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Mad Men: Ending Explained

What really happened at the end of Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men? Did Don Draper (Jon Hamm) create the iconic “Hilltop” Coke ad, and what’s the deeper meaning?

TRANSCRIPT

Mad Men ends with Don Draper having an aha moment. We hear a bell — the sound of inspiration striking — and then the shot essentially “goes to commercial”: Coca-Cola’s 1971 “Hilltop” ad. So the finale heavily implies that Don is the creator of one of the most iconic commercials of all time. But if so, what’s the deeper meaning of choosing to end on this ad?

Pre-Mad Men, show creator Matthew Weiner worked as a writer and producer on The Sopranos — one of TV’s most subliminal shows.

Matthew Weiner: “One of the great things about being on The Sopranos is that you kind of were like, and I got there late in the game, but I heard David Chase say out loud, ‘Do YOU understand it?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah,’ and he goes, ‘That’s good enough for me.’” - New York Public Library

So it’s no surprise that Weiner was comfortable leaving some questions unanswered in the conclusion of his own series. But while the last episode of The Sopranos left us with the big question of what just happened, the meaning of this finale is more about what feeling we should come away with. Essentially, do we read this as a cynical ending or an optimistic one? Are we seeing the soulless commodification of hippie culture to sell more sugar-water — in which case Don’s seeming enlightenment is just another passing moment he can mine for material? Or has our tortured protagonist finally found inner peace — and is his creative output channeling a deeper inspiration and connection that he’s been wanting all along? So here’s our take on the show’s ending and what it all meant.

The Coke Ad: A Verdict on Advertising

The main question the finale leaves us with is, did Don create the “Hilltop” ad? All signs point to yes. The real ad came out in July 1971, less than a year after this episode is set, and it was created by the agency McCann-Erickson, which is where Don started working before bailing to go on his cross-country odyssey. Throughout the finale, we see Don’s likely sources of inspiration for the commercial — like the girl working reception at the retreat and the group gathering on a hilltop. At the end of the episode, the way the opening of the song starts over Don’s smiling face suggests he’s already hearing the ad in his head. There’s also a precedent for Mad Men attributing real, historical campaigns to Don. And this scene perfectly fits Don’s explanation of how great ideas come to us. In season one, he gives this advice:

Don: “Peggy, just think about it deeply. Then forget it, and an idea will jump up in your face.” - Mad Men

In the finale, it seems like advertising is the last thing on his mind. But he’s been processing a lot of emotions—essentially, a build-up of everything he’s gone through over the course of the show — and Coke is on his radar. In the penultimate episode, the man at the motel even asks him to fix the Coke machine. So inspiration strikes because he’s not actively trying to come up with a new campaign. Finally, it’s fitting for a show that featured so many of the highs and lows of the creative process to end with a lightbulb moment.

More symbolically, the Coke ad gets at Mad Men’s complicated relationship to advertising. At certain points throughout the show, Don seems to have a cynicism or contempt towards his business, as if he knows he’s selling people lies.

Don: “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.” - Mad Men

As a culture, we’re encouraged to look down on advertising as underhanded, beneath us. But Mad Men shows that advertising is also a creative enterprise that speaks deeply to people.

Don: “You are the product. You, feeling something.” - Mad Men

It’s simplistic to dismiss advertising as just selling us falsehoods, because the truth is, it doesn’t trick us into craving something we don’t want — it taps into what we already want and lack. Campaigns on the show move us because they’re grounded in real emotions, like nostalgia for the past or a need for connection. At times, Don may seem like a hypocrite, but really he is his own customer. He’s searching for happiness and fulfillment just like everyone else. And this is what makes him so good at what he does — he understands that advertising isn’t about selling a product so much as a feeling. The “Hilltop” ad’s power is that it’s not selling a drink; it’s offering a vision of communion, harmony, and world peace.

In real life, the “Hilltop” ad did come out of a McCann advertising exec being genuinely moved. Bill Backer, who was the creative director on the Coca-Cola account at the time, was on a flight that was forced to land in Ireland due to fog. His fellow passengers were angry and frustrated, but the next day, he noticed them connecting over bottles of Coke. He wrote, “ began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ [...] So that was the basic idea: to see Coke […] as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples.” Ultimately, Mad Men’s ending is paying tribute to the creative potential of advertising at its best — it’s recognizing that a great commercial is a powerful cultural contribution.

So in the end, for Mad Men, advertising isn’t just a hollow, exploitative lie, or a profound creative truth — it’s both of these things at once.

A New Don

The other big question of the finale is, does Don’s lotus position and serene smile suggest that he’s about to turn his life around? Not according to Weiner. In the show creator’s words, “He’ll probably find a fourth or fifth wife and then die in like 1981 from hard living.” If these predictions are true, it wouldn’t be the first time Don has gotten himself on a healthier path and then slipped downhill again. As Don himself once said:

Don: “But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” - Mad Men

Still, when Vanity Fair asked Weiner if Don would find happiness, he said, “I think that anybody who becomes more comfortable with who they are finds happiness.” This is exactly what Don does in the final episode — he comes to terms with himself. After he finds out Betty is dying, he declares their kids will move in with him. But just as quickly, he’s forced to face that he’s always been an absentee father and it’s too late to change that.

Betty: “This way you see them exactly as much as you do now. On weekends and… oh wait, Don, when was the last time you saw them?” - Mad Men

So part of Don’s journey is recognizing that his many past mistakes can’t be corrected, and he needs to accept who he is. Star Jon Hamm interpreted the ending this way, quote, “My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him.” The “Hilltop” ad ends with the words, “what the world wants today is the real thing.” This gets at Coke’s reputation as something classic and timeless. But it’s also interesting to think of this idea of authenticity in relation to Don himself. Of course, Don is not the real Don Draper, but he’s accepting the real version of himself — embracing his identity as an ad man.

For most of Mad Men, Don’s survivalist philosophy is to always be moving forward.

Don: “I have a life, and it only goes in one direction: forward.” - Mad Men

This is familiar advice even today — we’re constantly told to get over it, to move on and never look back, as if forward motion is all that matters. But Mad Men reveals the flaws in that worldview — Don’s determination to just keep going means that he never heals from his traumatic past. In the final episodes of the show, we see his “keep moving forward” philosophy for what it really is: running away. But there comes a point where he can’t run anymore. So the last shot of Don is symbolic because he’s sitting still — no longer trying to outrun the past. This means — in some small, modest way — he’s finally at peace, at least enough to live with himself.

Person to Person: Reaching Out

The ultimate meaning of the finale can be found in the episode title, “Person to Person.” This title comes from the phone calls Don makes to the three most important women in his life — echoing something Ted says earlier in the season.

Ted: “There are three women in every man’s life.” - Mad Men

Don has deprived himself of human connection throughout the series by closing himself off and refusing to let people know him. But in this last episode, he reaches out to others for comfort, and this on its own is a huge step forward.

Don fails at most of the relationships in his life — his two marriages have ended in divorce, he’s a stranger to his children, and he’s abandoned his coworkers. Yet, with the “Hilltop” ad, he’ll reach countless viewers he doesn’t know. And this is the continuation of a theme we’ve seen throughout the series: a person can be incredibly insightful about the human experience in their work, but falter when it comes to real relationships.

Strangers also have a huge influence on Don just think of Dennis Hobart at the hospital when Betty gives birth, P.F.C. Dinkins in Hawaii, or Neve Campbell’s character on the plane back from California. Meanwhile, Don’s nearest and dearest can’t get through to him. So it’s fitting that the Esalen-like retreat Don goes to is all about connecting with strangers. Leonard, the guy who speaks up in the group meeting, is the last stranger on the show to truly change Don. Elevating Coke to something extremely special and important in the “Hilltop” ad may even be a nod to Leonard’s dream about being on the shelf of a refrigerator.

Leonard: “Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling.” - Mad Men

On the surface, Leonard couldn’t be more different from Don — he’s an invisible everyman, while Don appears to be the extremely handsome, charismatic creative genius who intimidates everyone around him. But what these two men have in common is that neither of them feels seen.

Leonard: “People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home, and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down.” - Mad Men

Weiner has actually said that Leonard is the character he identifies with most on the show. Maybe this is because Leonard vocalizes the fundamental need for love inside us all, and the way that we unknowingly create boundaries to guard against that love.

Leonard: “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.” - Mad Men

Ultimately, the finale’s title reminds us that — whether it’s being open to strangers, reaching out to loved ones, or creating something that will touch the masses — that person-to-person connection is what saves us.

Something to Smile About

When Mad Men was on the air, many viewers theorized that Don was going to die in the final season—both because of the opening credits that show him falling, and the darkness in his character that made viewers think he’d eventually kill himself.

Meredith: “Is he dead?”

Roger: “Don? No. I don’t think so…I think we would have heard about that.” - Mad Men

But in the end, the show concludes not with Don’s death, but with a symbolic rebirth. And this is what Don Draper himself is all about — a fresh start, another chance — no matter how many times you’ve messed up.

Don’s journey has always mirrored the larger trajectory of the 60s — so his marriage to Betty ends alongside JFK’s assassination, marking the end of the idyllic “Camelot” period, and his downward spiral into self-destruction happens in 1968 when the country is in a state of chaos. The same is true of Mad Men’s ending. Weiner has said, “This whole decade, for anybody of any age, is going to be the realization of the opportunity for change, social change, the rejection of that change, Richard Nixon…and then a turning inward.” Some might criticize the utopian Coke ad for leaving out the real darkness and disillusionment of the 60s — but the commercial isn’t showing how things are, it’s saying this is how we’d like them to be. At the end of this tumultuous decade, there was still the 60s’ dream of a better world — just as Don has the potential to heal, even though for the most part he’s still the same guy.

The second half of season seven opens with the Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?” This is the existential question that Don is asking himself as the series wraps up.

Peggy: “What else is there?”
Don: “That’s what I’m asking.” - Mad Men

And in the end, the question receives a bittersweet answer. Maybe the painful reality in front of us is all there is today — but there’s always the hope of a brighter tomorrow, and that’s something to smile about.

Don: “If I leave this place one day, it will not be for more advertising.”

Roger: “What else is there?”

Don: “I don’t know. Life being lived. I’d like to stop talking about it and get back to it.” - Mad Men


SOURCES

“Emmy Award-Winning Actor Jon Hamm on Don Draper & Shooting ‘The Town.’” The Rich Eisen Show, 25 Jan. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EbnY1qkYbKs&feature=youtu.be&t=20.

Huver, Scott. “Matt Weiner on ‘Mad Men’ Finale: ‘I Had a Ton of Doubts.’” Variety, 29 May 2015, https://variety.com/2015/scene/news/mad-men-matt-weiner-finale-doubts-ending-show-1201508199/.

Itzkoff, Dave. “Jon Hamm Talks About the ‘Mad Men’ Series Finale.” New York Times, 18 May 2015, https://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/05/18/mad-men-finale-jon-hamm-interview/?_r=0.

“Jon Hamm discusses Don Draper’s dark side and the Coke ad.” Television Academy Foundation, 1 Oct. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkDobBLRcjM&feature=youtu.be&t=209.

“Matthew Weiner | A.M. Homes.” New York Public Library, 20 May 2015, https://www.nypl.org/events/programs/2015/05/20/matthew-weiner.

“Matthew Weiner discusses the Coke ad on the ‘Mad Men’ finale.” Television Academy Foundation, 7 Apr. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klG2fit1Ym0&feature=youtu.be&t=71.

“Matthew Weiner on the Final Season of Mad Men.” Museum of Jewish Heritage, 8 Apr. 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0W-tlMf8AZE&t=5508s.

Miller, Julie. “Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner on Betty’s Surprise Fate and Don’s Post-Finale Life.” Vanity Fair, 19 Sep. 2015, https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2015/09/mad-men-finale-betty-don.

Ryan, Ted. “The Making of ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.’” The Coca-Cola Company, 1 Jan. 2012, https://www.coca-colacompany.com/stories/coke-lore-hilltop-story.