Mad Men, one of the best television shows in history, will always be known as “more than just a show about advertising,” in the same way Friday Night Lights is “more than just a show about football.” And yet Mad Men is, in an important sense, about advertising. Its characters, relationships, themes and mood should all be viewed through the lens of advertising.
I’ve done some work in advertising. I’ve written ads, developed slogans, pitched concepts. I know that advertising is about positioning something in the most attractive light, selling the idealized version of it, convincing people that their lives would be improved by purchasing it. Though some advertising is flat-out deceptive, in most cases there is at least some connection between “how it’s sold” and “what it is.” But the reality is that “what it is” rarely lives up to its advertised billing.
But isn’t this how humans live? Particularly today, with the aid of social media posturing and Photoshop touchups, our existential inclination to “sell” an idealized version of our self is easier than ever. Mad Men is set in a pre-Instagram world, but the disconnect between true identity and projected ideal is central to most of the story arcs of its characters, none more than Don Draper (Jon Hamm) himself.
Don Draper isn’t real; he’s an advertisement. He’s an ad man who is also an ad, man. He is a story Dick Whitman is telling about America and self-made men. He is a Gatsby-esque myth of building an identity from scratch, becoming very rich and attractive, a well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-spoken ad man who women want and men want to be. But as we see so vividly throughout the seven seasons of Mad Men, the real Don Draper (Dick Whitman) is a broken, messy, vulnerable man. In the same way that he sells some toxic things (cigarettes, the eventual undoing of his ex-wife Betty) in attractive packaging through his Lucky Strike ads in the pilot episode, Don is from the very beginning selling himself in the same way: A cool, confident, necessary, powerful man. Yet he’s empty inside, severely broken and far less composed than he lets on. To his wives, his kids, his many mistresses and colleagues, Don frequently falls short of the “as advertised” ideal.
But there is another way Don Draper is a metaphor for advertising. Advertising is about commodification. It’s about leveraging real emotion to drive transactions. In the transitional era of advertising which Mad Men depicts, advertising begins to blur the lines between real human feelings and financial transactions.
It’s fitting, then, that Don Draper’s experience of life, emotion and relationships is largely transactional. It’s about earning and payment, giving and getting. Having been raised in a whorehouse, Don’s skewed sense of romance is deeply informed by literal transactions: “love” for a price. This manifests itself throughout the show as he struggles to view women beyond this “transactional” sense, viewing them (and himself) as simply commodities being exchanged. In both love and advertising, Don is painfully aware that what is bought is never satisfying, yet he can’t seem to live in any other way. Is there something else to life beyond the give-and-take transaction?
The show’s final episodes [spoilers from here on] end with Don on a last-ditch search for that “something else.” His cross-country roadtrip — reminiscent of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or any of a number of 1970s road movies (e.g. Easy Rider, Two-Lane Blacktop) — leads him to a hippie commune on the California coast. It is here, in the series finale, aptly titled “Person-to-Person,” that Don comes to an epiphany: Relationships needn’t be transactional; love needn’t be bought. Connection can be free, a grace given and received between two people, so long as they are willing to set aside pride, be vulnerable and accept love.
This epiphany may or may not inspire in Don the idea for the relationally altruistic Coke commercial (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke”) that is the show’s final scene; regardless, the lesson is learned. Up until the final moments of the series, Don is still stuck in the transactional framework. He sleeps with a girl early in the final episode and pays her. He phones Betty with hopes of offering her something (“I’m coming home”) only to be denied. He hands a wad of cash to the woman who shows him to his room at the commune (“You are so generous!”). He needs to be needed. (See his $1 million check to ex-wife Megan in episode 708, “Severance”).
Don’s armor begins to break when he makes an operator-assisted, “person-to-person” call to Peggy, the woman on the show who knows him most truly. As he lays himself bare to Peggy ( “I broke all my vows. I scandalized by child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.”), she responds with grace. And yet Don is not yet in a place to accept it. He hangs up before she can talk him off the proverbial ledge.
This is but one of many “person-to-person” phone calls in the episode, “connections” that come with a cost to the caller (literally) in the transactional sense. Don also calls his daughter Sally and wife Betty. Joan calls Peggy. Peggy calls Stan. Notably, many of these conversations are followed up later with in-person, “free” connections: Joan meets Peggy at a restaurant. Stan leaves his phone-call with Peggy mid-stream and runs to see her in person. The episode is pushing us to see the true, non-transactional magic of in-person, vulnerable connection.
Indeed, Don fully cracks only in the physical presence of a stranger, Leonard, whose monologue at the retreat causes Don to break down and embrace a man he doesn’t know but deeply understands. Leonard’s monologue resonates with Don: feeling unnecessary, unable to receive love unless he is giving as much as he gets. “No one cares that I’m gone,” says Leonard, who describes a dream where he is a product in a refrigerator that no one ever reaches for. Something clicks for Don, who has heretofore struggled to receive love freely given, when Leonard describes his own inability to understand and accept love: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, that people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.”
When Don gets up and wraps his arms around Leonard — two broken men in awkward, ugly-cry embrace — it is as beautiful a picture of grace as has ever been seen on the show, reminiscent perhaps of the tender embrace of Don and Peggy in episode 706 (“The Strategy”). It is an embrace that signals release, freedom, the willingness to let the “real self” be known and to lay aside the “advertised self.” It is an embrace that allows Don to receive grace, to go back to New York (if that is indeed what he does) debt-free.
Similar moments in “Person-to-Person” happen with other characters who, in the midst of the messiness of the past, forgive one another and accept grace, person-to-person: Former lovers Joan and Roger share a laugh and wish each other well (though note how this also has a “transactional” layer as Roger leaves part of his fortune to Joan and her son). Pete and Trudy reconcile and start afresh. Roger and Marie choose each other in marriage, amidst their bickering and flaws. Peggy allows herself to accept Stan’s love.
As the series ends with what will become one of television’s all time most iconic shots (“Smiling Zen Don Draper”), Don appears to have found redemption. Yet it doesn’t come from within, as the guru’s transcendental meditation suggests (“New day. New ideas. New you. Ommmmm.”) It comes from Don’s moment of weakness and vulnerability in allowing himself to be accepted: not as a product that needs a slick advertisement in order to be chosen, but as a sinner who knows he needs grace.