"Mad Men" finale: Hello darkness, my old friend

After spending the entire fourth season struggling to find himself, will Don find an easy exit from his misery?

Published October 18, 2010 12:38PM (EDT)

"Mad Men" has always charted the ways that modern life cleaves us into pieces. Fleeting attempts at self-reflection are scrapped for strategies for surviving in the ruthless corridors of high capitalism. Shaky steps towards real connection and intimacy are abandoned for the thrill of novelty, followed by the soothing numbness of alienation. Even the purest experiences, like falling in love or succeeding at a work challenge, are compromised by the pervasive creep of self-doubt and nihilism, or dismantled by the sociocultural pressures to play a prescribed role without complaint.

But Sunday night's "Mad Men" finale reminds us of what Matthew Weiner's riveting drama captures best of all: the particularly modern affliction of dissatisfaction, a sickness that robs us of our ability to savor the moment, to relish the mundane details of our lives and delight in all of the joys that our comforts and conveniences bring. Perversely, the more comfortable we are, the more we want. We're constantly distracted by the notion that we could do better or have more, that we might become someone new overnight, that there's magic or a pot of gold around the next corner. Whether it's advertising or celebrity culture or some twisted mix of radio jingles, cartoons, soap operas, political speeches and suspense thrillers, our cultural marinade makes us fixate on easy answers, shortcuts, and magical thinking. We're each about to win the lottery; salvation lies just around the next bend, we just have to wait and see what happens.

The fourth season of AMC's "Mad Men" has charted Don Draper's painful path of self-discovery, but somehow we knew all along he'd end up right where he started. He began the season as a newly divorced guy who slowly unraveled into a sullen drunk. After a few personal crises, he sobered up. He started swimming, writing in a journal, reflecting on his life. He fell in love with Faye, a woman who dared him, from the start, not to feed her lines, not to play the dashing hero, not to woo her with a façade. She wanted the real Don Draper, and when she found out that Don was really Dick Whitman, she didn't skip a beat. She embraced Dick and urged him to show the world who he really was. From her angry phone calls to her awkwardness around children, Faye always presented the upsides and downsides of the authentic life. Yes, she wore a wedding ring; she knew how to survive by telling lies. But "the stupid office" always came second to real life for her; she wanted so much more for herself and for Don.

Faye embodied a sea change in Don's thinking. Instead of being an intriguing girl on the edge of the frame like Suzanne the school teacher or Midge the bohemian, Faye showed us herself, and she expected to be seen and appreciated and understood. For a while there, Faye had Don thinking like her: He took the day off to have a nervous breakdown in his apartment over the reemergence of the Dick Whitman "problem." He told Faye the truth about when he'd call. He strained to match her honesty and struggled mightily to tell her what was going on inside of him.

But then SCDP started to sink, in the wake of Lucky Strike dropping them, and Don tore the pages of self-reflection out of his journal to make room for an invented change of heart custom-designed for the advertising pages: He would no longer work for tobacco companies. The move is classic Don Draper. He announces abruptly that he has evolved -- instead of actually evolving.

It makes sense, of course, that Don applies this same strategy to his personal life in the final episode of season four. Just as Faye has proven herself to be a real partner to Don, one who's capable of standing by his side when all of the fairy tales and the make-believe of his life melt away, Don turns his back on all of it.

Don: I have this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Faye: Listen. Maybe it's not all about work. Maybe that sick feeling might go away if you take your head out of the sand about the past.

Don: You know it's not that simple.

Faye: Of course it isn't. And you don't have to do it alone. But if you resolve some of that, you might be more comfortable about everything.

Don: And then what happens?

Faye: And then you're stuck trying to be a person like the rest of us.

What Faye doesn't know is that there's nothing Don Draper fears more than "trying to be a person like the rest of us." Accepting that he's just another man on the face of the Earth is the last thing Don wants to do. He is oppressed by his own overwhelming compulsion to play the dashing hero, even when there's nothing at all heroic about his actions and he knows it, even when he simply takes cowardice and dresses it up with a shiny cape. "When a man walks into a room he brings his whole life with him. He has a million reasons for being anywhere. Just ask him for one," Don wrote in his journal back when he was sobering up. "If you listen, he'll tell you how he got there, how he forgot where he was going, and then he woke up." In the season finale, Don forgets where he's going, and he decides to tell a brand new story.

The quintessential American man, Don wants a life that's bigger and better and shinier. Don wants to believe in magic. It's fitting that Don and his kids are visiting Disneyland, that his secretary Megan agrees to come along in order to save Don from the perils of dealing with children by himself, that she's wonderful with children and never becomes unnerved when things go wrong. Milkshakes spill, your boss sleeps with you then ignores you again. It's no big deal. Despite the initial warmth that comes from seeing a woman soothe some kids who desperately need soothing, Megan's ability to shield Don from this inconvenience – and therefore keep him alienated from the uncomfortable folds of his life, where the real emotion and the difficult experiences and the growth await him – is exactly what makes her such an easy (and unhealthy) choice for him. Make no mistake about it: In spite of her pretty face and big ideas, Megan is nothing more than a combination of a nanny and a whore to Don. That's what he likes about her.

While "Mad Men" might seem to have an unnatural fixation on men who marry their secretaries, everything about that pairing reflects the peculiar shortcomings of the modern man and the ultimate emptiness of modern life. Instead of choosing an equal, these men choose a woman who lingers in the background, making everything run smoothly without complaint. Shielded from the ups and downs of the real world like children, they wonder (like Roger Sterling does) why their lives eventually come to feel so empty. Don begins the season as a cipher, and he winds up with someone who's as good a cipher as he is.

"What made you suddenly write that?" a woman from the American Cancer Society asks of Don's "Why I'm quitting tobacco" ad. " I think in my heart it was an impulse, because I knew what I needed to do to move forward," Don says, and he may as well be talking about his engagement. He impulsively believes that he can be a hero again, if he takes some arbitrary action that he can paint as heroic.

He even gives Megan the real Don Draper's engagement ring. Don is choosing to keep living as Draper, even when he has other options. And the emotional fuel for Don's sudden decision arises out of displaced longing for Anna, his only friend, whom he didn't even see before she died. He finds himself missing her dreadfully, and misinterprets that sadness and loneliness as a passionate longing for Megan.

Like the skin-deep futurism of Tomorrowland, Megan offers Don a chance to speed into the future, instead of facing the past, or facing himself. "They're mourning for their childhood more than they're anticipating their future," Don tells the American Cancer board in their discussion about how to keep kids from smoking. "They don't know it yet, but they don't want to die." When Don visits California, he's so fixated on his past and Anna's death and his own mortality that he craves something magical to save him from it all.

Of course, when Betty fires Carla for letting Glenn see Sally, she's also turning her back on the past. She's effectively dismissing her kids' real mom, without even letting her say goodbye. Henry is livid.

Betty: I wanted a fresh start, OK? I'm entitled to that.

Henry: There is no fresh start! Lives carry on!

Betty: Jesus, just once could you take my side?

Henry: No one is on your side, Betty.

Even as Henry is shocked that Betty could get rid of the nanny the kids have known since they were babies, he's also skeptical of the notion of fresh starts – possibly even of his own fresh start with Betty. And he finally admits that his mother was right all along -- Betty is a child who can't handle the fact that no one is on her side, while mature adults know that no one is on their side. Henry certainly isn't on her side anymore – as a husband or a substitute Daddy or anything else.

After Betty curls up in the fetal position on Sally's bed for a while (reflecting her childish retreat into herself, as usual), she decides to put on some makeup and try to make an attempt to get Don back. Maybe if her new daddy is over her, her old daddy will welcome her with open arms. But Don has already moved on. As much of a monster as Betty has become this season, it's sad to see her crawling back to Don, only to have Don tell her the news of his engagement.

Thank God for the brief scene where Peggy and Joan bemoan the stupidity of men marrying their secretaries. Finally, Peggy calls Joan on her lies, and Joan laughs in response. It would be so nice to see these two actually join forces – but of course, there are a million and one ways that the norms of the times will keep them on opposing teams. And it's obvious that Megan, with her aspirations to become a copywriter, will end up haunting both women as the specter of how effective it can be to sleep with the boss. Megan is poised to become the frightening, ghoulish workplace version of Jane Siegel.

Megan: I know that you have a good heart, and I know that you're always trying to be better.

Don: We all try. We don't always make it. I've done a lot of things.

Megan: I know who you are, Don.

Megan is fearsome because she's far craftier than Jane. In fact, Megan is the Don Draper of love: She says exactly what her client wants to hear. She decides what she wants to believe and then sticks to that story and doesn't waver. But can Don possibly respect someone who believes in him religiously when he hardly believes in himself? Won't he eventually think less of her because she thinks so much of him (the way Roger doesn't feel it when Jane tells him she's proud of him)? It seems obvious that Don will pick and choose what he tells Megan about Dick Whitman, in order to hold onto her high esteem. But keeping up such a façade is the path to alienation and detachment for Don – as we see, briefly, in the last scene, where he lies in bed with her, wide awake. (Who else half-expected to hear "Hello darkness, my old friend!" at the end there?)

Megan tells Don that she buys his pretty story, and Don loves it. She offers him novelty ("I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things," Faye says when Don calls her to break up) and she adores him patiently, no questions asked. In some ways, the ever-doubting, outspoken Mrs. Blankenship represents what Don needs to keep him honest, and Megan represents the opposite: an illusion, a mirage, the promise of something that might make you into someone you're not.

At the start of the episode, Don asks Faye, "Will you at least put me out of my misery before you go?" Don would choose death, or an absence of feeling, over the excruciating pain of seeing himself clearly, over the constant struggle of "trying to be a person like the rest of us." Since Faye won't allow him to shut off from his life, to power down and drift through the world like a handsome ghost, he chooses Megan instead. At the end, Don has found his new winning story, his new heroic role, his new, patently false proclamation of victory. The central identity parable of "Mad Men," which seemed like a simple act of deception in the first few seasons, has deepened into something richer and more ominous. Don Draper reflects the American compulsion to sidestep the hard work of living a flawed but authentic life for the empty illusion of perfection, as shiny and skin-deep as an advertisement that promises the impossible.

By Heather Havrilesky

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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