Last Sunday marked the season finale of season six of Mad Men. The season finale was more optimistic than usual as we see our protagonist, Don Draper, finally, (or at least we hope finally) come to terms with the lies he’s perpetuated and his own self-destructive behavior. For many seasons now, I’ve felt a kinship or connection with our protagonist. To those of who do not watch the show, I do not mean connection as in I am just as handsome and bad-ass as Don Draper, as one might gather from Don from a cursory glance of the series. Rather, a connection with the inner demons of a man who is the sole architect of his own destruction.
When I first started watching the show, I was enthralled with the style, mystery, and overall bad-assery that is Don Draper. I continued to find his story of stolen identity and traumatic upbringing wonderfully tragic. And over the years I came to identify myself with the character. At first, it was almost in a James Bond hero sort of way. Draper was so cool, with his smoking and his brilliant ad writing and his awesome hair. The way he could command a room. The respect he got from others. But as we knew from episode one, there was a dark side of Don Draper. A side that occasionally made us hate him and occasionally created empathy within us.
But by season six, even after learning of another part of Don’s tumultuous upbringing, we begin to lose respect for the man who once enthralled us. His actions become childish, his adultery troubling, his vices sad. What started out as an enigmatic mystery man became a man who couldn’t hold himself together. Who got the shakes from drinking, whose second wife walked out on him, whose company forces him to take a leave of absence. And ultimately what we see, is a man with an inability to change his behavior(although the season finale does leave us with some hope). Perhaps it’s the guilt from all the lies. Perhaps it’s shame for his own unknown background. Who knows.
And this is where I realized why I resonate with Don Draper. Not because of the lies and stolen identity and traumatic childhood, but because the entire series of Mad Men is about a man who cannot change, or for some unknown reason can’t change. A man with traumatic childhood, yes. A man who lies for a living, yes. But behind the social commentary and psychology lie a more profound existential question about why people like Don Draper exist. Maybe not why they exist, but perhaps what makes them tick.
Some critics have pointed out that rather than Mad Men becoming more “outwards” focused like we all thought it was, with the social commentary on race, greed, materialism, and America, that the show is if anything becoming increasingly “inner.” Ultimately, since Don Draper is the protagonist, it beckons us to an existential/Freudian tension. Is it the ghosts of Don’s past that are the explanations for his actions? Maybe, though the show seems to point to other factors as well. Or, is Don simply an alcoholic womanizer who likes his lifestyle and can’t seem to change? Whose very personality and being is something of a mystery in an existential sense? Perhaps Don in a sense is the embodiment of our questions about the human condition. Why are some people overwhelmingly afflicted with inner demons and addictions and self-destructive behavior? Is it nature or nurture? Is it Faustian desire for power and knowledge? Is it simply man trying to be his own god? Being able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants with no consequences? It does seem that what Don desires is power, respect, control, and the free will to engage in whatever activity he desires, and ultimately a desire to be loved. But this would be a rather one-dimensional point of view (which could after all be the case) and unfortunately I don’t know if it’s an either/or scenario. In one sense it would almost be more troubling if all the mystery and childhood trauma was non-existent and we were left with a man who at the end of it all, simply is bent towards creating his own will and thereto, his destruction. Because as we see Don in the end is empty and, as we see in the penultimate episode, crawled in the fetal position, postulating a position that Don, in the end, has no idea what Don wants or what all his behavior has gotten him
I find it curious that until the last episode of the series any talk of God or religion was almost entirely devoid in Mad Men. And here in the last episode of Season Six we find an evangelist telling Don that his only sin is in not believing God loves him or could have room for acceptance of him. It seems Don has already given up on himself. But he has also already given up on any sort of idea or salvation that has the potential to save him. In the end, the world of Don Draper is one of hell. He very possibly could be (as others have pointed out here:http://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2013/06/mad-men-review-the-quality-of-mercy-episode-612.html ) the spawn of Satan as in the symbolism of Rosemary’s Baby, and if he is, or even if he isn’t, we grasp perhaps what is a chilling picture of an idea of hell. One of isolation, hollow desires, and an acceptance of yourself as a bad person with an inability to change. And this is where my resonance with Don Draper becomes disturbing.