So Why Is This Man Smiling?
Spoilers for the Show "Mad Men" Follow
“My take is that, the next day, he wakes up in this beautiful place, and has this serene moment of understanding, and realizes who he is. And who he is, is an advertising man. And so, this thing comes to him. There’s a way to see it in a completely cynical way, and say, “Wow, that’s awful.” But I think that for Don, it represents some kind of understanding and comfort in this incredibly unquiet, uncomfortable life that he has led.”
Jon Hamm, in an interview with The New York Times
I’ve been tracking with Mad Men since not long after it first debuted. I was a relatively early adopter because the show was an enigma to me. People talked about enjoying the show the way they talked about wine: it was complex and nuanced, it wasn’t for everyone, it has this rich history, you just have to "get it", and it takes a while to get used to. I’m not sure whether I like sophisticated storytelling, or if I’m just in love with the version of me that can claim to love sophisticated storytelling.
Either way, the recommendation of my art-loving friends was now enough for me to get through the difficulty of what I didn’t understand.
The show’s pacing was always elusive. After the first admittedly difficult season, I thought season two would roar into gear–while there was a certain rhythm to the infidelity, muted dialogue, and troubled longing, the show kept growing in poise and scope. Each season became it’s own unique portrait of my grandparent’s generation–a generation I would only barely know through secondhand sources. As such, "Mad Men" was a window to the freshest chapters of our past.
IT'S A MAD WORLD
The best way I could describe “Mad Men” was that this series, entrenched with a tangible sense of place, told its truths about people in a more honest way than even the past ever could.
This, of course, is high praise. All art, in its own way, seeks to express the “truth” behind the mere “facts”. Here's the distinction: it’s one thing to imagine a past era, envisioning yourself experiencing the day-to-day life of a bygone time, or wondering how you would’ve responded to some historical moment in the making. It’s another thing entirely to have a even a clue why the world worked that way. Then, to then export those truths into our time and place, and leave us sober-minded about the parts of the human condition that just never change? This is the great accomplishment of "Mad Men".
The infidelity, alcoholism, and brokenness of every character in "Mad Men" was haunting to me. I never found myself having to rationalize or justify my personal decision to watch the show, though. This was in spite of how the narrative arc of the series didn’t bend toward karma: ugliness and selfishness weren’t later punished by malevolent turns, and faithfulness and loyalty most often didn’t benefit anybody.
On "Mad Men", the self-destructive consequences were hidden within every selfish and discontented decision each character made. Think about Don Draper, the titular protagonist of this advertising era: through season one, he cheats on his wife and gets away with it! But by the end of the season, he’s midway through pitching a marketing to Kodak when he realizes the ache and longing he has for the family he crumpled and threw away. They want him to sell their slideshow projector as a futuristic “Wheel”, but he realizes it’s a Carousel of memories–memories of a sealed past he has irreconcilably destroyed in the present.
“Mad Men” was always a liturgy of discontentment.
It was about letting you experience real people and their endless inner longings, and the devastating effects those longings would inevitably have. Peggy gave up her child for her workplace ambitions, and had to spend the next half a decade rationalizing her insatiable aspirations. Pete and Roger have an unbroken string of personal and professional dalliances–whereas Pete is fuelled by jealousy and competition, Roger is trapped in a mask of apathy and indifference. Joan keeps risking her present dignity in defiance, with the hopes of some future validation. Betty desperately wants to be loved–or at the very least, fawned over. Lane Pryce loses himself in debt and embezzlement and ends his own life in shame.
All these people are deeply unhappy, and they’re spending every personal resource they have to deny it.
So why, in the end of it all, is Don Draper smiling?
After the final shot of Draper experiencing a moment of meditative bliss, the screen cuts to the classic Coca-Cola commercial, “I’d Like To Buy The World a Coke”. The similarities in the outfits of those in the ad to those at the hippie resort suggest Don has used his brief moment of catharsis as inspiration for a glorious return pitch to Mccann Erickson. Or, maybe it’s just a big coincidence.
Either way, something significant is going on here. If you stuck with the show through seven seasons, you realize just how earned this final shot is. Obviously, all the major characters of “Mad Men” get to go on with their lives after the finale. But we’ve reached the ultimate conclusion of Don Draper’s narrative arc–because, for the very first time, he is content with himself.
What is the purchase price of contentment?
What does it take to be satisfied with you who are, and what you’ve done, and where you are right now?
Addictions are masquerades. So much attention was given to the drinking and smoking on “Mad Men”, the conversation became derivative. Yes, they drank and smoked because it was a different time. But the same cycle of allure and disgust over such vices entraps every generation since men first made mead. Try as you might, you just cannot redefine yourself with the drink in your hand, or the partner in your bed. In putting these excesses on display, our reaction became a mirror: the series was critiquing our culture. You can only delay your face-to-face confrontation with the painful reality you have created for yourself.
The promise of contentment is at the heart of all advertising, but it’s a promise they know they can’t deliver on. The best an advertiser can settle with is a close second: the delay of dissatisfaction. Just one more of these, or an upgraded version of that, and then life will be better. If SCDP could just settle one big account. If Don could just pick the right kind of car. If you could just make more money, or get more recognition at work. Everything else, of course–everything you know you really want–would be sure to follow.
The ache and hollow loneliness of discontentment is the scariest notion of all. On “Mad Men”, it’s what gives the motif of death its constant sting. The work of convincing other people to buy into delayed discontentment becomes an externalization of their inner disquiet.
I think “Mad Men” haunted me because I have given my life to a world which often serves as the inverse for the immoral excesses of the advertising industry. Religion, in it’s worst expression, doesn’t delay discontentment. Instead, it makes a virtue out of it. The only solution to our inner personal crisis is to spiritualize our lack and longing. Our confessions and commitments become centred around how much more we could be doing and how much better we could be. We pray–but it’s never quite enough–and we serve–but it’s never long enough. If, in our fervour and sincerity, we’re still dissatisfied–well, at least we have our inner piety. It's no wonder so many religious orders become centred around ascetic denial.
I have to remind myself that dissatisfaction is the root human issue. I have to remain aware how sinful, carnal excess and self-righteous indignation are equally rotten fruits, containing within themselves the bad seeds of further discontentment. I sometimes have to see for myself how selfish decisions become fractal fractures in my own deluded sense of self. There are no self-made men or women, in the advertising business–or in the religion business, either.
There are just people, desperately trying to find out who they truly are.
Whatever we suspect is true about ourselves, we must somehow come to terms with.
Don Draper, over the course of seven seasons, moves out of hiding and self-delusion until he can confess just how insignificant and disappointing he finds himself to be. It’s a hard-earned truth layered beneath a varnish of bad decisions, and each passing turn has chipped away at the veneer.
In confessing all of his brokenness to Peggy, she weakly responds by saying that it’s “not true”. But these are his facts. He has committed these sins–and more–and while his circumstances have let him get away with it, his soul is paying dividends.
But by finally being willing to confront himself, Don is able to to finally come to terms with who he is. After first denying his confession, Peggy tells him to “come home”. And she’s right, in a sense, that this version of his life is not true: he has reduced himself to his failures. She sees a more nuanced and meaningful version of himself.
We, the audience, have been able to see the whole picture.
I believe in redemption, and I believe in contentment. I don’t think these concepts are merely the result of imaginative advertising men. I hope my faith and religious practice, and the ultimate expression of all worthwhile art, leads people toward the same conclusion.
But here’s what I know for sure: you cannot find contentment until you are known and loved. And you cannot face the pain of your destructive decisions until you acknowledge the ache that is fuelling your desires.
The demands of both hollow religion and consumer capitalism require something as sacred as contentment to only be found in absolutes. Even now, I'm tempted to tell you how the character of Don Draper needs to "find Jesus" because this is the Right Answer–but life doesn't always work according to our abstract principles. Most people don't find an answer for their existential longings overnight–and often when it happens that way, it doesn't last. A sense of true contentment has to move past religious hyperbole and advertising hype. It has to gradually undo the fictions our choices have trapped us in, and it's only sustained in us when we discover it in the eyes of those who love us.
Do I think Don Draper’s catharsis is real? Yes, I do. Do I think it will be lasting? I’m not sure. But I know that for the first time, when he is all alone–not in the delusions he’s created for himself, but in reality–he feels some sense of peace.
Everyone deserves to find real contentment. It's the only honest spiritual pursuit there is.
Then and now, the Mad Men can't sell it, no matter how entrenched our age of advertising is. And the pious cannot deny it, either. If there is any lasting substance to why you're smiling, you'll know it can't be bought or sold–and you will finally be able to keep it that way.