The breathlessly-awaited series finale of the television show Mad Men aired this week, and the web has been teeming with recaps and commentary, especially on the significance of the show’s enigmatic final moments. (Warning: spoilers ahead).
The endlessly dissected conclusion of the show depicted the protagonist Don Draper reaching the culmination of his Kerouac-like journey across America on a cliff above Big Sur, sitting in the lotus position. Just at the moment that he begins to smile, seemingly having caught a glimpse of nirvana, the screen suddenly fills with one of the most famous ads of the 1970s, “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke.”
There are many ways to read this rather brilliant and ambiguous moment — is it a sign that Don has truly found some inner peace, or that he has at last “found a way to accept love and managed to channel it into his work”? Or is it dark confirmation that he is, and always has been, an ad man through and through? Is it a cynical condemnation of advertising itself, and by extension, capitalism? Does it signal the true death of the 1960s, the final absorption and co-opting of its hippie idealism, and the ominous beginning of the “Me Decade” of the 1970s?
Although it’s probably unlikely, I’d like to think the conclusion may also have been the show’s final, playful nod to Frank O’Hara, whose work Don was captivated by in some much-discussed scenes in season 2, and who served as an important influence on the show’s sensibility. (I’ve discussed the Mad Men-Frank O’Hara connection before on a number of occasions, including here and here).
What does Frank O’Hara have to do with Coke? Well, quite a bit, actually. Known for his radical embrace of pop culture in all its forms, O’Hara stands out from his contemporaries by referring to Coke by name in numerous poems, as in his famous poem “A Step Away From Them,” when he observes that “laborers feed their dirty / glistening torsos sandwiches / and Coca-Cola,” or in “Early Sunday” when he speaks of “washing the world down with rye and Coca-Cola.”
This is especially apparent in O’Hara’s 1960 poem “Having a Coke with You,” a poem that has lately become one of his most beloved and circulated poems. The poem even seems to neatly echo, or preview, Don’s final revelation about the pleasures, even the interpersonal connection, promised by Coke, though perhaps without the ironic commentary on consumerism and advertising.
Here is O’Hara reading “Having a Coke with You” not long before his death in 1966:
And here is the poem’s opening stanza:
Having a Coke with You
is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Travesera de Gracia in Barcelona partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better happier St. Sebastian partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt partly because of the fluorescent orange tulips around the birches partly because of the secrecy our smiles take on before people and statuary it is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles
The show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, has said that coming upon O’Hara’s work during the course of the show’s run was “a magic occurrence.” So maybe it’s not a stretch to think that Weiner also had O’Hara, among other things, in mind when writing the show’s sure-to-be-famous final scene as well.
But then again, while we’re on the subject of O’Hara, soda, and advertising, count me as one of those who thinks Coke owes the O’Hara estate some serious royalties for its very successful recent “Share a Coke” campaign…