The ambiguous morality of Mad Men

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(Warning: contains spoilers)

The seventh and final season of the TV series Mad Men is at an end (we have just watched it on DVD), and with it the existential crisis of ad man Don Draper. (Well, the crisis is somewhat resolved.) The show’s six main characters – three men and three women – all go through a new beginning of sorts in the last episode, though their characters have not changed substantially – I mean the character of their characters. What does this suggest? Befitting the lead character, Don is the one whose change seems the most profound, though that remains ambiguous.

I must admit a sense of loss with the series’ end, despite the fact that none of the characters are particularly endearing, even if they have their charm and engaging qualities. They are in general simply not particularly nice people. They retain a ruthless, ambitious steak (if their ambition cannot be said to saturate them), and they continue with their successes, or at least bounce back from set-backs. Don is a lead character who we don’t necessarily warm to. He is an adulterer and a neglectful father, quite aside from the lie he is living (which mainly affects his psychological state – though some characters are scandalised, some couldn’t care less). And yet we empathise with Don because although seemingly having it all, by the end of the series, he has nothing much in terms of relationships of depth. Although his life is superficially enviable, underneath it is not. Such is the mismatch between the glamourous sets and what goes on inside them.

In the final episodes, the writers nicely set up Don’s demise (the culmination of the fall depicted in the opening credit sequence), if that is what it is. His subordinate charges that Don has only got where he has by being handsome. (In an earlier episode in the series his fellow partner Jim Cutler tells Don he has seen through the mystique and that Don is nothing but a ‘football player in a suit’.) At McCann Erickson, the rival firm which has absorbed Sterling Cooper and has hunted Don for some time, Don conspicuously wears his jacket when he has been told he is free to adopt the firm’s shirtsleeves-only dress code. In one of his first meetings at McCann, a Draper-like executive gives a pitch that comes straight from Don’s book. Don leaves the meeting, assumedly because he suddenly feels inessential.  His ex-wife Betty sees no need for him to hang around her house. And she says that their children need normalcy, which includes him being absent most of the time. As he heads off on an impromptu road trip west, he gradually sheds his suit, and his Cadillac gets dusty, breaks down and is given away. When he visits the house of a lover’s ex-husband in order to check on her whereabouts, his lies are not believed. While staying at a motel, and after asking one of the staff what there is to do in town, he spies a bathing beauty at his motel but before he can begin to make a move her husband turns up. (This wouldn’t have happened in earlier seasons.) The façade of Don Draper is gradually peeled away.

It is fitting that Don’s final on-screen fling is with a woman who is also running from a dark past. She is a mirror image of Don – moving to New York to become someone else, putting up a façade, rejected by a spouse who has seen through the lies, but also traumatised by her past and longing to find relief. Although her ex-husband describes her as trouble, he also describes her as taken by the Devil, in which case it becomes uncertain how much she is personally responsible for her present situation. Don, too, we can recall, has a traumatic past. It is not just that he is a hustler. There is explanation here for, on the one hand, his at-times compensatory moralistic tone, and, on the other, his womanising. So the series, as well as portraying this moral ambivalence, also, perhaps, asks us to think about whether Don, and any of the other characters at that, could be any different to the people they are.

Over the course of the series, the shakiness of the outwardly in-command Don Draper has been played well by Jon Hamm. Hamm is able to convey the vulnerable streak in the tough, square-jawed, tall-dark-and-handsome ad man (not to mention the occasional goofiness). Advertising is something of a con, and Don’s biggest con is the acting out of his made-up life, though occasionally we see through the technique. Series creator Matthew Weiner has been criticised for the heavy-handed storyline of Don’s dark past, but it is the core of the show, that the ad man who can spin anything is spinning his life.

In the final series, Don is in the midst of selling his apartment, so his (second) ex-wife Megan comes with her mother to collect her things, only her mother ensures that all the furniture is also removed so that when Don comes home the apartment is virtually empty. The episode ends with a typically Mad Men shot, a slow zoom out where Don gazes bewildered around the apartment, and it is a lovely metaphor for his life. Things that he thinks are important are being stripped away. In biblical terms, he has built a house on sand.

A particularly interesting part of Don’s existential crisis is that he has come to recognise that success only breeds the hunger for greater successes, as he alludes when he asks Peggy what her ambitions are. And that there is always someone trying to get there before you.  This goes for all the characters in the show. Although there is camaraderie, people in Mad Men don’t get together just because they enjoy each other’s company. A character meets another because they need something of the other. Don seems to come to a realisation of the emptiness of this way of living. This is why when in the final episode (cleverly entitled ‘Person to Person’) Don ends up in hippy-ish retreat in California he does not show the same level of bemused scepticism we would have seen in earlier seasons. He is wary and awkward but so emotionally low that he is willing to open up these depths to scrutiny. And although strange, there is something appropriately touching in the fact that Don’s final statement, as it were, is not a verbal one, but the physical reaching out to a fellow life-traveller. Don has finally made the transition from staying at arm’s length to embracing (literally). (Interestingly, this has taken place in California, from whence he came, suggesting perhaps that the move to New York, to make it or to make up for his past to Anna Draper, was a mistake.)

That the ending leaves some ambiguity about Don’s future and hints that his Californian sojourn is merely a way of dealing with his past in order to get back to the real world of selling things (Matthew Weiner has hinted that Don won’t change his spots, although Don also tells Peggy in his final phone call to her that he cannot work for Coca Cola – it’s ambiguous, as I said) does not lessen the parable-like implication that the world Mad Men’s characters inhabit is based not on real relationships but on impressions and deceptions. It is all style and no substance. (A bit like Coke, despite Coke being the ‘real thing’.) A lesson to draw, if we are permitted to do so, might be that we should be wary of ways of living that prioritise our own status at the expense of something real.




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