Mad Men (2007 – 2015) TV Retrospective

Mad Men’s anti-hero Don Draper finds some peace at the end of a tumultuous seven season run. His story was a touching ode to the ‘60s, but as the decade of love gave way to the realities of the ‘70s, Draper found his answers less in the future, and more in the nostalgic safety of the past.

John Hamm as Don Draper, and Elizabeth Moss as Peggy Olson.

There was a distinct sense of cynicism in AMC’s Mad Men, a TV drama series that told stories of ad men (and women) working on Madison Avenue. The story spanned the ‘60s, and its bohemian output, and ended in the early days of the ‘70s.

At the close of the story, Don Draper found some solace, but just like in real life, things didn’t quite work out as intended. For Don, the world that he inhabited was one of his own making, and it came along with some bitter truths – loneliness, atomization, and the realization that the dreams he had strived for were never his to begin with.

Show runner Matthew Weiner provided audiences with a well-rounded ending, and for a series that was well loved he found a fitting, if gentle, manner to ease its passing. In effect the final episode was almost a stand alone moment, one that deftly placed all of the shows main characters in careful poses, and ones that they will now remain in forever.

Roger found companionship, and as he entered his twilight years, he retired gracefully from his New York home, and found his way to Paris with Marie. Peggy and Stan fell in love, and Peggy rejected an exciting job offer from Joan, accepting her lot at McCann Erickson. Joan gave up on her fledging relationship, and its coked up potential, and started her own business. And Pete bought into the narrative of wealth, family, and success once more, but this time it seemed like he had learned from his mistakes, as he attempted to change his life for the better.

When you lay it out like that it seems so simple. Everyone ended up where they were supposed to be, the aimless drifting that the characters experienced, the lack of a future, and the threat of obscurity and meaninglessness, evaporated just like that. It’s almost too easy, it seems like everyone got off too lightly. But it’s not like the characters were inherently bad, and they certainly didn’t lead dangerous or exciting lives. Instead they were people, and people seldom change.

Don’s Search for Meaning

Don Draper (Jon Hamm) - Mad Men _ Season 6, Episode 9 _ 'The Better Half' - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Weiner’s finale is quiet and focused, and it allows most of the characters to find fulfilling lives. Or at least, right at the end, they all realize that they have to settle in some form, that they have to accept where they are, and the choices that led them there. Don however is a man apart, and his unhappiness and boredom saw him destroy everything that he had in order to find something new. In effect the world of advertising, and its inherent promise of novelty, and of better things, was a myth that he bought into. For him it led to the bottom of a bottle, it led him across the USA, and it left him alone, fractured, and full of self doubt.

“Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” Don Draper

However the finale wasn’t quite as definitive as Mad Men’s penultimate episode. There was something darker, more subversive, and more exciting about the events that it contained. There was the triumphant moment when Peggy walked into her new office, Cooper’s picture under her arm, and a cigarette hanging from her red lips. She became herself, more than ever before, in that moment. Her upwards narrative trajectory however was in marked contrast to Don’s. His was a story of loss, and he dropped all pretense, and let go of his game trappings. The idea of who Don Draper is fell away as he left behind his possessions, and attempted to find some sort of core meaning, some sort of semblance of self.

Don Draper’s journey in the penultimate episode of Mad Men was one where he discarded everything that made him the Madison Avenue advertising executive. Without the suit and the fast car, Don became a drifter, a man moving forwards because he had nothing to tie him to the present, or any specific place to call home. His experiences and his loss of ego are reminiscent of Richard Alpert’s discussion on LSD, and its effect on the free market system. Draper’s journey is linked to that of ego loss, transcendence, and finding something intrinsically human, something that is true. This manifests at the point where he hugs the man in the therapy session, and right at the end of the finale when Don breathes out Om, the sound of knowledge, and of enlightenment.

Televised Dreaming

There’s been something dream like about the entire seventh season of Mad Men. Perhaps this was meant to symbolize Don’s perspective as he lost touch with reality, but it also served as a fitting sort of prolepsis. Psychologically, Don was rejecting the values of wealth, a good job, and a life of opulence, but the last two episodes saw him truly abandon those ideals in a tangible way. He went back to a time before Don Draper, a time when the world was simple, and everything was easy. Arguably, Don’s journey was child like and naïve, and it took the phone call from Sally to reintroduce him to adult life. It was the voice of a woman, once his little girl, now grown up and taking on the responsibilities of adulthood that reminded Don of how removed he was.

Draper then became a man without a job, a place in society, or even a name. In the penultimate episode he found a lack of power and respect, and without his ‘game’ trappings, Don became no one. This is seen perhaps most clearly in the way that he interacts with the young man at the motel. Don gets angry with him because the young man doesn’t realize his potential, he isn’t aware that life has yet to define him. Don informs him that his decisions now will shape the rest of his life, but his advice is really for himself. Life has passed Draper by, and the actions, the striving, and the failing, are all ultimately meaningless. Don’s half way through his existence, and he has spent most of his time as someone else.

“People tell you who they are, but we ignore it because we want them to be who we want them to be.”

Don Draper was always a man in transition. By the end of the penultimate episode it’s almost impossible to reconcile who he has become, with the man who took the commuter train into the city in season one. The white picket fences, the home in the suburbs, and the nuclear family are gone; Don Draper is atomized, alone, and far from any sort of meaningful connection. It’s a different reality, it’s a different world, and it’s not necessarily a better one.

A Changing World

The seventh season of Mad Men wasn’t uplifting. Its thematic backdrop involved apathy, malaise, and people seeing through

January Jones as Betty Draper.
January Jones as Betty Draper.

the constructed reality that they had invested so heavily in. What emerged at the end of the penultimate episode was a lonely world full of unfulfilled people. Joan lost her job, the one that she had effectively prostituted herself to get, and her world was turned upside down by sexism and gendered language.

The liberal experiment of SCDP (metaphorically the influence of the sixties), helmed by Roger, Don, and Cooper was stripped, and sold for parts. In essence the world reverted back to type but the capitulation of new world values left some casualties. Don gave up, Roger and Peggy got drunk in the remnants of their office, and Joan ‘retired.’ Sadness didn’t miss Sally out either, her mother was diagnosed with cancer, and a childhood friend was on his way to fight in Vietnam. Her step father was on the verge of a mental breakdown, and her dad was long gone.

Things worked out best for Don. He was able to opt out, drive off into the sunset, and leave all of his obligations in the past. A lesser story would have left him there, a white anti-hero who has paid off his ex wife, and made a clean break in a fancy car. Don got to choose to be no one, but Wiener deftly reminds audiences that you can’t escape from the choices you’ve made – something that Don says to the kid at the motel, just before he gifts him his car.

Don Draper’s Blank Canvas

Although Don became harder to define there are still some labels that can be applied. He was an alcoholic, a sex addict, and a man desperately seeking a connection, but who he was really, is left open to interpretation. Don has no idea either and in this aimless purgatory of sorts Weiner’s perspective on the advertising world is revealed. The money, the late night trysts, and the stories spun by those paid to sell products lack heart, they’re empty, and everyone knows just how meaningless it all is.

Everything is designed to be sold, everything is made for profit, and the sad truth is that even Don Draper is viewed as a catch. His new boss at McCann describes him as his “white whale.” Nothing is above a dollar value and after it all it becomes clear that Don is a commodity, just like Lucky Strike, and just like Coke.

The final episode however has less to do with advertising, and more to do with the characters and their lives. Like we’ve already discussed things end on a high note for most of the characters involved. Don has a harder time however and his spiritual journey takes some darker turns before it gets better. There’s a sense of the internal conflict between Dick and Don, and it all ends on a hippie retreat, a place in California where broken people go to get fixed. Don arrives there with cynicism but he eventually buys into the world of peace and love sold by new age therapists.

Everything is a commodity, even the idea of therapy, even the idea of happiness – and there’s always someone selling something. The finale of Mad Men explores the idea that the excitement and potential of the ‘60s was never anything more than a clever advertising campaign. It was the product of savvy people like Don, who could read audiences and feed them exactly what they wanted. Weiner’s advertising opus owes a lot to the book ‘The Conquest of Cool. It’s worth reading to see just how exploitative, and constructed reality is when it’s portrayed through advertisements.

Bring out your Dead

Perhaps though, the easiest way to discuss the ending to Mad Men is through another mass media tract, Withnail and I. Bruce Robinson’s film ends on a similar sort of note with one of the characters bemoaning the end of the greatest decade the world has ever seen. “They’re selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man.”

The Coca Cola advert that plays out Mad Men’s finale reflects a culture that cashes in, that sells out whatever it can if it can make a profit. The prevailing new age philosophy of the ‘60s was already one that borrowed from eastern cultures, but it took advertising executives to shape it into a palatable advert, and one that promoted perhaps the biggest symbol of late capitalism – Coca Cola. Mad Men provided us with a constructed reality and it reflected the real world of ad executives and their ability to spin tall tales, and shape our collective perspectives.

Don Draper was not only a product of that time, but he was also a figment, a man who was never truly real, and one that belonged to the past, dreamed up in a present filled with suburban promises, and home made apple pies. That reality quickly became a lie and it took years for Don to shake off the family man shackles and find out who he truly was, without the trappings of his time.

The truth of nostalgia is that it tells us we’re missing something, some aspects of our present lives are lacking. But in our desire to escape the present, rebel, and not be like those who have come before us we can lose out on some important life lessons. Not everything old is bad, and not everything new is good either. In Don’s rush to escape the trap of suburbia he failed to understand the reason why it was a dream in the first place. The desire for family, for a connection, for meaning – Don didn’t realize what he had until it was gone.

Happiness? Three Bucks a Hit

Don and Betty's nuclear family.
Don and Betty’s nuclear family.

But once more a truth emerges – you can’t buy happiness. Hunter S Thompson, in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas decried the idea that you could buy “…peace and understanding for three bucks a hit.” It was a fantasy, and no amount of drugs or money would ever make it real. Don chanting Om (like that brave Brahmin Siddhartha before him) probably won’t lead to enlightenment, but it might provide him with some peace.

Don Draper was a beautiful lie. Throughout the last season of Mad Men that narrative was exposed, and the way that other people saw Don became more important than the way he saw himself. No one was buying what he was selling anymore. Don thought he was smart, and intelligent, but really he just looked good in a suit. He was a fabrication, he was distanced from every relationship he had, and his skill at telling stories left him convinced that he was someone he was not.

Don created an entire life but found nothing meaningful in the process. He ended up being sold a new age philosophy, he was washed up, in a lie that he created, but he bought into a new reality that was pitched convincingly. Don’s small moment of happiness at the end of it all is a smile. His moment of clarity however doesn’t provide us with anything concrete, we don’t know what he’s thinking.

The Ending is a New Beginning

The ending of Mad Men is certainly not the end of Don Draper’s story. We don’t know anything about this man, and in essence it’s a narrative told in reverse. Everything that made Don, Don, is stripped away and what we’re left with is a good-looking man with a smile on his face. Weiner, with the sound of a bell ringing, cuts to a Coca Cola advert – the suggestion being that Don was the man who dreamed up the idea.

Weiner allows us to attribute values and meanings to Don Draper. He places Don at the very edge of his world, at a metaphorical crossroads, and lets us decide. But the more that you consider the ending the more sombre and empty it becomes. After seven seasons we discover that we never knew Don, and after all of the striving, the attempts to find adventure and disruption, Don has nothing but a smile. He’s not even a suit; he’s just a man buying into a religious, spiritual moment.

If you accept Weiner’s implied ending that Don returns to New York with a shiny and exciting concept for a Coke advert then you buy into the myth of Don Draper once again. That’s not a bad thing, in fact it makes sense, but after everything that has happened is that the man you want to be left with? He’s a person who commodified himself and found dollar signs where Siddhartha found enlightenment. Perhaps it’s better to leave him deconstructed, smiling on a cliff top, stripped of everything, and full of potential once again.

Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Mad Men - Season 6 - Gallery - Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC
Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and Don Draper (Jon Hamm) Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

“What’s happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.”

Don Draper

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