The Finale of Mad Men and Frank O’Hara: A Theory


Yesterday, I pondered whether there might have been a sly nod to Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You” in the final moments of the Mad Men finale.  Now, on further reflection, I think there may have been even more of an O’Hara connection than that.  (Warning: spoilers ahead).

Last night, Matthew Weiner, the creator, producer, and director of the show, appeared at the New York Public Library for a conversation with the novelist A. M. Holmes, in what he has announced will be his only public discussion of the show after the finale.  When Holmes asked about Frank O’Hara, Weiner explained again that he had never encountered O’Hara’s work until working on the show, but that it “changed my life.”

Mad Men is of course famously laden with hidden clues and signs and allusions that keep a whole army of bloggers and recappers busy, so perhaps it’s reasonable to think further about whether Weiner may have deliberately left some O’Hara breadcrumbs in the final episode.  Consider the following:

1) The finale was titled “Person to Person,” and it focused on the possibility of interpersonal communication and connection, especially through the conduit of the telephone call.  Frank O’Hara’s most famous piece of prose is titled “Personism,” and it focused on the possibility of interpersonal communication and connection, especially through the conduit of the telephone call.

As Weiner explained in his appearance last night, “The final episode’s title refers to the three phone calls Don has with the three women in his life — Sally, Betty and Peggy — but Weiner said it’s also about the phone itself. ‘A lot of the most important things in my life have happened to me over the phone,’ he said, remember that before texting and voicemails, ‘It’s a dramatic situation almost every time when you answer the phone ­— if you answer the phone.'”

What is “Personism”?  Well, as O’Hara explains in his mock manifesto, “one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself)” so that “the poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages.”  He also famously, half-jokingly proclaims that the movement began with a revelation about the telephone: the new movement “was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born.”  Person to person, indeed.

2) As Matthew Sitman pointed out on Twitter, the title of the O’Hara book that Don reads in season 2 — Meditations in an Emergency — surely resonates with the unusual (some might say contrived) plot of the finale, in which we find the normally buttoned-up Don Draper doing yoga and meditating at an Esalen-like retreat in the midst of a near-suicidal, existential panic attack. In other words, the final scenes depict a man literally meditating in an emergency.  Get it?

3) As I mentioned before, the climactic, series-ending jump from Don’s hilltop meditation to a famous commercial about the fun of sharing a Coke with the world brings to mind O’Hara’s charming poem “Having a Coke with You.”

So there you have it: a unified theory proclaiming that the Mad Men finale was loaded with allusions to Frank O’Hara, the poet who changed Matthew Weiner’s life.  It’s a very exciting theory which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents.  

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