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The unmaking of Don Draper in the end of Mad Men

Posted on May 18, 2015 at 8:10 PM

The way I saw it, one “Mad Men’s main agendas has been to establish the myth of Don Draper, then systematically break it down. Up until this last season it’s been the people closest to him who have been making cracks in that slick, sexy armor for glimpses of the quivering mass of self-loathing underneath. But with these very last episodes its Don himself who is painfully peeling back those layers.

First he has to walk away from his status as the enigmatic genius of the ad world, leaving behind him McCann-Erickson and its promised opportunity to work on no less than Coca-Cola. He flees to Racine in a futile search for Sad Brunette #11* finding only her bitter ex-husband. So Don heads west with the promise of redemption via the latest brown-haired sad-eyed girl fading in his rear view mirror.

Don is invited to an American Legion fundraiser. Encouraged by someone’s statement that “You do what you have to do to come home” he tentatively confesses part of his story, admitting that he accidentally killed his commanding officer. It seems like a safe place for Don to settle for a bit and continue to heal until he gets blamed for stealing. He convinces the young, budding con-artist who actually took the cash that this crime was a first step towards a life on the run, “…and that’s not what you think it is” But dispensing wisdom to his younger self doesn’t correct his own course so, still in fleeing mode, he gives the kid his Cadillac and moves on.

I had been thinking that the show’s deconstruction of his mythos wouldn’t be complete until Don didn’t have his sex appeal to coast on. While the first half of Season 7 did bring some fairly awkward encounters with an increasingly disinterested Megan; the last bedroom scenario we see in the series does indicate that his sex god image has taken some hits. The blonde he’s with tries to rob him, proving that some, if not all of her motivation for sleeping with the irresistible Don Draper is just his conspicuous wealth. 

Meanwhile, Betty is dying. We knew someone was gonna get lung cancer.

Sally is the bearer of this bad news and provider of a reason to come back to his old life. She wants her brothers to keep part of their stable homelife by staying with Henry. All set to charge in and save the day, Don calls Betty who shuts down Don’s protests of “But I’m their father!” with a simple and brutally honest plea for normalcy in her last few months with her children. “And you not being here is part of that” she gently tells him. Don can’t go home, there is no place for him there.

At this point he is a lonely, broken man in plaid flannel with messy hair who can only think of Anna Draper’s home in California as a place where he might feel safe and loved. But Anna, “the only person who really knew [him]” is dead. In his desperation Don thinks he'll find might find that same calm, loving acceptance with her niece. But his relationship with Stephanie doesn’t actually have much to it other than memories of Anna. She did call him for help when she was pregnant and broke but that was probably based more on his money and the knowledge that he wouldn’t judge than on any deep familial bond they shared. Plus there’s the lingering ickyness of that time when he hit on her. Whatever he hoped to find with Stephanie fades at the reality of her situation. His guilt over abandoning his family rushes to the surface at her revelation that she has done the same, and she’s nonplussed when he gives her Anna’s ring. He follows her to a retreat and faces how she really feels about him after they both storm out of a meeting. Another woman in the group said she knew from personal experience how much harm Stephanie was doing by abandoning her baby. Don runs to Stephanie’s side and essentially gives her the “it will shock you how much this never happened” speech that he hampered Peggy with back in season two but his frantic delivery and the wild look on his face just doesn’t sell the gospel of continually starting over as easily as it once did. Stephanie can see that Dick Whitman’s flight not fight reflex hasn’t actually fixed anything. Nor does she appreciate him hanging his latest escape plan on her. She exits his life with one parting shot “you come back here and give me this family heirloom, but you’re not my family!”

It’s really been difficult to decide what true rock bottom looks like for Don. Was it using Allison for sex and pretending it never happened while giving her $100? Throwing up at Roger’s mother’s funeral? Laying out his whole sad childhood in the whorehouse to the Hershey people? Seeing his daughter’s face as she walked in on him having sex with the neighbor? Those all felt pretty brutal at the time but the evidence is strong for this last moment of Don on his hands and knees calling Peggy collect just to tell the one person on earth who still looks up to him that he doesn’t deserve it, “I am not the man you think I am” “What did you ever do that is so terrible,” she asks and he doesn’t spare himself, telling her “I’ve broken all my vows, I’ve scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and did….nothing with it.” His degradation has to be complete but with it is the glimmer of hope that Peggy provides. She does want him to come back, and knows better than anyone what he made with the life he took for himself.

Curled up next to the phone and stripped of all his protective shells, Don allows himself to be dragged to a meeting. And here at the end it’s actually not the sound of his own voice that ends up changing the game. In fact, we don’t hear Don speak again. What saves him is empathizing with the emotions of another person, quite possibly for the very first time. The man is a non-descript corporate drone who self identifies as uninteresting; he’s unnoticed at work and ignored by his family. But the more he talks about why he’s unhappy, despite having everything you ‘should’ have, the more Don hears another person give voice to how he has always felt. He says it’s like he was on a shelf in the fridge, with his wife and his children occasionally opening the door and smiling, but not at him, watching them enjoy life and never being able to join them in the world, knowing that they should love him and he should be able to feel that they do. When he breaks down crying Don wraps his arms around the man and finally lets go, sobbing on his shoulder and giving the man the comfort of doing the same.

When we see Don next he’s one of many meditating on a cliff by the ocean and his final “Oooommmmm” fades to a contented smile…which fades to that classic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. I’m really not sure how to feel about the implication that after all that he just goes back into advertising, and uses this new enlightenment as the basis for a famously cheesy Coke commercial. Maybe returning to his old profession doesn’t have to mean he’ll keeping making the same mistakes, but Mad Men has always been a bit too cynical for that reading. 

*By my count: the woman who raised him, the dyed blonde hooker who raped him when he was maybe 14, Midge, Rachel, Miss Farrell, that hooker in season 4 who slapped him around a lot, poor Allison, Megan, Sylvia, the Neve Campbell red herring guest spot, and Diana the diner waitress. So reads the final lineup of Draper-approved Tragically Beautiful, Slightly Broken, almost Norm Defying, Mommy-Issue-Surrogate Brunettes©


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