For a show in which not much seems to happen, Mad Men is surprisingly satisfying. Much of pop culture is the opposite; full of explosions and car chases and bright lights and distraction, signifying nothing. In a fast world built on short attention spans, Mad Men slows things down. Let the kids have their Walking Deads and Daredevils and Marvel blockbusters – Mad Men has always been a defiantly adult affair.
Big “WTF” moments, such as Lane Pryce hanging himself at work, are few and far between. Mad Men is a show built on small moments, such as Don Draper learning in childhood via a hobo that his foster father is not a good man, or Don oversharing about that childhood in a disastrous meeting with Hershey executives. Moments which would easily fail the “Who gives a shit?” test if described to someone who had never seen Mad Men, but which in the context of the show resonate because of our deep investment in the inner lives of the characters.
For all its spectacular retro sheen and chosen milieu – the glossy, superficial world of advertising – Mad Men is a remarkably introspective show, with the perpetually brooding Don Draper at its centre. Thanks to Jon Hamm’s quietly powerful performance, Draper elicits sympathy rather than disdain for the rich white guy who has it all but can never seem to get it together.
One of the best examples of Mad Men’s introspectiveness is season five’s glorious finale: in a montage set to the lush strains of “You Only Live Twice”, we see Peggy Olsen alone in a motel room, celebrating with a glass of wine; Pete Campbell alone on a couch with headphones, having just endured the double whammy of a broken marriage and a punch to the face; Roger Sterling alone in a hotel room, looking out the window, butt-naked and tripping balls on LSD; and finally Don Draper, alone in a bar – just as he was in the opening scene of season one, episode one – where a female stranger asks him, “Are you alone?”
What could have easily become a tacky soap opera about White People Problems is, in Matthew Weiner’s hands, an almost Chekhovian study of ordinary people trying to make their way in a shifting and uncertain world; a study of loneliness, yearning and stoicism, like an Edward Hopper painting come to life.
Mad Men is at its most compelling when Don Draper is miserable, which is perhaps why I didn’t enjoy season 5 as much as the other seasons, featuring as it did Don being uncharacteristically uxorious, making a red hot go of his marriage to Megan. Season 6 is a return to form, in which we discover late in the first episode that Don has been cheating on Megan with the neighbour’s wife. A lot more popcorn-worthy. By the end of season 6, Don is fed up with his secrets and lies and embarks on a campaign of radical honesty, telling Hershey’s executives that he was the bastard child of a prostitute, and revealing his run-down childhood home to his three children.
Which brings us to season 7, Mad Men’s swan song split into two parts. How do you end a show in which there are no heroes and villains, no good versus evil conflicts, and no major quests or journeys (apart from Don Draper’s anguished soul searching)? It’s a period piece, but the stakes and concerns are very familiar and mundane: career, marriage, children, what it means to have a successful life, and the pursuit of happiness, however fleeting. Like the cuckold neighbour says to Don whilst standing in the snow in season 6, episode one, before Don sneaks off to bang his wife: “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety.”
Season 7 sees Don trying to repair his marriage to Megan and failing. He’s more successful in his comeback campaign at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, but even that may not be the golden chalice it’s cracked up to be. At the end of part one, Don tears up at a vision of the recently deceased Bert Cooper singing “The Best Things In Life Are Free”, a deliciously ironic flight of whimsy that contradicts the essence of advertising.
Part two of season 7, comprised of the final seven episodes, sees Don well and truly adrift, hooking up with strange women in alleyways (Diana, the melancholy waitress in question, reminded me so much of my ex-girlfriend in terms of looks, demeanour, and tendency to leave a trail of emotional wreckage that her scenes almost gave me PTSD), and reaching the hallowed halls of leviathan ad agency McCann Erickson, only to skip out like Ferris Bueller and start walking the earth.
Things are mostly grim for Don during his aimless wanderings: there’s his fruitless search for Diana, and getting beat up in the penultimate episode after being wrongly accused of stealing a war veteran’s charity money. At the start of the final episode he’s hurtling through the desert in a race car, going nowhere; by the end of the episode, he has come to a standstill, telling a concerned lady, “I can’t move.”
The finale is notable for a couple of reasons: we have never seen Don Draper cry as much as he does in this episode, and there is also a remarkable number of telephone conversations, reinforcing a sense of people attempting to connect with each other over great physical and emotional distances. Don on the phone to Sally, Don on the phone to a dying Betty (her terminal lung cancer certainly comes out of left field, especially for a character whose arc seemed to peter out after she married Henry Francis, and it lends her some surprise gravitas in the same way that it would be surprising if we had to start paying more attention to Hodor in Game of Thrones because he suddenly developed ball cancer), Don on the phone to Peggy, Peggy on the phone to Joan, and finally, Peggy on the phone to Stan, a call that ends with Stan hanging up and running down the hall to finally connect with Peggy for real. There’s a cheesy romantic comedy vibe to it, but it works in the context of a largely cathartic episode.
Betty’s end is tragic, there’s sombre times ahead for Sally and her brothers, and we never find out what happened to Ted, or Megan (the LA contingent of Mad Men being notably absent from the finale), but the other characters are given mostly uplifting send-offs. Peggy and Stan are in love (never mind that office romances in both the Mad Men world and real life never seem to end well), Joan has lost a chance at love but is blooming into an independent businesswoman, Roger and Marie are two ageing hell-raisers who seem perfect for each other, and Pete Campbell, reunited with his family, steps onto a Lear jet en route to untold riches. Not unlike a Shakespearean comedy, there is a sense of resolution via multiple happy couplings, and of people finally having a chance of becoming their best and truest selves.
And then there’s Don, who has no-one, and is as inscrutable and far away from his kids as ever. Fittingly for such an introspective show, his final scene sees him alone in a crowd, eyes shut, meditating on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. The camera slowly zooms in on his face, as his mouth curves into a faint but unmistakeable smile. Then we cut to a real Coca-Cola ad, often referred to as the “Hilltop ad”, featuring people of seemingly every race and colour holding Coke bottles and singing, “I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke.”
“That’s the real thing!” the young spruikers sing. It’s a finale rich in irony. Does Don convert his real-world hilltop experience into a phoney marketing one, or are we witnessing a juxtaposition between his embrace of “the real thing” and Coca-Cola’s bullshit peddling thereof? We know thanks to internet research that the real McCann Erickson made the real Coke ad in 1971, but in the fictional world of Mad Men, did Don Draper have anything to do with it?
His arc up to this point has been one of divergence between his inner life and his professional life. Whether he reconciles the two on that hilltop and trudges the long road back to New York, or makes a final break from the advertising world and decides to do something meaningful with his life, is unclear.
Mad Men reveals advertising as an empire of illusion built on understanding and exploiting genuine human aspirations: aspirations to happiness, fulfilment, the alleviation of anxiety. These aspirations are the truth within the lie. In the world of Mad Men, “the real thing” is both a banal, corporate catchphrase and concept of existential significance.
Having spent most of his life pretending to be someone else and selling bullshit for a living, Don achieves an ambiguous state of grace. He remains a mystery, and what we think or hope happens to him says a lot about our own values and aspirations. Don Draper, like advertising itself, is the abyss we gaze into that also gazes back into us.
Finally, whilst Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is mentioned a couple of times in the final season (and Dante’s The Inferno in the sixth season), the quintessential Don Draper text could possibly be James Wright’s classic poem, “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota”:
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.