Friday, May 22, 2015

Don Draper's Progress

At the center of the recently concluded AMC television series Mad Men there is Don Draper, an enigmatic character possessing unique genius and a penchant for self-destruction.    

During the course of his life, Don comes to know – and be known by – people in various social classes, from his impoverished rural upbringing and his time in the army, to rubbing shoulders with powerful business leaders in his role as creative director at Manhattan ad firm Sterling Cooper.

In fact, the adaptability, resilience and commitment to ‘progress’ that defines so much of Don’s character is the lynchpin to the dynamic of Mad Men as a whole. As often as Don’s restlessness gets him into trouble, it’s also a sign that he is “busy being born”, to borrow a phrase from Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’.   

For example, by the end of the series, Don - like many young and middle-aged Americans in the 1960s – had embarked on a journey to ‘find himself’. In the final few episodes, this quest for identity took Don across the country, east to west, during which time he shed successive skins like a snake, engaged in a metamorphic process that ultimately leads him to a spiritual retreat-commune in California. 

The skins are easy to see as they peel away – the abandonment and persecution issues played out with the mysterious, seemingly unstable waitress from the New York diner. 

The drunken confession of the circumstances of his military service to inebriated army vets, and their violent assault on him; his punishment for the crime of another man, and his gift to that man – a grifter - of his automobile, a symbol of American independence, ingenuity and freedom. 

When the haze finally clears, Don has landed at the archetypal (or stereotypical, depending on a viewer’s level of cynicism) 1960’s spiritual retreat-commune. Here, Don sheds his final skin - that of his original identity, Dick Whitman - the man who went the Korean War and who returned as Donald Draper. 

Dick Whitman – the nothing, the cipher - who built his life from a lie, and then sold that lie to New York’s advertising elite and, by extension, America. 

“I took another man’s name and I made nothing of it,” Don tells Peggy Olsen during a desperate phone call from the retreat, calling into question the entire meaning of his life’s work.   

Yet within every lie is a kernel of truth. Don’s truth is finally uttered during a group therapy session by Leonard, a man who is facing his own midlife crisis. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone,” Leonard says, articulating in one simple sentence Don’s own fears about his family, his job, and his place in life. 

Leonard goes on to describe his own situation like he’s a piece of food in the refrigerator, shut away from everybody else until he’s needed. It’s a metaphor that speaks to Don the ad man, but it’s also a pathos that gets to the heart of his existential trauma. 

A minute later, Leonard is in a state of lacrimosa, and Don has crossed the room to embrace him, having heard in the confession the unmistakable echo of his own life experience. 


So what to make of the final scene? Don Draper - initiate - meditating at a commune on the Californian coast followed by the iconic Coca Cola commercial about teaching the world to sing? 

One interpretation is that the sense of the ineffable, the forgiveness, the freedom – indeed, the love – Don so desired could not be found anywhere but within himself. He finally realized there was no way to run fast enough or go far enough to escape his own shadow (in the Jungian sense of the word), so he stopped running.  

Certainly, Don had arrived at the end of something and the beginning of something else. After family, work, money, booze, women, travel, the successes and the failures, he needed a fresh perspective to make sense of his experiences. Until that point, his creative work (and alcohol) had satisfied such a purpose. 

Spiritual transcendence and understanding human desire are not antithetical concepts. For Don – a man capable of articulating the unspoken wishes of the masses and stoking public need – one state of mind led necessarily to the other, and vice versa. His ideas as an advertiser came from a creative place, a spiritual place, a place overshadowed by Mad Men’s glamorous veneer.

Did Don find god in a bottle of Coke? Did he return to New York to work the soda giant’s historic ‘teach the world to sing’ ad campaign? The finale itself was, in the end, only suggestive. But whatever Don discovered in California, it’s a good bet it was closer to the real thing than he had ever gotten before in his life.