Mad Men Understood Human Behavior Better Than Any Show on TV

Jon Hamm as Don Draper. Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC

Mad Men closed with its hero, adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm), sitting lotus-style on a hilltop in 1970, experiencing bliss, or something like it. Don had proclaimed ten years earlier that love was a lie invented by guys like him to sell nylons and that we’re all born alone and die alone, and now here he was in California, shorn of his job, his home, his marriage, his apartment, his car, and even his suit, meditating on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. Our final glimpse of Don was a close-up of his face as he smiled somewhat mysteriously, whereupon series creator Matthew Weiner, who wrote and directed the finale, cut to Coca-Cola’s 1971 musical ad, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” 

That grin plus the Coke commercial added up to the perfect ending for a drama that was consistently hard-edged yet essentially compassionate, and more perceptive about the realities of human behavior than almost any show in TV history. It hinted at renewal and deep change even as the rest of the episode carefully assured us that Don was still Don: that he wasn’t about to execute an about-face and become a selfless and tender mate, a sensitive and responsible co-worker, a doting dad to his soon-to-be-motherless kids, or anything else that smacked of audience pandering. Earlier in the episode, Don had considered going back to New York and fighting Betty for custody of his children, then decided not to — perhaps because, as Betty reminded him in an agonizing phone conversation, he’d never shown much interest in them over the years. Only in simpleminded entertainments do liars transform themselves into completely honest men, commitment-phobes into ideal mates, and bad parents into great ones. The implication of that cut from Don’s smile to the ad was that Don would go on to create that famous Coke ad (an impression confirmed by Weiner a few days later in a conversation at the New York Public Library; he’d warned us that, unlike the Sopranos ending, nobody would have to argue about what happened on a plot level). The cut was funny because this was the same Don who’d confidently told his then-boss Roger Sterling in 1960 that “if I leave this place one day, it won't be for more advertising.” (Technically, Don did leave, after the agency was absorbed by McCann — but then returned for more advertising anyway.) The cut was even funnier if you realized that the ad was another example of how Madison Avenue uses counterculture signifiers to prop up the same consumer values that countercultures rail against. This has been a sub-theme on Mad Men since Don mingled with beatniks in season one. (“How do you sleep at night?” one asked him. “On a bed made of money,” he replied.) The takeaway, then, was that Don realized in his heart he was an adman, and that he’d soon go back to being one and create a legendary commercial that drew on his personal journey over the last decade, culminating in his time at the retreat — but that everything else, including his parenting skills and his sexual and romantic behavior, was a question mark.

There was, however, no question that Don had learned something. Maybe it was only one thing, but it was important, and you saw him learn it in the group-therapy scene, hearing a man tell a story about being unable to recognize love when it’s given, and unable to love himself because of his feelings of worthlessness. Don’s reaction — crossing the room to embrace the man — felt like a break from the show’s bone-deep skepticism about whether people can change, to what degree, and under what conditions, and whether the change can be permanent and genuinely transformative. The man delivering that hug was a man who had previously been uncomfortable with any display of emotion not facilitated by alcohol or drugs or total emotional collapse. He once dismissed Betty’s grief over her own mother’s death as “extended self-pity,” and discouraged her from seeking therapy on grounds that it was all just a big moneymaking racket. Any way you look at it, this was major — possibly a reconciliation of Dick Whitman, the abused and motherless child who always felt abandoned, and Donald Draper, an assumed identity marked by a ruthless self-protective instinct, a religion of selfishness whose core was the belief that you can forget anything, pick up, and start over.

This is, then, a hopeful ending, not just for Don, and for the other characters — all of whom reinvented themselves professionally and personally, and showed signs of having learned from past mistakes — but for America itself. Hopeful is not the same thing as simple-minded. Mad Men was never a simple-minded entertainment. Like The Sopranos, In Treatment, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, and a handful of other psychologically astute TV series, it told us hard truths about what it means to be human, believing you’re moving in a straight line when it’s more likely a stumbling, semi-conscious, serpentine progression, or worse, a wheel of experience that keeps returning you over and over again to the same images and situations, like the Kodak Carousel that Don pitched in season one. Like those other great series, Mad Men was never so cynical as to say people are never capable of deep and lasting change, only that it requires more sustained concentration, work, and self-inquiry than most of us can manage. The show’s characters tended to be comfort-driven creatures who didn’t know themselves well enough, or understand psychology deeply enough, to repair the damage done by conditioning and trauma, much less the dedication required to follow through on anything they did figure out.

If anything, the series excelled at showing us how people think they’re moving forward, yet keep ending up in a place that looks eerily familiar. The sense of genuine renewal in Mad Men’s finale threw a lot of viewers for a loop because, like The Sopranos before it, it excelled at showing how people change jobs, mates, and names without altering their essence. Don, Roger, Joan, Peggy, and the rest often made what seemed at first glance a core-transforming grand gesture, only to backslide, or realize much later that it was a disguised version of the same self-defeating thing they’d always done. (Don’s out-of-nowhere marriage to Megan at the end of season four was, as Don’s then-lover Faye said, proof that he only likes the beginnings of things; it also echoed a season-one observation by another girlfriend, Rachel Menken, that “you don’t want to run away with me, you just want to run away.”)

So was the ending uncharacteristically upbeat for Mad Men? In a way, yeah. But it wasn’t out of character, and it didn’t contradict anything we knew about Don. It held out hope for him in this final moment, but not undue optimism, and there were lots of qualifiers implied. It suggested that while the leopard cannot change all of its spots, changing one or two might not be out of the question. A lot of epiphanies don’t stick, but one that often does is the realization that other people are in just as much pain as we are at times, and that by reaching out, we momentarily heal ourselves as well as them. Once you’ve learned that lesson, you don’t forget it. It colors all the other problems that you continue to deal with, and suggests solutions to them. Whether you decide to pursue them is, of course, entirely up to you.