When Mad Men said goodbye with a very real and very iconic Coca Cola commercial, it closed the book on a great piece of American art. Mad Men was a sweeping, complex novel that just happened to also be a television show. It was everything, both funny and heartbreaking, entertaining and painful, but more importantly it had something to say about who we are as a country, where we came from, and where we are going.
It was television as the highest form of art in the truest sense. It was something Breaking Bad never was.
Before you get angry with me, I love both of these shows. My enjoyment of one has no bearing on my opinion of the other. It’s just that as contemporaries I’ve often heard Breaking Bad called the best show ever, but it wasn’t even the best show on television during its own run. That title belongs to Mad Men, a critically acclaimed show that was somehow underrated.
The difference between the two is that Breaking Bad was just great entertainment and Mad Men was great art, and nowhere was that more perfectly on display than in their finales.
Breaking Bad looked poised to have the greatest final season ever, and the second and third to last episodes were actually great art. “Ozymandias” and “Granite State” were the culmination of one great story, making Walter White into a modern day Macbeth. Those two episodes brought Breaking Bad to a height it had never reached before. Previously the show had truly great hours of television, but those previous episodes were defined by the acting, cinematography, tension, and raw excitement of the story, and no matter how bad the situation, ultimately, Walter White would find a way out of them.
The two episodes near the end were dark and tragic, and went to a place the show had never really traveled before. As Jesse said about Mr. White, “He can’t keep getting away with it!” and finally he wasn’t. Here Walter White was finally suffering and experiencing the full consequences of his actions, a tragic hero with a tragic flaw meeting his end.
If Breaking Bad had ended with “Granite State” this article wouldn’t exist. I’d still think Mad Men was the greater show, but I’d be more likely to overlook some of Breaking Bad’s flaws after it turned out they had always been telling the great American tragedy, they just had some fun on the way.
But the finale ruined all of that.
Walter White got the most Disney-fied ending a mass murdering drug dealer can get. He was able to say goodbye to his daughter, say sorry to his wife in a moment of self-reflection, all while fixing her life that he ruined. He didn’t get to see his son, but did manage to set him up for life with the millions of dollars in blood money he earned. Oh, and then he got to free his partner and murder all of his enemies.
Walter White, a man so brilliant he could have made the world a better place for mankind if he weren’t so full of jealousy and regret, spent his final moments on earth proudly looking at the pinnacle of his life—his high quality drug making machine, the one responsible for ruining unimaginable numbers of lives.
In a tragedy, the hero doesn’t get a happy ending. It turned out Vince Gilligan wasn’t telling the tragedy of Walter White, he was just trying to entertain us, and rooting for the protagonist to win is always more fun.
That’s not even a criticism of Breaking Bad. It was a wonderful show, better than most. It produced great characters and excitement in a way few ever have, all while being visually stunning. It’s just that you can only reach as high as you aim, and Breaking Bad’s aim was entertainment. It moved fast, it resolved storylines quickly, and it protected its most important and likable characters, finding more improbable solutions to ever more improbable situations. Until Hank’s death right at the end (which was softened for us by needlessly splitting it up over a week), who was the most important person that died? Before you say, “So what?” it was a show that killed people constantly. It would be like if no major character died in The Godfather.
There is nothing wrong with what Breaking Bad was. It was the best possible version of what it wanted to be, and what it wanted to be was entertaining.
Mad Men always wanted to be more. It pushed its characters to places they couldn’t always escape. Lives were destroyed, families ruined, businesses lost, and answers to those problems were often never found. Mad Men was certainly entertaining, in every way possible, but at its core it was an existential journey about the search for happiness in America. If you want to really understand the difference between these two shows, look at the arc of Mad Men’s main character compared to Breaking Bad’s.
Don Draper spent the entire series looking for peace and for love, peace with himself and for someone to love the man he really was. Don Draper was a broken man who wanted contentment, but was incapable of doing what needed to be done to find it because of his own flaws as a person. Nowhere was this more on display than in the finale.
For a show about coworkers, it sent its main character on a meandering road trip ever further away from them, giving him a chance for self-discovery and introspection. When we last see Don at the end, shortly after his devastating confession to Peggy about his sins and flaws as a person, he finally hears someone else articulate the pain he has always felt, the pain that has driven his entire story from the beginning of the show. It all makes sense to him.
We then see him sitting along the Pacific Ocean, the only place he has ever found that elusive peace and love he craves. It’s a gorgeous day, and this relic of the 50s, this typically prim and proper ad-man from New York City, the one with the sharp suits and fedora, is wearing soft linen and meditating with a bunch of hippies. We close in and a smile comes over him.
For a moment it seems like the story of Dick Whitman has reached its end, and this flawed anti-hero we have always rooted for has found the secret to being happy; the journey he has been on the entire series has found its destination, and it’s beautiful.
Then the Coca Cola commercial starts, and we realize he didn’t stay in California, he went back to New York, to the cold and sterile walls of McCann Erickson, and used his journey of self-discovery to make a commercial.
It’s not beautiful; it’s perfect.
A cynic might say everything we went through with Don Draper meant nothing. He was the same person at the end that he was in season one, when he used his family and exploited his own emotions to sell a photo carousel. He doesn’t experience and feel the world like a person living in it, but rather he sees the world as an ad-man, a passive observer trying to use real feeling to sell you something you don’t really need.
However, an optimist could say that Don Draper did find peace, maybe not the kind he wanted, but the best kind he was capable of. He did learn something about himself; he learned it was okay to accept who you are, even if that means accepting you are really good at making people find small joys in their life through advertising. His final commercial is a beautiful song about love and sharing, sung by a wide spectrum of people at a time of great social unrest in the country. It’s a commercial, sure, but it’s hopeful and appeals to the best version of us. It wants to make us feel a little better about life. Don Draper made that.
That’s what great art is; it doesn’t tidy up nicely, or give us what we want. Art pushes us to always look closer, to look deeper, to find the truth of life, no matter how uncomfortable that truth may be. Life isn’t going to work out the way we wanted or hoped. Don Draper’s last smile was a knowing smile, it’s just that what he came to know wasn’t easy or everything he wanted.
Walter White should have died in that snowy car in New Hampshire, the ending he earned. Instead he died with a proud smile, knowing everything had worked out the best way it could have.
Breaking Bad was certainly great entertainment, it just wasn’t great art the way a Coca Cola commercial turned out to be.