The Mad Men Finale: Don Buys the World One Last Coke

By  · Published on May 18th, 2015

“Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke.”

“What would you do?”

“I’d buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love.”

“Okay, that sounds good. Let’s write that and I’ll show you how Coke fits right into the concept.”

And with those four sentences, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was born.

Well, actually it started a little before that. McCann Erickson creative director Bill Backer was on a plane to London to meet up with three musicians: R&B songwriter Billy Davis and English songwriting partners Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. The plane trip was miserable, as thick fog surrounded London and forced an emergency stop in Shannon, Ireland. But sitting in an airport cafe, Backer witnessed a miracle- the passengers snarling over travel delays just a few hours earlier were now laughing and enjoying themselves. And doing so over bottles of Coca-Cola.

In that moment, Backer thought of Coke not as fizzy sugar water but as “a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.” That’s the idea he pitched to Davis, resulting in the exchange above.

Backer originally sold “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” as a radio ad, but the reception was dismal. So he went bigger, scrounged up a quarter-million dollars (enormous, as far as early ’70s ad budgets go) and shot the all-peoples-of-all-nations-enjoying-a-Coke “Hilltop” ad that’s a cultural milestone today.

Ok. Lengthy intros aside, this is probably your 10th Mad Men finale recap of the morning (not to mention the several dozen you read last night), so let’s cut to it already.

Did Don really invent “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke?”

I think he did. Coke has had a foothold in this entire half-season. Last week, middle America tried to woo Don into its clutches with a classic Coke machine. Before that, Jim Hobart’s plan to win Don’s loyalty was to stare him in the eyes and utter “Coca-Cola” like it was the unspoken name of a Lovecraftian elder god. Don was Hobart’s white whale? Don’s been playing Ahab to a red and white can for a while now. Even if he hasn’t acknowledged it out loud.

Also, as Hitfix’s Daniel Feinberg smartly picked up on, Leonard’s group therapy confession- he dreams of living in a fridge, seeing the bright lights and smiling faces when it opens- is the kind of thing that would absolutely put Don in the mindset of a Coke bottle.

Most importantly of all, I just don’t think Matthew Weiner would have cut from Don on a picturesque hilltop to the most picturesque-est hilltop in all of advertising history for no reason. If he wanted to end things on a Sopranos-esque moment of ambiguity, the other potential answer- Don finds inner peace, lives life according to that gentle ohmmmm, now here’s a mostly unrelated Coke ad!– doesn’t have nearly the same impact.

Even if I was praying with ever fiber of my being that “Person to Person” would end smaller and simpler, with Don as a happy hippie.

Has there been an episode of Mad Men since “The Suitcase” that put this much effort into making Don a sympathetic character? After eight years, Weiner clearly understands the emotional-sledgehammer power of Jon Hamm’s struggling-not-to-cry face, and last night he gave Hamm three separate opportunities to wield it. His goodbye phone call to Betty, his cry for help phone call to Peggy, and listening to Leonard’s fridge dreams in that therapy session.

That second one was the real killer. “I can’t… I can’t get out of here.” “I messed everything up.” Don’s so helpless he can’t even move, and it sounds like he’s on the verge of suicide (Peggy obviously has the same thought). For more than a few minutes I was on edge, thinking we’d see Don Draper end his life in that commune, alone. He had been depressed all season, after all (that I live in an apartment with no furniture stuff was a pretty blatant metaphor).

This year, we’ve seen Don go from playboy to emptied-out ad man to a traveling Bruce Banner-type. “Person to Person” finally kicked him hard enough that he seemed like a real, relatable guy. I just wanted to see that guy come out of his funk in one piece. He did… but through the same ad route that wrecked him in the first place. And will surely wreck him- and revive him- again (maybe next time, Don will hit rock bottom in Mean Joe Greene’s laundromat).

But maybe a perfect, hug-your-TV ending wouldn’t have felt right for Don. Because Peggy and Stan got that very ending, and I’m still torn over whether it worked or not. Mad Men has never, to the best of my memory, pulled something so romcom-y. Stan confessing his love and sprinting into Peggy’s office (before she could even put the phone down) is the kind of thing that would only happen on Mad Men if they had both been shot full of experimental drugs a few scenes before. Completely insane.

But also the sweetest damn thing ever. And executed on a level that would put most romcoms to shame (most of that praise belongs to Elisabeth Moss and Jay R. Ferguson, who hit just the right balance of sincere and awkward-adorable). I loved it, but I can’t deny how much it feels like Weiner crammed it in there just to give the shippers something to swoon over.

I guess it comes down to what you want out of a series finale. Do you want the ending that ties off every story thread with precision, or the ending that maybe disregards some threads to get a bigger emotional punch? The Sopranos– clinical, ambiguous. Breaking Bad– loud, definitive and riddled with machine gun fire. In a sense, we’re lucky Mad Men had Peggy as a kind of second protagonist, because it got to give us a little of both.

And in some sense, every member of the former SC&P got the wonderful, sugarcoated ending they’ve always dreamed of. And that Don Draper sucked-back-into-the-advertising-machine ending. Think of our last glimpses at each of the SC&P mainstays:

They’re all happy, but they’re all happy while neck-deep in ad work for the foreseeable future. Hell, Cosgrove had the chance to get out of the business forever back in the premiere, and he didn’t think twice about jumping right back in.

“The End of an Era” hasn’t portrayed the advertising world in the most flattering light- mostly, it gave us McCann Erickson, a firm populated entirely by assholes and carbon-copy guys in suits (in the Mad Men universe, how did such a creativity-free place become a powerhouse ad firm, exactly?). Also, almost zero time spent on the ads themselves. The stories this year were all about person-to-person relationships, not ad campaigns. At best, someone would name-drop Peter Pan or Campari before diving back into the people drama.

It’s a little out of sync. Were this the Mad Men of old, steeped in cigarette ads and Clios, I’d have had no problem believing that everyone’s happy place is the center of an advertising circus. But after seven episodes of McCann beatdowns and a total lack of people taking pride in their work, there’s a melancholy twinge in seeing all these characters embrace the same ol’ business.

Of course, there’s no universe where Mad Men wouldn’t end with everyone submerged in advertising until the day they die. So maybe Don’s smile in the episode’s closing moments isn’t the prison I initially assumed it would be. Yes, a Coke jingle- even the world’s most famous Coke jingle- doesn’t cure the suicidal depression Don had yesterday. But it’ll probably land him on a plane on his way back to Peggy and Roger and all the people who make his life less of a complete mess.

There’s probably a thousand other things to say about “Person to Person” (here’s one- Kiernan Shipka, once again, gets a ton of emotional heavy lifting and nails every moment). But mostly, I’m just sad that Mad Men’s over. It was wonderful watching these characters every week, and I’ll miss them now that they’re gone. I’m not quite sure where “Person to Person” will stack up in the “50 Greatest TV Finales” lists of the future (maybe the mid-teens?), but as far as a Mad Men finale goes, it was mysterious and endearing and overwhelmingly cool, just like Mad Men should be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to start binge-watching the series from the beginning while imagining what 89-year-old Don Draper is doing right now. Drinking, probably.