Even happy endings aren't happy on Mad Men
(This post has spoilers–but I tend to agree with A.O. Scott on the subject.)
“There’s more to life than work.”
Words of Stan Rizzo that echoed in my head during Mad Men’s series finale. Is he summarizing the show’s thesis? A show that captivated me and millions of others in the world of Madison Avenue in the 1960s, Mad Men is a postmodern gaze on the past. Consistently told assuming the audience knows about the lessons we all learned from the 1960s, the booze-driven, women-obsessed, success-driven ad executives are something of a caricature for the audience, with their flaws so readily on display, their lessons learned and, less than subtly, exposed. Indeed, as these millionaires, Don Draper in the lead, swim through their own intoxication, they wonder if there is something more to life.
Don, early on, utters that there isn’t. “The universe is indifferent.” For Don, the universe needs to be indifferent. His life is a sham: he has stolen a man’s name, his marriage is in shambles (twice), he has little motivation but the pleasures of this world, which he makes his living by selling. There is no meaning in life for Draper because there cannot be. If there is, he has not found it. He’s made his living telling people that they can create their own meaning, just with the products they consume. He has perfectly channeled capitalism. Capitalism has made him. Capitalism has given him meaning.
When Don listens to “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the first time, the final song on the Beatles’ masterpiece Revolver, he turns it off wondering why this generation likes music so much. As Don grows up, he loses touch. He loses himself. He may be a creative director, but his subordinates (Peggy Olson notably) are the ones coming up with the award-winning content that sells. By the time the seventh season rolls in, the audience has to seriously try to remember the last time Don made a noteworthy ad. His ideas fall flat. In fact, his ideas are hardly even conjured up.
Now, when he’s the king of the county, the real-life ad firm McCann, buys Don’s firm. With so much of their identity wrapped up in the success of their company, Peter Campbell, Roger Sterling, Joan Harris, Peggy Olson, and Don are forced to find a way to proceed. How they choose to do that reveals a lot about what happiness truly is, and what life can be beyond work. My contention is that, in every case, the characters miss what life can truly be about: fullness in Jesus, and opt for a different portion of the American Dream that’s as hollow as their ads were.
Roger drinks vermouth with Peggy as they clean up their old office and eventually faces the reality of his new job. He goes back to McCann, only this time, he’s resisting sleeping with his secretaries, and he settles in with an age-appropriate woman, whom he loves (Don’s ex-wife’s mother, which no one seems to care about). He writes his will and gives portions of his “small fortune” to the son he has with his old secretary, Joan Harris. It isn’t for his legacy, it’s for the fact that he can’t take his money into the next age (and he doesn’t want his new wife to get it). I suppose that’s how Roger is making sense of it all.
Peter Campbell (whom I loved) is an ambitious Ivy-league graduate. He has risen to the top of the ad company through hard work and his intention to build something. His life has been torn apart as well—his daughter and wife live in the New York suburbs, as he tries to live Don’s life in the City. But he’s not made for it. When he’s offered a job by Learjet, he takes it and convinces his former wife and child to go with him. He moves to the Midwest, where he belongs, to start his own Middle American life. Away from bustle, and temptation, Pete personifies the suburban American Dream almost perfectly.
Joan can’t seem to work out how to be a powerful, yet beautiful woman in 1970. She has gained much of her power at her former ad firm because of long-term relationships, a demonstration of experience and competence, and ultimately, prostituting herself for a share in the company. That doesn’t mean anything to the people at McCann. When she pushes for more influence, her boss sells her back her shares at 50 cents to the dollar. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s in a secure relationship, but the prospect of getting married isn’t appealing after she’s worked so hard to be her own woman. Her partner leaves her and she starts a production firm, finally being able to answer the phone using her name as the title for the company.
Joan tries to enchant Peggy to do the same, but Peggy has different ideas. She’s tempted to be her own boss, but she’s made it from secretary to copywriter and now she’s overseeing clients and teams of advertisers. Stan, her long-time friend, knows her better. He knows that she doesn’t just want to be her own boss. Pete tells her that she’ll be a creative director that people will brag about working with by 1980. She proceeds, only this time, it’s with Stan. Stan confronts her with his own love for her, and she reciprocates. Presumably, they will live happily ever after.
This brings us to Don. In an ad meeting that birthed Miller Lite, Don flees to Wisconsin (tipping off the audience he is doing field research). While traveling the country Don reveals his secrets to people that he randomly meets, in Wisconsin, in Utah, and finally California. Don learns of his ex-wife’s lung cancer (with all the smoking on the show, someone was bound to get it) and acknowledges how he has neglected his children. He ends up with an old friend on a hippie commune. Don’s given up on his family’s Jesus a long time ago, but he still has a spiritual vacuum. The audience is led to believe that he may indeed have hope in something greater. The entire show concludes with him meditating. Then we cut to McCann’s famous Coca-Cola ad depicting a similar scene, except this time the God being worshiped is Coke. McCann gets it:
Don doesn’t come to some greater conclusion about life. He returns, following the pattern that his friends know (Stan and Roger explicitly note his ebb-and-flow), and returns to McCann and finally brings them a relevant ad, when he becomes in touch with the hippies of the 1970s. He finally becomes part of the culture, and now can sell it stuff. It’s the same culture that convinces Roger about how to distribute his wealth, that convinces Pete to move to the Midwest to start a family again, that tells Joan she has to be her own person to find happiness, that tells Peggy that hard work alone will not save her (but maybe love can).
There are all happy endings. And in a sense, this is the perfect ending to a show about capitalism. For some, they'll buy it at face value. But for those who know the story (and know how everything in the show, with this crew, has fallen apart), knows that the marriages, businesses, commercials, and legacies will fall apart too. These endings aren’t so happy when you know the truth. Life is more than work, but it is more than family too, more than marriage, more than generosity, more than legacy. The Mad Men characters fall into their American archetypes. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Jesus gives meaning to life. Jesus gives us purpose. We can let go of all of our earthly desires, whether it’s the perils of Canadian whiskey and promiscuity or the straight-laced Midwestern suburban dream. Don and the rest of the characters are invigorated by the possibility of new life—and so am I, but not just a new start at the same old rat race, a new morning that God gives us to be Christ to the world, to show them an alternative, to save them from the American Dream.