The finale of Mad Men was broadcast last night, cleanly tying up most threads of the show. We know how most of the characters ended up – and in many ways, the endpoints seemed inevitable. It’s easy enough to project each character’s life forward even through to today and have a pretty decent degree of confidence that you’d be more or less correct.
One character that was at the center of the entire series, though, ended up in a pretty weird place. Donald Draper (aka Dick Whitman) found himself in November 1970 on the coast of California at an esalen-like retreat, meditating after his most recent breakdown – and it is strongly suggested (though not 100% confirmed) that he returned to his life in Manhattan and went to ever-greater heights in the advertising world, even creating one of the great ad campaigns of the 60s and 70s (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”, the closing song/video of the series).
The thing about Don Draper is that he was forced from a very young age – well before “Don Draper” even – to engage in pretty heavy acts of “creation”. Creation of the self, primarily, but he also used his experience professionally.
Whereas “normal” people create a sense of self through the nurture of their families and communities, Dick Whitman was pretty much on his own, which culminated in the ultimate creation – his version of Donald Draper. You can take it even further – it’s probable that the things he learned in creating first “Dick Whitman” and later “Don Draper” from whole cloth are precisely what made him a genius ad man.
The central problem for Don Draper, however, is that it seems that he dissociated his created personas from any deep sense of “self” – both Don and Dick were things he brought to the world, that he created – but not necessarily him in any strong sense.
It came to be that Don Draper was really only alive during the process of creation. And not just the creation of his new persona – original ad campaigns counted too, as did his hoodwinking Roger into hiring him, and eventually the companies he created. Was Don ever more dialed in than when they created SCDP out of the husk of Putnam Powell Lowe?
We even saw this at the very end, when they tried to arrange for Sterling Cooper West, a division of McCann Erickson. He was animated for that 24-hour period in a way that hadn’t been seen since Burger Chef, when he got to witness the full flowering of one of “his” creations, Peggy Olsen (at least he felt that she was his creation – I don’t mean to take anything away from Peggy).
Throughout his life, Don was widely praised for his creations, but this praise never really touched him completely because in his (damaged) view, the praise was not for HIM in any deep sense, but for a persona he created. He was ambivalent about awards and matter of fact when people complimented him. And so he continued to create – and became the gold standard of Manhattan ad men (in this fictional Manhattan), but perhaps never really took the personal validation from the praise heaped upon him that most of us would have taken.
As the series went on, we learned that each act of creation came at a huge cost to Don, and not as a function of effort or hard work or whatever – there was more of an existential cost. As each successive creation reached a new high – there was a new low right around the corner as soon as the bloom was off the rose. He fell into periods of deep despair, alcoholism, a kind of nihilistic avoidance of any and all personal connections, to the extent that he drove obvious wedges between him and pretty much everyone who ever loved him or cared for him.
In this way, I always thought of Don as a kind of Dorian Gray, someone who could keep on doing unnaturally great things – but there was a picture of him somewhere that was, if not aging, then at least falling apart, and fast.
And so the ending of Mad Men was a little strange. Dorian Gray meets his end when he is finally forced to confront his picture and tries to destroy it, ultimately destroying himself. Don is a different case. The clear implication of the final scene is that while finding some personal peace at esalen, Don ends up back in Manhattan, back creating – if anything, at the top of his game.
But what has changed? How does Don transition from being Dorian Gray, paying a huge (if sometimes unseen) price for his continual acts of creation to a man at peace with himself, and able to continue to create without losing chunks of himself along the way? How does the price he has always paid no longer come due?