Don Draper smiles at his family.
I finally caught up on the Mad Men finale last night, on a plane from London back to NYC. I was technically watching it less than 24 hours after it aired in New York on AMC, but that seemed unforgivably long to wait. When I travel, my sense of time becomes skewed, and every second spent waiting for gratification seems like years. And, of course, I live in the (online) world, so major lines were spoiled for me in virtual real time (“Whore!” “Happy Christmas!” “I brought every kind of sandwich imaginable. And cake!”)
As has been commented elsewhere effusively by now, it’s hard to imagine a better finale for a season of a series that, with the exception of one glorious jawdropper of an episode that kicked the Mad Men animated GIF craze into high gear, has often validated criticism that this a show in which “nothing happens.” Every seemingly small piece of the Season 3 puzzle was redeemed by Jon Hamm’s face in the fourth-to-last shot of the episode, as he watched his work family puttering about their suite at the Pierre. That shot, that facial expression was the ultimate Mad Men wordless miracle. It shows a man whose wife has just kicked him out of the house his double life paid for, suddenly coming to a crystal-clear understanding of what it feels like to come home.
The season finale made it clear that the fundamental romance of the series is not between Pete and Peggy, who we leave uncomfortably sharing a desk as Pete’s wife (and, arguably, his perfect match) passes out lunch; not between Don and Betty, who may always have Rome but now know too much of The Truth about one another to be able to slip into such a romantic fantasy together ever again; not between Roger and Joan, even if their banter reveals everything that’s wrong about every mismatched couple on this show (for what it’s worth, I’m on Team JoGer, for reals). It’s not even between Don and Peggy, even though his promise to “spend the rest of my life trying to hire you” was probably the boldest declaration of love Matthew Weiner has ever permitted.
The second episode of this season was called “Love Among the Ruins.” In it, Don delivered the first of many season three blows to Peggy’s professional self-esteem, which other than fucking is the sole source of her self-worth, which he understands because he is the same. Telling Peggy that she is “not an artist” and that she’d be better off leaving “some tools in [her] toolbox” is a purely violent move for Don, more violent than forcibly dragging his wife out of bed in the season finale. He knows this — he knows he might as well be punching Peggy in the gut. And throughout the season, he keeps doing it.
Later in that episode, both Don and Peggy made gestures towards finding sexual gratification outside the workplace, Peggy with the boy at the bar in Brooklyn, Don with Miss Farrell (this is the episode that ends with his fingers grazing the grass through which Sally’s free spirit teacher dances). For both of them, this is the first time we’ve seen them looking for this kind of attention in a non-work context in some time. Don’s affairs to this point have included the stewardess he meets on the business trip, clients Bobbie and Rachel, and Midge (who, as a commercial illustrator and also a beatnik who hangs out in completely different sorts of bars, is also probably a professional acquaintance). We’ve only ever seen Peggy fooling around with Pete and the guy she met at Kinsey’s party in Season Two. Both the bar guy and Miss Farrell prove to be easily disposable. Let’s say it wasn’t true love.
Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, from Draper’s vantage.
By the time the new crew is assembled at the Pierre, Don is homeless, girlfriendless, wifeless. Peggy’s relationship with her mother is strained and her roommate situation is becoming untenable. Joan’s rapist husband is off to Vietnam. Roger is increasingly unable to stand the drunken child he married. And unless his wife has somehow ceased missing London since we last saw her three episodes prior, Pryce’s decision to stay in New York and form the new company could probably cost him his marriage. We really don’t know anything about Harry and Cooper’s personal lives, except that the latter feels his sister (probably his only living relative) sold him out in the PPL sale, and the previous episode gives us evidence that Harry is morally and culturally behind by at least a decade, so if his social problems haven’t started already, they soon will.
Pete loves Trudy.
Ultimately, as all found their personal lives in ruins — except, again, arguably, for Pete, whose increasingly satisfied domestic life, and unsatisfying attempts exercise some kind of manly prerogative outside of it, stand as a rebuttal to complaints that Mad Men is pure romanticization of bad behavior — they found something like love in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce space, thanks to the unique professional gifts they could bring to the operation. The glow in the room that’s reflected on Don’s face in that shot—that is only there because they are all there, because he needs all of them to do his job, and vice versa. It’s arguable (probable, for all the lines like “we don’t have art”) that Sal could be back in Season Four and SCDP (and the show) would be better for it. But his sham marriage may need to fully deteriorate before he belongs in that hotel room.
A hotel room is a workplace, and this workplace is home, and this is the only place on Mad Men where a heart is.
When Trudy walks in with sandwiches, Don smiles again.
Back at Sterling Cooper, the workers left behind feel betrayed. Don’s secretary Alison cries, “He didn’t even leave a note!”
As the camera moves closer on Don surveying the scene at the Pierre, his eyes glaze over and tilt upwards. This is the look of love.