Thursday, May 21, 2015

Mad Men: Matt Weiner Doesn’t Get to Tell You What the Ending Means

Matt Weiner recently clarified his interpretation of the ending to Mad Men. Here’s a good summary of the relevant comments courtesy of Vulture:
The series finale of Mad Men ended with Don Draper achieving a moment of peace he had been searching for this whole time, and then using it to come up with perhaps one of the greatest advertising campaigns of all time, Coca-Cola's 1971 "Hilltop" commercial. Many viewed this ending with cynicism — that a man who has gone through everything Don has experienced in life would finally find enlightenment, only to result in him using it to sell some soda. This wasn’t Weiner’s intention. "I'm not saying that advertising's not corny, but I'm saying that people who find that ad corny, they're probably experiencing a lot of life that way, and they're missing out on something," Weiner said. "I felt like that ad in particular is so much of its time, so beautiful, and I don't think it's as villainous as the snark of today thinks it is."  
For the record, my reading is pretty much the same as Weiner’s. I say this not to pat myself on the back (well, maybe a little...) but rather to establish my credibility when I caution people to think twice before treating Weiner’s word on the subject as authoritative.

Statements of his intent aside, the ending of Mad Men is quintessentially ambiguous. Yes, there are hints and clues that point in certain directions. But because we never actually see Don pitch the Coke ad, there’s nothing in the text that says definitively he did. The current diversity of interpretations is indication of this textual ambiguity.

And that’s a good thing! Some people seem to think any work that doesn’t spoon feed you all the answers is somehow deficient. But lot of the best art leaves room for those experiencing it to decide for themselves what happened and what it all means. Debate over these questions keeps art alive and vibrant, allowing it to stand the test of time.

That’s why a part of me wishes Weiner had just kept his big mouth shut. Privileging his answers threatens to strangle what has actually been a fascinating debate over how to interpret Don’s literal and figurative moment of Zen. In so doing, it undermines the whole purpose for leaving the ending ambiguous in the first place.

Then there’s the whole question of author reliability. The simple fact is artists have been known to lie about what their creations mean -- for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s by necessity. (Anyone really believe Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds had nothing whatsoever to do with LSD? Me neither.). Sometimes they’re just having fun.

Even where creators don’t lie consciously, moreover, they can still be unaware of all the meanings they embed in their works subconsciously. Freud may have been wrong about most of psychoanalysis. But he was clearly correct subconscious desires drive a lot of what we do. Artists are no exception -- quite the contrary.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting Weiner’s being deceptive, whether consciously or subconsciously. My point is just that he doesn’t get to say authoritatively what the ending to Mad Men means. For reasons both lofty and practical, the artist’s interpretation is simply one of many.
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