Let us begin with that smile. Let us begin with the ringing of a bell. Let us begin with the word, OM, which contains all wisdom, and with which all things began. "I am only one," the Brahman thought. "May I become many." The thought became a vibration, and the vibration became a sound, and the sound was OM, and all of creation was set in motion by its sounding.
Let us begin with Dick Whitman, the one who became many, changing, from "person to person," until he found the right one. Let us begin with Donald Draper, the creative director, the director of creation, the lover of silence for whom total emptiness was always just the greatest of opportunities. "Just think about it, deeply, and then forget it," he told Peggy, when he handed her her first solo account. "An idea will jump up in your face." In the beginning was the forgetting, and then the silence, and then the idea, and then the world was filled with song.
Let us begin with the song, which does not begin—as many of us remember it—with buying the world a Coke or teaching the world to sing. "I'd like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love," the song begins. So let us begin with the concept of home: the place where we ache to go again, the place where we know we are loved.
Let us begin, then, with the end. For, sometimes, the longest way round is the shortest way home.
The first question we must ask is the obvious one: did Don's entire seven-year spiritual exodus really end with his return to New York to author the iconic advertisement of the 1970s?
And my answer is this: you bet your ass it did. And it was perfect.
It is ambiguous, and it is meant to be ambiguous. If you are the sort of person who believes that people can really change, you can go on picturing Don—or Dick—forever sitting on an idyllic hillside overlooking the Pacific, chanting his mantra on the path to spiritual enlightenment. You are welcome to leave him there, in the Promised Land of California, having traded the world of endless ambition and constant reinvention for the calm that comes with true inner peace. Inner peace is what Don has never had, and, if you think he finally found it, I don't want to persuade you differently. Your show, your journey with Mad Men, ended happily.
But so did mine: that's mostly what I do want to argue. Running late with my post, I have been careful to avoid all of the three million recaps, reviews, and think-pieces that have been written about the series finale of Mad Men—and you have no idea how hard that has been—until I could write my own. But I have seen the debate framed on Twitter—in good-natured arguments between critics—as a choice between idealism and cynicism.
And I understand that perspective: you can call me a cynic, if you must. The most cynical view of how Mad Men ended was prophetically summarized back in 2012, by Ben Kessler at CityArts, as the show's fifth season was getting underway. "The new season of Mad Men could justify the series’ existence," Kessler wrote, "if it were to honestly depict how Madison Avenue co-opted the signs and symbols of ’60s counterculture, thereby helping to define the decade for posterity." If we want to take the darkest view, that's exactly how Mad Men ended: with everything the country (and these characters) had gone through in the 1960s being appropriated by corporations and turned into just another pitch to sell soft drinks.
I'm not quite that cynical, in part because the show was never really about the counterculture. This was never a show about hippies who ended up compromising their ideals and selling out to crass commercialism. It was always about the crass commercialists, who—in the idealism department—had nowhere to go but up. (The very first episode, remember, centered around the question of how to keep selling cigarettes to people once the tobacco industry could not longer pretend they were healthy.) To the extent that Mad Men was ever about the spirit of the '60s—as it has been "defined for posterity"—it was only through the most subtle and gradual of trickle-down effects. That was, in fact, a frequent criticism of the show: that it only dealt with the major social movements of the period tangentially, viewed through the disinterested eyes of a lot of square white people. The "revolutionary" history of the 1960s in America, as we think of it, was always something that seemed to be happening somewhere else on Mad Men: it trickled in through rumors, through snippets of newscasts, through voices that didn't quite carry all the way up to the sealed skyscraper windows of Madison Avenue.
Last week I talked about Betty as a character incapable of—or at least uninterested in—change: she represented a vision of America that America refused to surrender. But Don—for all his reinventions of himself—never really changed either. He moved, mostly through his relationships with women, through various sub-cultures of the '60s: from Betty's suburban idyll he briefly dallied with (among others) Midge's Beatnik crowd, Joy's jetsetting Bohemians, Megan's swinging-sixties friends, and finally the folks at Stephanie's T-group and yoga retreat.
But Don himself was always out-of-place at these things. (As he is in the encounter group: when a woman is asked to physically express how he makes her feel, she does not hug him, or caress him, but shoves him roughly away: he doesn't belong.) He was the ad-man who tried to get stoned and listen to Miles with Midge's friends, only to end up lecturing them to make something of themselves. ("You make the lie," Midge's lover Roy told him. "You invent want. You're for them, not for us.") He was the guy who went to the Rolling Stones concert in his suit and tie—"I have to make sure I look like the Man"—and spent it backstage trying to get into the head of a fifteen-year-old fan in an impromptu bit of market research. He was the guy who found the swinging party Megan threw for him just embarrassing and exhausting. ("Fine, I'm 40," he told her afterwards. "It's too late.") While most of the other characters have gone through various transformations of appearance and fashion, Don has never surrendered his suit and tie, or grown so much as a mustache. (Jon Hamm is 10 years older now, but, otherwise, Don more or less looks exactly as he did in the pilot.) He went through the '60s observing, processing, absorbing, but never really changing.
Don Draper never went through any transformations, because "Don Draper" was the transformation: he was the character that Dick Whitman decided he wanted to be back in the 1950s, because that was what he imagined happiness to look like. Born illegitimate, raised in rural squalor among drunks and whores, he must have imagined that the Manhattan executive with a house in the suburbs—or a penthouse in the city—was the personification of American respectability and success.
But it was never really about respectability and success for their own sakes. (Money never made him happy; in fact, the more he made, the less happy he seemed to become.) That's because the key characteristic of little Dick Whitman—the thing he has been running from all his life—was that he was unwanted and unloved. And so he became someone he thought would deserve to be loved: he became the person American culture told him he should be. And he did it brilliantly—becoming the man atop the wedding cake—yet he could never really be happy. Because he knew, deep down, that he wasn't that person: he was convincing everyone but himself, and so he was always pitched precariously atop the catastrophe of his personality, running one step ahead of being found out. He was loved and admired, but it could never really satisfy and it could never really stick.
"I was surprised you ever loved me," he told Betty, when she ended their marriage. "You're right," he said to Megan, when she ended their marriage by calling him "a selfish, sloppy, aging liar." Between marriages, in Season Four, he was paying women to slap him, because that's what he thought he deserved. Last week, his visit to the American Legion was fraught with the danger that his real self would be found out; it wasn't—not literally—but when he found himself being beaten and accused of being a fraud anyway he accepted the verdict as justice for his sins. ("You knew we'd catch up with you eventually," the cop said, in the dream sequence that started that episode.)
So the conundrum of his life was that he always wanted to be loved, but—because the person he was was an act—he could never really trust the love he was offered. ("What you call love was invented by guys like me," he said in the pilot. "To sell nylons.") Like advertising itself, his life was about manufacturing want, selling the image, not the reality. And, just like with advertising, it never ends: you have to keep changing the conversation, and every moment of happiness is just a moment before you need more happiness. “People tell you who they are," Don narrated in Season Four's "The Summer Man." "But we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.” Don is the guy who knows that; he feels like he has been telling everyone who he really is, but they've always seen the person they wanted to see, and that meant he could never trust their love.
Anna Draper was the exception: the one person who knew all along exactly who he was, and loved him anyway. And so it's not a surprise that his quest ends up in California, on the doorstep of Anna's niece, Stephanie (Caity Lotz). The news of Betty's impending death has hit him hard: it is genuine grief—the phone call between them is incredibly touching and sincere—but it is also a reminder of the home that he never quite managed to make. "I want to keep things as normal as possible," Betty says. "And you not being here is part of that." Normal is Don not being there: normal is his children living with other people. So now—as he put it in the first great pitch, the one that has become the Rosetta Stone of Don Draper—California has become the place where he aches to go again, to a place where he knows he is loved. Now, stripped of everything—including the identity he so carefully forged—he goes to the only person he has left he is sure is family.
But Stephanie is not Anna: he delivers himself broken to her doorstep—as he used to do with Anna—but Stephanie is broken herself: she sees him not as a brother or a lover but as another failed father figure. (At first she thinks her parents sent him, to judge her and to help control her life. Later, during the T-group at which he is present, she says she "like everyone's judging me…Like I'm a little girl, and like my parents are looking at me…Like all I do is screw up.") She is kind, and so she takes him with her, but she does not really know him, not the way her aunt did, not the way he longs to be known. He wants to reinvent himself again for her, to become someone who can be loved again. ("I can help you," he offers. "I can move to LA.") But she, too, rejects him. "You're not my family," she says. "What's the matter with you?" And she rejects the principle on which he has based his life: that people can just keep putting past failures out of mind and move on to the next opportunity for happiness. "You can put this behind you," he says, of her abandoned child. He has given variations of this speech before, espousing his theory of perpetual reinvention. It worked with Peggy, when she gave up her child. ("It will shock you how much it never happened," he told her.) But it didn't work with his brother Adam, when Don tried to stake him to a new life; it didn't work with Lane, when Don told him that "the next thing will be better, because it always is." Not everyone has Don's gift for reinvention, for forgetting, and Stephanie doesn't have it. "It will get easier as you move forward," he tells her. "No, Dick, I don't think you're right about that," she replies, and it is the last thing she ever says to him.
Because it doesn't really work: if Don's life proves anything, it proves that. We can move from person to person, we can change from person to person, but the people we have been stay with us. Don never stopped being Dick Whitman inside, Dick the unwanted, Dick the unloved, Dick the undeserving of love. Stephanie's rejection is the final blow, the final confirmation that he is Dick, not Don, inside. He can't express how this feels—he can't take the empty chair in the T-group—but he can relate to a man named Leonard (Evan Arnold) when he does.
"I've never been interesting to anybody. I work in an office, people walk right by me. I know they don't see me. And I go home, and I watch my wife and my kids, and they don't look up when I sit down…It's like no one cares that I'm gone. They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but I don't even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you're not getting it, that people aren't giving it to you. Then you realize they're trying, and you don't even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door, and the light goes off, and I know everybody's out there eating. Then they open the door, and you see them smiling, and they're happy to see you. But maybe they don't look right at you, and maybe they don't pick you. Then the door closes again, the light goes off."
On the surface, Leonard and Don could not be more different. Don Draper is not a man no one notices. But Dick Whitman is very much that man, who has spent his whole life unseen, thinking he is unloved, and unable to feel—or even understand—the love he is given.
We'll come back to Leonard's speech in a minute, but first we should acknowledge that it is not the only thing that brings Don closer to peace. The other—arguably more important—thing is the phone call with Peggy. Mad Men has always felt, to most of us, like an unconventional love story between Don and Peggy, and so it is appropriate and necessary that they get their final exchange. He calls to say goodbye. He calls just to hear her voice. "I messed everything up," he confesses to her, because she may be the only person to whom he can confess that. "I'm not the man you think I am." When she asks him what he ever did that was so bad, he summarizes his sins in an efficient sentence. "I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man's name and made nothing of it." ("That's not true," she says, and she can say this, in part, because he made her: he changed her life.)
The most important thing she says to him—though it takes a while to resonate—is the thing he most needs and longs to hear. "I know you get sick of things, and you run, but you can come home," she says. "Don, come home." Home: it is, at his deepest level, all he has ever really wanted. It is the place that is—as Rachel Menken said long ago of "utopia"—both the good place and the place that cannot be. It is the place we ache to return to, the place where we know we are loved. Perhaps, like love, it is an invention, a concept used to sell products. ("Jesus, love again?" Don said skeptically, of a pitch earlier this season. "We use it all the time." And how many pitches—from that famous Kodak speech all the way to Peggy's Burger Chef concept in this season's "Waterloo"—centered on the promise of home?)
But this is where I think Don—and Mad Men—are ultimately much less cynical than we ever suspected. Just because something is a pitch doesn't mean it's not real. Don sold the concept of "home" to land the Kodak Carousel, but the photos he used were his own, and so were the emotions. This is the other thing Leonard's speech does that resonates with Don: it equates being a person with being a product. Leonard is the item on the shelf in the refrigerator, the one that is not chosen. That's how Dick Whitman felt as well, and desperately trying to make people want the unwanted product is what he has been doing all his life. That's what love looks like to Don, and—as in all the best campaigns—the pitch is based on something real, something genuine, something that forms a deeper bond with the product. Advertising for Don was always about truth: it was never insincere.
And this is why I maintain that Mad Men ends not cynically, but—within its milieu—on the happiest and most idealistic of notes. "Don't you want to work on Coke?" Peggy asks Don, as she tries to talk him off the ledge. Of course he does: Coke is iconic, Coke is fundamental, Coke is universal. As Don once said of the Hershey Bar, "its relationship with America is so overwhelmingly positive that everyone here has their own story to tell." Coke, like a Hershey Bar, is "the currency of affection."
But that Hershey Bar pitch—or, rather, non-pitch—from the Season Six finale is important. It is the moment Don opened up in total honesty about who he was—this was Dick Whitman speaking, not Donald Draper—and it came about through a genuine and sincere emotional connection to a product.
"I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a whore house. I read about Milton Hershey and his school…and I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it, I dreamt of it. Of being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me looked at me every day like she hoped I would disappear. The closest I got to feeling wanted was from a girl who made me go through her john's pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she'd buy me a Hershey Bar. And I would eat it, alone in my room, with great ceremony, feeling like a normal kid. It said "sweet" on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life…If I had my way, you would never advertise. You shouldn't have someone like me telling that boy what a Hershey Bar is: he already knows."
There is not an ounce of cynicism in that speech. There is no irony, no commercialism, no disconnect between the longing for belonging and the item on the shelf. The Hershey Bar really is love, to him. It really is home.
And so I do not see the ending of Mad Men as cynical either. Perhaps, if Don had his way, Coca-Cola would never advertise either—but that ad isn't really about Coke, is it? That is part of its genius: it is—like it's early predecessor, the Martinson's Coffee ad in Season Two—"a song, and a mood, and a feeling."
I'd like to buy the world a home, and furnish it with love.
Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves.
I'd like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.
I'd like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company.
That's the real thing, what the world wants today…
The mood is the mood of the age, a hope for what America can be, presented with neither irony nor cynicism. The feelings are real, and they are Don's feelings, his longing for connection, his desire for peace, his need to go home to a place where he knows he is loved. It is the perfect bridge between the conflicted sides of idealism and commercialism that have always been part of Mad Men's theme. It perfectly captures the marriage of sincerity and manipulation that is at the heart of advertising, and the synchronicity of truth and falsehood that is at the heart of Donald Draper. It is a lie, but it is also achingly real.
And, as evoking these images is an efficient narrative device to tell us that Don went back, triumphantly, to Madison Avenue, it is the perfect completion of his arc. I am hesitant to call it a final decision, because the wheel never stops turning, and every moment of happiness is just a moment before you need more happiness. (As the meditation leader here says, each new day brings new hope: the lives we've led, and the lives we get to lead. The new day brings "new ideas, a new you.") But it is a conscious decision about who he really is: Don stripped himself bare of his illusions and disguises, only to find he really was the person he had been pretending to be all along.
His name is Donald Draper. And he is going, at long last, home.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Running seriously behind this week, I chose to focus solely on Don, but Joan, Peggy, and Roger all get settled into new lives as well as Mad Men comes to a close. The closure for Joan was particularly satisfying, after the hell she has taken throughout this series. (In the final season, Ta-Nehisi Coates took to referring to Joan on Twitter as "the white Precious.") But Joan finally figured out what she really was, after years of titles—secretary, office manager, etc.—that never did her particular skill-set justice: Joan is a producer, and she needs no one but herself. (I love the way the "two names" she needs for a company brand are both her own, Holloway Harris, honoring her entire journey.)
- I was less enamored of how Matthew Weiner felt the need to suddenly pair Peggy off with Stan: it wasn't bad, but it was unnecessary, as Peggy's arc was never about romance. I am more than satisfied with that extraordinary shot of her walking into the office in "Lost Horizon" as my last vision of Peggy Olson.
- As for Roger and Marie? I give it six months.
- I was wrong in my prediction that Betty would be dead when this episode opened: she's still hanging in there, though—relevant to our discussion last week about the cruciality of her self-image—the absence of make-up for the first time ever is an indication of how she has begun to slip away. And I had expected Sally to play a larger role in the finale, but her brief scenes here confirm that she has ascended once and for all. "Sally, grownups make these decisions," her father tries to tell her, but Sally is the grownup now: "Let me finish," she snaps. "I've thought about this more than you have."
- Final posts on a beloved series are a mixed blessing, and a special form of stress: they are driven by a desire for closure, but plagued by a hesitation to oversimplify in the quest for summation. Which is to say, I both stand by what I've said here and recognize that it is all much richer and more complicated than I've made it sound: I have, I suspect, erred on the side of closure here. Which is to say, further, that I truly believe Mad Men is one of the great works of television art, and—like all great works of art—it is something we can keep returning to and interpreting forever, finding new things to say each time. It's only now that it's over that we can really see it as a whole, and I look forward to revisiting it soon, and for a long time to come.
- Thanks for reading.
Read all my Mad Men posts here.