“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” Frank O’Hara, Meditations in an Emergency
“But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” Don Draper
BY COURTENAY STALLINGS
Don Draper’s existential crisis leading up to a transformation of personality or situation seems like a red herring after watching the finale. We’ve spent seven seasons bearing witness to Don Draper trying to come to terms with his past as Dick Whitman. The series dealt with themes such as identity, memory, lies and nostalgia. The finale complicates those themes for sure.
The pilot, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” reveals Don Draper, a Madison Avenue advertising man in 1960, who is trying to figure our how to pitch cigarettes to the public – a public becoming increasingly more aware that cigarettes are not only bad for you – they kill. Draper begins the series by selling a terrible lie – a lie that culminates in his ex-wife, Betty Draper Francis, getting lung cancer by 1970.
The other terrible lie is that Don Draper is not who he claims he is. He is Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute and a “dishonest” man, who took the identity of his commanding officer in the Korean War in order to get sent home early and start a new life. Draper has wrestled with this past throughout the decade of the 1960s. We’ve seen him grapple with the Whitman/Draper identity through flashbacks and in his relationships, both professional and personal.
Don has been shedding his identity throughout this last season. His divorce from Megan is finalized. His apartment is bare. He leaves McCann Erickson, the city of New York, and his family behind. He sheds his suit and gives his Cadillac to a young con man in the making – the next generation Dick Whitman. Don is leaving his old life behind. But, is he becoming someone or something else? Is he finally becoming an honest man?
When Don Draper reaches California, I assumed his journey might culminate in two very different ways: perhaps he finds peace and solace with his ex-wife Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie, or perhaps he dies – either in a self-inflicted alcoholic haze or by marching into the ocean after shedding his clothes – a la the Royal Hawaiian Hotel pitch from the season six premiere. Either way, I thought he’d eventually fess up to his original name. Don does encounter Stephanie, but she abandons him at a new-age retreat in Northern California.
It is at the Esalen Institute in Northern California where Don encounters his brush with enlightenment and discovers, as all clues would have us believe, the biggest idea of his career up until this point: the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” commercial, which aired in 1971 and was conceived by an actual ad man from McCann Erickson. Although the ending of the finale is ambiguous – some have argued that Don’s smile during his meditative pose suggests he does find Nirvana separate from advertising, and it was someone else who came up with the Coke ad (more on that in a moment).
If the Coke commercial is connected to Don’s smile during meditation, that means he returned to McCann, pitched the idea, and created advertising history. At the end of the finale, Don Draper seems to remain the man he always has been to us – the viewers. He is an ad man who pitches amazing ideas, lapses into alcoholism and retreats from life, embarking on a spiritual journey of existential crisis. He returns to everything he’s abandoned, but this time with a bigger and better idea. He’s still selling the lie.
The finale of “Mad Men” left me with a slew of emotions. Matthew Weiner thoroughly warned us that we might be disappointed. He also said he didn’t owe us anything. I respect that statement. My prediction for Don included him remaining in California (the location of his spiritual quests throughout the series) and officially becoming Dick Whitman, embracing his real identity. I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, but I was expecting a transformation. But “Mad Men” rarely delivers our expectations, which is one of the many reasons I appreciate the show, and, at the same time, find it frustrating.
Don Draper does not change. He’s repeating the same patterns that he always has: abandon work and family and travel to California to sort out his current existential crisis. He emerges seemingly reborn with a new pitch. It’s like an extended version of “The Suitcase,” in which Draper avoids the news of Anna’s death as he and Peggy struggle to discover a pitch for Samsonite. A lot of agonizing and alcohol are involved. At the end of the episode, he learns of Anna’s death, confronts mortality and comes up with a dynamite idea.
It should not be shocking that Don Draper emerges from a terrible time of crisis and meditation with the perfect pitch for Coca-Cola. He has, after all, died and gone to “advertising heaven,” having been promised the Coke account by Jim Hobart. Coke haunts him on his journey. Before he leaves the Miller meeting at McCann, he takes his boxed roast-beef sandwich but not the Coke can. When he’s stranded at the motel in Oklahoma, he is asked to fix an old Coke machine – Don finally gets to work on Coke! He seems reluctant.
The last images of Don include the following and preclude the Coke commercial. He wakes up at Esalen to find Stephanie gone. He encounters the lady at the reception area who has red ribbons in her hair – similar to the woman in the Coke commercial. He calls Peggy, and Peggy tells him “I know you get sick of things, and you run, but you can come home. McCann will take you back in a second. Apparently it’s happened before.” He confesses his sins to Peggy – “I messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am. I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name, and made nothing of it.” He encounters and embraces the everyman office worker Leonard in the group meeting when Don hears the man’s confession of his invisibility. Finally, Don emerges on the hilltop over looking the ocean with the sun dancing on his face. The final scene reveals Don Draper sitting lotus-style – a smile flashes across his face. Then, the 1971 Coke commercial reveals the hilltop multicultural menagerie singing about harmony and a soft drink.
Did Don just discover enlightenment? And was enlightenment the Coke commercial idea that’s revealed in the very next scene? The ending is ambiguous, but I believe (and I’m certainly not alone) in thinking the preceding scenes suggest they are connected. Don always pulled ideas from his own experiences. Esalen specialized in Gestalt psychology, in which perception is supposed to be a complex result of various stimuli. The chaos in Don’s life allows him to conceptualize a tidy world of multicultural capitalism lived in spiritual and musical harmony.
In many ways, the Coke commercial is the perfect summation of the 1960s and of Don Draper: romanticism meets materialism – a suitable definition of modernity. What unnerves me is the crass combination of the spiritual and the commodity. The song, for many of us who were born in the 1970s or earlier, represents the nostalgia associated with the commercial. The nostalgia, which we learn from Don in season one’s “The Wheel” in Greek, “literally means, ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” The song does not suggest giving the world a Coke, but, instead, buying the world a Coke. There is an exchange of capital. This is not a gift. It represents the times – the influence of the global market, a multicultural mix of people, and the desire for something real to be found in the bottom of a glass bottle. It’s the real thing. But, it’s not free. It’s for sale. It’s a cynical idea.
“Mad Men” left me with questions about nostalgia and how we market ideas. There is both pleasure and pain and death in the material. In one sense, the spiritual should be discovered beyond the material. But, another way of looking at this ending is that, for Don Draper, the spiritual and material coexist. My favorite episode is the season six finale “In Care Of.” The episode contains the famous Hershey pitch, in which Draper recalls the memory of being a poor child living in a brothel and the rare moments of love involved in the ritual of buying, opening and consuming a Hershey bar. It’s easy to dismiss the material, but sometimes objects are the only ones who love us back. This is a depressing thought, but less cynical than a different interpretation.
The ambiguous ending of Don Draper’s “ohm” left me uncomfortable. But I expected this. Strangely, the other characters’ lives seemed too easily wrapped up in the finale. Peggy and Stan reveal their love even though Peggy’s love life didn’t need to be defined. Where’s the chick with the sunglasses, cigarette hanging out of her mouth and Bert’s crazy octopus painting strapped under her arm? Pete, Trudy and Tammy happily board the Lear Jet – a nuclear family at last. Joan and Kevin’s babysitter start Holloway-Harris in Joan’s apartment. Roger and Marie Calvet consume loads of Champagne and lobster in French Canada. Sally dutifully washes dishes as Betty smokes the last of her days away. I was hoping that we had already seen the last of these characters and the finale would focus on Don. But Matthew Weiner rarely writes what we expect him to. And, that is why I appreciate “Mad Men.” It shatters my expectations. It makes me think. Can any of us, as Peggy said was her goal, “create something of lasting value,” especially in the world of capitalism and advertising? And, in the end, can people change?
Is the ambiguity in “Mad Men’s” finale indicative that, in true Gestalt theory, the sum is not just greater than its parts; it’s something altogether different? It depends on how you perceive it. And perception is everything. It’s the real thing. Or is it? Either way, it has left me flummoxed, and, to sum up the show using Pete Campbell’s ambivalent response to all sorts of occasions: Mad Men – “a thing like that …”
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