We see all kinds of relationships on Mad Men: marriages, partnerships, parents and children, bosses and employees, grifters and hobos and mistresses, teachers and students, doctors and patients, clients, vendors, journalists, and their subjects. And these bonds are precisely articulated. But as varied as the relationships themselves are, there’s one area they just never cover: Love. As we near the series finale, Mad Men is not arriving at a “happily ever after.” Marriage is a fallacy, raising children a spiritual chore. There’s no love on Mad Men, really, no reason to believe in romantic love, or to consider familial love real or fundamental. As far as finales and final arcs go, there’s no one great love that Don is chasing, and if the series ends in additional wedding bells, we’ll know something bad is happening, no matter whose wedding it is.
The grandest form of human bonding on Mad Men isn’t love (Don Draper invented that to sell nylons). It’s the intimacy that comes with knowing someone’s secrets.
Betty accuses Don of never saying “I love you,” and she’s right both about him and the show in general: There are very few instances of characters using those exact words on Mad Men, even though we see people in all kinds of situations where that would be normal. (Think of how often we see someone finish a phone call with his wife! There are plenty of us for whom saying “I love you” at the end of a phone call is standard practice.) That’s why Sally saying it to her father in “A Day’s Work” was so jarring. Sally didn’t grow up in a house where that was an everyday thing to say, and Don certainly didn’t, either. When the phrase is uttered at all on the show, it’s often to highlight how useless the idea is. “I love you; that’s why I threw you a party,” Megan dopily tells Don in “A Little Kiss.” But Don doesn’t like parties, and certainly not surprise parties, and Jesus God not parties where his wife serenades him in front of everyone. Who wants to be loved like that? Is that even love?
But love isn’t a word, love is a practice, right? I think that’s what Oprah says. Love-in-practice isn’t present on the show, either. The only happy marriage on Mad Men appears to be between Ken Cosgrove and his wife, Cynthia, but she’s such a minor character that Don and Megan can’t even remember her name. Don and Betty? That’s not how any of us would like to love or be loved. Don and Megan? As we know, Don only likes the beginning of things, and the beginning of their relationship is over. Pete and Trudy were doomed from the outset. Roger and Mona, Roger and Jane, Joan and Greg, Sal and Kitty, Francine and Carlton, the Barretts, the Pryces, the Chaoughs, the Calvets, the Cranes, the Rosens. It’s possible to love someone and still cheat on them, but the affairs on Mad Men aren’t high-stress, one-time mistakes; they’re prolonged, deliberate relationships. Roger’s daughter Margaret abandoned her husband and son. Duck Phillips is divorced. Pete bumped into his father-in-law at a brothel. Betty’s step-mother refused to care for Gene after his stroke. Betty even cheated on Henry. Peggy and Abe were cute for a while, but an improvised harpoon is never a good sign in a relationship. This is love?
Parents and children don’t fare much better. Pete’s own mother says, “You’ve always been unlovable.” Don only has the “sorry people” who raised him, and every childhood flashback we see is more traumatic and broken than the last. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Don is such a crummy dad. Betty’s a crummy mother, too, and her upbringing was damaging and demoralizing in its own ways. She laments to Henry that her children don’t love her, but it’s not clear that Betty knows how to give and receive love. Pete has no interest in raising Tammy, and never really wanted to be a dad in the first place. If Joan loves being a parent, we haven’t seen it. Roger and Mona are estranged from Margaret, and sure, she’s a spoiled little rich girl off on her commune, but her parents were not lovingly present in her life. Harry Crane’s big piece of parenting advice is to “eat first” because he’s that unwilling to share with his own child. Megan’s own mother calls her a “bitch.” Peggy’s mother tells her she’ll get raped if she moves to Manhattan — and it’s not a warning, or a cautionary tale. It plays as a vicious threat.
Don even admits in season six that he didn’t know how to love his children until recently. “I don’t think I ever wanted to be the man who loves children,” Don tells Megan. He goes on:
But from the moment they’re born that baby comes out and you act proud and excited and hand out cigars but you don’t feel anything. Especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem. Then one day they get older and you see them do something and you feel that feeling that you were pretending to have. And it feels like your heart is going to explode.
That’s a very touching monologue, and it could almost seem like Don has learned how to love and accept his children. But he’s telling Megan all of this because she’s mad at him, and she’s mad because instead of being home and taking care of his children, he was drunk and at the movies by himself. Don feels like his heart is going to explode — so he ditches his kids, as usual, and makes himself unavailable to them.
Love is not the prize in the Mad Men universe. It’s not even a prize. What Mad Men prioritizes and valorizes is intimacy, and often the kind of intimacy that comes from knowing someone’s secrets. The most important relationship on the show is the one between Peggy and Don, and that’s not a love bond, exactly. I can’t really picture Peggy and Don exchanging “I love yous,” and yet Don’s the person who visited her in the hospital, and Peggy’s the person who discreetly bailed him out of jail. Don can remarry, and Peggy can fall in or out of love with Ted Chaough, but these two are going to be together forever.
Pete and Peggy’s relationship drives at this same idea: love, schmove, the real question is do you know me. In season two, Pete puts everything out there. “I thought, who would care if I was gone?” Pete tells Peggy. “I mean, Trudy would care, but she doesn’t know me. But you do. And I know you. And I think you’re perfect.” Oooh, boy. “I love you,” he says. Peggy’s response isn’t to say, “I don’t love you,” even though she probably doesn’t. Her response is to explain that Pete doesn’t know her. “I had your baby. And I gave it away,” she tells him. He’s incredulous. And then, in one of the best Pete lines of the series, he asks, “Why would you tell me that?” Pete preferred his ignorant not-knowing of Peggy; that’s the kind of “love” Pete likes, the kind that’s on his terms only and is largely fake. When someone really knows you, that’s when things get scary.
That’s also why Anna Draper’s image looms so large for Don. That’s not a romantic love, and it’s not as straightforward as a platonic love, either. “Someone very important to me died,” a tearful Don tells Peggy in “The Suitcase.” “Who?” she asks. Don doesn’t describe Anna as his dear friend, or as an old friend, or as someone from back home, or in any of the other ways he could gloss over things. He says, “The only person in the world who really knew me.” And then Peggy delivers what might be the most sincere expression of devotion in the entire series: “That’s not true.” Is that what Megan said when Don told her about Anna? Probably not.
And this is why Sally Draper’s maturating is such an integral part of the show. Late in season six, she catches Don having sex with his neighbor Sylvia. Even more egregiously, he tried to lie to her about it, and tried to convince her that she didn’t see what she saw. She’s a smart kid, though, and her willingness to still know her father — her desperation to still know him — in season seven is both a danger and comfort to Don. His daughter loves him, she says so; what a relief. But she’s hip to bullshit, too, in ways Betty never was or could be, and that’s a much more stark and scary possibility. Don’s torn between wanting Sally to know him — to bond with him, for their closeness to be solidified forever — and being terrified that if she does, she’ll hate what she sees.
Don is gifted at turning emotion into an ad. He turned romantic love into “The Carousel.” Mohawk’s What did you bring me, daddy? is all about parents and children. There are secret bank accounts that facilitate having an affair — who wouldn’t want that? Buy a Jaguar, so you can own a woman. I mean a car. A car! Whoops. He and Megan turn the idea of parenting into a bean commercial. He tries to turn Lane’s suicide into a campaign for Hawaiian tourism. His pitch to Hershey’s devolves into him explaining what it feels like to be an orphan. Sex and romance, love and vibrancy, even tragedy or despair, Don can Rumpelstiltskin weave into commerce somehow. And yet none of his ads — not the ones about flashers in raincoats, or children and kitchen floors, or travelers, or dessert enthusiasts, or Jackies, or Marilyns — none are about truly knowing someone and truly being known. It’s the one thing Don can’t or won’t commodify, the one idea he can’t cheapen somehow by making it a commercial. That’s how you know it’s something special.