AMC’s Mad Men is a show a lot of people just don’t get. I wasn’t a fan from day one. In fact, the first episode I tried to watch on TV—toward the end of season 2, where Joan’s fiancé rapes her in Don’s office after-hours—was a definite turn-off for the show in general. Still, as a lover of all things retro, I couldn’t avoid the Mad Men buzz. I broke down and bought the season 1 DVD in 2009, but never even opened it (it’s still unopened, by the way). It wasn’t until I discovered Netflix in 2010 that Mad Men became a story I watched, and even then, it wasn’t love at first sight. It took almost an entire season, until the scene where Betty shot the birds, to even begin to understand that Mad Men is a show about everything you don’t see on screen and how almost nothing we do see on screen is real.
A lot of people think Mad Men is a grotesque glorification of alcoholism and adultery. Indeed, Don Draper’s illicit sex life and constant drinking takes center stage throughout much of the series. Truth is, Don Draper is a lost soul. Don’s promiscuity and self-medication is but a manifestation of how lost he is.
A lot of people are lost. A lot of people sitting in church pews are lost. A lot of people with advanced college degrees and high-paying jobs are lost.
It’s rare we see a character on television or in movies as lost as Don but with so much material togetherness. Don is wealthy. Extremely, obscenely wealthy. Lost characters are usually portrayed as bums or or slobs or aimless drifters who can’t reconcile the responsibilities of adult life with their perpetual need to remain in a child-state. Not Don Draper. Don has everything most of us want—money, a large house, expensive cars, a gorgeous spouse. Yet Don Draper has nothing, because Don Draper isn’t even Don Draper. If you’ve never seen the show, this probably doesn’t make any sense. If you don’t want spoilers, you should probably stop reading now, because spoilers are on their way en masse.
Don Draper’s life is built on a foundation of lies. We see this from the opening frame of the show. Don, alone in a nightclub, smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette, badgering an elderly black busboy about which brand of cigarettes he prefers. It’s late 1959 in Manhattan, and the affluent customer’s conversation with a less affluent black busboy prompts immediate intervention by the bartender. After dismissing the bartender, Don says with a chuckle, “So, obviously you need to relax after working here all night” and continues to badger the busboy about his preference for Old Gold. “They gave ’em to us in the service,” the busboy says, “a carton a week for free.” And so begins the series with a trick that show creator Matthew Wiener loves to play, revealing more genuine insight about a character who appears on-screen for less than two minutes than we’ll get about the main characters over the course of an hour.
Don pretends to care about this busboy, but all Don really cares about is crafting the perfect pitch for the agency’s biggest client. As we’ll come to find out, Don doesn’t really care about anything except himself. At least not in the beginning.
From the nightclub to his mistress’s apartment, Don collapses onto the safety of her bed and crumbles. He confides that his best days are over, that he’s a fraud, that there are younger guys who are waiting to pick the meat off his ribs. And instead of pepping him up, his mistress sarcastically berates him. He proposes marriage and she asks if she’d make a good ex-wife.
From the mistress’s bed to the office the next morning, Don meets with a Jewish businesswoman and patronizes her to the point that she lashes out, then Don storms away because he won’t be talked to like that by a woman (even though he’d just spent the night being talked to like that by his mistress). From there, Don walks into a meeting with agitated tobacco executives whose business keeps the advertising agency alive, armed with nothing more than a research report suggesting they pitch the cigarettes to people with a death wish. The meeting goes horribly, until…
Something magic happens. Don Draper, backed into a corner, moments ago bemoaning his best days were behind him—Don Draper takes command of the room and weaves a soothsayer’s spell over the executives. “It’s toasted,” he says triumphantly. The executives retort, “But everyone else’s tobacco is toasted.” Draper wags his head. “No, everyone else’s tobacco is poisonous. Lucky Strikes… is toasted.”
This is the first we truly see Don Draper, the man who will fill seven seasons of Mad Men with exploits ranging from the comical to the mortifying. A lost soul searching for meaning. A lost soul with so many demons to fight.
Remember what I said about spoilers?
In that first episode, he is forced to to apologize to the businesswoman for walking out of their meeting. He asks why she’s not married, she replies that she’s never been in love. Don’s comeback? “The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow… because there isn’t one.”
It’s the kind of dialogue one could only write for a show set in 1960. We all know there was a tomorrow. Don Draper’s tomorrow was our yesterday. For many of us, Don Draper’s tomorrow preceded our very existence. We know, for example, how foolish it is that Don bemoans the government’s banning of doctor testimony as to the health benefits of smoking. We know smoking causes cancer. We get a sense of superiority watching these characters utter the phrase “Readers Digest says smoking causes cancer” as if the very notion were some work of fiction. When Don and Betty’s daughter, Sally, is running around the house with a dry cleaning bag over her head and Betty scolds her about how the clothes that were inside that bag better not be wrinkled, we all giggle about how naive people were back then to things like suffocation. When Don takes Betty and the kids for a picnic and their idea of cleaning up is to throw all their trash off the blanket they’d been sitting on, then drive away with the picturesque hillside they’d enjoyed now covered in garbage, we are left aghast at the selfishness and insensitivity of those past times.
Isn’t it interesting how, through science fiction set in the future or through historical pieces set in the past, we feel the freedom to judge and examine lifestyles and choices that we otherwise would defend as part of our own present life?
Social statements aside, over seven seasons, the show slowly peeled away the veneer that is Don Draper. Or, rather, Dick Whitman. Don Draper was an Army engineer who died in Korea with a few weeks left on his tour, and Dick Whitman was a private fresh out of boot camp who accidentally killed him by setting a pool of spilled gasoline on fire after the pair survived an enemy assault. When the Army finds them, they mistake Dick Whitman for Don Draper and send Dick Whitman home with a new name and a purple heart.
Throughout the series, the identities of Dick Whitman and Don Draper become so muddled it’s difficult to know what to call the man.
In flashbacks scattered throughout the show, we learn that while selling cars as Don Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife Anna walks into the dealership and confronts him. She’d suspected that her husband abandoned her and used the war as an escape for a loveless marriage. Instead, she finds that another man has assumed her husband’s identity. Instead of alerting authorities, she takes this man in as a friend and becomes a mentor, teaching him how to fully immerse himself in this new life. In turn, Don provides for her and takes care of her.
Don goes from selling cars to selling furs in Manhattan, then bluffs his way into a job at a scrappy advertising agency by getting one of the partners so drunk he doesn’t remember not hiring Don and is too ashamed to admit it. By the time the audience meets Don in that smokey nightclub, badgering the busboy, he’s the creative director of that very same firm.
In other flashbacks, we see that Don was born of a whore and named after the fevered rantings she continues to mutter on her deathbed shortly after Don’s birth. The child is given to the John who fathered him and raised in an abusive home until the angry alcoholic pseudo-father got himself killed when Don was still a child. We see Don’s stepmother seek refuge in a brothel, bringing Don along. We see Don raped by a vengeful prostitute who, despite her conniving, represented the closest thing Don ever knew to a real mother.
As disturbing and uncomfortable as all these things are, they paint a portrait of why Don Draper is so lost. Even with so much money that he can afford to throw thousands of dollars around just to impress people and walk into a Cadillac dealer to purchase a Coupe DeVille without even test driving it first. Even with an ex-fashion model for a wife. When his stroke-addled father-in-law rails at the dinner table, “He’s got no family! You can’t trust a man like that!”, we see the sting because Don knows the words are true. When he gives his nihilistic diatribe at dinner with the businesswoman and she retorts, “It must be hard being a man too,” we see his entire persona break for only a second. A subtle acknowledgment that she’d seen through the act.
Rather than glorifying the adultery and alcoholism, Mad Men’s writers used those vices as tools to show that we can’t self-medicate our pain. In season two, an older creative named Freddy Rumsen gets so drunk before a client meeting that he pees his pants and is fired from the company. We see Freddy later, sober, having gone through the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and now serving as a mentor for others who want to clean up their lives. In essence, we see Freddy redeemed.
Throughout the show, we watch Don lose his marriage to adultery. By season four, that ex-fashion model wife is in a relationship with a wealthy politician and Don is watching his children grow up in a broken home. He marries again, only to fall back into his adultery and to double down on his alcoholism and even workaholism. Those three vices eventually destroy his second marriage as well.
It was said of Cecil B. DeMille that he would show the righteous the good times they were missing out on through his glorious portrayals of sinful vice, but that he would so the consequences of those sins too so that the righteous wouldn’t feel too left out. So it was with Mad Men, a show where sin had consequences—much like real life—that manifested across seasons and ate into the core of these characters.
Of course, none of that is apparent at the beginning. Just like sin. It’s fun at first and then it’s not, to steal a line from late in the show.
In that first episode, Don says, “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness. And do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” Later in the series, Don will redefine happiness in a way that exemplifies the cynical nature of post-indsturial society. “Happiness is the moment before you need more happiness.”
One of my favorite lines of literature anywhere came from the writers of this show, words written by Don after the dissolution of his first marriage and the impending demise of the advertising agency he helped create.
We are flawed because we want so much more… we are ruined because we get these things and wish for what we had.
It’s difficult to properly attribute lines from a TV show. To the audience, Don Draper uttered those words and Mad Men is the world of Don Draper.
Do you give attribution to the character? After all, characters are nothing but the product of good writers. Every episode of every television show is created by a team of writers, yet even the writers didn’t create the character. They refine and define the character, but in most cases, they didn’t create.
It’s hard to separate the fantasy from the reality. It’s much easier to say that Don Draper uttered those words and be done with it. Except Don Draper isn’t even Don Draper—he’s Dick Whitman.
Or is he?
What became apparent in the final episodes of the show was just how accurate the quote above was. After the dissolution of his second marriage, we find Don visiting Betty’s new home, making milkshakes in the kitchen because the machine at the malt shop was broken. For a moment, they are a happy family again. But this is not Don’s house, and when Betty’s new husband, Henry, enters the room, Don makes a hasty exit. From the doorway, he watches Betty and Henry and his children be a family around their dining room table. We, as an audience, can feel that quote manifest. Don wanted other women. Don lusted and satisfied his lust. His cost him his marriage and his family. We see that he really does wish for what he threw away.
It’s not just Don who makes a transformative journey throughout the series. Nearly every major character does as well. Like Peggy Olsen, the plain-jane secretary whose first day happens on the show’s first episode. She wants a man though her ambitions are unclear. Does she want to be married and taken care of? Does she want to sleep her way into a position higher than secretary? She makes a pass at Don and is not only rebuffed, but scolded in good fashion. “I’m your boss, not your boyfriend.” Then, on the night before his wedding, she sleeps with Pete Campbell, a smarmy junior account executive who is only slightly less slimy than the algae infesting a stagnant southern pond in the sweltering heat of early September. They conceive a child, which she gives away. Later, after Peggy’s creative talent is discovered and she’s fast-tracked to an executive position with her own office, we find her pining for what might have been. Her relationships throughout the show are disastrous. Her only constant is Don, who mentors her with the combination of abusive rage and emotionally withholding instructiveness that only someone as lost as Don can muster. In many ways, she becomes just like Don—demanding of her underlings, intolerant of their lack of experience. It isn’t until Don begins a journey of healing himself that he can truly connect with Peggy and she can confide her fear of being alone forever to him. Through that, she finds the strength to confess her sins to a man she truly loves but can’t admit she loves until he professes his love to her first.
Or Pete, whose marriage to a wife who could’ve done so much better than him is one of the most frustrating story lines on the show. Pete spends much of the first seasons trying to undermine and destroy Don. He also spends most of the show trying to emulate Don, with disastrous results. Early in Don’s second marriage, Don advises Pete to hang on to what he’s got because he can’t get it back. Message not received. Pete continues being Pete until the angry husband of a mistress dumps his battered wife at Pete’s door, yelling, “She’s your problem now, Campbell.” Pete’s wife files for divorce, Pete moves to California and starts an affair with a real estate agent. But, then, Pete returns to New York and becomes somewhat likable. By the end of the series, he redeems himself and restores his family. And we, the audience, are happy to see him happy.
That’s the beauty of Mad Men. Much like Don Draper and Dick Whitman, these characters we think we know really aren’t who we thought they were. If the ’90s sitcom Seinfeld was called a show about nothing, then it could probably be said by the casual observer that Mad Men is a show where nothing happens. Except that misses the point.
So many people feel such a strong connection to Don Draper, do the duality, to seeing the hidden parts of life that no one wants to reveal. When Don runs away to California in season 2, part of us wants him to stay there and be happy. But we also know that his life is in New York. His wife, his children, his career.
Collectively, Mad Men is a work of art that reflects so much of life. From season one until the final season, there was the threat of the real-life advertising agency McCann-Ericson swallowing Don up. Don received job offers from McCann, even when his own agency didn’t want him there. In the end, McCann bought out Don’s agency and Don’s solution was to start a new office in California. When McCann rebuffed the idea, Don went solo and ran away to California anyway.
Broken, defeated. A thousand miles from everyone he cared about.
Don found himself at a hippie commune, at the brink of collapse, paralyzed by fear of the future. There, he meets Leonard, who tells a story of feeling so disconnected with his life that he feels like he’s inside a refrigerator, in the dark, listening to everyone have fun—hoping that when that refrigerator door opens, he’ll be picked. But he never is.
When Leonard breaks down and cries, so does Don. Then Don does something that seven seasons couldn’t prepare the audience for. Don reaches out to Leonard. Don embraces Leonard and cries with Leonard.
We all want to run away to California.
Maybe that’s why it’s so fitting that the show about an ad agency in Manhattan took it’s curtain call on the shores of San Francisco, with the suit-and-tie Don Draper sitting in lotus position, surrounded by seekers. Don Draper found peace. Peace does no make for great TV, so it’s fitting that the show ends as it does. Life is going on around Don, without Don, yet we know that Don reconnects with his life as a better person.
That gives all of us who loved the show hope that we can be better people too.