Can people substantially change who they are? Or do they, as they get older, just become more of who they are?
Mad Men – one of the best-written series ever on television – grappled with the question of change and identity via the lens of the American psyche throughout its eight-year,seven-season, run. So it seemed only fitting – and simultaneously both obvious and brilliant – that this would be the primary question it answered in its finale episode.
A television program can only do so much but for my money and time there has not ever been a show to so accurately yet obtusely capture how Americans think, change or refuse to budge as this one. We have taken a lot of heat as a country for being a bit self-obsessed just as we have also always been lauded for our sometimes unsolicited generosity of spirit to others when their or our backs are to the wall. Perhaps America as a bastion of freedom that will always lend a helping hand and open door to those less fortunate has taken a beating in recent years. But the idea of the U.S. – and the desire for there to be a place where people can live free and be who they really are regardless of what they may or may not really be, observe or come from – is a concept that seems to only grow with power as time goes on and the world grows more (yet seemingly less) connected.
The reason Mad Men was so often able to address these questions so brilliantly is that series creator Matthew Weiner chose exactly the right decade – the 1960’s – to tackle them. There has not been, nor probably will there ever be in the future, a ten-year period with so great a shift in cultural, political and social mores. It saw an unprecedented period of sweeping changes in how we thought, felt, and even dressed. Free love, the peace movement, a relaxing of social conventions that caused us to become (Note: Sometimes kicking and screaming) more inclusive and less discriminatory against the marginalized or less fortunate? Well, five plus decades later some of it would last – for a while – until segments of the majority in power (Note: Did I say the 1980s? Oh, now I did) decided to take a few more steps backwards from that advancing direction. But then again, all of this societal stuff tends to be cyclical anyway if you look at the rise and fall of any the world’s great super powers. At least we – well, many of the most fortunate of us, that is – still have a few more choices now than we did back then.
When one says Mad Men was about the sixties let’s be clear about something – it was really about the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The decade we really think was the sixties didn’t actually begin until after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Before that it was just the 1950s but with a more youthful glow. The 1960s then happened and took us through Vietnam, rock ’n roll, drugs and the search for love and that dirty term nowadays: self-actualization. But that ended after the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, television bringing the atrocities of the Vietnam War home, and the unmasking of all of the rest of the American dream for every bit of the invented sham it always was. That, in essence, was where our slow recovery – meaning the 1970s – began and continues to this very day.
None of this is meant as an insult to the American dream or to negate the fact that many beneficial aspects to it still do exist. But make no mistake – it was and is invented and made up. The very nature of all dreams is that they are NOT REAL. Which, on the other hand, makes them no less true (or potentially true) in some form. I tell this to my students in every writing class I’ve ever taught when they voice concerns that their stories are too contrived. Well, of course they’re contrived! I answer. All of this stuff is made up, even if it’s based on real life. The task is to make it not seem like it is – to somehow have it evoke reality. That was hard fought advice I gave to myself after decades of self-flagellation whenever I myself grew overly frustrated that nothing I ever wrote seemed real ENOUGH.
There is no main character – nee protagonist, nee anti-hero or hero, depending on how you want to see him – to dramatically travel so effectively in, around and through these issues as a man whose job it is to manufacture American dreams, wants and desires – meaning an American advertising man.
And what kind of ad guy – how about one whose entire personal identity is made up from the very beginning – both literally in Matt Weiner’s mind and figuratively in the character of Don Draper, a man who is really named something else he didn’t like or want to be and instead chose to assume the name and new life of a dead man. This is a guy who is so perfect looking, so talented, and so continuously successful in everything he does even when he is failing miserably – that he couldn’t be real. In fact, he couldn’t be anything more than the invention of some smart and savvy mind on Madison Avenue – which is what he is.
Don Draper’s journey from stud, to family man, to phony man, to rich man who remembers being a poor man, to rogue, alcoholic, reformed rogue with half a heart back to pseudo real, tortured American stripped bare at the end of the decade, seemed iconic and ironic enough. But it was only in the last episode this weekend, where the flawed yet somehow always enviable Don Draper took center stage alongside such other fictional American icons as Tony Soprano of The Sopranos, Walter White in Breaking Bad and even All in the Family’s Archie Bunker.
It is giving nothing away (Note: Or perhaps it is so if you’re a stickler for these kind of things you might want to skip over the paragraph) to say that at his seemingly lowest point in the series Don decides not so much to change but to pull himself together the best he can and achieve what in his heart of hearts he’s always wanted – something uniquely his own and thus personally iconic.
But he does this not through the personal epiphany he has in the scene before when, in a burst of uncharacteristic, unguarded emotion, he is able to identify with and even hug a fellow lost male soul in a California encounter group when the man compares himself to an unchosen item in a refrigerator and laments that people “look right through you” and don’t see you. I mean in that moment you wonder if what Don feels is not so much kinship for a guy to whom he is essentially saying – that’s right, I feel the same way, they don’t see me either and I know how you feel – or whether as he’s hugging this poor shlub he is really saying – Listen bud, I AM the ideal, the guy you always think they see and who, in fact, they do see and always choose, and it’s no better on this side either. I don’t feel like anyone really knows me because I don’t know me, and let me tell you, just like you that feels like shit.
This would seem to be Don’s emotional catharsis and moment of self-actualization and perhaps it is in that moment. But like all heroes in very American art this hero has to take what he’s learned and apply it to real life. Or as they say via our take on modern dramatic film and TV writing, The Hero’s Journey — he needs to Return with the Elixir from whence he came and put his knowledge into practice in his own ordinary world.
Though we’ll never know for sure, it seems that Mr. Weiner’s (and Mad Men’s) answer to all this is NOT to have Don go home and become a better father, join the Peace Corp or set up a foundation for other lost souls less fortunate than he.
No – what happens is that during a subsequent day of mediation (complete with a joint OHM and all that entails) a literal bell goes off in Don’s head and he smiles – presumably with an idea.
Suffice it to say this is not a notion for how to achieve world peace or the beginnings of a cure for cancer. Though perhaps it is the ad man’s equivalent of that – a brilliant idea for a …Coke Commercial?
Say what you want about all of us as a culture, or as artists, but there is no idea too pure or life event too personal that we are above cannibalizing if we can turn it to our benefit into great art or at least a great business idea – though hopefully both.
Which I couldn’t help thinking about when Mr. Weiner revealed Mad Men’s final song and image – Don Draper’s last great idea. Cue one of the most famous television ads ever seen – a multi-cultural group of young people of different colors and nationalities atop a mountaintop having HIS Kumbaya moment but singing a song espousing the benefits and joys of us humans one day existing in perfect harmony as we each drink…our Coca-Colas.
Anyone who is of a certain age remembers I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke. If not click here. First it was an ad jingle, then it was one of the first world videos, and then, and only then, was it re-recorded with new lyrics where it would become an…international hit record.
It was the beginning of another era – that of media cross-pollination, which would eventually give way to mass corporate ownership of the arts and vertical integration of all its divisions into a new world order.
Yes, we do have the Don Drapers of the world to thank for that.
But only THE Don Draper – and those who created him – to thank for seven seasons of appointment TV that, even in our current and vast media landscape, will sorely be missed.