Considering that “Person to Person” is the series finale of Mad Men, it’s best to start with its final images: the famous “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial from 1971 that married we-are-the-world humanism with an absurd and insidious kind of capitalism. Writer-director Matthew Weiner cuts to the ad just as Don (Jon Hamm) begins to smile, settling into his first meditation session at a new-age pavilion in Northern California. Is he imagining the ad? There’s not much to suggest Don is going to revert back to his life as a calculating ad man, especially after the way he reacts to Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) saying McCann would take him back. More conceivable is the idea that even this seemingly positive-minded form of self-exploration will eventually be co-opted and dumbed down to sell carbonated sugar water to the masses. And as much as a way of processing existence, such as meditation, can be packaged and sold, so can people begin selling themselves as a product or a way of life, something that someone must choose over something else to prove their worth.
That’s what Don’s ostensibly been doing these past seven seasons, selling himself more than the product, a tactic derived from an old salesman’s saying that reflects the need for a successful, confident image to sell anything, from bologna to BMWs. In “Person to Person,” and throughout the last handful of Mad Men episodes, the toll of that kind of philosophy has become Weiner’s premier focal point. The effects have been evident for some time now, but when Betty (January Jones) and Don talk about her cancer, the full weight of his regret and unthinking priorities seems to land on his back all at once. Weiner writes their exchange with a sensitive, subtle ear, using “honey” and “Birdie” to express the stark intimacy these characters so freely shared when they were married, and Jones plays the scene with an especially warm yet direct and unwavering tone in her voice and mannerisms. The realization that there’s nothing he can do destroys Don, and the rot that he feels at least partially drives his attempt to save Stephanie (Caity Lotz).
Hamm is capable of conveying deep wells of despair, hurt, and resentment in minute facial expressions, and Weiner orchestrates a string of incidents that make Don realize that he can’t fix the damage he’s done, only start anew. And though “Person to Person” doesn’t lack for its devastating moments, Weiner smartly accentuates the benefits of starting fresh with equal relish as he does scenes of loss, sadness, or frustration. In Joan’s (Christina Hendricks) first scene, Weiner all but makes the idea of love being a drug manifest, as Richard (Bruce Greenwood) shares a bit of cocaine with her before quickly reiterating that they could do nothing with the rest of their lives and be totally comfortable. Happiness, however, is something entirely different from comfort, and Joan finds happiness in doing some production work in collaboration with Ken Cosgrove (Aaron Staton). When Richard leaves Joan for all her forecasted busyness, Joan doesn’t offer a sentimental, tearful farewell, but instead a quiet sign of disappointment, that even Richard couldn’t stand not being the focus of her entire attention.
As relationships with ostensible outsiders like Richard and Stephanie begin to weaken, Weiner and his actors make a point to accentuate the worn-in familiarity the characters who originated at SC&P have with one another. There’s a great moment when Ken offhandedly remarks that his son is weird to Joan, the kind of joke that one only makes when in the company of someone trustworthy. It’s also apparent in Peggy’s farewell to Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) and Harry (Rich Sommer), which didn’t feel at all like a big culminating event, but rather something far more quiet, personal, and unspoken. In fact, the only true “woo-hoo” scene in the episode is Peggy and Stan (Jay R. Ferguson) giddily, suddenly confessing their love for one another, and even if the situation felt just a tad rushed, Weiner made the scene as generously joyous as possible, allowing Moss and Ferguson to build up their over-the-phone admissions in their character’s own shambling, off-kilter ways. Suddenly, Joan is the one seemingly primed to run shit entirely, deserving of her own shades, cigarette dangling from her lips, and a painting of an amorous octopus tucked under her arm.
Stan’s confession of love for Peggy tellingly comes right after she receives her last call from Don, the archetype for what she thought she wanted to be reduced to a shell of a man. It’s Stephanie that brings Don to the new-age clinic, herself looking for answers to a string of recent mistakes. When another woman in a group discussion bluntly addresses the ramifications of Stephanie’s actions, specifically as a mother, she quickly bolts out of the discussion and, eventually, drives off without Don. Weiner leaves it unclear if Stephanie intends to make it work with the father of her child or if she’ll just keep traveling, leaving a trail of major-league emotional issues in her wake. In other words, Weiner doesn’t let us know if she’s bought Don’s pitch and learned from his litany of transgressions or not. For most of “Person to Person,” he’s not the confident salesman that we’ve become accustomed to, and the pinch of the episode is that Don is beginning to find something truly worth selling right when his care for his image has been obliterated. When Peggy hears him run ragged and saturnine on the phone, she’s essentially hearing a voice from the future, the final outcome of years of treating life as a pitch meeting and the people in your life as props to sell who you think you should be, putting a price tag on something that was never meant to have one.
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