Don Draper – It’s Time to Look Inward

I’m a junkie for books and movies with ambiguous endings, because it means that your relationship with the piece of art isn’t over. The story lives with you as you spend days and weeks mulling over various interpretations, and making it your own. And that is why I loved the finale of Mad Men – one of the greatest shows ever made in the history of television. There’s so much to say about all the characters, but I want to start with Don. I want to present my theory of Don’s resolution, if we can even call it that.

I don’t think he became a yogi, but I don’t believe that he went back to McCann and made that Coke ad either. For me, the entire season starting last year was a build-up to the rebirth of Dick Whitman. Don Draper was a façade. He’s always been a façade and it was time for the curtains to go down on that show.

The first time we met Don Draper was through a slow zoom-in on the back of his head in a dark and dingy bar. The series ended with a slow zoom-in on the front of his face on a clear and breezy day, out in the open with no barriers of any kind. It was a journey from the back of his head to the front.

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In that first episode, he was the ultimate Don Draper – a brilliant copywriter, killing it in the Lucky Strike meeting with a last minute stroke of genius, adored and envied at the same time, an intense lover, ruling over New York City. The episode ended with his return to the suburbs, the rather shocking revelation of his picture perfect wife, and the last frame that is reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. That’s where the dysfunction starts sinking in. Having seen his life in the city, this gorgeous composition of imperfect perfection is almost jarring.

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We’ve witnessed his gradual unraveling from being so protective of his identity that he’s married to a woman who doesn’t know who he is, to talking about his childhood during a pitch to Hershey’s. He contrasts the idealistic Norman Rockwell-ish imagery of a father and child with the reality of how he, as a boy who grew up in a whore house, enjoyed a candy bar.

It’s one of the rare moments where we get a glimpse of his frailty, and he pays the price for it by being asked to go on sabbatical. And who can forget that scene at the end of season six where he shows Sally and Bobby his childhood home? Is that a sign of evolution or acceptance? Maybe, but not quite. The Hershey’s meeting was in my view, a beginning-of-the-end sort of moment.

He still believes he is Don Draper. There were sporadic moments of vulnerability like the drunken night he spent with Peggy Olsen – the only woman he never slept with. He slipped but always managed to come back to being the perfectly coiffed Don Draper every time. In this last season though, the point of no return was becomingly increasingly clear. At least to me.

The first scene that stuck with me was when he’s dropping Sally off at the bus station. She is mad at him for flirting with her friend and yells in frustration that she wants to run away and be as far away from her parents as possible. We see this flash of panic on Don’s face as he whips her around and insists how she will always be a product of a him and her mother. It’s as if he is saying that to himself.

The other instance happened in the last episode at the retreat when he chases after Anna’s niece Stephanie when she’s upset at hearing some harsh truths about leaving her child. Don assures her that she can leave all this behind and move on, which is when she tells him that he is wrong about that and everything the woman was saying was true, and she’ll have to deal with it no matter how painful it is.

There is no escape from the consequences of your actions. And this was a time when a whole generation of Americans was coming face-to-face with this truth. Don Draper/Dick Whitman is just a representative that we got to know better. This is why the counterculture emerged in a post-war world riddled with misplaced values and ideals. Stephanie is a part of that, while Don represents the opposite, a successful ad man occasionally testing the rebellious waters. She’s confused about her identity as well, but she is not disillusioned in the manner that Don is. That scene in a way sits at the intersection of ideologies perpetuating free will, freedom, and consequences – the flower child and the money man, the capitalist and socialist apparition both being forced to look inward.

And that’s exactly what happens next – in the form of Don’s confession to Peggy over the phone, and then his final breakdown during the group therapy session. This man is not Don Draper. He’s not even dressed like Don Draper. The flannel shirt and denims are more reminiscent of his troubled past. He is Dick Whitman (not that we know who that really is either). There never was a Don Draper. There was a projection of Don Draper.

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The most compelling part of Leonard’s confession for me was when he acknowledges that maybe he is loved and just can’t recognize or accept it. That part resonates with Don’s story very strongly. Growing up the way he did, he just doesn’t know what love is, and that’s why Leonard’s story jolts him out of his catatonic state.

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Don ends up in a profession that gives him a way to rationalize that harsh fact, when he sees and learns that all human emotions can be manufactured and evoked. He only knows sex. I never thought he was an addict. Again, it was the only way he knew to express anything. I remember the scene where Don sleeps with Betty at Sally’s camp. He’s already married to Megan then, and Betty says to him, “Poor Megan. She doesn’t know that loving you is not having you.”

In light of all these events, I just can’t fathom that he actually went back to McCann and made the Coke ad. For me, it would be the show’s betrayal of its own nuanced script. Why strip him of everything little by little only to show that he actually did get something back? I don’t buy that. Obviously, Matthew Weiner did it precisely because he wants us fans to keep contemplating and debating this forever. It’s been spoken about that he knew he wanted to end the series with that ad – the greatest ad ever made according to him. Like the scene between Stephanie and Don, that Coke ad is also a clash of ideologies – hippies and minorities singing about one of the greatest capitalist successes ever. It’s definitely a mesmerizing piece of work, with its lilting melody and radiant, smiling faces. You don’t want it to end. Just like the show.

The ad for me was Matthew Weiner’s tribute to the industry that he’s so masterfully brought to life over the past eight years. The show has often been self-referential and this was no exception. Maybe it was a figment of Don’s imagination. Maybe that’s how he brought focus to his meditation, inspired by the people around him. There are many interpretations, and no definitive answers. We are all free to design his destiny the way we wish. This is the way I’ve colored it.

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