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.