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‘Mad Men’ finale review: Don Draper at one with his ads

By Robert Bianco | Gannett News Service

Spoiler alert: This review contains details from Sunday night’s series finale of “Mad Men.”

Small, odd show; small, odd finish.

Or maybe it was a big show: It’s hard to say, which is just one of the many fascinating aspects of “Mad Men.” The show’s impact on AMC and on basic cable was undeniably huge in that it proved those networks were as capable of creating great dramas as were their more profligate premium competitors. It was also a show that dealt with big themes, from sexism in the workplace to the clash that dominated Sunday’s series finale: The battle between who we are and who we want to be.

Yet it never drew a big audience, and it seldom expanded its reach beyond the small part of the American experience that was its essential, period domain. Where other shows shouted, “Mad Men” tended to be quiet and self-contained — which made its occasional grand gestures, from its treatment of President Kennedy’s assassination to its lawnmower massacre, all the more shocking.

More than anything, it was show that went its own, sometimes eccentric way. And that, in what should not be any great surprise, is the path creator Matthew Weiner followed to the end with an episode that sent Jon Hamm’s Don Draper to a California retreat center with Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie — a minor character whose prominence in the finale was almost guaranteed to provoke fits in some viewers.

But of course, she wasn’t there because Weiner suddenly had some urge to do “The Story of Stephanie.” She was there to spark a final crisis for Don, to force him to tell Peggy “I’m not the man you think I am,” to break him down and bring him to tears, a scene Hamm handled with his customary grace and skill.

“Mad Men”, however, has never just been about Don — and has never just been about men. Which is a good thing, because in many ways, the most interesting stories Sunday belonged to four women: Joan, Peggy, Betty and Sally.

For Betty, the episode marked her final goodbye to Don, done over the phone, as Don was off in his own world for the entire episode. For Sally, it was marked by her realization that she now had to be the parent to her siblings that her own parents could not be.

For Joan, it was a final (and in her case wise) choice of career over romance, as she dropped the boyfriend who tried to pressure her out of starting her own, sure to be successful company. And finally there’s Peggy, who made the opposite choice: rejecting Joan’s offer of a business partnership and accepting, instead, Stan’s offer of love.

And let’s just say the way that proclamation of mutual adoration played out might have been harder to buy were viewers less fond of Peggy — and less willing to give the show the benefit of the artistic doubt. I thought it was lovely, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings.

As for our hero, well, those who were convinced he would not outlive his series were mistaken: “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper alive and possibly well. He was last seen smiling in a yoga pose chanting “ommmm” as the scene shifted into the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial: the ad man finally at one with his ads. It was a conclusion that was simultaneously hopeful and unsettling, happy and sad, somewhat surprising and very, very odd.

And just maybe, fitting.