Dick Whitman started running away from his life long before he was Don Draper. He enlisted to escape what he was born into, and when he was given the opportunity to cut his ties he took it. He chose not to look backwards, as though the people who were part of Dick Whitman’s life ceased to exist when Dick Whitman became Don Draper.
But they didn’t. The people Don leaves behind, from Adam Whitman to Peggy Olson, go on whether or not Don is there. He can’t see himself as anything but the central character in his own life story, but Peggy and Joan, Pete and Roger, Sally and Betty…these supporting characters, in both Mad Men and Don Draper’s life, have been living their own stories all this time, and in thinking about the finale I’m far more interested in where they all end up than in whether or not Don went back to New York to buy the world a Coke. (But he totally did.)
Joan Holloway Harris
Richard tells Joan that her life is “undeveloped property” with an eye to build on it himself. He presents her with a handful of possibilities for her future that all include him. But Joan doesn’t start building until the second Ken hands her the specs for producing his technical film. You can actually see the idea come to her, that producing is something she can do herself. She’s got that rolodex, she already knows everyone.
Joan didn’t start out with heaps of professional ambition, but her transition from the office manager with an eye towards marrying out to a business woman and mother who prioritizes her career over her love life has been a natural one. Men have been nothing but disappointments to Joan, from Roger, who could give up everything for a 21-year-old secretary but not for her, to her ex-husband, the rapist, to Bob Benson, who looked at marriage as a business arrangement, to Richard, who didn’t like making plans unless they were his own. And that’s not to mention the partners at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, who sold her body for a fancy client, or the men at McCann who wouldn’t take her seriously. Joan’s desire to put her name on the door, to run her own show, makes perfect sense. It’s worth so much more to her than a ring or a nice vacation. She finds peace in her work.
In naming her production company Holloway Harris (because “you need two names to make it sound real”), Joan is nodding to both the woman she was and the woman she’s become. In her bustling living room office, reminiscent of the early days of SCDP, she doesn’t have to answer to anyone but herself.
As fun as it is to think about Peggy and Joan teaming up, their names next to each other on some office wall, they’ve never wanted the same things out of the world. Peggy’s life is not undeveloped property, she’s been building it up since the day we met her, and she thinks she knows exactly what it’s going to look like.
When Don asked Peggy what she saw in her future a few episodes back, in “The Forecast,” she told him easily: big clients, the first female creative director at Sterling Cooper and Partners, a catch-phrase to call her own. She wants fame and she isn’t ashamed of it or afraid of it. And she knows it will take time (Pete tells her she’ll be a creative director by 1980 and she comments that it seems a long way off, but we know she’s already half-way there. These past 10 years have flown by), but it’s worth the long hours, worth staring at the four walls of her office, for the pay-off.
What Peggy has not thought about is what she wants from her personal life. We’ve seen what she’s given up in that arena, from the baby she put up for adoption at the end of season 1 to a series of ill-advised affairs, to a few nice if not-quite-right men like Abe, or Stevie from the mid-season premiere. The scene where Stan tells Peggy that he loves her is all the lovelier for how it takes her by surprise, and not just surprise at his love for her but at her own love for him. As she talks herself through her feelings on the phone (always the phone with these two!) we see her dreams for the future expanding, rather than changing. She’s not sacrificing one thing to pursue another, but letting her world open up a little, for the person that knows her best.
Pete only appears very briefly in “Person to Person,” for a small scene with Peggy and then in the montage at the end, getting into an airplane with his wife and his daughter, heading off to re-start their life together in Wichita. His real farewell was in last week’s episode.
The scene between Pete and Peggy is a sweet one. Watching their professional alliance form over the last few years has been fascinating, especially as it happened in the wake of Pete’s discovery that Peggy gave up their child. She jokes, in the scene, about Harry’s revisionist history, suggesting that the three of them had some deep bond that warrants a farewell lunch even though they’ve never had lunch together before, but Peggy and Pete really did have a special relationship; even a few weeks ago he was warning her about the merger with McCann, making sure she would be alright.
Pete’s ending is a happier one than Don’s. Sure, he’s leaving New York for Wichita, but he gets his family back, he gets a real fresh start. It’s entirely possible that he’ll waste it, that he’ll go back to mistreating them the way he did the first time, but that’s not for us to know. Mad Men leaves his story here, hopeful. It gives him the capacity to change.
And Roger changes, too. Or at least he mellows. He’s always happiest when a woman is bossing him around, even as he complains about it, and whether Caroline is forcing him to fire Meredith (who takes it better than perhaps anyone ever has), or Marie is kicking him out of bed for trying to make demands of her, Roger seems more content than we’ve seen him since his LSD days.
He’s also taking some real responsibility for Kevin for the first time, owning up to him financially if not officially, even taking him out for an afternoon. This is more than just sending Joan Valentine’s flowers in Kevin’s name, though it’s still far from actual parenting. The scene between Roger and Joan is a sweet one, real closure on one of the strongest relationships the show produced.
I almost wish we hadn’t seen Betty this week, as the conversation between her and Don in “Lost Horizon,” and her final moments in “The Milk and Honey Route,” gave lovely closure to a polarizing character. “The Milk and Honey Route” in particular would have been a very strong goodbye that still did justice to how difficult Betty could be, how unyielding. But here she was again in “Person to Person,” still trying to enforce her will on a future she won’t live to see.
Betty tells Don that she doesn’t want him to come home, that she doesn’t want him to take the kids, because having Don around would clue them in that something is going on. It would be too different from the status quo. But she doesn’t take into account the fact that her illness is visible, that her fights with Henry were loud. Bobby knows what’s happening, even Gene must have some idea. Betty decided not to fight her cancer, and sent Sally back to school, because she didn’t want her children to watch her die, but that will happen anyway. She isn’t going to just slip out of the world now that she’s decided to forego treatment. Six months can last a long time.
And maybe that’s the biggest argument in favor of this final appearance. Betty’s not going to make that slow march to class until the day she doesn’t, her kids won’t be any less traumatized if she dies suddenly, without warning. She can only impose her will for so long.
I’m finding it difficult to think about Sally without crying.
A few weeks back Sally told Don that she didn’t want to grow up to be anything like her parents. She’s been able to see their faults for a long time now, first Betty’s and then, quite suddenly, Don’s, and she’s still young enough to believe that knowing who she doesn’t want to be will be enough to prevent her from becoming that person. But Sally is already too much like both of her parents, her fate in that regard has already been written. Don told her as much in “The Forecast.”
And here in “Person to Person” we say goodbye to Sally as she fulfills that fate. She comes home to take her mother’s place as the head of the household, already making decisions about what’s best for Bobby and Gene once Betty is gone: consistency, sleeping in their same beds at night. Betty told Don that they would need a woman looking after them and while she meant her sister-in-law, a woman she openly dislikes, Sally is stepping up instead.
Sally is the one sending Gene to watch TV when important things must be discussed, she’s the one talking to Bobby about what’s really happening, and showing him how to make dinner. She’s the one that tells Don that Betty is dying. Tells him to listen, because she’s thought about this more than he has. She’s had the time. Like her mother, she’s the one telling Don not to come home.
Our final shot of Sally is a tragic one: she’s at the sink in the background, washing dishes while Betty, still smoking, fades in the foreground. She’s given up school and Milan and who knows what other secret dreams she may have had, or at least she has deferred them for awhile, and soon Betty will be gone, and Sally will take her place as the grieving daughter.
Maybe when Don comes back to write that Coke pitch he also steps up as a father, but it’s hard to believe he can change now, we’ve seen him pass over so many opportunities. He will probably always be, at best, an inconsistent parent. So the weight will fall to Sally. And it’s a sad ending, especially alongside so many hopeful ones. I wanted more for her.