Don Draper dresses better, talks better, works better, and plays better than anyone you'll ever know. Paired with that blessing is his curse: He makes more and bigger mistakes than anyone you'll ever know. We knew that in Season One, and it's carried him through to the finish. We've seen him fall down, pick himself up, and fall again. It's a credit to writer-creator Matt Weiner and his team that the cycle could stay fresh enough that Don standing on a cliff in the show's final minutes could tease the possibility of a leap and turn into something completely different.
Everyone got their send-off. For some it was love; for others it was career; for Betty it was the grave. That plot seemed to set up Don's fate: If the Draper kids were going to lose their mother, maybe Don would become a full-time father. As Betty saw it, that's not a role the otherwise omni-talented Don Draper can fill. And so, his high-speed dash across the desert led him not East, to home, but West, to the house of the original Don Draper, whose name Dick Whitman stole. There, he found Stephanie, whom we last saw a year ago, pregnant and broke, sent packing to Oakland by a lie told by Megan. Stephanie was far from a major character on the series, but here she filled a particular role: Her abandonment of her child, and the shame she feels for that put a focus on Don having abandoned, at one time or another, absolutely everything. Faced with this, Don offered to become some sort of partner in her life, a ludicrous misplacement of the energy he'd withdrawn from all of his existing responsibilities. Stephanie runs from the resort (clearly filmed at, and representing, the not-named Esalen Institute) and leaves Don with a temporary transportation inconvenience and a hole in his conscience big enough to swallow him inside. Don's frustration ends with the outburst, "People just come and go and no one says, 'Goodbye.'" He's far too intelligent not to see his own sins in that line.
The title of the episode, "Person to Person," is a manner of billing telephone calls that no longer exists. The episode has six telephone calls, most of them showing modern technology as a way to keep people apart when they really should be together. The fragility of telephone conversations is demonstrated in the first call when Sally ends her call with Don and he can't do or say a thing about it. (Incidentally, a similar but more futuristic kind of "hanging up" victimizes Jon Hamm's character in the Christmas episode of the BBC's Black Mirror in which he starred.) Soon, Don – who placed a call to Peggy to try to make up for his own coming and going without saying "Goodbye" – inflicts the same punishment on her, cutting off their call and leaving her worried for his sanity and his safety.
That was the episode's fifth phone call. The one before that was one that ended a relationship, with Joan choosing to talk to someone distant, about business, and shut out Richard, who is present, about love. And so she loses him, for better or worse, for richer or poorer.
But the episode's final phone call goes the opposite way. Stan and Peggy start by talking about business, but soon, and stunningly (and probably with too little build-up) pledge their love for one another. Stan realizes the absurdity of a phone taking the place of human contact, and runs down the hall to kiss her.
In a show about modern media (print, radio, or television) blasting opinions unilaterally into people's brains, the telephone is an apt metaphor. It's another form of long-distance communication, although it works in both ways instead of just one. In that sense, the old landline more closely resembles its mobile offspring that have more completely taken over our world than anyone could have foreseen in 1970, mediating our interpersonal relationships as well as serving up corporate ads. The Mad Men finale may say more about the devices that keep us apart in 2015 than it does about 1970.
But Stan is twice the voice of reason in the episode. He also realizes that Don's flight and escape are temporary. "He always does this, and he always comes back," Stan tells Peggy. He's exactly right.
Steve Jobs was vocal about alternative forms of consciousness having enhanced his creative powers, and there's some of that in Mad Men's final two scene. Don, having shed the New York coat and tie for a meditation circle on the Pacific coast, hums "Om" the last time we see him. And then, the gut-punch ending is the 1971 Coca Cola television ad that anyone who lived in America in the Seventies saw countless times, and we realize that Don's epiphany along the Pacific was not an escape from work, but ultimately just an inspiration for his greatest success, as he went on to return to New York and write that ad, the single most prominent television ad of all time. Don Draper gets credit for the commercial, "Hilltop," that belongs in real life to an ad man named Bill Backer, and in so doing, achieves the fame that he always had the potential to achieve.
In the first episode of Mad Men, Don sits across a table from Rachel Menken and, en route to winning her as a lover and a client, tells her, "I'm living like there's no tomorrow, because there isn't one." And now, the show is over, and for Don Draper, there isn't one.