The dust Don Draper kicked up on his California-bound journey to find himself has almost settled. In the days since the series finale of Mad Men aired, critics have produced many appraisals and deconstructions of the final installment of Matthew Weiner’s beloved, meticulously 1960s-era chronicle of the advertising industry and the enthralling cast of characters who filled its smoky offices. This kind of critical fervor for Mad Men is, of course, nothing new. Throughout the show’s seven-year run, as Hank Stuever glibly remarked, enthusiasts have repeatedly harnessed “their relatively unused master’s degrees” to generate scrupulous—if, nonetheless, obsessive—analyses of each new episode. And it’s hard to blame fans for such scrutiny given the palpable literary quality of Weiner’s series. As the curtain finally falls, it is more apparent than ever that Mad Men’s charm was always the slow and subtle arc of a good novel rather than the shrill and improvident plot of pulp fiction—as if the storytelling style was itself among the methodically curated list of items that, in aggregate, helped achieve the show’s astoundingly holistic period piece effect. All of those small and seemingly superfluous narrative details invite interpretative attention; the minutiae which inspired so much commentary were as important to the show’s texture as each and every fitted wool suit and silk chiffon.
One of those details that served as perennial fodder for Internet speculation was the show’s opening credits sequence. Don Draper’s silhouette falling from an office window on high, as many supposed, was a portent omen that the story of Mad Men was really The Fall of Don Draper, a tale that ultimately would end with his untimely demise. With the final act finally in the books, it turns out this particular conjecture was wrong: Don Draper lives.
The seventh season, and series finale in particular, have redrawn my attention to another hiding-in-plain-sight element of the opening sequence—the show’s title. “Mad Men,” as the first frame of the very first episode explains, was “a term coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.” On one level, then, the title is simple word play (and “Mad Men” is certainly catchier than “Avenue Guys”). There is, however, more meaning to be wrung from Weiner’s title.
What makes Don Draper a mad man? Plentiful images of an enraged Don come to mind, including one particularly memorable exchange with Peggy Olson from Season 4. The kind of madness I’m interested in, however, is less the kind you manage through therapy and more like the kind Plato describes in the Phaedrus. In that text, Plato crafts a dialogue between Socrates and a young philosophical aspirant named Phaedrus on the nature of Eros. Love, Plato claims through his literary mouthpiece Socrates, is inspired and fueled by a kind of divine mania, or madness, for Beauty (with a capital B). Eros is an innate yearning that propels the lover onward and upward, toward the unseen object of his or her desire. Physical beauties, consequently, are meant to be incipient intimations, anticipatory icons, of the archetypal Beauty.
The difficulty, of course, is that sensible pleasures have a certain way of ensnaring our attention and obscuring our ability to focus on that which lies beyond, a problem Don Draper knows all too well. As Plato describes it, the very manic fervor for Beauty that propels the lover toward unseen spiritual heights may equally become a liability when misdirected toward pleasure alone—that is, when we, like Don, mistake the beautiful sensual icons all around us for archetypal Beauty itself. Madness is not the problem, Plato contends, the problem is how you use it. Beautiful souls are not those who have expunged mania but rather those who, like a charioteer, have learned to properly harness their frenzy. Madness, like a pair of winged steeds, is the true engine of Eros.
Eros is by no means a foreign topic for the characters of Mad Men. Don, in particular, has been asking and answering the question since the first episode of the series. During a memorable dinner conversation with department store heiress (later, love interest), Rachel Menken, Don pontificates:
“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.”
An eye roll would be the almost necessary response to this line if we believed Don is actually convinced of the predictably Dionysian gospel he just preached. (Another lesson Mad Men continually taught us is that the line between selling something to others and selling something to ourselves is often opaque).
Nevertheless, Don recognizes the power of this gospel, especially in a decade as tumultuous as the 60s: at least part of his creative genius is an acute ability to recognize that advertising trades on a certain perversion of the promise of love. We have watched Don make this same pitch to himself many times over. We have watched Don copulate himself into willful ignorance of love’s tomorrow. We have watched Don continually mistake the newest thing for “The Real Thing.” But we have also watched Don harbor a certain desire for something more, a glimmer in his eye that belied his own confidence in the self-actualized statement of faith he tried to pawn to Rachel Menken, an indication that perhaps love was for him not simply another advertising gimmick.
Don loves, and loves, and loves—or tries to at least. But, the object of Don’s love remains always just out of reach. His is a yearning Eros for a receding horizon of unattainable Beauty. Or, as David Ehrlich put it, for Don “love is not something that you have, nor something that you had; it’s something that you’re looking for and faintly remember but can never quite forget, like the echo of an old perfume.” In Andy Warhol’s idiom: “Sex is nostalgia for sex.” When, in Season 5, he pitches to Jaguar with the dynamite tagline, “At last, something beautiful you can truly own,” it’s hard not to hear reverberations of Don’s own erotic vexations. But, beauty, of course, is not something we can ever possess. Beauty is something in which we can surely participate but certainly never own. Beauty, as Plato rightly tells us, is something that possesses us.
That’s why love is something very much like madness, an experience somewhere “between joy and anguish,” Plato says. Eros grips us, compels us, and keeps us moving. Don Draper is nothing if not a man hell-bent on motion. “Get out of here, and move forward,” Don says to a hospital-bed-ridden Peggy in Season 2, “This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” For most of the series we find Don practicing what he preaches and sprinting away from his past: a childhood spent in a brothel, an indecorous Army career, countless affairs, two failed marriages, even his children at times.
Yet, Don’s flight is determined just as much by what he is running toward as what he is running from. We have eagerly observed a decade of Don’s life waiting to see where that toward might take him. The series finale finds Don quite literally speeding away from past failures before stalling out in an Esalen-esque retreat center on the coast of California. It would seem Don’s journey ends at a blissed out hippie retreat center, “peace” as some have called it. Indeed, some have wondered why Don finally stops running at the series’ end. I, however, wonder whether that question does not miss the great brilliance of Weiner’s final frames.
As Don’s wry smile creeps across his face and the opening bars of “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” sound, it seems fairly clear—to me anyway—that whatever peace Don has found on the coast, it is not the kind of resolution that leaves him static. He doesn’t stay on that beach, he returns to McCann-Erickson and creates one of the most memorable ads of the twentieth century. Don’s peace is the sort that allows you to press on, to keep moving forward, to strain toward that which lies ahead with acceptance of your own finitude. At the beginning of the series, Don Draper is the consummate icon of unbridled desire. By journey’s end, however, I’d like to think he has a tighter grip on the reins. Of course Don Draper doesn’t stop running, but that’s only because he’s human. Basil of Caesarea said it well: “as the time of our lives flows on, we are hurried along as if by a continuous and restless motion on the unheeded course of life.” The genius of Weiner’s conclusion is not that Don has found motionless Zen but that Don has learned to harness his ardent yearning for love, his madness. After all, for good or ill, isn’t that also the genius of the Coke commercial itself? Human desire for peace, our mad longing to be known and loved, is transformed into an economic stimulant. We all want The Real Thing—the best (m)ad men know that better than most.