Don Draper Did Not Die For Your Sins

Instead, he achieved enlightenment, powered by California and Coca-Cola.

I admit it, I was looking for him to jump.

That last look over a cliff before we found Don posed like the Buddha, “ohm”-ing his way to imagining the most iconic ad for the most iconic American product ever created–I wondered.  The many, many references to windows and jumping through the series–none more memorable than the weekly opening credits. Everyone from a mad Ginsberg to a despondent Pete seemed to cast a long, longing look to the sidewalks below.  Sure, there was just enough ambiguity to make you wonder if Don actually makes the pitch or if Matthew Weiner is just playing with us, but count me as one who’s counting all of the Easter eggs that point to Don heading back to New York to “fix the Coca-Cola Machine.”

I know the Twitterverse is fiercely debating whether or not this was a fitting final episode, but I have to admit, I really liked it.  It Sure, a lot of the “where will everybody end up” questions came together a little too nicely, but there were some great, very fitting moments.  I loved the glimpse of Sally and Bobby’s future over a burned attempt at dinner.  I laughed aloud at Peggy’s awkward response to Stan’s declaration at love: contrived as it seemed, the awkwardness saved it.  Joan negotiating relationships, work, and independence was downright heroic.  But of all of the scenes. the sad, awful, angry, tender phone call between Don and Betty had the most power.  Though as fine as these moments were, this wasn’t epic. Just as there was no swan dive, there was no swan song.  No real downward spiral, no final crescendo.  I agree with Joyce Carol Oates that it is nowhere near the best episode, although a good bit less begrudgingly than she, I’m willing to admit that I’m okay with that.

Mainly because I think the lack of crescendo, the lack of final revelation, and the lack of personal transformation is the whole point.  Despite the fact that its characters are often burrowing toward darkness, there’s nothing electrically apocalyptic about Mad Men (after all, it’s a period piece that reminds us that the future toward which it is driving is US!). Instead, there’s an overriding assertion that “Everybody’s going to be okay, even when they’re not” throughout the Mad Men universe, and the reminder that this assertion is a lie is more likely to come via small prickly epiphanies rather than grand gestures, though these little damnations are just as harsh and painful as the big ones.  Even though the power of Draper’s consistent, expertly crafted cool is most memorably undone by a chocolate bar meltdown, it is a long litany of sins and hurt, listed for Peggy in this final episode, that has been chipping away at his armor. But, because this is Mad Men, even this undoing and healing doesn’t lead to transformation.  We’re left with a smirk and a glimpse both forward (for Don), and backward (for nostalgic us) to his career crescendo.  Maybe.

But that’s fitting.  This isn’t a world where justice reigns, where heroes win, or where chivalry wins out.  The world where people “believe in something” is as much a lie as the world where everything is going to be okay, as Don reminds and is reminded.  Realpolitik, strategic machinations, creativity put to the service of ambition and survival, a dissolving of the barrier between fiction and lie.

And that, among the great storytelling and tremendous characters, is what I loved about this show.  It wasn’t just moral ambiguity that we fell into with Mad Men.  No, that was what made Breaking Bad great: reveling in an antihero.  What Draper and the gang gave us wasn’t moral ambiguity, it was a complete massacre of a narrative about the 20th Century–there was once moral clarity, and then the sixties happened, and then everyone, mixed up by rebellion and liberation, fell into disillusionment, decay, and confusion.  Nope.  There was decay from the beginning.

A leap into oblivion would have betrayed that terrific deconstructive direction.  Instead, we’re left with a man who has spent the years we’ve watched honing the art of survival, one part con man, one part poet.  Perhaps critic Allan Sepiwall gets at what I’m trying to articulate in a better way:

If Don really traversed this great land of ours, threw away all the trappings of Don Draper-hood, learned of Betty’s impending death and the shaky future of their three children, and finally heard someone articulate his own deepest feelings of unlovability, and he came out the other side having only acquired the inspiration needed to buy his way back into McCann and write that Coke ad — and cutting straight from the look of pure bliss on Don’s face to the ad, without giving us hints of anything else he might do upon returning to New York, suggests that this is the only thing that ultimately matters to him — then that is a very cynical and dark take on a man I wanted better from.

But it also seems like an honest take on who that man actually was, and what “Mad Men” has been about.

Your nostalgia, your sentimentality, even your hope that the world can sing in perfect harmony–manufactured.  And while perhaps our expectation is that in enlightenment, we will see the wounded, desperate Dick Whitman who seems to return when he hugs it out with the even more desperate, unnoticed man, we instead get what we’ve always paid for.

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