Mad Men - On Style and Substance

I thought I’d be chock full of words once Mad Men’s last episode ran, burning to give my take on WHAT IT ALL MEANS; instead I’m oddly copacetic. I’m not disappointed (the way I was after Breaking Bad); I’m just at peace of sorts, probably not unlike Don Draper while he was doing yoga on that bucolic promontory overlooking the Pacific.

There are obvious common themes between Mad Men and Breaking Bad: new identities, and all the unexpected consequences that reinvention entails. Walter White and Dick Whitman are both nonentities—one a loser high school teacher stiffed by the world (the type of guy like The Simpsons’ Frank Grimes who does everything right and still somehow has it turn out wrong), the other a sad product of prostitution sent to die in Korea—while Heisenberg and Don Draper are larger-than-life. In a sense, they’re mirror images of one another; Heisenberg is vehicle for darkness, violence, and general badassery, whereas Don Draper’s a somewhat respectable front, Superman in a suit, embodying the notion that the business of America is business. But both are running from their authentic selves, so seduced by idol worship of their own outsized image and ego that they’re willing to do awful and hurtful things to the people who are attempting to love them, or to anyone who threatens their grandiose façade. (There are those, of course, who miss the point of both shows and think that the wish fulfillment is the point; some cheer Heisenberg’s successes and sneer at the Skylers who don’t buy the bullshit, and many ape Draper’s fetishization of style over substance, seeing only the respectable suit and not what it conceals: a hungry void where a heart should be.)

For as much as I loved Breaking Bad, its ending annoyed me because it allowed Walter White/Heisenberg to die on his own terms, a legend in his own mind—diminished, perhaps, but still unpunished, with his ego more than intact. Mad Men did something similar, but it ended interestingly enough that I’m oddly OK with it.

In the next-to-last episode, one senses Don Draper is indeed being punished for his sins, beaten by his fellow veterans after confiding in them. It seems cruel but relatively fair; he’s already blown multiple chances at reinvention, and he continues to truly avoid owning up to his actions. (Whereas the smarmy Pete Campbell at least seems to be attempting an honest transformation. Witness his conversation with his brother about his womanizing and adultery: “It feels good for a while. And then it doesn’t.”) And well into the last episode, I thought Don was going to come to some self-destructive end, alcoholism or suicide, perhaps drinking himself to death in a hotel room, perhaps leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge and at last becoming (as so many have speculated) the falling man from the title credits.

Instead, we get one more enigmatic reinvention, prompted by a moment of empathy in a hippie commune. A gray bland man (the quintessential anonymous consumer, perhaps) talks about a dream where he was a product on a refrigerator door, and everyone could see him, but nobody picked him. And Don hugs him and cries—why? Because as the rejected child of a prostitute, he understands the commoditization of people. He knows how it feels to be passed over, to be unwanted. He’s made it his life’s work to engineer desire in others, to create desire for products as a way to make himself desirable. And he’s been doing it so successfully, it’s become his identity. He sees his self-worth almost entirely in terms of his life’s work.

And this is the key to Don’s character. He wants that warm fuzzy feeling, the feeling of being wanted and loved—but if it’s not forthcoming on his terms, he’s willing to accept an inauthentic facsimile, or better yet (and somewhat more reliable), a chemical substitute—preferably alcohol, but not always.

It’s no accident that one of Don’s most damaging meltdowns occurs during a presentation for Hershey. It isn’t Chevy or Heinz—it’s the country’s largest and most recognizable candy manufacturer, and the one most willing to trade on those oh-too-similar neural pathways by which we enjoy both confections and affections. (This is the company, after all, that wraps chocolate in tinfoil and calls it a kiss.) Not only does Don tell a story from his deepest darkest childhood, he implies that the company doesn’t even need his services, that neither he nor anyone else could help them sell their product. So great is his veneration of their synthetic substitute for authentic feeling that he doesn’t feel worthy of working with them. He sabotages the meeting; in a sense, he rejects them before they can reject him.

The series finale ends up further developing these themes. Throughout Season 7, people attempt to get Don to swallow the distasteful McCann deal by sweetening it with Coca-Cola. Even when he’s at his absolute nadir, melting down on the phone with Peggy (perhaps the person he most wanted to impress, or at least the person who most wanted to be him), she mentions that all can be forgiven, that he can have the chance to come back and work on perhaps the most recognizable American brand, and the one with the greatest disparity between image and substance. He can still feel wanted. And at last, after hugging the crying man and doing some yoga, it’s implied that he does go back. Perhaps as a better person, perhaps one more whole, he presumably returns to New York, digs back in to the work, and gives us the iconic Coca-Cola ad with people from all over the world singing about sharing a Coke, giving the illusion of community and communion.

Is this a good thing? The cynic in me says no—the Don Draper that begins the decade peddling cancer ends it by peddling diabetes. And it implies that he’s inventing a certain type of marketing that’s perhaps even slicker than anything that came before, a type that feels very Jobsian—giving people the illusion of warmth and peace and interconnectedness in a way that glosses over the very real and continued rift between the haves who reap the benefits when the have-nots consume too expensively what other have-nots produce too cheaply.

Still, story-wise it feels right, and entirely appropriate—a damn-near perfect end to a damn-near-perfect series. (As I said about Breaking Bad, if I can get anyone talking and thinking about my writing the way I’ve been talking and thinking about this show, I’ll view that as a massive success.) We don’t have a clue as to whether Don ever really ditched talk for action, whether he started showing up for the truly important things—Betty’s funeral, or the ongoing lives of his children. We have no idea as to whether he’s actually willing to do the hard work to form a meaningful relationship that will generate real and lasting good feelings. But he’s more than willing to sell us on a sugary substitute.