Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern. ~Frank O’Hara, “Mayakovsky”
The Golden Age of television, which began in 1999 with The Sopranos, may have ended Sunday night with the finale of Mad Men. The Sopranos kicked off the trend of TV antiheroes; Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, also won an Emmy for The Sopranos, so he knows more than anyone about what makes a great antihero, of which Don Draper is the apotheosis.
The opening credits show a man falling off a building, but after falling, he is seated placidly on his couch, a smoke and a drink in hand. That sequence is the blueprint for the entire series and provides the key to interpreting the show’s cryptic ending.
All antiheroes have two identities that are destined to collide with catastrophic results. Don’s duality is literal. He was born Dick Whitman, son of a whore who died bearing him; he was raised, unloved, on a farm and later in a brothel. While at war in Korea, he stole the identity of his dead commanding officer, Donald Draper, and thus began his life of respectability and success. Unlike other popular antiheroes, Don’s only crime is his Gatsby-like act of desperate self-invention.
Because Don’s past is that of an abused child trying to remake himself, I am less resistant to his redemption than I am to that of other, viler antiheroes. Since The Sopranos’ bravely ambiguous ending, most shows in this genre allow their protagonist a final way of proving, deep down, they were more than a monster with charisma. I never believed that Weiner would give us such a trite ending for Don, and he didn’t disappoint.
Don’s problem is that he hates himself. He’s plagued by the enormous hole in his heart left by the absence of a loving mother, a vacancy that has destroyed two marriages, touched off countless destructive love affairs, and undermined all his attempts to quit his self-destructive lifestyle and be a good husband and father.
Looking for the loving mother
In the final few episodes of the series, Don leaves New York in pursuit of one of his paramours, a mother who has lost one child and abandoned another. His wandering takes him to California with Stephanie, the niece of the original Don Draper’s wife, who recently gave up her baby. Stephanie brings Don to a consciousness-raising retreat, where another man articulates what’s been true all along about Don’s experience of love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: They’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”
Of course Don doesn’t know what it is. No one ever taught him, he’s spent his whole life trying to erase the past as a motherless, unwanted child. When he visited Peggy Olson in the hospital after she gave up her child for adoption, he told her, “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” This final season showed that Peggy still bears the psychic wounds from letting her child go. He tries to offer the same advice to Stephanie: “You can put this behind you. It will get easier as you move forward.” Because the retreat is a place for truths, Stephanie refutes Don’s false claim. No one ever really recovers from the loss of a mother, Don least of all.
Don makes three calls in the course of the episode. The first is to his daughter, Sally, who tells him that his ex-wife Betty is dying of lung cancer. Don then calls Betty, promising to return and claim his children. Betty responds without rancor, stating a truth Don knows in his bones: Their children need a mother and a father. Don taking over parental duties after such a long absence would be more painful than sending the boys to be with their aunt and uncle. Neither Sally nor Betty wants Don to return home.
Now Don has come full circle — he is again rejected and unwanted by his family. He’s in the free fall we see in the opening credits. His third call is to Peggy, who is his closest friend and protégée, ostensibly to say goodbye, declaring, “I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” Peggy may be unable to deny the first two of these claims, but the third she strongly refutes. She says, “Don’t you want to work on Coke? Don, come home.”
Confronting the truth
The truth is, family has never has been the place where Don has found the most love and acceptance — that place has always been work. Of all the connections Don has ever made with women, it’s Peggy who has never given up on him, whose faith and admiration in him has been unshakable despite the many times he’s let her down. That’s because theirs has never been a romantic relationship: It’s always been about the work, their place of safety and mastery.
In the final scene, Don is doing sunrise yoga. As he says, “Om,” a smile breaks across his face. Then, cut away to the famous Hilltop Coke commercial. My interpretation, like that of many viewers, is that Don went back to McCann-Erickson and wrote the iconic ad. Some see that as a cynical ending, but I don’t. If the purpose of the retreat is to figure out who you really are, how you feel about that, and how to recognize love, then isn’t it an act of radical honesty and self-acceptance for Don to embrace himself as a person who works best when he spins his dreams into brilliant ad copy? And whose greatest love and affirmation comes not from his family but from the people he works with?
The Sopranos ends with Tony finally accepting that he is a gangster, abandoning his moral qualms. This is a perverse victory over the personal doubt that was ruining his happiness. In a less dramatic, sinister fashion, Don’s end is similar. He goes back to New York and embraces his true self, shucking off the “shoulds” that undermine his self-worth. You “should” be a great father and husband, but you’re not, he finally tells himself. You’re a great ad man. So be that.
The first line of the original song “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” is “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love.” Don could never do that, but who knows better than he how ardently people dream of it? Don’s gift is commoditizing fantasies. Cynical to take that hippie ideal and use it to sell sugar water? Maybe. Or maybe beautiful, in its way, because the ad, like art, touched and moved people. We all still remember it, don’t we?
The real redemption is that Don does not flee via the "milk and honey” hobo route. Self-hating Dick Whitman is left behind when Don goes home, accepts his limitations, and values what he has created: his children, in whatever capacity he can be present for them, and his amazing, deeply personal, moving advertisements.
Per the opening credits, after his descent, the man sits coolly in his office, ready to be Don Draper again — wholeheartedly this time. That’s as much redemption as Dick Whitman could have hoped for.