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Mad Men and the Domesticity of Love

The cultural phenomenon Mad Men recently came to a close. Many critics consider it to be the best television drama of all time, lauding its consistent quality across the categories: writing, acting, directing, costuming, cinematography, etc. But while devoted viewers easily agree on its excellence, they often disagree as to what the show was really about. Most readily observable has been controversy over the final portrayal of the main character, Don Draper, as evidenced by his Coca-Cola ad: Did he change? Is he better? Does it matter?

The answer to this question is important. If he did not change, the show’s message is that deep wounds cannot be healed and vicious cycles cannot be broken. It would tell every guilty conscience to run away rather than crawl back. It would indicate that our culture has forgotten how to hope, and answered one of Mad Men’s major themes, “Is that all there is?”, with a shrug and a nod. I would not have followed and celebrated the show for seven years if I had viewed it as tending towards such an end. My faith that it tended to the opposite end was fueled by the recurrence of mini-redemptions in the life of the character and by the way that his mistakes were framed by the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner. Don Draper did change for the better, and I’ll demonstrate that claim by following his understanding of love through a few key moments from the pilot to the finale.

When we first meet Don, he is a handsome, cocky ad man who seems to have it all figured out. Over drinks with a potential client, Rachel Menken, he expresses his very cynical view:

By love you mean big lightning bolts to the heart, where you can’t eat and you can’t work, and you just run off and get married and make babies. The reason you haven’t felt it is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me…to sell nylons.

To Don’s surprise, Rachel does not buy his attitude. She sees right through him, which he finds both unsettling and captivating. From the end of that episode, we know that Don has a wife and children to whom he is unfaithful. Yet even while he plays out his philosophy of life—a sort of carpe diem of the pagans—we’re given glimpses into his deeper self. We learn that he stole another man’s identity. We see his horribly traumatic childhood. He had been Dick Whitman, an orphan who grew up in a whorehouse and went on to the Korean War where he took the name of a fallen fellow soldier. Considering these things, we start to understand why he misunderstands love and acts out of that falsehood.

Two seasons later, Don’s wife Betty (long aware of his adultery) discovers his false identity and confronts him. He is devastated, and struggles to explain himself to her. She looks on coldly and asks, “What would you do if you were me? Would you love you?” Here he faces the harsh reality that his wife’s commitment to loving him is conditional—just as he always suspected, which is why he had hidden his lie from her. Rejected by Betty even in his honesty, Don is no closer to believing in lasting, transformative love.

When Don and Betty explain to their children that they are divorcing, Don tells them: “I love you both, you know that?” His daughter Sally says, “You say things you don’t mean. You can’t just do that!” Quite right; but we know that Don cannot mean what he says because he doesn’t even know what he means. He thinks that love does not hold a family together because he never experienced it in his own childhood. He only knows that he should love his children, but what would that mean? For the next few years, he eludes that question as best he can, refusing to even use the word in any ads.  

But then, in the midst of his most insidious affair, he thinks he has figured out what love is. His creative team inserts the word into a series of ads for DOW Chemical (“Because they asked for it.”) As he reviews their work, Don says:

Why are we contributing to the trivialization of the word? Let’s leave it where we want it. We want that electric jolt to the body. We want eros. It’s like a drug, it’s not domestic. What’s the difference between a husband knocking on a door and sailor getting off a ship? About 10,000 volts.

Don had not believed in the electric jolt. Now he is experiencing it, but only because the experience is completely detached from family life. Excitement is only to be found in conquest, he thinks.  Love for him is only love when it is forbidden, overwhelming passion. Sally is still right to reject his use of the word. But not long after that, he sees his young son Bobby show compassion for an African American usher on the day that Martin Luther King Jr. died. Don is overwhelmed by this small act of love, as he explains to his second wife, Megan:

I never wanted to be the man who loves children, but…from the moment they’re born…that baby comes out, and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars…but you don’t feel anything, especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem. Then they get older, and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you’ve been pretending to have. You feel like your heart is going to explode.

Don at last realizes that love is domestic after all. Eros is not all there is, nor is it enough. This new view is later reinforced by his daughter’s compassion for him. Sally knows all about her father’s wounds and sins by season 6, and in that knowledge, still give him her love. The words, “Happy Valentine’s Day. I love you,” never had so much impact on television, to be sure.

After many more ups and downs in season 7, at the finale we find Don on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He has been on the road for months, both running and searching. He ends up at an Esalen-like retreat center where he attends an “encounter group.” A nondescript middle-aged man named Leonard shares his story with the circle of strangers. He talks about his wife and children:

They should love me. Maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. 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.

Just then, Don awakens from his catatonic stupor. He looks at Leonard, and in an act of sincere compassion, he walks across the room and embraces him. The two men weep together. Leonard’s arm rises to embrace Don.

In that moment, Don has passed on the love that his children taught him; and in so doing, he has found peace. That real change is expressed in the final moment of the show with a Coca-Cola ad pronouncing, “It’s the real thing.” It sums up what he has learned, and begins with this line: “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love.”

Love is not an invention to sell nylons. It is not a fleeting erotic experience. It is found when one transcends him- or herself and reaches out to another. It electrifies our very being by connecting us to family, friends, and even strangers. Furthermore, I noticed in the rewatching of every season’s premiere and finale that Coke is consistently portrayed in a positive light. It’s celebrated as an alternative to all of the alcohol abuse that goes on, and it is often shared by the characters in moments of reunion and reconciliation. Thus, the Coke ad (believed by Matthew Weiner to be “the greatest commercial ever made”) is not a sign that Don’s spiritual and moral enlightenment is finally deposed into pushing a product that (we now know) is bad for us; but rather it tells us that we must love one another—we must find a home among one another—and while we’re at it, let’s have a Coke together.

 

Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • NDaniels

    While I believe Coke, in moderation, can be a good thing, no doubt, exchanging the real thing, Love, for the culture of lust, is a formula for self-destruction.
    For this reason, I only watched a few episodes because it soon became clear that what Mad Men was, in essence, is one big advertisement promoting adultery.

    • Christopher McCaffery

      Yeah, this reminds me of people who act like Crime and Punishment is ‘art’. Just filling your brain with exactly what the title says.

    • Christopher McCaffery

      Or that other Russian novel, Anna Karenina. We shouldn’t be fooled by flash—adultery is adultery.

  • fab4mattmarklukejohn

    I never watched Mad Men because the version of the Spirit of This Age that presented itself to me therein was exactly what I was trying to get away from. And I didn’t want to go there or rehearse those ways of seeing things. Now through this review, I see that for a relatively healthy and contented person, say, a cradle-Christian, this series could be an initiation into at least seeing the way of life of the people that are hurting all around oneself.

  • gsk

    Thank you for a lovely, thoughtful piece. I watched every episode of this dark, immoral, vulgar, depressing, and frustrating show because it was so accurate. It chronicled quite well my “coming of age,” and the adults in my world were just as lost and confused. It was quite painful to sit through, but also cathartic because it showed that it wasn’t just the people around me who were deficient. The whole culture had been hollowed out (for various complex reasons) and few people could grasp the truth amidst the sparkly distractions.

    One recognises good story telling if the actions all bear honest consequences, and Matthew Weiner made sure that happened. If we shy away from everything that depicts “the Spirit of the Age,” then we lose tremendous opportunities to study and dissect the lies in our midst. The 1970’s was a particularly hideous decade, and Mad Men nailed it. It remains for us to process what happened so we can begin to heal. And God knows how much healing we need!

  • Laura Negus

    @NDaniels:disqus 1. The show cannot be judged on just a few episodes. 2. I think the ads for the show itself portrayed the show as an ad for adultery (cleverly done and intentional, I think) but in the actual show adultery was nothing but poison to any character engaging in it (with the possible exception of Roger and Marie at the end, but they were a small part). This was clear to viewers. No affair in the show made one want to go out and have an affair in any way! There were always huge consequences. 3. I think you should maybe reread this entire article.

    • NDaniels

      Laura, while I believe that wounds can be healed, and vicious cycles can be broken, I see a show like Madmen contributing to the problem, not the solution. While some may recognize adultery for the poison that it is, I think you underestimate the number who viewed the show as mainly entertainment.

  • samton909

    I am so tired of shows that basically say “Everyone is screwed up. Life is about being screwed up. Here is an interesting discussion about being screwed up”. We didn’t used to be a nation of people who got their jollies watching screwed up people. We used to watch good people .It says something about us that we are now voyeurs, watching screwed up people.

    Misery loves company.

    • Sylvia_Allen

      Right on, Samton909. Shows about humans living in a wasteland of sinfulness, and never discovering true moral clarity and redemption, are devastating to viewers. Hollywood is reprogramming the minds of the masses to know only comprehensive darkness of mind and behavior. It’s almost impossible to find shows of goodness, virtue, heroism and real love and charity. The sewage being piped into our homes and gadgets–and especially our kids’ lives–is pure poison of the soul, mind, and life. This depraved programming has real consequences in the way people choose to live. Monkey see, monkey do.

  • Thomas Deutsch

    I appreciate your interpretation, but I think that it wants to resolve an ambiguity that commercial at the end creates. The nefariousness of ads like that Coke ad at the end is its association of the product with that which the heart needs and desires. As a great ad man, Don knows this trick and has used it numerous times throughout the series (i.e. the carousel). It also explains why he was so hesitant to pitch anything of value to Hershey’s. I was in total agreement with you when I watched the finale until I saw the Coke ad. Why not end the show with Don just meditating? Or him returning to his children? Or anything else? Either Don has truly discovered what true love is and innocently includes it in an ad or Don has, after discovering what people truly need and want, decided to cash in on it by making an incredibly good ad, which points to his condition as still being horrendous.

    • Kathryn

      I think that the ambiguity is resolved by repeated viewing of the series. There is so much more to see the second or third time through. Also, Matthew Weiner does not believe that Don is cashing in with the ad. He intends that Don is a better man in the end. He’s certainly not perfectly whole, but he is at last a *person* in the sense that Faye meant when she said he must resolve his issues with his past. He has resolved the Don Draper/Dick Whitman divide, and that will make a tremendous difference. Also, the ad is his ticket back to his real home–not California, not the Midwest, but New York where his friends (especially Peggy) and his family live.