Editor’s note: Spoilers below.
Last week’s episode of “Mad Men” ended with Don Draper on the road, having abandoned his car to set out on foot to who knows where. With every step he takes, he’s shedding his past, looking forward as if everything is ahead and nothing is behind. With the series finale this Sunday, we will finally discover what happens at the end of his long, troubled journey. Will he find himself? Will he reinvent himself? Or will he destroy himself?
Don Draper, brilliantly played by Jon Hamm, has been named one of the most influential and intriguing characters on television. Why does he capture our imagination? What is it about Don that draws us to him, despite his womanizing, self-destructive ways? He is handsome, talented, artistic, successful—and he has that mesmerizing voice—but our attraction goes deeper.
Don has layers upon layers, covering over a past full of trauma and a present full of fear. We want to peel away those layers to see what’s beneath. Who is the real Don Draper, and will he ever find what he’s looking for? Will he ever—as he once wished—climb the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro and finally harness the emotions that overwhelm him?
Don Draper’s Quest for Happiness—And Ours
Like any protagonist on a hero’s journey, Don is on a quest. A quest for happiness, the kind of happiness he so eloquently described in the first season: “Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of a road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is okay. You are okay.”
Don’s perception of happiness speaks volumes of his deep inner need: To be loved for who he is. He wants that untainted feeling you have when you experience something new, when nothing is spoiled and the world is full of possibilities. He wants to be free from fear—no shame, no doubts, no haunting specter of the past casting a shadow over the present. Mostly, he wants to be at peace with himself. He wants to know that he can be himself and not be abandoned. He wants to be okay.
Don Draper is every man. We can identify with him because we are all on this same quest—the quest for happiness (some having found it, others still looking). We all want to be free from fear, to disentangle ourselves from guilt and the shame of the past—to be, in a sense, reborn.
Every one of us, whether we admit it or not, wants to be “okay,” to be loved unconditionally, and to be at peace with ourselves. We want to be accepted for who we are, not for how we’re perceived to be. Strip away all the externals, all the worldly accomplishments and material gains that fade in the flicker of a moment, and get to the core of who we are—that’s what we want, what we need. We want to live free of the pain of “old wounds.” We want to love and be loved. We want to be happy.
Why Don Draper Can’t Be Happy
But to experience that, we have to know and love ourselves—not in a selfish, prideful way, but in a humble, vital way that recognizes the truth of our created identity. The reason happiness continues to elude Don is he doesn’t really love himself, which makes him incapable of loving others.
He can’t see past the abuse and transgressions that define him. He isn’t okay with himself. He doesn’t even clearly know himself as he truly is without all the outward, worldly layers he’s cloaked himself in to cover up his pain. He has rejected his true identity because it was abused and treated as unworthy, and he donned another, running from a past he can’t bear to acknowledge while at the same time desperately grasping for what he has lost.
Don Draper was born Dick Whitman to a 22-year-old prostitute who died giving birth to him. He was beaten by his father and abused by his stepmother. When his father died, she moved him into a brothel, where a prostitute raped him while he was sick and confined to the cellar. When his stepmother found out, she beat him and called him “dirty.”
It’s no wonder that later, while in the Korean War, Dick changed his identity, switching dog tags with a Lt. Donald Draper who had died in an explosion and was burned beyond recognition, creating a new life for himself.
But no one can truly create a new life for themselves because they can’t escape who they are at the core. Don wanted to become new, but could never wash the old stains away. They continued to haunt him, distracting him from his responsibilities, instilling him with an inner boredom, and driving him from one woman to another in search of that “mother figure” who would love him unconditionally.
Don Draper’s Women
Unfaithfulness is often a cardinal vice of people who suffer child abandonment (either through real physical abandonment and abuse or severe emotional neglect, including overindulgence). They feel like they can never be accepted for who they are with all their imperfections, so they hide parts of themselves, and quickly abandon others before they are abandoned. Eyes that were once filled with passion and love harden to indifference moments after making love. Words of affection and promises of devotion become an echo, fading to silence.
Sadly, those who love such lost souls fail to make a difference. This is why Megan’s love wasn’t enough to hold Don, to keep him faithful and happy. He was out the door before he even stepped into the room. Fear drives him from one place to another, one bed to another—always running, always needing something new and unspoiled. But the new becomes old in a moment, as the present slips into the past, and Don is off again, searching and never finding.
The women Don identified with the most were those who connected with him in his pain, not his success as Don Draper, the dashing advertising man. Besides his protégé, Peggy Olson, and Anna, the wife of the real Donald Draper and the first person who knew Don’s true identity, the only other woman who really understood and could have truly loved him was Rachel Menken. “I do know what it feels like to be out of place,” she told him once, “to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There is something about you that tells me you know it, too.”
The Problem With Faking Identity
Don did know it. He’s always known it, and it robs him of happiness. But the disconnect Rachel described goes deeper with Don. It’s not just a disconnect with the outer world. It’s with Don’s inner world. He isn’t living true to himself, but only acting out a self-made identity.
Soren Kierkegaard wisely said, “The most common form of despair is not being who you are.” So many people are living unhappy, unfulfilled lives because they’re not living according to their true selves as they were created to be. They are donning other identities in a hundred different ways—they’re the athlete, the performer, the businessman, the doctor, the funny guy, the rich guy, the smart guy, the hot guy, even the religious guy—they’re living according to some external definition instead of being their authentic selves. They’re living outside-in, instead of inside-out. As a result, despair pervades their lives—most without even realizing it. For some, “happiness” is a cloak, hiding their despair, as they quietly lose themselves without the world even noticing.
Until Don can find peace with himself, as himself, he will never feel connected, he will never be okay, he will never be truly happy. The love of a woman who understands him can go a long way to help—Anna brought a great amount of happiness to Don’s life, and he was overcome with grief when she died. But even she, with all her unconditional love for him as Dick Whitman, could not bring him true happiness and peace.
As the series draws to a close, the most telling aspect of this final season is the growing disconnect Don has with his environment. He is divorced from Megan, estranged from his children, and out of place at work as McCann absorbs Sterling Cooper. A gloomy tension has settled over him, and he is reaching a breaking point. The only thing that seems to occupy his thoughts is his desperate need to find a woman who is as broken as he is. Diana the waitress is an almost-ethereal character who reflects Don’s own pain and detachment from the world. She also reminds us of Don’s mother, and he is drawn to her at a primal, deeply psychological level.
‘Mad Men’ Can’t Have a Romanticized Ending
My hope is that Matt Weiner, the writer of “Mad Men,” doesn’t wrap up this series with a nice romantic bow: Don finally finds the woman of his dreams—and she’s his mother reincarnate! They run off together, two broken vessels who understand one another, and they live happily ever after, assuming new identities on a beach in Mexico. That would be too cliché and contrary to what we’ve learned about Don throughout the series. His problem isn’t that he hasn’t found the right woman, but that he hasn’t found himself. Running away, even with Diana, will only start the cycle of despair over again.
I also hope the series doesn’t end with a nihilistic flourish as Don literally throws himself from a New York building. Such an on-the-nose finale would, however, be more realistic than a sappy romantic ending. The person who continues through life denying his true self, rejecting himself, and never coming to terms with his past or his own actions will only find despair in the end. He’s falling through life, disconnected from everything.
Like J. D. Salinger said in “The Catcher in the Rye,” “It’s a special kind of fall, a horrible kind. The man falling isn’t permitted to feel or hear himself hit bottom. He just keeps falling and falling. The whole arrangement’s designed for men who, at some time or other in their lives, were looking for something their own environment couldn’t supply them with. Or they thought their own environment couldn’t supply them with. So they gave up looking. They gave it up before they ever really got started.” Doesn’t that perfectly describe Don Draper, captured in the opening sequence of “Mad Men”? Falling, ever falling. Will he hit bottom, or will he be saved?
I want Don to be saved, to find himself, to come to terms with his past, forgive himself and those who have hurt him, stop looking to women for affirmation, love himself as Dick Whitman, and remain in his current circumstances (maybe with a new job) as an attentive father to his children.
But as he moves further away from his old life as Don Draper the advertising man, I am beginning to despair that there won’t be such a redemptive ending for him. Instead of looking in the mirror to discover himself, he’s staring out windows at airplanes with a look in his eye that screams, “I need to escape!”
The Possibilities for Reinventing Himself
That tells me Don will probably reinvent himself again. It’s what he has always done. Maybe this time he won’t do it alone. He has found someone in Diana, who also wants to run away from her life. For now, though, she wants to feel her pain, wearing it like a scarlet letter. Don wants to be free of pain.
The question is, will he convince Diana to be free of hers and run away with him, creating a new life together, or will he go off alone? Or, will Don be forced to remain in his old life because of his ex-wife’s impending death? He has three children. Who will take care of them? Will he run away, leaving them without a parent? Or will he return home and be the man, the father he needs to be?
He grew up without parents. He knows what being an orphan is like. He recognized that in an earlier season when Betty had health issues. He couldn’t leave his children to face life alone. Can he do that now? More importantly, if he chooses to stay, will he find happiness in that commitment or despair?
Some have theorized that the series will end with Don taking on the real-life identity of D.B. Cooper, the mysterious man who, in the same year as the ending of “Mad Men,” hijacked a plane mid-flight between Oregon and Washington, stole $200,000, and parachuted out, never to be seen again. Weiner didn’t exactly debunk the theory when he appeared on “Conan” last week. “I’m not going to dismiss it, because I want people to watch the show,” he said.
Please, let’s hope not. Surely Weiner won’t cheat the audience like J. J. Abrams did with “Lost,” but will give us the redemption we long for: that Don will finally shed his existential angst and embrace himself as he truly is, allowing the old to become new again, his identity reborn, redeemed, not reinvented.
The Past Matters
Pete Campbell once told Don there’s no guarantee you can ever make it past your beginning. There’s some truth to that. We can’t ever truly escape where we come from and who we are as individuals—with all the pain, the scars, the abuse, the neglect, and the failures. No matter how we try to look forward, we always have a past. Jack Kerouac’s “nothing behind me, everything ahead of me” is a nice ideal, but not very realistic. There is always something behind; we don’t need to be bound by it or defined by it, but we must accept it, make peace with it.
The key is to look to the very beginning, to the foundation, to the core of who we are as individuals, uncorrupted by the pain and trauma we and others have inflicted. We aren’t defined by our circumstances in life—our identity is not imposed by externals, good or bad. This is something Don needs to realize. He has allowed others to rob him of himself and to define him. His response has been to run away, to reinvent himself by changing the environment of his life. His name, his image, his home, his wife, his work. But the core remains the same. He can’t get past the beginning. He can’t run away from himself. None of us can.
So what will become of Don Draper? Will he become someone else? Or will Dick Whitman finally accept himself, free from fear, starting new because he has come to terms with his past, and rests on the knowledge that he is okay, that he is worthy of love, and that he’s able to love—especially his children, who need him? Will he be redeemed, or will he be reinvented? I’m hoping for the former.