"Mad Men" Series Finale Recap: Spirit of Don Draper
By Astrid Daley-Douglas
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the series finale of AMC's "Mad Men" and you plan to, read no further. This article contains spoilers.
In the series finale of AMC's popular TV show, "Mad Men," we see our protagonist ad man Don Draper in a meditation group at an Esalen-style retreat on the California coast. It is morning and the sun is shining brightly in the background. The beginning of a new day, of new hope. As the instructor chants "om," Draper closes his eyes and follows. The camera pulls in as he curls his lips into a subtle smile.
The final seconds of the show are a clip from a famous Coca Cola commercial that was hugely popular in 1971. A chorus of teenagers from all over the world sing in unison a song that begins "I'd like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love." And the next few lines are reminiscent of life in the growing commune movement, "Grow apple trees and honey bees, And snow white turtle doves." One might think it were a music video for a lesser group bandwagoning on the Beatles "All You Need is Love." But the Age of Aquarius message is quickly dissipated as the true intent of the song is revealed when the multicultural group arrives at the chorus:
I'd like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I'd like to buy the world a Coke
And keep it company
That's the real thing.
The irony here is that Don Draper himself has learned--following season after season of his mask of sanity crumbling away--that it is anything but "the real thing." Nonetheless, the illusory world with its hive values of status worship and consumerism marches on. The ad men have co-opted the ideas of the counterculture with the Coca Cola commercial. Even love has a dollar sign. This ultimate perversion is a perfect foreshadowing of the Love Generation's ideas going to the wayside in favor of the "American Psycho" style consumption of the 1980's where it was "Hip to be Square," and you weren't anything without your Calvins.
But what is the real thing? And who is Don Draper anyway?
"Mad Men's" Don Draper is a symbol of a dying generation giving away to another generation that would also die, as all generations do. Don Draper is the archetypal man in the grey flannel suit: on the surface, the rigid, rule-abiding, conformist man of the 1950's, concerned about his lawn, his car, his job, his image--basically everything but what's on the inside. But despite the facade on the outside, we have always seen that Don Draper was anything but his image. In fact, his image was based explicitly on a lie, having stolen his identity from his Lieutenant in the Korean War. The real Don Draper was Dick Whitman- a high school drop-out born to a prostitute and an abusive alcoholic father. This was the "real thing" that Don Draper was running from as he hopped from bed to bed, chasing happiness, chasing the ghost of his mother, and wondering why despite "having it all," he was never satisfied.
And that's why Draper begins to crumble. His behavior grows more and more erratic as he becomes increasingly unpredictable in front of clients, hits the bottle even harder, and chases woman after woman, each one more of an image than real--and you cannot love an image--she will eventually demand to be acknowledged as a real human being. There was the glamorous Megan, who Don never truly sees, the lost love Rachel who haunts his dreams before he finds out she's died, and finally the waitress Diana who is a living symbol of the indefinable sadness that has been plaguing Don Draper for so long.
And when he can take it no longer, Don goes on the road, carrying himself in a fashion reminiscent of the ultimate student of the road, Jack Kerouac. The archetypal 1950's person is giving away to the new era. In his own way, Draper is entering the Age of Aquarius--letting the sun shine in--but first he'll have to confront his own darkness.
On the road, Draper meets a group of veterans who mistakenly believe that he's stolen money from them following a drunken night at the VFW. Don had revealed to them that he accidentally killed his Lieutenant in the war; these angry veterans turning on him for falsely stealing money feels like poetic justice for taking on the false identity.
In an ironic twist, it is actually a young man--a mirror image of a young Dick Whitman--who has really stolen the money. Draper makes the kid return the money but subsequently hands over his car to the young man in a gesture that is symbolic of letting go of his old life. It also parallels the young Dick Whitman's "new start" as Don Draper-- a younger man taking something of an older man's that is not really his.
As he travels the country, Draper has a few adventurous experiences-- racing cars, having sex with a prostitute. But none of this experiences give him satisfaction. Something is still missing. The stakes get higher when his daughter Sally reveals over the phone that his ex-wife and mother of his three children, Betty, who herself is the embodiment of "The Feminine Mystique," is dying of lung cancer. Don's reaction is to try to "do something," but he's rebuffed by Betty who wants to be left alone. She's used to him being absent in their lives and doesn't see a reason to change things now.
Don leaves the car racing life to track down Stephanie Horton, the niece of the real Don Draper, who has had her own struggles with finding herself. Stephanie is the catalyst for Don's final transformation. Since she knows his whole story, Don can resume being Dick Whitman, a first step in completely shedding the mask of his false ego. She even calls him Dick instead of Don. Serendipitously Stephanie takes him with her to an Esalen-style growth center, where we find him in our final scene.
Upon arrival at the growth center, Don is a stranger in a strange land, a buttoned down 40-something in a world of flower children who are letting it all hang out. He finds himself in an encounter group where participants walk around the room casually; the group leader says that their only purpose is to move their legs-- a sharp contrast to the manic world of "Mad Men" where the ad men are stuck in the hustle and bustle of corporate deadlines.
The group leader then instructs the participants to "look at the person next to you" and asks, "What does that person make you feel?" He instructs them: "find a way, without words, to communicate that feeling to the other person." Pairs of smiling flower children hug each other, touch each other's faces gently. An older woman, who is standing next to Don, takes one look at the cross-armed, polo shirt wearing Draper, who won't even make eye contact with her, and pushes him. While the woman's intent was to show she was repelled, a startled Draper has just been given a symbolic "push" in the right direction.
Don's existential crisis comes to a head when he finds out Stephanie has left after having her own breakdown in an encounter group. She has taken the car, and Don is now stranded. Left to face himself and after a goodbye phone call to Peggy in which he lists his many mistakes and confesses "I'm not the man you think I am," he collapses on the ground, near suicidal. A woman finds him and takes it upon herself to watch over him, bringing him to class with her.
In the class, participants take turns telling their stories from a designated chair. When one participant gets up, leaving the chair empty for the next story-teller, for a moment everyone looks at Don with the expectancy that he might share with the group. While Don sits staring and on the verge of tears, another man, as equally buttoned down as Draper, sits in the chair. The man, who describes himself as an office worker, says that his life isn't all that complicated so he should be happy; the leader cautions him against the use of the word "should." As he tells his own story of feeling invisible at his job and in his family, Don is clearly touched. When the man begins to cry, Don gets up from his chair, hugs the man, and they begin to cry together. It is through his empathy with this man that Don can finally feel his own pain and begin to reach catharsis.
We don't hear Don talk about what's going on inside him. He does not verbalize his feelings. He is still, in many ways, the stoic business man of the 1950's. But we can tell, as he sits in the meditation group, chanting with eyes closed, a slight smile forming upon his lips, that he has touched on something, that he has had an encounter with himself, with "the real thing."
It's doubtful, were the show to continue, that we'd see Don Draper growing out his hair, moving into a commune, becoming a real life hippie. But what we would see is a Don Draper who has come into contact with something real inside himself...something that you cannot gain through owning the right car or having the right job. An intensity of experience that cannot really be described but which we all long for and ache for in a world that tells us that "the real thing" can be found in objects, in how we look, in things that are "out there." Don's little smile tells us he knows the secret.
If we listen to that still, small voice within, we can shed the rigid, false ego and realize that we never really had to find ourselves, it was always right there. And what made them "Mad Men" was that they could not see this.