer capitalism, that would have been difficult – perhaps impossible – to swallow without Weiner’s final act of brilliance.
After Don’s zen-face, the action switched immediately to a clip of Coke’s famous ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ television ad, a piece of marketing that appropriated the very spiritual well-being Don appears to have discovered in order to make money for the world’s biggest company. Intentionally, some of the camp’s inhabitants resembled people in the advert.
It was a brilliant punch line to Don’s journey, and to the whole show. Are we supposed to infer that Don, after leaving the camp, returned to advertising and nailed the Coke account by using the lessons he had learned on his spiritual journey? Or is Weiner merely making the point that, in the end, all that mankind holds sacred will be used to sell us something? Like Tony Soprano before him, you’re not supposed to know for sure what happens to Don next, but you’ll be debating it with others – and yourself – for years to come.
1 | Joan Holloway
Of all the endings on Mad Men, Joan’s was the one that had you punching the air with joy.
After being hounded out by the sexists at McCann, Joan resigned, took her fortune and appeared to be settling for a new life with Richard, the man she met and fell for during a recent work trip. Richard tried to make the right noises about supporting her ambitions – not to mention her little boy – but in truth, he was looking for a pretty face to join him on his midlife crisis. When Joan strikes upon the idea of starting her own production company, Richard runs a mile – in the end, he was just another man trying to hold her back. In a fantastic scene, he departs, and rather than run after him, Joan composes herself and returns to her phone call – it’s time to get down to business.
Across seven season of Mad Men, no character – not even Peggy – has suffered the indignities of gender inequality like Joan, whose looks and figure saw her reduced to a sex object at every stage, no matter how hard she worked, what sacrifices she made (some huge) or how far she managed to make it in ‘a man’s world’. So the sight of her starting up her own business, bearing her own name, was easily the best thing about Mad Men full stop. Of all the character resolutions, this felt like the one that will last: Joan will be a huge success – and for once she’ll be doing it on her own terms.