Don Draper spent his whole life searching for a high and trying to get others hooked in the process. Not literally, of course — that was mostly Roger Sterling’s bag — but Mad Men was, more than anything, a show about how crazy people make themselves in the search for something bigger than themselves. Don was the sober (ha) drug dealer, preferring the trade of commodifying feelings and emotions in the name of shill to actually, you know, existing in the life and feelings he so often manipulated. It was his greatest gift and mightiest flaw — it’s what made him the tragic Greek hero that he was: living life fast and loose. Would he ever learn or burn out in spectacular fashion?
Last night, Mad Men gave us something it never really has before: hope.
On Sunday night, Mad Men ended on an uncharacteristically high note, paying off seasons and seasons worth of downtrodden, unhappy, existential crisis-laden storylines with a peppy upbeat and a hopeful outlook for the future. Listen, it’s corny as hell, but it’s true: Don has spent his whole life searching for and running away from love. It’s the nature of advertising itself: create a feeling of love and devotion — make a product or an idea feel like a void-filler, a necessary key on the way to assured happiness. He made love his drug and pushed it furiously. Which is interesting, considering how Don and so many of his cohorts based their lives on a permanent detachment from living in the earnest emotions that they sold. (A job is a job is a job.) Don Draper never leaned into anything other than his alcoholism and philandering, empty vessels masquerading as happiness. An empty quick fix with the hope that maybe this time it’ll be different from all the rest. He existed in the insanity of doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different outcome; poo-pooing real intimacy and vulnerability as a trap, a con, something suckers believed in. Don used intimacy, he never felt or existed in it.
So it was appropriate that Don should finally find himself in perhaps the most clichéd and corny place one could at that time: a therapeutic spiritual retreat, filled with the sort of seeming crackpots he and the rest of the business world laughed at. Because resist it as much as he wanted, Don was a cliché, as so many ad men were. As so many of us are when we refuse to live our lives honestly. That’s what makes us all mad men in a way. Intimacy is tantamount to happiness and love, it’s a hard-won battle between trust, vulnerability, and allowing a permanent place for others in your life.
Don was, in so many ways, living out his own quiet desperation for financial gain and a sense that he “made” something of himself. But in trying to inoculate himself, he ultimately alienated himself. That which believed it a solitary sickness rather than a universal affliction was his Achilles’ heel. The problem he was never quite able to solve.
It was in the eyes of Don’s foil — a middle-aged, average-ized iteration of himself — that he saw the truth: harmony comes from within. Once he allowed himself a moment of actually seeing another person for what they are — a mess of contradictions, emotions, and insecurities — he figured out the real thing. Which is to say that all this hope and happiness is elusive for everyone. “What is called resignation is confirmed desperation,” Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden. “From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”
By retreating from the norm — this status quo of emotional manipulation on which he built his empire — amongst all the corny clichéd trappings of the era he raged against, he found it: happiness. Be it bought, sold, or felt: it’s the apex, the top of the mountain — the secret waiting upon the hilltop. We search our whole lives for perfect harmony, but it’s when we stop looking for it and let life in that it finds us.
At first it seemed odd, the notion that so much of the series’ emotional moments would be resolved over the phone. A technology that purports itself to connect but has an inherent buffer built within it. But in a world that’s so embedded with dishonesty and manipulation of these human elements makes it hard for any of them to see their circumstances in actuality: the forest is the trees. To be disconnected they needed to be reconnected — given that buffer the phone provided, away from all the couched bullshit of their industry of choice.
Mad Men was never a show that was particularly happy — nor did it ever seem as though finding it was the end game Matthew Weiner had planned. With the years and years of trials and tribulations these characters faced (be it of their own design or otherwise), it was a show entrenched in the realities of its not-so-fictional universe. Don, Peggy, Roger, Pete, and Joan all prided themselves on being hard-nosed realists, relishing in the dark realities of life. It wasn’t until they allowed real connections in that they found themselves in the light. Because ultimately, isn’t that what everyone is looking for? It’s the real thing, after all.
What did you think of the Mad Men finale? Which SDCP alum will you miss the most? Let us know in the comments below.
Alicia Lutes is the Associate Editor of The Nerdist. You can find her on the tweeter @alicialutes.