The Zen of Don Draper: Mad Men's Cynical Finale

On Sunday night, we said goodbye to Mad Men. For most of the series, it operated more like a great novel than a TV show, an in-depth exploration of the ugly lives of beautiful people. In the end, there were few loose threads; almost every character came to some kind of resolution, and some of those resolutions were downright syrupy-sweet. Pete transformed from a weasel to the voice of virtue. Peggy found love. Joan refused a pampered life of objectification and launched her own business.

But not all the endings were sweet. Betty Draper is dying of cancer, and Sally Draper bears the burden of nurturing her brothers in a home without their natural parents. And then there’s Don...

Don was always the key story in Mad Men, and whatever we make of his ending is, ultimately, what we make of the show. Some saw it as a kind of redemption, but I don’t. I think Don’s story reveals a deeply cynical way of seeing the world. 

After a strange odyssey across the country, Don collapsed on the sofa of Anna Draper’s niece Stephanie. It’s clear that he’s in trouble and it turns out she’s not much better off. She’s headed out of town to what appears to be the Esalen Institute, a famous bay-area retreat that where group therapy, transcendental meditation, and other humanistic and new age practices are taught, and she drags Don with her. 

There, Don begins to unravel. Just as he seems to hit rock-bottom, he ends up in a group therapy session, and then things get odd. There’s a long, awkward hug (reminiscent of awkward recovery-group hugs in Fight Club) and then Don appears on a sunny hillside, humming “Om” with a cross-legged group of meditators. He grins, and the scene cuts to the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad.

What are we to make of this? Perhaps we can get to the bottom of it by looking more closely at the Esalen Institute, or better yet, one of the Institute’s most famous teachers, Alan Watts.

Watts was a philosopher who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West in the 60’s and 70’s, and a regular lecturer at the Esalen Institute. The character who leads several of the group therapy sessions, as well as the meditation group at the end, looks remarkably like Watts. (There have been other nods towards this spiritual movement, including a reference to Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums in the episode “The Milk and Honey Route,” whose title is not only a biblical reference, but also a reference to one of Jack’s encounters in the same book.)

Alan Watts saw Buddhism’s insights as antidotes to the crises of anxiety and identity in the modern world, and core to his philosophical vision was a kind of self-acceptance. A passage from his book The Wisdom of Insecurity says:

“I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.”

(Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity, p.78)

This passage might have been written about Don, who chose a new identity in an attempt to leave behind the shame of his past. Even in this new life, he is perpetually torn between the man he wants to be and the man he is. He wants to be a faithful husband, a good father, a faithful friend, a reliable co-worker, but he isn’t. He’s a walking lie – a philanderer, a drifter, and an alcoholic. He has enough charm and creativity to get people to overlook his faults… for a time. But eventually, most of those close to him find that life is easier when he isn’t around.

Don’s story has been about the collision of these identities. Bit by bit, he’s come to accept his past. He’s told people where he came from, revealed his true identity, and even admitted culpability in the death of his C.O. in Korea. By the story’s end, he has no secrets left, but he has nothing else either: no family, no home, no job. In desperation he calls Peggy and admits all of his failures, and she urges him to move forward, to come back, but Don is too broken to move. He appears ready to give up.

A conventional redemption story would have Don rising up from these circumstances, demonstrating that he’s somehow ready to take responsibility for his life. He’d be returning in redemptive triumph, perhaps taking his children home. But in the world of Alan Watts, Don’s hope for redemption begins not with transcending himself, but with accepting himself, accepting the reality of who he is instead of trying desperately to present a fake version of himself to the world. In Watts words, there must be no “I” and “me,” no idealized version of himself anymore. There is only him, flawed as he is, present in the here and now.  His inability to love, to stay connected to other people, is fundamentally about his inability accept himself.

Don’s turning point comes in a group therapy session, when he’s listening to a man describe a life that is the polar opposite of his own. Rather than an abundance of identities, this man had none. No one in his life noticed him. He was miserable not for his excesses, but his insignificance. Don, weeping, embraces him, and no words are exchanged. Don doesn’t have to make promises, he only has to be present. It’s a pseudo-Buddhist enlightenment that starts with radical self-acceptance and extends to acceptance of the other.

But while all of this seems to hint at the possibility of redemption and change in Don’s life, I think the final scene reveals that Don is no Buddha. He’s sitting on a hillside, humming “Om.” A bell chimes, Don grins, and suddenly we’re thrown back into the world of advertising.

The smiling faces in the ad mirror the faces we see at Esalen, only now they’re selling us Coke. As Don himself said in season 1, ads are a place where ideals are promised, but only to sell us products. While talking with Rachel Menken, he mocks her for believing in love.

“She isn’t married because she’s never been in love,” He says. “I think I wrote that just to sell nylons… 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.”

“You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.”   

Just like there are two versions of Don, there are two worlds that he lived in. In the Real World, he was an outsider. Rather than despair, though, Don became a hedonist, indulging every impulse that offered relief from psychic pain: a dram of scotch at 10AM, a mysterious woman in a café, or allowing his wanderlust lead him west.

But another world was just as real for Don. It was a world where the family gathered over the table at Burger Chef, where a Kodak Carousel displayed an idealized vision of his marriage, where nylons are part of a story of true love. Don could imagine a better world, and could display it better than anyone. He just couldn’t live there very long.

So even if Don experienced some kind of enlightenment at Esalen, even if his sense of identity was more unified and integrated, the show’s ending seems nonetheless cynical because it returned to the world of advertising.

In the ad itself, Don’s experience of transformation has been co-opted to sell Coca-Cola. People gather on a hillside much like the one Don is meditating on, singing about unity and harmony and the beauty of creation and the pleasures of Coca-Cola, repeating the refrain, “It’s the real thing,” a deeply ironic phrase, given Don’s story.

What’s the ‘real thing?’ Here’s what Slovenian philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek says: “It’s not just another positive property of Coke, something that can be described and pinpointed through chemical analysis, it’s that mysterious something more. The undescribable excess which is the cause of my objective desire.”[1]

In other words, when we’re captivated by a Coca Cola ad, we’re never captivated by the product itself. It’s “that mysterious something more” that we’re after, that excess, that longing for transcendent experience. We want a Coke because we want inner peace, or world peace, or whatever one might call the vision of the good life the ad is portraying. Advertisers are masters of the bait-and-switch. They promise love and sell you nylons. They promise peace and sell you Coke.

This strikes me as the deepest cynicism of all. Don, we’re led to believe, has the real thing right before him and trades it for the ad. After his entire odyssey, his suffering and loss and war with himself, he rises from the dead to write (to borrow a phrase from A Christmas Story) “a crummy commercial.” Sure, it’s one of the most successful ads of all time, and it’s sure to make Don wealthier and more powerful than ever, but is that the best this world has to offer? Is that really what Don was after?

Don has indeed accepted himself, and has perhaps found a deeper sense of peace, but that doesn’t mean he’s transcended his sin and suffering. Instead, he’s accepted the limits of a world of immanence, and accepted his fate as a drifter in its midst, likely to repeat the cycle he’s lived for seven seasons of the show. Apparently, in the world of Mad Men, the best thing that can come from spiritual depth is a good tag line, and if inner peace really does exist, it only exists like love: it was created by men like Don, to sell nylons.




[1] Slavoj Zizek, from the documentary, “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”