How Death Has Imparted Wisdom to Don Draper on Mad Men

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January Jones as Betty Francis on Mad Men. Photo: Courtesy of AMC

Death has long loomed large in the Mad Men universe, and the finale offered no exception to this rule. More often than not, these losses taught protagonist Don Draper a very important lesson and provided a new opportunity to set his life straight. Or, in other cases, an opportunity to be reborn. Now that nature has run its course for the series, we look back at the life lessons the show offered Don through death.

The Alpha and the Omega: Don Draper and Betty Francis
As far as defining the life of Don Draper as we know it, no two losses hold as much sway as these do. Born into a life of poverty and hopelessness, it wasn’t until the accidental death of his commanding officer, Don Draper, that Dick Whitman was able to find a way to transcend the muck and mire of his upbringing and forge a new path for himself the only way he knew how: by lying. The death of the real Don Draper taught our Don Draper the value of being a phoenix, and the necessity of finding opportunity when all around you is ash.

It’s only right, then, that the looming death sentence of Betty Francis also serves as the death of the Don Draper we’ve come to know. The defining romantic relationship of his lifetime, first love, and mother of his children, Betty is a symbol to Don of everything he wasn’t capable of being. Only with the specter of her death does he realize that in order to truly start fresh, he’ll need to become the man he was never able to be for her. Life is a carousel that always brings you back to where you started. Nothing drives that home for Don more than the imminent loss of Betty.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost: Archibald Whitman, Adam Whitman, and Anna Draper
Of course, death haunted Don long before he ended up in New York City. While influenced by the death of his mother in childbirth, it was witnessing the death of his father, Archibald Whitman, that stuck with Draper in a big way. An intemperate drunk, as well as a stubborn and abusive man, Archie was killed when drunkenly trying to saddle a horse in a thunderstorm. Watching his father die after being kicked in the face by a horse isn’t something any child is quick to forget, yet ultimately, this seems like one of those lessons that Don was never quite able to take to heart, eventually growing into a man not so unlike his father, give or take a few million dollars. At the very least, Don seems to recognize his father’s failings in himself if his speech to Sally at the end of “The Forecast” — in which he says, “And you may not want to listen to this, but you are like your mother and me. You're gonna find that out.” — is any indication.

A more lasting impression was made on Don by the suicide of his half-brother, Adam. After seeking Don out in New York for a reunion, Adam was devastated when Don wanted nothing to do with him, sending him away with nothing more than an envelope of money and a broken heart. The thought of Adam taking his own life haunted Don long after, and Adam reappeared to Don years later in a vision while Don was drugged at the dentist. Adam informed his older brother that it wasn't his tooth that was rotten — he was just another person Don could not save. Adam was, in fact, another person whom Don failed to protect because he could not be a better man.

But perhaps more scarring than either of these deaths is the passing of Anna Draper. As the only person in the world whom Don had allowed to fully know and understand him, who loved and accepted him in spite of his truest self, Anna was just as rare a commodity as it seemed. Anna, and in a larger sense, California, served as a safe haven away from the pressure of being anyone other than who Don truly was. Without her there as a touchstone, Don stumbles a bit. In the wake of her death he comes to understand, through Peggy, that there are ways to be understood by a person without knowing everything about them. It’s a lesson Don never could have learned without Anna leaving this world.

The Ghost of Drapers Past, Present, and Future: Rachel Katz, neé Menken, Lane Pryce, and Bert Cooper
When Don learned of the death of his former love Rachel Menken in the second half of season seven, he was shaken. In a way, he’d been chasing after Rachel throughout the run of the show, dabbling mainly in striking brunettes whom he can’t manage to make happy. So when a waitress he's just met named Diana suggests that perhaps Rachel appeared to him in his dream because he’d been dreaming of her all along, it makes a tremendous amount of sense. Rachel was Don’s past, his road not taken, and with her death Don realizes that no matter how much money or influence or privilege you have, not every path stays open to you forever. Or, perhaps more chilling to him, there are paths forward for others that don’t include Don Draper.

With Lane Pryce’s suicide, Don got a chance to see what his life could look like given a few more bad decisions. Lane’s life and choice to end it were the result of feeling trapped in a life made by his own bad choices and not seeing another viable way out. Not only was this something Don could relate to, but his own role in the matter (having confronted Lane about temporarily embezzling money from the company) left him shaken, given his own seeming complicity in the suicide of his half-brother Adam a few years prior. Though it was Adam who ultimately appeared to Don to deliver his message of judgment, it was Lane’s death that sparked his reappearance, leaving Don deeply unsettled about his own life.

Much less grim was the death of Bert Cooper, who left this world in as peaceful a manner as anyone could hope for: sitting on his couch and witnessing the moon landing. Bert was an old man, a successful man, and a wise man, and he was not content to let that wisdom die with him. On not one but two occasions, he has appeared as a ghostly apparition to Don in order to give him sage bits of life advice, like Don’s own personal Jiminy Cricket. If only Don could find it in himself to listen to Bert’s wisdom when it’s offered, he could save himself not only a lot of heartache but find himself on the path to future contentment that Bert Cooper knew so well.