Setting aside cynical interpretations of the Coke commercial, the conventional wisdom is that the Mad Men ending was incredibly kind to its characters, almost to the point of straining belief– and this is true, for most but not all of the characters. Don and Peggy and Pete and Joan and Roger got essentially a happy ending. They got what Weiner promised: they ended up a bit (or a lot) better off than where they started.
Their endings were happy not because of what they got– Coke or a start-up or love– on a show where characters never know what to do with good fortune, those things could be poison as much as wine. No, their endings were happy because at the close of their narratives, they became a little more like the people they always knew they could be. From Joan’s independence to Peggy’s devil-may-care optimism to Don’s capacity for change, the final episodes highlighted the attributes we value most about them– and that they value most about themselves. Whatever happens after the fade to black, we can have faith that they’ll have lived the best life that they were capable of.
I would argue that this was even true for Betty. One could take her fate as proof that Weiner never loved the character, but I think that’d be wrong. If anything, I felt, as someone who had developed a strange wellspring of empathy and even love for Betty over the years, strangely vindicated by the empathy Weiner showed her with this final story. Yes, she is objectively worse off than where she started, but for maybe the first time in her life, you had the sense that she became who she truly was. In her final episodes, she took on a grace and maturity that she had within her this whole time. Isn’t that just what we want for the people and characters we love?
Betty’s fate may be tragic, but her story was not a tragedy. Tragedy isn’t in what happens to you– it’s in your inability to justify to yourself your choices and person you became. I don’t think Betty would have any of it differently– Henry who, whatever his flaws, really loved her, Don who she realised was a better ex and an occasional father than he was a partner, and Sally, who Betty unwittingly raised to be able to lead a life that is more adventurous and fuller than her own.
But look beyond the major characters, and there is plenty of tragedy in Weiner’s world. With Megan and Ted and Ken, it’s not that misfortune befell them– it’s that they lost the best and purest part of who they were. We met Megan as a bright-eyed, optimistic young woman– someone we could almost believe really was something different– and by the end of her narrative she was fulfilling Roger’s prediction as just another one of those bitter second wives lining up for their check. Ted once managed to pair his creative acumen with at least a semblance of virtue, but by the final season, he was broken and embittered, happy to live out the rest of his days in McCann hell, satisfied with work and romance that’s just “a little bit deep.” And Ken, dear sweet Ken, whose carefree cheer and vibrant imagination always marked him out as probably the most fundamentally decent person on this show, gave up his chance to build a life around his first passion (writing) to work for a company responsible for the destruction of Southeast Asia– all in the name of revenge.
They’re not badly off, exactly. Megan can live the rest of her life in unemployed leisure, and Ken soon will have quite a fortune of his own, in addition to his wife’s inheritance. Ted’s certainly miles better off than when he was trying to murder-suicide clients in his little plane (and over my future alma mater, too!). They might even end up very happy. But it’s hard to look at their lives and choices and not think that they’ve turned away from what was best about them.
People have a lot of excuses about why they didn’t get to do what they wanted with their lives. You see Don realizing that Rachel Menken was the one. OK. Can I redo that?“ Ken’s going to be able to tell his kids, "I wanted to be a writer, but I had to put food on the table.” We know it’s not true. Peggy is going to say, “I never met the right guy.” We saw her meet the right guy.