The end arrived right on time this past May 17th when Mad Men, far and away my favorite show of the past decade, concluded its 8-year run with a finale that tied up many loose ends in a satisfying fashion, but didn't tie up everything in a neat, little bow. The endings for Joan, Peggy, Pete and Roger felt right immediately. But the summation of the main character caused me some consternation.
Initially, I was very disappointed in how they wrapped up Don Draper's arc. However, as I ruminated on it and kept the finale "encores" running in the background (They were already on the third encore by the time I hit the hay.), I decided that Don's send-off was apropos. It may have been incredibly cynical, but it was in keeping with the character and, by extension, the American Dream.
Then I thought about it some more the next day and reclaimed some of my initial disappointment. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Allow me to recount the tale.
Don is drifting aimlessly west across the U.S.A., presumably to fulfill his Manifest Destiny. He winds up at his "niece"'s house in California. (For the uninitiated, "niece" is in quotes, because, technically, she's the niece of the real Don Draper. Come to think of it, a lot of Dick Whitman's life could be in quotes. If you're wondering who Dick Whitman is, you probably shouldn't be reading this.)
Like all of Don's favorite ladies, his niece is troubled, which prompts their trip to what appears to be the Esalen Institute at Big Sur. (I only know that because I read Molly Lambert's review of the episode on Grantland.) By sheer serendipity, he stumbles onto the perfect focus group. Now that the mainstream has been discredited, admen no longer have to trick people into spilling their guts. The people will come to them, dying to unburden themselves, even willing to pay for the privilege.
It's in this setting that Don can finally identify with his audience, the man smack dab in the middle of his target demo. He's ready to receive the revelation: He and the Customer are One. By breaking down his own psychological barriers, he has tapped into the Collective Unconscious. He crosses the gulf between him and his audience and embraces his consumer doppelgänger, commingling their tears.
Next, we see Don greeting the sun alone on the cliffs. Then he's in a meditation class on those same cliffs, fully engaged in the group's "om"'s. His face blossoms into a serene smile. He's cured, right? Not so fast, my friend. Instead of fading to black, we cut to Coke's iconic "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke" ad from 1971, made by (wait for it) the REAL McCann-Erickson!
Some people actually thought Mad Men might go out on that Coke ad, but I wish I'd seen it coming. It would've made Don's über-cliché emotional breakthrough much less annoying. In hindsight, the hackneyed voyage of self-discovery makes sense, but in the moment it rings horribly false. So false, in fact, that I could hardly believe my eyes.
I feel like I'm making excuses for the show by offering up this retrospective argument in support of Don's cornier-than-Iowa quantum leap of self-actualization. I'm sure I'm not the only fan of the show who scrambled for ways to justify the detour into Schlockville. In reality, they choked in crunch time, but their failure is so shocking, I can't help but rationalize it. It's as if Michael Jordan had air-balled his last shot as a Chicago Bull, the iconic '98 title-clincher in Salt Lake City.
The other source of my disappointment is much easier to explain away. It seems a terrible waste for Don to use his newfound
serenity to dream up another ad campaign, no matter how sublimely
successful and influential it might've been. But he is the American
Dream, and he's only just reached the dawn of the Me Decade. He has a
long way to go before he gets to Malaise, Morning in America, the Peace Dividend, the War on Terror and the Great Recession.
Throughout the show's run, Don kept lurching toward the conventional kind of enlightenment, away from the hollow promises of fame and fortune. But, like an addict, he kept relapsing to the creature comforts of big bucks, booze and booty. It reminds me of something Krusty the Clown once said: "It ain't comedy that's in my blood. It's selling out." Don has achieved enlightenment, but it's not the kind Esalen is
selling. Instead of becoming One with the Universe, he's become One with
the Customer. He's graduated from High Priest of Capitalism to
I couldn't have been the only viewer wondering: Why would he waste his otherworldly talents on hocking Coke? But the answer is simple: That's what his talents are best suited for. That's the industry that most richly rewards his abilities. That's where he can go furthest up the corporate ladder. He will continue to milk the cash cow for as long as he can, as if he's trying to get back at America for his shitty childhood. But the American Dream remains his psychological bedrock. His love-hate relationship with America is one of the show's main themes.
I wanted Don to be my fictional proxy, abandoning the morally bankrupt corporate world for spiritually fulfilling pursuits. But that's not who Don is. Like Peggy, Joan, Pete and Roger, he's a corporate animal. The real concern is that this "revelation" could hurt Jon Hamm's commercial voice-over career. To what extent will Draper's shallowness tarnish the actor's image? Can he remain an effective pitchman now that we know his signature character's motives are no nobler, deeper or more altruistic than any adman's?
I think we Americans prefer the pretense of authenticity over the admission of ulterior motives, although Don never has to feign his belief in the American Dream. Much as he (and we) would like to think that he's smarter than the consumers he panders to, Don Draper is at least as convinced of the power of material possessions as any red-blooded American. (If he's still alive, I'm sure he was first in line for the Apple Watch.) That's part of what makes him great at his job.
Of course, these days, it's not enough to be great at your job. As the economy picks up speed on its descent from the heights of the 60's, we're forced to find more meaning in other endeavors. Mad Men has a lot to say about contemporary life, but its characters aren't far enough along on the arc of American history to abandon the system that has since failed us. That's a leap we'll have to make on our own.