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Lesson from Mad Men Finale—It’s the Real Thing

May 19, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 19, 2015

I used examples from TV shows and movies once before as a way to highlight what can work and what might not work in terms of fictional elements, but the final episode of Mad Men contained what many viewers seem to consider a definite did-work moment.

** Spoilers Ahead **

I never watched Mad Men, but I’ve heard a lot about the series finale in the last two days. And so I watched a clip of the final episode’s last moments and read viewer responses to that moment.

Many fans seem to think that the show’s creators nailed the ending to the long-running series. Emily Nussbaum titled her New Yorker article about the finale—“The Original, Resonant, Existentially Brilliant “Mad Men” Finale.” Now that’s the kind of sentiment you want readers of your novels to feel, the words you’d like them to think and say after they read your final page.

The Mad Men finale covered several characters, but the segment that seemed to capture the fans’ attention was the final one.

Don Draper, the show’s protagonist, sits meditating in the lotus position at a retreat center perched next to the ocean. We see him join with others as they meditate, the chime of a light gong accompanying them. Then we see a smile cross his face. The gong sounds again. Or does it? Might it instead be the intro to Coca-Cola’s very well-known and popular “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” ad that follows Draper’s enigmatic smile?

This ending to Mad Men was apparently planned well in advance. Whether or not every detail was firm in the creative team’s collective mind from the very beginning, it’s clear that something related to Coke had been planned.

According to Maureen Ryan at the Huffington Post (she had mixed feelings about the episode), the show had included references to Coke since the first season. (“Mad Men’ Finale: What Was Awesome, What Was Frustrating And Why It’s Hard To Let Go“)

Several sources I read mentioned foreshadowing in both the final episode and other episodes that led to an ending that satisfied, that actually felt like an ending, a conclusion.

We know that many TV shows don’t get to create the ending they want, that they’re cancelled before creators and writers can create an episode that brings closure. But many other TV shows that do get a chance for a planned final episode—and movies and books that get every opportunity for writers to devise a well-planned ending—simply end, without including that feeling of closure, of finality. Maybe of inevitability. Definitely without the resonance that Emily Nussbaum mentioned.

As a study of an ending done well, consider looking into the comments from Mad Men fans to see what they found so satisfying in the show’s final episode. Mine the viewers’ reactions for elements that are important to them, those that satisfied them not only in terms of the episode but in terms of a series conclusion. Those are some of the very same elements you’ll want to be sure you include in novels to give your readers a satisfying climax and resolution.


Elements that Fans & Reviewers Mentioned

I’ve already pointed out that Coke had been mentioned in multiple ways over the seven-year run of the show. But fans and reviewers mentioned other links to Coke as well.

~  Don Draper’s ad agency had recently (last season?) been bought out (fictionally) by the ad agency that actually did create the iconic Coke commercial.

~  A recent episode featured Don Draper fixing a broken Coke machine.

~  One of the men at the retreat center had spoken about connections to others not feeling real (the real thing).

~  One of the staff members at the retreat center where Draper ended up had the same hairstyle and clothing worn by one of the young women in the Coke ad.

~  Hilltop retreat and hilltop ad.

~  Communal meditation and communal singalong.

There were undoubtedly other links to what would be the final image on Mad Men, but you can see that these ties to other elements of the series are what resonated with the fans. The ending may not have been perfect in the eyes of all fans, but it certainly struck a lot of them as satisfying, a true and fitting way to complete all that had come before, at least in terms of Draper’s story line.

Apparently Don Draper drew from his own life and experiences to help him create ads. That was made clear in the those final moments.

And while some fans seem to be unsure of what those final images mean, without even watching more than a few minutes of the show, I would conclude that yes, the implication is clear that Draper put a whole bunch of influences together to produce the famed Coke commercial.

That may not be the case, but from an outsider’s viewpoint, that’s what I see.

No matter what the actual meaning of the ending, several reviewers mentioned that it’s likely that they’ll be thinking about the ending for days or even weeks. Talk about something that resonates, something that moves the audience. I’m guessing that most of us would love to have our readers talking about the end of our stories, pondering the meaning and admitting to a variety of mixed, but very strong, emotions.

Take a lesson from Mad Men—write an ending with links back to other story events and images, to character and dialogue. To emotional high points of your stories. Set your endings resonating in a way that moves your readers.



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2 Responses to “Lesson from Mad Men Finale—It’s the Real Thing”

  1. I have followed MAD MEN from the beginning, and I thought the ending was brilliant. The show is very “literary” in a way in that it isn’t particularly plot-driven so much as character-driven — the ending built on layers of character development and an accumulation of small details that made the show as a whole incredibly rich. I am still thinking about the ending and the show as a whole–really a job well-done IMO!

  2. Lisa, back at the very beginning the show sounded like one I’d like to watch, but I never got started with it. I guess I’ll have to buy the DVDs. Incredibly rich sounds good to me.