How Will Mad Men End? Or Why Don Draper Must Die. Or Fade Away

He is a spent force who can no longer fit into a new world he helped to open up.

|


The series finale of Mad Men airs tonight on AMC at 10 P.M. Eastern Time.

Rarely has a television show captured the national imagination as fully as the drama surrounding Don Draper, Roger Sterling, Joan Holloway, Peggy Olson and all the rest. For Reason's various mentions of Mad Men during its run (which began in 2007), go here.

Back in 2010, Jim Epstein and I put together the preview of season four that you can watch above. As I noted after that season ran, our prognostications were somewhere about as on-target as Jimmy the Greek's grasp of physical anthropology:

So how'd we do at predicting the highs and lows of Mad Men's fourth season? As Seinfeld's Bubble Boy might put it, "Not so good."

The spell the series cast on the viewing public was broken at various points due to production delays and pauses that caused many of us to move on (something similar happened to The Sopranos, a show on which Mad Men auteur Matthew Weiner also worked). And, as Peter Suderman could tell you, the show also faced a generally rising tide of excellence that made even great shows seems relatively dispensable. We are lucky sons of bitches, to be living in a world that is overstuffed with great television.

What I've always loved about Mad Men had less to do with its incredible sense of aesthetic and design and more to do with Weiner's willingness to work with a period in recent American history—the pause between the "conformist" 1950s and the start of the countercultural '60s—and explore how a supposed consensus in politics, culture, and business was never as cohesive as commonly supposed. By focusing on an advertising agency of all places (and not in a cheap, cynical way of simply portraying all involved as slimy "hidden persuaders"), Mad Men has allowed us all to consider cultural continuity rather than focus on discontinuous change and ruptures that "change everything" overnight. That remains true even as the series ends its run in the 1970s, a period that I, as late baby boomer can remember with some clarity. Postwar America has never been a placid place but a constantly roiling scene of major, ongoing changes.

The past is always created backwards from the present moment and our senses of identity and possibilities are always enriched by sifting through periods and aspects of our history that are otherwise ignored, forgotten, or impugned as insignificant. Think of the 1970s, for instance, which until recently has always been written off as a time of economic, political, cultural stagnation. That characterization doesn't stand up to even a few minutes of introspection (think deregulation, tax revolts, and punk).

On one level, Mad Men may simply be a brilliant, sophisticated form of nostalgia for the recent past. With the exception of Oedipus, we all want to know everything we can about our parents' lives and where we come from. But to my mind what makes Mad Men one of the best television shows ever is how it helps to explain the effects of postwar abundance and social liberation on today's America of endlessly proliferating cultural types. And how it shines a light on the interest in turning work into something more than just a means to make money with which to buy things. In the early 1960s, the moment that Mad Men begins, the notion that work could express something about you was limited to the few. Now it is taken for granted that you should do something you love (or are lucky to be doing so).

Advertising was widely despised by both the beats of the 1950s and the hippies of the '60s for selling false needs and dreams that could be satisfied through uncritical consumption. Mad Men offers up a different conception of consumer culture and the people who produced it. The economic and cultural changes toward a more broadly defined libertarian world of free minds and free markets that underwrites the folks at Sterling Cooper also underwrote the shift into a world where work and life are not simply endured but become active expressions of who we are and what we care about.

Don's willingness to literally become someone else presages a broader change in which we take for granted the idea that we should live our lives as something like a work of art, or at least one of constant reinvention and search for meaning through an unstable mix of creative expression at work and lifestyle choices at home. If Don's westward car trip (shades of On the Road) this season symbolizes anything, it's that he is a spent force who can no longer fit into a new world he helped to open up. That task is up to the younger generation—Pete Campbell, Peggy, Joan, Don's children—who are not haunted by pre-war America's material deprivation and relatively fixed social hierarchy.