A Shove and A Hug: How I Finally Fell For Don Draper

**Two disclaimers: first, obviously, spoilers ahead, so don’t read if you haven’t watched the finale. Second, I’ve read some fantastic pieces on this episode, and I can agree with all of them, which is a testament to the depth and range of this show. What’s missing, to me, is a brutally honest depiction of Don, without any false optimism. I want to add that to the symphony, if you will. So, this isn’t my only opinion, and it’s not the only way I see Don. It’s just the one I think is missing. In other words, don’t hate me for what I’m about to say. :) **

Don Draper broke my heart in the end, so I suppose the joke’s on me. For 7 seasons, I have resisted his allure. I know, I know: I’m apparently one of the only women (or men, for that matter) alive who doesn’t find Don attractive. Mostly, I have found him…blank, like there’s no “there” there. He’s a guy chasing all the wrong things because he can get them, because people just hand him what he wants (drinks, sex, ad business) with little effort on his part. Even his advertising brilliance isn’t something he worked that hard for- no college degree, no thankless internship, not much more than luck and natural insight that lands him again and again in the lap of career luxury. It’s impressive, no doubt, and I’m not immune to his advertising pitches any more than anyone else. But I refuse to cave on this one reality: Don has it better than he ever admits to himself, and that’s at least half his problem.

That time Jon Hamm moonlighted on 30 Rock and he got free stuff and the best tables everywhere he went with Liz Lemon? Yeah, that was funny, but add in a drink from a crystal decanter and it might as well have been Don. He’s the quintessential white man of privilege, just drunk on all of the EVERYTHING he gets. And sure, he’s chasing all of these only because he is running, and that’s a pity, bless his orphan heart. But let’s not lie about this: Don Draper has been given a veritable buffet of chances, and he’s done little to move out of his special brand of cyclical unhappiness over all 92 episodes. It’s like a refrain of lather, rinse, repeat, except he never quite gets clean.

Mind you, he still gets chances at redemption for everything- for accolades, happiness, promotions, a good relationship with his daughter. Redemption courts him at every turn, and Don blows through his chances like a man making it rain in some seedy night club.

I thought his number was up when he proposed to Megan. It was as if his soul blurted out a proposal before his self-destructive mind could catch up to it, and I thought maybe he would, if not be saved, be at least…a little happy? Less restless? Ever so slightly content? But Don couldn’t allow himself such luxuries, despite the swag bag of privilege everyone else is so eager to shove into his pretty man hands. So he did what Don does, and cheated and drank his way into oblivion, until the eyes of Sally Draper threatened to sober him up for good.

Except they didn’t.

It’s hard watching a dog continually return to his own vomit. Maybe it’s honest. Surely that’s all of us, at some point or another, but you can’t blame a girl for being tired of seeing it. We’ve heard Matthew Weiner say that Mad Men is primarily a show about how it’s hard to be a human being. As far as themes go, that’s one I understand. (No pastor has a lack of stories on how that’s painfully, heart-breakingly true.) But, as I would tell my husband from time to time when Don would bed some other awful brunette when he had a perfectly loyal one at home, or shut off emotionally to his wife/child/co-worker, or pour yet another drink down his throat, it’s hard to be human, but it’s not impossible, for God’s sake.

I didn’t expect Don Draper to get a happy ending. I probably wanted one, deep down, though I wouldn’t admit it. But I never expected one. Not until a few episodes ago, when Don seemed intent on hitting bottom with the intensity of a man hiking Kilimanjaro. Divesting of his money, his furniture, his apartment, his car, he’s left with a ring he tried to give away, a ratty bag of clothes and a dwindling envelope of cash. He’s confessed so much this season he should be squeaking like a saint and sweating out righteousness, but instead he gets hit in the face with a phone book and conned into sex he has to pay for. He learns Betty is dying, and she tells him the ugly truth that he should just go ahead and admit he’s not going to step up, even though he’s going to say he wants to step up. You start to wonder if Don Draper is finally running out of chances, for his own good. And then he finds himself in some gawd-awful hippie camp, the pinnacle of the 70’s cliche, where he’s surrounded by nothing but feelings, feelings, feelings. And he finally gets exactly what he deserves: shoved.

I don’t know who that grey-haired woman was or what brought her to that camp, but I like to think she shoved him on behalf of all of us.

It may have been the first truly and brutally honest thing Don Draper ever got in his life.

Because really, Don. For a man who’s been handed everything (and I’m not just talking about the stuff money can buy- he’s been given the good intangible things, too), I’ve about had it with your whining. And if you’re going to whine and confess and hand out million dollar checks to the woman who loved you in spite of yourself, if you’re going to simplify your life as if you’re gunning for top rank at the Buddhist temple, and walk out on the McCann meeting because you’ve realized that advertising agencies themselves promise things they can’t deliver, if you’re going to do all of that and then STILL return to your own pile of vomit, running away from every bit of responsibility you have, so you can act like Speed Racer and not go home when your soon-to-be-motherless children may actually need you, we’re done here. On behalf of all of us, shove it.

Dick, indeed. He chases after Stephanie and tells her the same damn nonsense he told Peggy one billion years ago, like nothing at all has happened, like he hasn’t learned a single solitary thing: you can move forward. You can forget this. “Oh, Don,” Stephanie sighs. “I don’t think that’s true.”

Don Draper, the most clueless lucky man in the universe, can’t figure out that she’s right. He can’t figure it out even after he’s lost everything and given away the rest, even while he’s stuck on some enlightenment hippie island of despair. All he knows is he’s lonely, which means he needs to reach out to a woman. He calls Peggy for one last phone call, one last confession where he will once again reject the absolution. He collapses, and he can’t move.

Maybe this is where it ends, I wondered. The best outcome we get for Don is that he just stops running and gives up.

And then…then came the man in the powder blue sweater vest, the Anti-Don. (Don’s antidote?)

He says exactly what Don feels, even though Don doesn’t think he has the right to feel it, which may be tragic but at least it’s honest. Don, the man who has everything, and who has never once felt like it. Don, the product on the shelf chosen because he’s handsome and successful and good with words, chosen because he delivers in the bedroom and the boardroom, chosen every time over all the other contents of the fridge. Don, who has not only been chosen for the trophy he is, but has been chosen genuinely for love, and chosen by grace, and chosen even for forgiveness. Don, who wins the award for “most chosen” across every last damn circumstance there is, still chooses to sit there on the shelf. Because no matter what the rest of us think, Don is convinced he’s invisible.

And in this one, image-shattering moment, he knows it. He finally knows that he is a man of his own making in the worst sense of the word. He’s made his own loneliness, his own tragedy, as faithfully as a military man makes his bed. He knows there is nothing separating him from the utterly forgettable man driveling in front of him, who knows he’s loved and realizes he doesn’t even know what it is, or how to let them. This may be the one place in the whole wide Don Draper-obsessed world where Don may have the opportunity for true, pure human connection with no strings attached. Where he can be just a human being, nothing more, nothing less.

And it moves him.

It literally moves him, and he embraces this man, and he cries.

A shove, and a hug: if these don’t sum up what Don Draper needs most of all, I don’t know what does.

I thought this was Don Draper’s final scene in Mad Men, and I thought it was glorious. Against all odds, and against even his own will, the man with a thousand winning faces cracks his last mask and becomes a bona fide human being. After being shoved into facing the truth of who he is, after being bombarded in his soul by his deepest fears of rejection, he breaks. Maybe now he can finally be put back together, remade, not as two broken halves of Dick and Don, but as a whole person, still deeply flawed, but…real.

I was ready to send Matthew Weiner a dozen roses.

But that is not the ending we were given. It’s not Don’s final scene. Instead, we see a Don who has cleaned up, shed the lumberjack plaids for a crisp white oxford, and sat down on that bucolic grass like a man with a plan, shoulders upright. Crumpled, honest Don has vanished. What kind of Don has taken his place? He closes his eyes as he listens to some half-baked spirituality nonsense about a new day, a new you, and I wonder, “Is he into this? Is he in a place where even the emotionally manipulative 70’s camp scene can usher him into actual, transforming enlightenment? Is all Don’s hard soul work finally, finally going to pay off for more than just one fleeting moment of self-awareness? Did it actually sink in this time?” We see the camera pan in, and Don smiles. “Maybe,” I think. “Ohmigod, maybe. Maybe this time, after all that.”

And then…the Coke commercial.

Don may not have fallen off the building, but when I saw that Coke commercial, I felt like I did. Granted, it’s possible that the commercial signifies Don finding peace with who he is, and returning to New York to do what he’s good at, which is always going to be a morally nebulous affair. Maybe he calls his kids more often. Maybe he shows up to Betty’s funeral and he’s not even drunk, and he doesn’t even bring a date. In my more optimistic moments, I can go with this theory.

But if you want to know what I really think, I fear the ending was far more cynical than all that. I think Don Draper got as close to redemption as any person can, and after his one moment of self-awareness and even self-acceptance, he just couldn’t stay there.

I think he ran again.

As I sat there on the couch watching the credits, I thought to myself, Have I been Don Draper’ed? After seven years of standing at arm’s length while he’s pulled just about everyone into his orbit, while people have willingly grabbed blinders that sing “Don is okay! He smells good! He deserves another chance!” I realize I put them on, too, without even noticing. I might as well have been one of his clueless brunettes, searching his eyes for a stability that is a galaxy away from possible, and swooning just the same.

Because the Don who told the Hershey people he hopes they never advertise, because their product is actually sacred to him and there’s something within him that just won’t let him go there? That Don isn’t the one saying “ohm” on the grass. If Don takes his supposed a-ha moment of transformation and commodifies it into a shallow sentimental commercial (regardless of its success), part of me has to question whether his redemption was real at all. To me, that moment with the Hershey people was maybe the most honest Don had ever been, up to that hug. Using the very barometer Matthew Weiner gave me to judge Don by, chances are that Don just didn’t stay there long enough to really change. Maybe he changed a little. Probably he did. Maybe he’s taken the first small step toward a redemption that’s still ten years out, after a few more rounds of lather, rinse, repeat. But if you ask me, the Coke commercial may be the single most devastating revelation of Don Draper yet. He’s an ad man running from redemption, and he will be falling off that building in one way or another forever. We will love him, and keep giving him chances, and all he knows to do is break our hearts.

The Don Draper we met seven seasons ago was a man who had a knack for isolating human need and converting it into advertising dollars, while standing at a distance with a crisp white shirt on.

The question is: is the Don Draper we’re left with any different at all?

 

1 Comment

  1. Nope! No different. Well MAYBE a little “enlightened”. But I’d LIKE to think Don is owning his terrible mistakes that hurt people, going back and trying to atone for them, while realizing that he can still work in advertising – He loves it when he can create and is REALLY good at it. That’s what makes him happy.

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