Spoilers, people, spoilers.

“I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”

Thus goes the bottoming out we’ve been waiting for these past 7-8 years from Don Draper. His long dismantling, both self-instigated and otherwise, reached its endpoint in Mad Men‘s finale. Don’s marriage, his position, his children are gone–the various phone calls make that clear. Even his “niece” Stephanie refuses to let him be needed, going so far as to remove his last shred of agency, stranding him at the retreat center. Reduced to nothing, Don makes his confession to Peggy, vocalizing the sense of inadequacy and self-loathing that has always fueled him. A moment later, but not a moment too soon, the hand of Weiner intervenes.

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Bereft and defeated and basically dead, Don is dragged to a “seminar” where he experiences what some might say is his first real connection with another human being–“Person to Person” as the episode’s title has it. The object of Don’s breakthrough, Leonard, is not like Don at all. Vanilla and Type-B where Don is neon and Alpha, Leonard shares nothing with Don except his loneliness–which, it turns out, is enough to puncture that very loneliness.

The vehicle of Don’s isolation is revealed to be an all-too-familiar culprit. So familiar in fact, that it almost feel cheap to elucidate. I’ll let John Teti do the honors, via his brilliant write-up over at the AV Club:

There’s a lot of talk about the fearsome power of “shoulds” in the seminars at this retreat, and Don spends much of the episode trying to do the things he believes he should do—go home to his kids, for instance, or take care of Stephanie. But Leonard speaks to a deeper “should,” the one that says we should love and be loved. “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: They’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.” The monologue has Don’s rapt attention as he hears from a kindred spirit—someone else who’s isolated not by their failure to give love but by their inability to receive it.

But let’s back up. Some of us had taken Don’s demise as a forgone conclusion. What we got was something far riskier.

Perhaps I was slow on the uptake, but the first significant inkling that we might be in for the heresy of a happy ending came in last week’s grace-tastic episode, the aptly titled “The Milk and Honey Route”. I’m not talking about Betty’s tear-jerking reconciliation with her estranged daughter, AKA herself, or Trudy’s forgiving of Pete. I’m referring to the one-to-one instance of grace that Don plays out at the motel: He suffers the full consequence of a thieving bellhop’s transgressions (a young man who resembles him in every possible way), taking a beating and then making financial recompense for a crime he did not commit, without trying to straighten out any of his assailants or clear his name. Then, instead of punishing the young man in question, he gives him the one thing that remains in his possession, his car, taking the kid’s place on the bus stop bench. This act of radical generosity feels like the first (non-Peggy-related) crack in the armor of self-loathing he’s been wearing since day one.

The whole thing made me very curious to see what Weiner would do in the finale. Don had been reborn before–this final one would have to plumb some serious depths for it to be believable.

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A few years ago, we wrote about the difference between Don Draper and Friday Night Lights‘ Eric Taylor. To my eyes, there existed an almost pure allegory to the theology of glory vs. theology of the cross distinction:

Given the choice between the lives of Mad Men‘s Don Draper (glamorous, wealthy, powerful, ascendant) and FNL‘s Eric Taylor (gritty, financially tenuous, scrutinized, downwardly mobile), most of us would choose Draper’s. But given the choice of which man we would rather be, the tables turn. Draper is defined by deceit, self-hatred, cold-hearted manipulation and loneliness, while Taylor is fiercely loved, has a strong backbone, genuine self-respect and is capable of meaningful relationships with others. He is the happier and healthier person, by far. The kicker here (pun intended) is that, as human beings/sinners, we are instinctually drawn to a theology of glory – to cast ourselves as the hero of our particular story, the master of our domain. We want to believe that we’re on the side of the angels, that if we dig deep enough, we can summon what we need to triumph. We don’t like stories about pain or defeat, however touching/honest they may be – we tolerate suffering only to the degree that it pays off – we want our Easter sans Good Friday, thank you very much. The urge is to see through our Calvary, rather than take it for what it is: a death.

That paragraph deserves an addendum. In this final arc, Matthew Weiner and co had the courage to see Draper’s story through. It turns out that Mad Men was one long theology of the cross. The ascent was a descent. Good Friday was not circumvented, remotely. Like the end of the Gospel of Mark, we catch only a glimpse of resurrection–the “new you” that the guru intones, mirroring the empty promises of Madison Avenue. Yet Don cracks the hint of a smile, and it’s enough to breath a final note of hope into a drama of despair. All the other tidy resolutions are hard-won (Peggy’s especially), but only Don’s resonates beyond a narrative level. Which makes sense, as he was always the one on the precipice.

The last gasp of the Old Adam comes in Don’s final speech to Stephanie, where he denounces belief (in Jesus) in the same breath that he espouses the same “keep moving” philosophy that has kept him digging his own grave the entire seven seasons. “I’m not sure you’re right about that”, she responds, and it is the perfect rejoinder to a man whose running has finally been forcibly curtailed. There is literally nowhere else to go but over the cliff. It’s either hug the cactus, or make like the opening credits and jump. I’m reminded of a verse from WH Auden’s “Age of Anxiety”:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Of course, if there was going to be uplift at the end, it wasn’t going to come from Don himself. As he makes plain, he is incapable of belief or change. But the grace of the finale is that Don’s redemption does not depend on his capabilities. Those only stand in his way. Hope breaks in on Don from out of nowhere in the inspiredly pathetic guise of Leonard, who, again, has “nothing to attract us to him.” If it weren’t anachronistic, a perfect song to play over the credits might have been U2’s “Moment of Surrender” in which Bono articulates what we’ve just witnessed on screen: “It’s not if I believe in love/ if love believes in me”.

My favorite article about the show remains the one that Daniel Mendelsohn wrote for The New York Review of Books in 2011, in which he theorized that Mad Men was essentially one long baby-boomer therapy session, the work of children trying to empathize with their parents and thereby forgive them for being human, Don Draper being a proxy for every high-achieving but emotionally unavailable father the greatest generation had produced. Abreaction as a path to absolution, in other words, a daunting task to say the least. Almost as daunting as turning an iconically dippy Coke ad into the first fruits of grace. But here we are. Smoke got in our eyes.