Expectation vs. Reality, and the Destruction of All Things: Nearing The End of “Mad Men”
Yo guys, major spoilers in this one. Like, huge. Up through the latest episode. So unless you’re caught up, stop reading here.
What do you want?
Not in the right now sense, though that is an important question too. I mean in the life sense, in the What do you hope to achieve? What do you want out of this existence? sense.
Mad Men has always been obsessed with this question. Hell, it’s a show about a bunch of advertising executives, an industry built on manipulating the deepest desires of the public, exploiting their fears and anxieties, creating an almost-primal urge for fulfillment, and then proposing any given product as the solution for that desire. Drink this beer and girls will like you. Use this shampoo and boys will think you’re pretty. Drive this car and you’ll be rich and successful, master of the universe in a silver sedan.
We often stake our sense of self onto that which we believe to be permanent. A job, a friendship, a family, when really, as Mad Men insists on pointing out time and time again, something can come along tomorrow that can take it all away. An unexpected illness, a buy-out, even an errant lawnmower driven by a drunken secretary. You’re always just a moment away from losing it all and having to start over again.
I have always been struck by this show’s ability to play upon tried and true television tropes to subvert audience expectations, and in the process better reflect real life. News that Don Draper may not be who he says he is was met with a pointed “Who cares?” The Drapers divorce and never reconcile (not even The Sopranos had the testicular fortitude to do that to their central couple). Even the original setting of the show, the offices of Sterling Cooper get ransacked and abandoned in an episode structured much like the caper flicks of yore. Nothing lasts in this life, not even the four walls that surround you.
Don Draper knows this all too well. Hell, the only reason he even is Don Draper is because he accidentally blew up (Yowza!) his commanding officer in Korea. He was given the opportunity to start fresh, to strip his entire identity to the bones and reincarnate himself as the slick, suave, debonair advertising executive that has been sauntering across our televisions for the past 8 years. Don believed that happiness was something he could attain, that could be bought off the shelf like the cigarettes or floor cleaner he would come to hawk.
Now the year is 1970, and Don has completely disconnected himself from the world in search of… do we think he even knows? He has almost entirely stripped himself of all of his worldly possessions because now he knows that materialism isn’t going to do it for him. He’s tried that. It didn’t work.
Don has spent most of this half-season much like the audience has, flipping through his memories and trying to find some kind of answer, some lesson to parse out of all of this stuff, all of these experiences that don’t seem on their face to add up to anything substantial. His attempts at reconnection with old flames, new flames, his coworkers, his creativity, all get rebuffed, and now he’s back to where he was at the very beginning, at the moment he chose to be Don Draper.
One time, he told a despairing friend, “The next thing’ll be better, because it always is,” and it seems that he is still holding on to that hope, despite all evidence to the contrary. Being Don Draper was no better than being Dick Whitman, it was just different. Don continuously, repeatedly, mindlessly, has tried to fill the gaps within himself with the “new,” and has made his fortune selling that promise to others. In the end, he will either accept that he just has to live with those holes, forever empty, or they will always haunt him. Like the police officer in his nightmares, they will always catch up with him. You’ll never be able to wholly solve the issues within yourself, and that reality will always be a let down, but you can choose to live with them.
What has been fascinating in these final episodes is how the journeys of show’s other characters mirror Don’s quest for the next, better thing. Some characters make change happen, others can have it thrust upon them, and in the end it always seems to be less than what they expected it to be. Betty can find a stable husband and attempt to better herself with psychology classes, but soon death will put an end to that. Roger can live out his days in relative comfort and stability, never upsetting the uneasy heart that has plagued him for a decade, but he’ll have to sell out his inheritance to get there, his name literally taken off of the walls. Joan can be looked upon with the respect she deserves by those who have known her for years, but to many men she’ll always just be an object, a toy to be played with. Peggy can work her way up the corporate ladder, but she’ll have to give up maybe her only chance at motherhood to do it.
Pete, of all people, figured it out. He always thought that his position was going to afford him certain pleasures in life; basically, to be Don Draper, only without the ennui. But he never wore the hedonistic lothario mask well. It was always a pathetic, awkward, desperate attempt to be something he simply wasn’t able to be. Yet, instead of allowing the collapse of that vision to drive him into despair, it drove him into a deeper sense of calm and understanding. He seems to find comfort in knowing that he’ll always have a family there, that their very existence is enough to find contentment. Or maybe that’ll all fall apart, because perhaps Pete’ll never be the type of person who is able to let that dream die.
In the end, Mad Men seems to believe as it nears its own finale that you can either choose to let the distance between expectations and reality depress the shit out of you, or you can not. Don Draper refuses to even confront that distance, thus his self-referential Kerouac-ian odyssey across the continent. Up until now, he has allowed that distance to define everything he is. He thinks he’s chasing something, when in fact he is the one being chased.
Don won’t find a neat, easy answer in the end. That’s just not the type of show Mad Men is. The question is whether or not he’ll even come close.