Don Draper's Nirvana
Does Don Draper find spiritual enlightenment in the series finale of “Mad Men”?
Does he realize, thanks to listening to another person's experiences, that he has been loved all along?
Does he recognize, through his tears for Betty, that he has been able to love?
Does his desperate phone call to Peggy remind him that someone cares about him?
Or does his last, faint, enigmatic smile on the beach mean that he has just come up with the 1970s Coke ad that concluded the series?
Or could all of the above be true?
The Internet is abuzz with commentary about the final episode of what is, to my mind, the greatest-ever TV series—narrowly beating out “The Sopranos,” since "Mad Men" included many more sympathetic characters. Some fans may see the final episode as Matthew Weiner's stinging critique of Madison Avenue, of consumerism or, more broadly, of capitalism and American culture. That is, Don's ersatz epiphany turns out to be nothing more than inspiration for an ad for a sugary soft drink. On the other hand, some may believe that Don has finally found something he’s been looking for the last seven seasons: himself.
But those two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s possible to find yourself and come up with a killer Coke ad.
The series ended with Don Draper at an Esalen-type retreat in California. He has gone there with (yes, this is complicated and I had to text a friend to remember) the niece of the woman married to the real “Don Draper,” the man whom he had accidentally killed in the Korean War and whose identity he had subsequently stolen. (An aside: when we learned Don would be going on a retreat in California, I thought, excitedly, “A Jesuit one?” No such luck. Maybe next time he'll end up at Los Altos.) By this point in the series, after abandoning the confining corporate atmosphere of McCann Erickson, after driving aimlessly across the country, after speaking to his ex-wife about her terminal cancer (who urges him not to return) and after making a desperate phone call to Peggy (who urges him to return), Don has--to use the language of recovery--reached bottom. He’s exhausted. He’s confused. He’s rattled. Consequently, he’s also more open. But the work of the retreat team, which is presented as both cheesy and sincere, both insightful and manipulative, seems not to affect him at all.
Then something unusual happens—for Don, that is.
In a group sharing session, a rather ordinary-looking man, wearing deeply uncool clothes and a comb-over, begins confessing his struggles, with brutal honesty. He’s an office-worker like Don. But unlike Don, no one seems to notice him. The man describes an odd but realistic (because it’s odd) dream, in which he’s stuck on a shelf in a refrigerator; others simply open up the refrigerator door and see him, smile and then close the door. One of the many ironies of this episode--and all the episodes were deeply ironic--was that his dream could easily have been a line Don pitched for Heinz ketchup: “No one closes the door on Heinz.”
In the past, Don might have rolled his eyes at what he would have considered whining. In fact, the guy looks like any one of a dozen underlings whom the old Don might have berated at work, ignored or, more likely, fired. But something changes--someone has changed--and Don’s eye well with tears. He crosses the room, kneels, and embraces the man in an ungainly gesture, and both weep. It was a powerful, confusing, and utterly realistic moment.
The final scene has Don meditating, with a group from the retreat, on a sunny mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A chime goes off and he smiles, enigmatically. Then a quick cut to the famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” Coke commercial. End of series.
So is Don deep or shallow?
It’s hard to imagine that Don Draper hasn’t learned something. For one thing, it’s hard to argue that he hasn’t hit bottom. At one point, he’s actually collapsed on the ground, in the dirt, sitting in jeans beneath the pay phone at the retreat center. And those tears were real. At our most vulnerable, we are naturally more open to spiritual experiences. Why? Not because God is necessarily closer, but because we are more open to receiving those experiences. The old Don, with his corporate suit of armor, would simply have rolled his eyes, poured himself a Scotch and lit up a cigarette--Lucky Strikes no doubt. Now that carapace is gone. At least for the moment. So God, or insight, can break in more easily. (Also, Don now needs to get a good spiritual director.)
So he sees, for a bit. Perhaps he was surprised by the depth of his emotion for Betty. He can love. Betty, by the way, turned out to have been a deeper and more resilient person than many of us had thought. (But just as complex as any “Mad Men” character: her touching and plainspoken farewell note to Sally was a realistic mix of selfish vanity—Didn’t I look great in that blue dress?—and selfless love—Your life will be an adventure.) Perhaps the emphatic phone conversation with Peggy, who reminds Don of his value in the company, and her affection for him, when he seems near suicide, reminded him that he is cared for. He is loved. And the viewer knows Peggy does care for him. It is the real thing.
Why does Don go to the hillside to meditate? Perhaps he wanted to see where the earlier epiphany in the group would lead him. Or perhaps he just thought, “What the hell?” like a lot of newbies to meditation and the spiritual life. He smiles and, as I see it, has the idea for perhaps the most famous commercial of the early 1970s. (By the way, the longer "Mad Men" ran, the more its cultural references I got—I was born in 1960, and over time started to recognize the clothes, the furniture, the music, the turns of phrase. The Coke ad was wildly popular at the time, indeed so popular that jingle became a hit single.) For those who might argue that someone else came up with the commercial—say, Peggy—while Don stayed behind in Cali, there is this photo of Don’s retreat director (or whatever Esalen would call it) and the young woman from the commercial. So a bit of enlightenment...plus an idea for an ad.
Frankly, this happens not infrequently in the spiritual life. A person is in the middle of a genuine spiritual experience and an unrelated idea pops into his or her head. I often tell people in those situations to write down the idea in a journal and forget about it until the end of the retreat. But it’s not surprising that when our minds our open, all parts of ourselves are engaged—the spiritual, the physical, the mental. Even, you might say, the commercial. During prayer, I may have the idea for a new project that has nothing to do with what I'm praying about. The mind and heart and soul are complex.
Matthew Weiner’s richly textured finale, like the closing “The Sopranos," will no doubt give rise to endless debate. Did Don find the “Real Thing”? Or just a cheap facsimile? Worse, did he turn his spiritual gold into commercial dross? Coke, incidentally, that most American of products, appears in many forms in the final episodes: Joan snorts it; Peggy can’t believe that Don isn’t excited about sinking his teeth into the account; and in the second-to-last episode Don tries fixing a Coke machine at the fleabag motel he's staying in. Moreover, the "Real Thing" is also a cause of diabetes and obesity, as surely as Lucky Strikes caused the cancer that will kill Betty.
The other characters ended up where they were going all alone. Peggy and Stan (finally) find each other, in a satisfying ending for the two. People may carp at the melodrama, but why wouldn’t two of the more normal (for the show) characters find one another? And why wouldn't Stan be so articulate in love? He's an ad man after all. Prickly Pete, gifted with a cactus, whisks his wife and child off to Wichita. Nothing against Kansas, but there was delicious humor in seeing Pete and Trudy, the most status-conscious, Knickerbocker-y, Upper East Side-y of all the characters, lighting up in delight at the prospect of moving to the Midwest. Joan, always the consummate business person, realizes that she loves business more than her (to me) irresponsible and creepy suitor. Roger ends up with (another) woman “of a certain age” as the French say, Megan’s mother, as well as the best lines: “Two lobsters, and a bottle of champagne for my mother!”
To my mind, Don has found the Real Thing. He’s learned something about who he is. Someone who can indeed love and is loved. This was his great challenge in the series, and Odysseus-like, he kept searching for an insight into love. In one episode he confesses to his second wife, Megan, that he has only recently learned to love his young son. To cadge a line from the Coke ad, Don would like to teach himself to love. But he is also someone who is, for better or worse, an ad man. Those two things are not inconsistent. He’s not an evil person for going back to McCann Erickson. (As an aside, the scene where Hobart, the McCann exec, tries to strip Joan of her dignity, was perhaps the most accurate depictions of the corporate world that I've seen on television. Roughly ten years later, in 1982, I'd encounter some of that world at GE.) But he’s also not going to become Siddhartha either. (Though I bet he reads it in a few months.)
Don Draper will become what he is: an ad man and a good one. And thanks to his time on the road, and on retreat, someone who knows a little bit more about love and being loved. And that’s not such a bad ending for a person after all. Or for a series.