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The problem with Matthew Weiner’s ‘Mad Men’ finale

We all could have predicted last night's ending—and we don't just mean the plot.

Mar 1, 2020, 3:32 am*

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Aja Romano 

Aja Romano

This article contains spoilers for the finales of Mad Men and The Sopranos.

Although it was overshadowed by fan theories like the popular D.B. Cooper theory and the Megan-as-Sharon-Tate theory, last night’s Mad Men series finale ended with a twist that many people have predicted over the years. 

But there’s one aspect of Mad Men’s ending that was, sadly, even more predictable than the show’s final moment—which was that a series which has only had a handful of black men in walk-on roles in its entire seven-season history would erase the actual black man who cowrote the most famous ad jingle ever.

In case you missed it—or were one of the few people who didn’t immediately hear the Internet’s reaction to it—last night’s finale ended with what is now arguably the patented Matthew Weiner Ambiguous Fade-Out. 

Aja Romano

Just as in David Chase’s series ending to The Sopranos, showrunner Weiner (who wrote several episodes of The Sopranos’ final season but not the finale itself) left audiences with a choose-your-own-ending way of deciding for themselves whether the show’s hero, Don Draper, found inner peace in California or returned to the East Coast to create the most famous ad in history. That enigmatic smile could mean Don is finally, truly happy for the first time in his life—or it could mean that Don just got the idea for the famous Coca-Cola hilltop ad, featuring the now famous song written for it, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” 

There are plenty of hints that Weiner wants us to think the latter choice is the right one. Firstly, McCann-Erickson, the real-life advertising agency that served as a rival firm on the show until buying out Sterling-Cooper (and Don with it) in the final season, actually created the ad for Coca-Cola in 1971. Throughout the final season, McCann staff teased Don with the possibility of his being assigned to the fictional Coke account as its creative director. And in the last episode, one woman he meets while staying at a therapeutic retreat in California bears an eerie resemblance to a woman from the real ad:

If you read the ending this way, then it suddenly becomes far more cynical, in keeping with the show’s overall tone. Plenty of people predicted just this ending in advance. 

https://twitter.com/msicism/status/592225019163357184

Sicinski wasn’t alone. “Did Don create the ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ commercial?” Redditor jayc2the asked r/MadMen on April 28. Redditor robbykrieger repeated the prediction a week later. Newsweek’s John Walters predicted the song as a “wildcard” for the show’s final credits. Last week, Racked’s Eileen Sutton told her theory that the ending would involve the Coke ad to Vox’s Tod VanDerWerff, who expanded it even further. “And out of the blackness, we begin to hear perhaps the most famous ad of the 1970s.”

But the most uncannily prescient prediction of all goes to Overthinking It. True to the site’s name, Matthew Belinkie went all-in when discussing the season 4 finale of the show in 2010. Check out his comparison of the “letter” Don writes in that season’s finale to the 1971 Coke ad. At the time, the letter, an open letter to the ad world renouncing tobacco as an unhealthy product, is meant to appear to be full of virtue. In reality, it’s a brilliant, cold way to distance Don’s firm from its longtime association with a famous cigarette company.

“Think about the famous ‘I’d Like to Buy the World A Coke’ ad, from 1971,” Belinkie writes. “A group of multiracial young people frolic on a hillside while singing (and I swear these are the real lyrics):”

I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,

Grow apple trees and honey bees, and snow white turtle doves.

I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,

I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company.

Belinkie doesn’t actually predict that the whole series will end with the Coke ad—but in comparing the manipulation behind the “letter” to the ad, he gets eerily close:

This is two years after Woodstock. Madison Avenue works fast. You can see the connection to Draper’s letter. He’s taking the language of youth and rebellion, and making it a business strategy. He’s PRETENDING to be something heartfelt and genuine, when he’s really cynical and calculating. He’s ahead of his time.

Weiner has long made it known that he knew how the show would end before he wrote the pilot, so it’s easy to see Belinkie’s comparison as a way of tacitly predicting the overall series ending. 

But if the series ends on a choose-your-own-degree-of-cynicism note, there’s one reading which looks pretty grim any way you spin it—the one in which the finale of Mad Men erased a real-life black songwriter and handed his cultural coup de grace to Don Draper.

Despite dealing prominently with civil rights issues like segregation and workplace racism, Mad Men is a show which has rarely featured any characters of color, at all, outside of black women. The show’s lack of POC characters has been a frequent source of criticism over the years, but Weiner’s dedication to showing Madison Avenue as a nexus of white power and privilege meant that the show stayed monochrome. 

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While black women have received more air time than other minorities, the show’s lack of black men has become a bit notorious—it even found its way into a sarcastic Childish Gambino lyric. But the show’s erasure of black men was never more prominent than last night. By implying that Don Draper had the idea for “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” Mad Men deleted the men who did create the idea and the song. 

Among those men was Roquel Davis, better known as Billy Davis. Last year, in critiquing the whiteness of the show, Ebony’s Ericka Blount Danois focused on Davis in her callout of the show’s historical inaccuracy in its portrayal of Madison Avenue as a segregated culture. Davis was an R&B songwriter who worked with artists like the Four Tops and Diana Ross and wrote hits like 1965’s “Rescue Me.” In the late ’60s, he quit the entertainment business and went to work in advertising. He went to work as a songwriter for McCann, which promptly made him the music director for its Coca-Cola account.

In early 1971, Davis cowrote the song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” with ad man Bill Backer and fellow songwriter Robert Cook. Although Backer had the idea for the song concept, and, later, the game-changing idea to film the famous singalong commercial on a hilltop, Davis and Cook wrote most of the song itself. They also convinced folk group the New Seekers to record it as a regular folk song and not a typical ad jingle—a change which was, of course, crucial to its eventual success.

The Internet has mostly been resoundingly positive about last night’s ending. But more than a few viewers have noted the irony of its taking a notable accomplishment from black culture and handing it to Don Draper. 

https://twitter.com/jennygadget/status/600185531985625088

The Coke jingle isn’t the only element of Mad Men that has subtly erased the work of black men and women. As graphic designer Xavier Ruffin noted to NPR last year, the Clio Award, a coveted ad trophy which Don wins on the show, was actually designed by a black man named Georg Olden, who then won seven of them himself. And several ad agencies created by black professionals in the ’60s and ’70s are still in business today, yet they were never actually present in the world of the show.

“The catch is, those ‘others’ have to be present to even begin to be neglected,” wrote Danois on the basic problem underlying Mad Men’s ongoing critique of prejudice. “That hasn’t happened yet.”

Mad Men will undoubtedly continue to be regarded as a watershed series and one of TV’s best. But if its final moment really was planned all along, then Weiner missed a seven-year opportunity to show men and women of color steadily making their way into the realm of advertising. 

Without them, Don Draper’s moment of glory is the very kind of entitled act that Mad Men itself deplored.

Correction 3:38pm CT: Though Matthew Weiner wrote several episodes from The Sopranos’ final season, David Chase is responsible for that show’s contentious final moments.

Screengrab via amira_a/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: May 18, 2015, 2:57 pm