Will the truth set Don Draper free?

After a season full of lies, the "Mad Men" finale reveals our cultural aversion to honesty

Topics: Mad Men, mad men finale, don draper, Entertainment

Will the truth set Don Draper free? (Credit: HBO/Salon)

“Mad Men” is a parable of the constraints of modern life at the height of America’s cultural supremacy. Over the course of six seasons, Don Draper and his associates have demonstrated how we, as a country, became better and better at selling a full-color fantasy of the good life to ourselves and to the rest of the world. But in the process, we slowly poisoned our own culture with skin-deep lies about what it takes to be happy. In the workplace and at home, we demanded that our stories look more and more like the idealized stories on TV and the pretty advertisements in our magazines, pumping up our expectations, and intensifying our disappointment in ourselves and those around us. Decades later, dissatisfaction is such an essential aspect of our cultural groundwater that pointing it out either feels hopelessly earnest or downright paranoid. We have become so good at telling pretty stories that we’ve brainwashed ourselves in the process. Our leaders are those who look the best on TV, who mouth the syrupy jingles that dovetail with the lies we’re already telling ourselves, and who cover up their lies with more lies the most efficiently.

In its sixth season, “Mad Men” may have fallen short of our expectations partially because, in charting the inevitable downfall of the deeply fake American hero, Don Draper stopped fascinating us or eliciting our sympathy. Either his symbolic significance was blasting too loudly in our ears (whorehouse flashbacks, affairs with the neighbor’s wife, liquor swilling at breakfast time), or his similarity to a surly, greatest generation alcoholic, behaving badly (but never really explaining himself), didn’t come off as evocative so much as depressing. There weren’t many moments where we were invited to feel for Don, to pity him, to hope that his life would improve – no therapist to talk to, no panic attacks, no ducks flying away, never to return. The parable of Don Draper sometimes took precedence over the quality of “Mad Men’s” storytelling, and the show stalled out for the first time.

Still, that stalling doesn’t take away from “Mad Men’s” status as one of the most colorful, smart and transfixing TV dramas ever made. On Sunday night, there were surely scores of “Mad Men” viewers who were disappointed to discover that Megan hadn’t been murdered by a Manson-like cult or that Don hadn’t been outed as a cheater in front of friends, family, neighbors and rubbernecking strangers alike, in a scene straight out of Megan’s soap opera. Given all of the violence, fraud, greed and treachery spewing out of every circle-of-hell-inspired plot this season, it didn’t seem that far-fetched to expect a sudden death, a divorce, an elopement, a suicide, an emotional breakdown, if not all of the above. But while the finale didn’t offer the kind of fireworks we might prefer, it did clarify the lesson laid out by this elaborate parable. This season, each character moved from lies toward the truth.

Roger began the season worrying about disappearing suddenly and having been nothing more than a giant wallet for those around him. He ended the season trying to tell his son-in-law and daughter the truth, only to have Margaret confirm his worst fears, telling him that he can’t come to Thanksgiving unless he continues to float her family financially. (His grandkid’s drawing of him as a king holding bags of gold was a nice touch.)

Peggy began the season independent and strong at a brand-new firm, headed by her hero, Ted Chaough. By the end of the season, though, Ted was far from heroic, too afraid of “chaos” to reach for true happiness. So Peggy somehow found herself not only back in Don’s fold without Ted, but preparing to inherit Don’s corner office, cementing her fate as the next Don Draper.

Joan started out the season raging against her sleeping-her-way-to-the-top legacy, which was a twisted oversimplification and underestimation of her true value to the firm. After strategizing her way into an account executive role, though, the truth of her many talents and strengths has emerged. She may have chosen an even bigger fake for a boyfriend in Bob Benson than she had in Greg, but it’s still clear that her heart is tied up with Roger, despite her statements to the contrary. (The scene where Bob believes that Roger is openly acknowledging that he’s gay and using Joan as a cover is particularly hilarious – and echoes the same movement from lies to truth.)

Pete started the season pretending that he could live the same double life that Don once lived, having affairs in the city while going home to Trudy at night. Pete is a terrible liar, though. His affair with a neighbor was exposed, he was kicked to the curb by Trudy, and then he had to play the loving son to his mother, whom he clearly hated. At the end of this season, though, Pete can finally give up the charade of loving his mother (Lost at sea!), give up on trying to have a relationship with Trudy or his daughter (that goodbye scene was heartbreaking) and float out to L.A. unencumbered (and most likely miserable – until flexible, modern Pete emerges, if he ever does).

Betty and Don began the season hating each other but, thanks to the fact that their mutual disgust and anger were finally out in the open, they developed their first real, honest relationship – something between an affair, a friendship and a practical partnership. Will these two get remarried next season? I wouldn’t rule it out. What better way to dramatize the pull of nostalgia on cowardly souls?

And after jeopardizing his marriage, his kids, his friendships and his job with his lies this season, Don finally hit rock bottom and landed on the real solution, the one that’s been staring him in the face all his life: He needs to try to live authentically, whatever the cost. The actual scene where this happened didn’t ring true (and wasn’t as moving as it should’ve been), but it did echo the theme of the episode and the season. Don began his Hershey pitch with his usual fictional “When I was a happy middle-class boy living the American dream” shtick, and then, rather abruptly and not all that organically, confessed that he grew up in a whorehouse. It’s too bad that the writers didn’t come up with a more natural motive for Don to start spilling his guts. Maybe he was wasted when he started spewing the truth in Weiner’s first draft, but that didn’t work because then Don would be doing something Good with a capital G (being honest for once in his enormous lie of a life) but for a bad reason (because he was drunk). On “Mad Men,” the parable must be served, first and foremost.

Of course, telling the truth is never going to go that well for Don, even if it’s the healthiest choice he could possibly make. Everyone in the Hershey meeting is flummoxed, and Don is forced by the firm’s partners to take some time off from work. Megan is alarmed by his reversal on moving to California, and has paid too high a price (her soap opera role) to tolerate this choice, regardless of how worthwhile it might be for Don. “You want to be alone with your liquor and your ex-wife and your screwed-up kids,” she tells him, and maybe that’s where we’ll find Don at the end of the series: Back with Betty, drinking and smoking too much, because ultimately, they’re both stubborn children who refuse to evolve.

For now, though, we finally get a Don Draper who’s trying to change by living authentically. As far as this show goes, that’s revolutionary. After all, when Don Draper and his co-workers talk about Heinz or Chevy or Sunkist or Hershey’s, they might as well be talking about religions. In contrast, they might respect Martin Luther King Jr. or Robert Kennedy or the protesters at the Democratic National Convention, but ultimately, true heroes who stand up for what’s right are no match for the full-court press of America’s late capitalist interests. “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you,” a Christian stranger told Don when he was a kid. But in America, there’s no forgiveness for the truth-teller.

Maybe that’s why, despite the faults of the season and the flaws of this particular episode, that last scene where Don showed Sally his wreck of a childhood home felt genuinely moving. We know how out of character this moment is for Don, and we understand, intuitively, from years of experience in this glorious and deeply flawed country, just how difficult it is to own who you really are in this culture. For all of the people who went from disgusted to outspoken thanks to the tragedies of 1968, most simply fell back into lives of quiet resignation in the wake of that horrible year. The most revolutionary and rebellious aspects of our culture 40 years ago are now used to sell shoes and market social networks and promote recording artists. We glorify authenticity as a concept, but actually standing up for what you think is right, and saying what you mean, is greeted, nine times out of 10, with awkward silence, or revulsion, or the blast of a fire hose. (And don’t even bother to come for Thanksgiving!) Telling the truth is not a small thing today.

Don will, of course, disappoint us in the end. How could he not? Or as Stan puts it, sounding like an omen of things to come, “You didn’t think ahead. You let her go, and yet you still need something.” But for now, let’s savor the notion that this melancholy icon of American masculinity might finally give up on escape fantasies, grow up, and really know himself — if only for a brief moment, before the curtain falls.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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