Mad Men, Season 7: Episode 14 – “Person to Person”
Written by Matthew Weiner
Directed by Matthew Weiner
The poet John Milton began his 1630 tribute to the Bard with the line “What needs my Shakespeare for his honoured bones,” introducing the dilemma of attempting to praise someone who is in no need of praise. Some works will last–without the help of critics–as long as the civilization which bred them lasts, as Shakespeare’s plays have done. At times, Matthew Weiner has channeled Shakespeare in Mad Men, portraying the multifaceted nature of what it means to be human. Don Draper, Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell, Joan Harris, Roger Sterling, Betty Francis, Sally Draper…These characters have sometimes been interchangeable with one another based on certain superficial qualities, giving Mad Men the feeling of a true ensemble. At other times, these characters could not be more distinct from one another. At all times, however, these characters have been mirrors for us–works of fiction, to be sure, but familiar manifestations of the different voices in our heads and the different versions of ourselves vying for attention. Love it or hate it, Mad Men will endure because of its comprehensive look at what drives us, and it is that quality that makes its finale, “Person to Person,” so important to our television culture.
Even in its final hour, Mad Men shows how quickly lives can change for people so sure of comfort. After Joan’s forced departure from McCann Erickson, hers seemed like one of the series’ more unfortunate stories–the sexism of which was emphasized by the relative success of Mad Men‘s other central female character, Peggy. But Joan has learned to work the system and capitalize on opportunities, so when there’s a chance at starting a production company, she jumps on it. Richard’s reaction to that decision is what gives Joan’s story its final touches, and–thankfully–it’s a reaction that avoids focusing on the sexism in favor of highlighting the failed love there. Richard has grown to know Joan so quickly that he’s aware how head-first she’s going to throw herself into the new business, leaving no time for the life they had imagined living out. It’s a more satisfying end for viewers, since it rewards Joan for her endurance, even if romantic unhappiness is part of the package. And the conflict, of course, is something most people will be able to sympathize with: how much can we afford to be selfish? It’s not an uncommon crossroad to have to pick between another person in your life and yourself. Certain people will naturally make concessions for people they love, but Joan represents the more realistic human in that circumstance–you have to help yourself before you can help others.
That idea has been Don’s undoing, as he is someone who has been fleeing from himself well before the events of Mad Men even started. Only now has he found himself in a position in which he might be able to help himself. That’s certainly the tone of the final moments, with Don finding some sort of equilibrium that could lead to a newer, happier Don (or Dick or whatever he decides to call himself). But the image belies the methods by which he came to that place. This is years and years of build-up of Don hating himself, because he could play the game so well, since people are predicable and capable of being manipulated. After Don finally reaching his boiling point, “Person to Person” could have easily been entirely about the initial steps in his rebuilding process. The episode works well as is–touching on nearly every important story worth touching on–but Mad Men is Don Draper’s show, and we only begin to see the profound effect his emotional breakdown has had on him (albeit in absolutely incredible scenes, such as when Don goes to hug the man who considers himself invisible). If Joan’s story shows the necessity of selfishness, Don’s argues the other side of the debate. To better understand how to live, Don–and people in general–need to first be aware of others, which is why that character talks about people seemingly being unaware of his existence. Once that awareness is on the conscious level, people can begin to live together rather than separately.
Such awareness leading to living together manifests in what is probably the most smile-inducing moment of “Person to Person” (and perhaps Mad Men in general): Stan and Peggy admitting their love for each other. Even though the episode ends with Don, Stan and Peggy getting together is the episode’s emotional core. Peggy, more than any other character, has had the most difficult time reconciling being selfish with living for others. That personality was cultivated over many experiences in which she allowed herself to be open only to be hurt, which is why it’s a genuine shock for her as she’s telling Stan that she loves him. She must love him, she realizes. Stan showing up at the door has a very romantic-comedy feeling about it, but that style of storytelling is so wildly outside of Peggy’s character that the trope works perfectly. More than that, it gives Mad Men a sense of hope that was mostly absent in its early seasons. Even in the face of constant conflict, there’s light at the end. It’s not a very interesting idea on paper, but when a story manages to evoke it well, that hope has a tremendous effect.
How, then, does “Person to Person” work as a finale for a series that seemed so opposed to giving characters happiness that was anything other than transient? It’s a surprisingly satisfying conclusion for Mad Men (surprising not because it’s satisfying, but surprising in its degree of satisfaction). More surprising is how at-one it feels with the rest of the series, which has a history of sharp turns in tone, such as Don and Megan’s marriage at the end of season four. The structure of this whole last season has worked similarly to the other major AMC series that ran alongside Mad Men: Breaking Bad. Since Don was fired, the remaining episodes have been part of a falling resolution, much like how all of the final season of Breaking Bad was post-climax. That pattern has allowed these episodes to be more introspective than any other series of episodes. To some, it means less excitement; but when has Mad Men ever been the most exciting show on television? What “Person to Person” does, instead, is unfold deliberately with little fanfare. Pete and Trudy hop on a plane. Roger leaves half his estate to his and Joan’s child. Sally helps Bobby make dinner. Betty says goodbye to Don. The bluntness of all these scenes makes the ending of the series so believable. Unlike Shakespeare, not everyone is left dead or dying on-screen or else paired off in marriages. Some of them are, but only some. Mad Men recognizes that diversity and, even as it zooms in on Don, the lens pulls away on these people, beginning to look at them from further and further away. Their stories will continue, but our time with them is done. We transition into another stage of life, just as Don does–one that hopefully uses the experience of living with Mad Men in a productive way.
– Sean Colletti