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Mad Men: The Finale

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I swear that I am not a fan of the now finally concluded television series, Mad Men (indeed, my returning to it provides an example of how popular cultural semiotics is not driven by what one likes but by what one finds significant), and danged if the much-anticipated final episode hasn’t proven to be strikingly significant.

I refer to the Esalen-like experience that concludes the episode.  Don Draper, it appears, has found peace and enlightenment at Big Sur.  He’s found his inner AUM. Peace, man.

But not so fast.  After all, there is also that reprise of one of the signature advertisements of the era (Coca Cola goes countercultural) that has all the Mad Men-ologists agog.  Is the whole point that mellow Don is going to return to Madison Avenue and create that ode to smarminess after all?  That he hasn’t changed a bit?

That’s one theory at least.  And it makes a lot of sense, because whether it’s what Matt Weiner had in mind or not, the cultural implications of the final episode are perfect.  For Mad Men ends just where the cultural revolution of the sixties got overtaken by commerce—when thecounterculture began to morph into the counter culture, erstwhile Aquarians transforming themselves into entrepreneurs, selling everything from organic cereal to Apple computers, and Esalen found that its 120 acres of priceless shoreline could command (at a recent estimate) as much as $6750 for a week-long workshop.  Or, to put it the way Thomas Frank has put it, here is where the “commodification of dissent” really began to get into high gear.

So, Mad Men ends just at the point that the spirit of the sixties began to swerve towards the America that we know today: a place of ever-growing socio-economic inequality, neoliberal ideology, and where the billionaire businessman is a culture hero (can you spell “Elon Musk”)?  It didn’t happen all at once.  Yuppies didn’t appear until the mid-seventies, the fetishization of Wall Street wealth was an eighties thing, and it wasn’t until the nineties that “business plans” really got cool.  But by 1971, the 180 degree shift away from everything that the Age of Aquarius thought it stood for was detectable—especially in the signals sent by that over-the-top advertisement for a sugary beverage that sought to equate drinking a Coke with a children’s crusade to save the world.

Exactly the sort of thing Don Draper would come up with.  Count me with the skeptics:  Don hasn’t found enlightenment; he’s found the next new wave in American consumer capitalism.

1 Comment
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Thanks Jack Solomon​, so curious if you've watched the entire series---since you're a self-professed non-fan---and appreciate the significance and beauty of our final moment. All of my rabid Mad Men fan friends aren't even positing that the coke ad was Don's creation as a theory---they're certain of it.

But you're absolutely right that either way you watch it, it's a perfect end to the series and segue-way into the 70s.

This piece:Mad Men and the Coke Jingle Theory — The Message — Medium gets at the heart of the changing landscape; specifically the intentional exclusion of black characters in the advertising world as portrayed in the series, vs. the real life participation of a black artist to create that Coke jingle.  

But you hit it on the head with the Thomas Frank reference: ending with this ad encapsulates perfectly the subsequent commodification of a spirit of change and possibility at the start of the decade.

And to me it makes sense that Don would be the mind behind this ad. A few episodes earlier, after all, we watched Don stroll out of a meeting at McCann, where ad copy for a men's "diet beer" was basically being hand-delivered to the creatives based on market research that reduced the potential customer to a single archetype. This is not why Don loves advertising---he wants to present something more aspirational to people, which is just what the Coke ad does.

About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.