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May 21, 2015

Raise a glass (of Coke) to Mad Men

Don Draper, the enigmatic ad man at the center of the AMC television show Mad Men, seems to have somehow resolved his seven-season crisis as the show reaches its final episode at the dawn of the ’70s. His shirt is crisp and white. Waves break behind him. He sits in lotus position, om-ing along in a guided meditation at a Californian retreat. His face is serene, and the camera gets closer and closer.

And cut. To an advertisement, for Coca-Cola. A careful collection of ethnicities in national costume sings a paean to world peace and a much-recycled selection of countercultural values. “I’d like to teach the world to sing…. I’d like to buy the world a Coke,” and so on. Rebellion has been tamed, marketed, and sold.

The transition rings false, intentionally. This is a parody of enlightenment and the show’s final indictment of its protagonist. Don Draper’s peace is an ad he pitches to himself, and then to the rest of the world.

The first episode of the show opened with Don Draper as the perfect avatar of the postwar consensus. He was suave, self-confident, and successful. He had a nuclear family in the suburbs and, eventually, half a dozen mistresses in the city; he smoked and drank without guilt or anxiety. Much—maybe too much—of the initial appeal of the show was a misplaced affection for this version of Draper.

He was, in short, what he chose to be. Draper was the core of the show’s pitch: an ad man with an invented identity. His secret past has become peripheral to the plot of the show in its later seasons; crises over fear of exposure no longer drive events. But thematically it is still central. When he abandoned his past, Don Draper had a chance to remake himself in whatever image he pleased.

He could sell the popular values of the 1950s and early ’60s masterfully. Take the series’s most affecting pitch, the highlight of the first season: He sells a campaign for a slide projector by flipping through happy, idealized pictures of his family. The machine, he says, “lets us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.” He is selling family, community, and obligations. In the dark conference room, over the click and shudder of the projector, he is selling himself.

But as the 1960s progress and America begins to question this view of itself, its avatar is left in the lurch. To summarize in-story years of complications and incidents, his family slips away; he marries and divorces again. He agonizes, drinks, and philanders. His is the terror of a perfectly branded man who finds his market share suddenly declining.

The ads he produced in this crisis were still meant to be compelling, but they sold nothing—or, rather, they sold absence, anxiety, and desire. “At last,” the firm’s campaign for Jaguar reads. “Something beautiful you can truly own.” The ads parallel Draper’s psychological arc—something is missing, and satisfying stability is impossible.

The series’s final episode opens with Draper on his way west, to California, where the show has sent him for his periodic encounters with the future. On his way to the Pacific Ocean, the show has suggested opportunities for him to settle back into the past: to go and be with his children, whose mother is dying; to settle in a small Oklahoma town he is briefly stranded in. By the time he comes to the hippie-ish retreat along the California coast, he is approaching the peak of his crisis. He initially reacts to the retreat with the contempt and cynicism that have been Draper’s typical response to the counterculture.

In Draper’s second-to-last scene, a miserable man at a group therapy session describes his life, which could have been Draper’s a few years ago: a wife, children, and office work. The man has dreams where he imagines that he is sitting on a refrigerator shelf. The door is opened, but the person on the other side looks him over and leaves him behind. Don Draper embraces him, crying; the man is a perfect example of his anxiety.

Back in New York, the stories of the show’s other main characters are happily truncated (it is remarkable how satisfyingly this is done). These conclusions are rooted in their authentic selves: They are competent, loving, or ambitious, and so they end thus.

Draper reaches a different settlement; authenticity is unlikely. He makes himself again in a more marketable image, as a sensitive man, a spiritual man, a California Man. “A new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led; the lives we’ve yet to lead. A new day; new ideas; a new you,” the guru in charge of the meditation intones. The cut to the ad for Coca-Cola completes the message, and eliminates the possibility that the change is genuinely felt. The terror can end, because he’s found a way to sell this brave new world.

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