lyons on mad men

What Has Each Death Meant on Mad Men?

Photo: Justina Mintz/AMC

Someone always dies on Mad Men. It’s a constant undercurrent on the series, the idea of grief and grieving, of survivor guilt, of magical thinking, of loss. Death is destabilizing — it shocks us into realizing that life is short, but no one can live for very long in a state of shock. That urgency has to ebb so we can lead stable lives, and always, just when we settle back into any kind of calm, another loss jolts us into remembering all over again. We’ve seen Don experience this several times, but he’s not alone: Mad Men uses death as a prompt to show us what people are really thinking about. (Spoilers for last night’s season finale, “Waterloo,” from here on out.)

In the closing moments of “Waterloo,” a reenergized Don ducks back downstairs as the rest of his colleagues gather to hear Roger briefly eulogize Bert Cooper. He has work to do, Don gleefully tells Peggy. But just as he gets downstairs, Don has a vision — a hallucination? a visitation? — of Bert, flanked by dancing secretaries, telling him that the “best things in life are free.” Not that we need the show’s creator to explain this moment, but he does: Matt Weiner says this song and dance are forcing Don to wonder, “What is the real value of success?” Don’s rich. And thanks to the impending new ownership, he’s going to be really rich. But so what? His second marriage is over, he struggles to connect with his children, and his protégé more or less eclipsed him (first against Don’s wishes, then in precise accordance with them). Peggy once told Don that he “had everything, and so much of it,” and materially, that’s true; even then, though, Don couldn’t or at least didn’t appreciate it. He didn’t want a third child. The pile of baby gifts seemed grotesque. The picturesque house in the suburbs, the perfectly posed wife — Don did everything he could to ruin those things, and it worked. When Bert’s ghost serenades Don, with the episode-apt lines “The moon belongs to everyone / The best things in life, they’re free,” think about what Don did with his part of the mutual moon ownership: He helped Peggy turn it into a commercial for burgers. It’s almost hard to believe that’s not more satisfying.

Generalized dissatisfaction is Mad Men’s bread and butter. And starting in season one, characters have used grief as the catalyst for confronting their fears about how they’re living. When we meet Betty, she’s still grappling with her mother’s death; she attributes her panic attacks and psychosomatic numbness to that loss. But slowly she — and we — realize that her grief is forcing her out of denial about the shortcomings of her marriage. Her sadness over her mother’s death eventually becomes sadness over her marriage, sadness over Don’s chronic betrayals, sadness over her own stunted maturity. Not that Betty’s the only one dealing with the death of a parent: In “Long Weekend,” season one’s tenth episode, Don confesses to Rachel Menken that his mother died in childbirth, and that his father died after being kicked by a horse. “This is all there is, and I feel like it’s slipping through my fingers like a handful of sand,” he tells her, after Roger’s second heart attack starts the mortality wheels a’turnin’ in his head. In the following episode, Don’s half-brother Adam hangs himself. In the episode after that, Don finds out. We also learn, in flashback, what happened to the real Don Draper, and how his death lead to Dick Whitman assuming a new identity. This grief, and the relived trauma, find Don again running to Rachel, this time begging her to run away. Don’s fear is that he can’t be known, that he’s better off starting over again, that what would be best for everyone would be for him to disappear.

Parental death comes up again in season two, when Pete’s father dies in a plane crash. The first person Pete tells is Don, and then, looking and sounding very much like a little boy, Pete helplessly pleads, “I don’t know what to do.” He’s stunned by his father’s death, of course — and not only because he’d been making crass jokes about the crash just moments before he found out his dad was one of its casualties. But what Pete’s really stunned by is the nothingness. “Everything’s exactly the same,” he says. Don, trying to be sage, tells Pete to go be with his family. “There’s life, and there’s work,” Don insists, as if that was something he himself believed. Pete’s big fear is that he’s meaningless and ineffectual, and that’s exactly how he feels when he’s confronted with his father’s death. We see that again in season six, when Bob Benson’s associate murders Pete’s mother on a cruise ship. At least that’s what seems to have happened — Pete and his brother decide not to investigate much further, because why bother? Pete crashes a car in the Chevy showroom, decides to ditch his mother’s furniture with Trudy, and then bails on his entire life and moves to California. He doesn’t matter, really, he’s just a bad husband and an absent father who can’t even drive stick.

Season two’s other notable death is Marilyn Monroe. In “Maidenform,” various characters describe or interpret their conception of her, but it’s in “Six Month Leave,” three episodes later, that those images have an impact. Don’s already living in a hotel by then, but Betty’s descent accelerates after she listens to a news bulletin about Monroe’s death; she drinks until she passes out, she bails on a party she was supposed to go to, and she does everything she can to set up an affair between Arthur and Sarah Beth, her friends from the stables. Betty has a lot of anxiety around sex and sexuality, partially because she was raised to think of herself primarily as a vessel of beauty and desire, and partially because Don was often sexually manipulative. (And also, you know, society.) Monroe’s death highlights to Betty the limits of what beauty and desirability provide. She’s afraid that everyone cheats — so she orchestrates an encounter to prove her point. She’s afraid of Don’s secrets — so she tries, mostly in vain, to open his locked desk drawer. She’s afraid of being a mother. She’s afraid of having nothing more to offer the word than her physical appearance, which she’s already afraid is waning.

Betty’s fears are exacerbated in season three, when Grandpa Gene moves in. His death in episode four, bookended by the deaths of Pope John XXIII and Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, seems to affect Sally maybe more than it affects her mother. Sally, with good reason, fears being ignored, and when her beloved grandfather, a parent figure who favored her, doted on her, and made her feel special, dies, she can’t believe that the adults around her are simply carrying on. He’s “really, really, really gone,” Sally wails, and Betty snaps that she’s being “hysterical.” Sally’s afraid that no one cares, while Betty’s afraid that her daughter’s behavior is a reflection on her — and because Betty hates herself, all those reflections are bad. Sally remains focused on death, staring intently at a news report about Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, and later in the following episode, “The Fog,” fixating so much on Medgar Evers’s assassination that her teacher asks Don and Betty if everything’s okay. (It’s not.) Betty’s fear that Sally’s her and she’s Sally picks up the Medgar Evers thread when, in a drug-induced dream state, Betty sees her father mopping up Evers’s blood. By the time JFK’s assassination happens in “The Grown-Ups,” Betty’s tired of being afraid. She announced to Don that she doesn’t love him. Don responds to this by heading into the office — where he finds Peggy. They’re both afraid that their families don’t really see them, so they cling to their professional images.

Don and Peggy rely on that bond again when Anna Draper dies at the end of “The Suitcase.” Don sobs that she was the only person who really knew him, and it’s a moment of candor and vulnerability Peggy has never really seen from him before. She comforts him, and more or less assumes Anna’s role as secret-keeper and supporter in Don’s life; he’s afraid no one will ever love the “real” him, but Peggy comes as close as anyone.

Miss Blankenship’s death is mostly played for Weekend at Bernie’s laughs in season four’s “The Beautiful Girls,” but Don, Joan, Peggy, and Megan spend the second half of the episode performing in a silly way what most of us perform in a serious way all the time: Pretending that death doesn’t exist so as not to upset children or commerce. Don’t let Sally know that there’s a dead body a few feet away; don’t let the clients detect a thing. Because if we all had to acknowledge with any kind of consistency that everyone dies, selling auto parts and maintaing racist hiring practices would seem like a real waste. Everything seems like a real waste when someone dies, but especially sales. Bert Cooper’s eulogy, about how Miss Blankenship died “an astronaut” (fitting!), doesn’t seem to affect people for very long, though; by “Chinese Wall” a few episodes later, SCDP employees crash a funeral for a rival adman in the hopes of scrounging up some clients.

Season five of Mad Men is all about death. Over and over and over we hear about murders — Charles Whitman’s sniper rampage at UT Austin; Richard Speck torturing and murdering nurses; Pete’s gruesome drunk-driving film at driver’s ed class. Betty dreams of her own death in “Tea Leaves,” with everyone looking sad-ish but mostly just moving on. Don has a fever dream about murdering one of his former lovers. It’s all a prelude to Lane’s suicide, though, a death that for Don echoes Adam’s suicide and his own borderline complicitness in both deaths. Don’s devastated, and when he gets home and finds Glen Bishop, of all people, in his apartment, whatever guard he had up is now completely down. If you could do anything, he asks Glen, particularly something to convince him that the world isn’t “crap,” what would it be? Glen’s apparent answer: Drive. Which Don acquiesces to. That’s a question Don doesn’t know how to answer for himself, though: If Don could do anything, what would it be? If the world isn’t crap, then why aren’t you doing anything joyous and loving?

If season five’s deaths created an atmosphere of morbidity, season six’s deaths are part of an atmosphere of chaos. The season begins with Roger’s mother’s funeral — where Don gets so drunk he vomits in an umbrella holder. “This is my funeral!” Roger bellows, himself a bit tipsy. Roger’s age compared to Don, and certainly to the babies at the agency like Pete and Ken, has been an issue since season one, and he feels that acutely at his mother’s funeral, that she and he were part of an old guard whose era is over. Her death is his death. (This happens again exactly in “Waterloo.” “Is this what would happen if I died?,” Roger wonders.) Roger winds up more stricken by the shoeshine guy’s death than by his mother’s, though of course that’s simply how denial works, which is to say that it works very well right up until the moment that it doesn’t. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s assassinations coupled with riots, the war in Vietnam (including Stan’s cousin’s death), and a sensation of broad social decay put everyone’s fears at the forefront: Don’s fears that he’s a bad parent, Peggy’s fears that Abe is not right for her, Megan’s fears that she and Don are more separate than they are together, Pete’s fears of worthlessness, everyone’s fear that Harry is basically terrible but necessary, Ted’s fear that he wouldn’t be able to stay away from Peggy. What does it even mean to be alive when there’s so much despair? Is there a point in building stable lives when at any moment you can be swept away by societal entropy?

At first I thought Bert Cooper was the first character to die in season seven, but he’s not. In episode two, “A Day’s Work,” Sally’s roommate’s mother dies. We never met her, nor do we see her funeral, but the death affects Sally, despite the blasé attitude and casual callousness. Sally’s afraid of how pervasive her father’s lies are — anyone would be, let alone a tween — but she’s even more afraid of being her mother. (Both her parents have, in moments of spite, accused her of being like the other parent. She is in fact very much like both of them.) So, in the most un-Betty thing to do, Sally plainly, simply, and sincerely tells her father she loves him. It’s both girlish and hypermature, the kind of thing you expect to hear reflexively from a child, but in Sally’s hands winds up being a deliberate and substantive moment.

Which brings us back to Bert Cooper. His farewell song-and-dance is another reminder to Don that life is not inherently meaningful: You have to find and derive meaning from things yourself. And this isn’t the first phantasmagoria to tell Don just that. Anna Draper’s ghost marched through “The Suitcase,” suitcase in hand, sort of saying good-bye to Don but also reminding him that she was there, that she loved him and respected him, when she of all people should have been someone to shun him. If she could let him in, surely Peggy and other people could. Don also sees Adam in season five’s “The Phantom,” first a few times out of the corner of his eye in the office, and then while under anesthesia at the dentist. “It’s not your tooth that’s rotten,” Adam says, the bruise from his hanging plaining visible. “Don’t go, don’t leave me,” Don pleads. He could have said the same thing to Bert or Anna, or to Betty or Peggy, or Megan or Joan or Roger or Sally or Rachel or Bobby or Bobbie or Sylvia. Don’t go. Don’t leave me.

What Has Each Death Meant on Mad Men?