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Funeral for a friend? A bloody homage to Dynasty at the McCann Erickson offices? A new start across the sea? As Mad Men limps toward its series finale Sunday night, The Globe asked four of the country’s top novelists and Don Draper aficionados to imagine the end of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and company.
There’s the way I want the show to end, and the way I think the show will likely end.
I tend to hope all dramas end in a pile of bodies in an homage to Dynasty, and in this case my vision includes Peggy-turned-Solonas, with sidekick Joan in her best Charlie’s Angels pose, guns drawn at whimpering Jim Hobart and crew. Perhaps Imagine, a hit in 1971, will play ironically in the background, or the melancholic intro to Stairway to Heaven (my, what an anthemic year) will play, the bloodbath reaching its climax during the guitar solo that would interrupt awkward teen slow-dance moments for decades to come. In the aftermath, they decide to keep Sterling as a pet in their alternate universe paradise, because we all know Roger knows how have a good time. And what else were the seventies about?
But the show will likely end thusly: We left Don Draper, who ceased being interesting about three seasons ago, on a bus-stop bench in Kansas with a crumpled Sears bag of belongings, after having gifted his slick wheels to a dumb kid con-man in the making and blurted out his secrets to a table of depleted veterans at a legion hall. That he’s already wandered away, facing all of his demons, in the penultimate show, signals that he will likely make a U-turn away from self-immolation when he finds out about Betty’s illness and show up at McCann in the finale. He’ll pitch his way out of termination, to then take care of his kids. A heart attack will kill him mid-pitch when his youngest son’s a college freshman. He’ll become one of those guys that fumbles toward irrelevancy in a nice suit. That Don might actually show up for the people he loves in the finale seems a fitting culmination to his character arc.
Theories about Don becoming D.B. Cooper, while far more interesting, are too tied to real events, and Mad Men has never leaned on historical moments unless they specifically served the character’s episodic arcs, and it would seem too slapdash to do in the finale.
Though I agree there is something bitterly unfair that Betty Francis will die, stoic until she is laid to rest in her best blue chiffon, it also feels inevitable. I do wish she’d live, if only to be the perfect antagonistic occasional guest-star in my Sally Draper spin-off show, in which, following a brief early punk-rock phase, Sally essentially becomes Joan Didion.
Peggy is going to be doing well at McCann. She has learned to be confident, powerful and to be a leader. She is going to impress everyone with her general sass and insanity, and come up with some ridiculous taglines that dazzle everyone in the room.
Joan will start her own agency. Because it is from the ground up, she won’t ever have to feel that she got to where she is by sleeping with other people. It will focus on women’s products. Perhaps she will wear slacks?
Pete and Trudy will be living in Wichita. They will be happy. His hairline will have finally receded and he will just be bald.
Don will continue to travel across America. He will give away his shoelaces by the time he gets to California. He will go to visit Stephanie and her baby. He will move into the old house where he used to live.
Don is going to find the melancholic and self-destructive Diana. Her bangs will have gotten even longer. And she will be living like an Edward Gorey child, serving pie and delivering morbid aphorisms at a truck-stop diner. Don will manage to cheer her up. For once in his life, he will make someone feel better about themselves instead of worse.
He has an epiphany about life while he is waiting for a bus in California. He will turn all his gained wisdom into a new ad campaign for Coca-Cola. It will finally allow him to achieve the immortality and fame he so obviously deserves.
Sally is going to deliver a speech at her school that is so beautiful and tinged with tragedy, now that she too has death in her life, that we will know that she is the true heir to Don’s genius.
Ignore the Internet speculation that Don Draper is in the terminal stage of syphilis, and that this explains the hallucinatory quality of recent episodes. This isn’t insanity; it’s just the onset of the seventies.
Don’s misadventures amongst the small-town Legionnaires in the penultimate episode will lead him to the belated realization that he is, and always was, in his heart of hearts an Okie from Muskogee. This epiphany occurs during a dark night of the soul in a Southern drunk-tank with Jack Nicholson, just in time to deflect him from a plan to buy a motorcycle and resume his odyssey alongside Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Instead, Don begins to intuit: You may not be able to go home again, but you can nonetheless go to Alberta, where a man out of step with the postmodern world can find redemption in the oil patch and stave off existential crisis for at least another (oh, say) 44 years.
Pete discovers that he has been played for a sucker by Duck Phillips and the job offer from the Lear Jet people is a mirage. He is fired by McCann Erickson and dumped all over again by a disgusted Trudy, who leaves him standing amidst the rubble of all his hopes, dreams and lifelong assumptions about New England prep school privilege.
Joan uses her buyout to found a boutique agency, hiring Peggy as creative director. Meanwhile, on the McCann executive floor, Roger is coming to terms with his own irrelevance. Returning from a drunken lunch, he stumbles inadvertently against his floor-to-ceiling window, striking it at precisely the wrong angle. And as Don’s bus crosses a distant border and Pete bursts from the elevator with a firearm, Roger – feeling startled but oddly peaceful – plummets down, down, down.
Don Draper continues his trek across America. He’s walking, hitching rides, catching buses, aiming for the West Coast. One of the people who gives him a lift, a former longshoreman, tells Don there’s plenty of work on the docks in various ports in northern California and Oregon. Cash work, no questions asked. He could even find himself working on a ship. Don mulls the idea of setting off to sea.
In flashbacks, he recalls the wanderer he encountered as a Depression-era child in the season one episode The Hobo Code. While destitute and homeless, the hobo tells Don (who is still Dick Whitman) how liberated he feels. No responsibilities, no encumbrances, no past to catch up with him. Don, who has lived his adult life as a lie, has always been searching to shed his disguise, his “draping.”
Along the way, he tries to reach Sally at school, but she’s never in the dorm when he calls.
He reaches northern California, lines up to get a job on a fishing boat. “Name?” he’s asked. Don pauses, and says, “Whitman. Dick Whitman.” He’s told they leave in the morning.
He finds a fleabag hotel for the night and gathers together all his change to try Sally again. “She went home,” a student tells him, “for the funeral. Her mom died.”
Don, distraught and without enough change to call Henry, asks the operator to make a collect, person-to-person call to Peggy Olson, who is quickly becoming the new star at McCann Erickson. Can she wire him money to get home?
And now we see the hearse and the other black cars lined up at the funeral. Sally is standing outside the church with Henry. People are offering their condolences at the end of the service. Sally sees a cab coming up the street. It stops across from the church, the door opens and out gets Roger. And then Pete. Then Joan. And finally, Peggy.
The show closes with Don – now, once again, Dick Whitman – boarding a ship to the Rolling Stones classic You Can’t Always Get What You Want.