Searching for meaning in Mad Men

Courtesy of AMC

I remember an afternoon in the spring of 2012 spent drifting through the Harvard Book Store.

I’d escaped the crush of mid-day foot traffic outside—it was probably cold out on those brick-lined streets, but I don’t really remember, and I know I didn’t really care. I’d been overcome by a keen desire to be alone, and a beautiful library seemed the perfect place to bask in the mind-swimming glow I’d been enjoying since I’d hopped onto a train that morning from New York City. The night before, I’d seen a girl I’d been on-again, off-again with for quite some time. Now, my heart was all aflutter, somersaults onto a rocky shore.

I had some writing I needed to get done, but like anything important in life, a deadline could always wait. After making my leisurely way through the book stacks, my eyes were drawn to an issue of Entertainment Weekly peeking out from a perch in the Magazines section. It was a preview of the fifth season of Mad Men, which would mark the show’s return to television after a brief hiatus.

A quote from the ensuing article stood out to me, and has since stuck with me. He’s looking for something. That’s how Jon Hamm described the motivation of his character, Don Draper, the powerhouse Madison Avenue ad man he’d crafted into an icon of effortless cool.

That searching thread became one of the show’s underlying themes, set alongside the roiling social changes of the 1960s. I’d often find myself humming that U2 song…I still…haven’t found…well, you know. It was poignant that a ‘pause’ was pressed after Season 4; Don had gotten divorced, and after a brief stab at going steady with a woman named Faye, he’d careened off that path of tried-and-true, instead opting for a leap of faith into marriage with his 25-year-old secretary.

It was fun reading some of the fan reactions from that time. What was he doing? Megan?!? But it was the leap of faith I found so thrilling; particularly given how Don had arrived at that point. Reality is filled with stasis. Steady jobs, humdrum existence. We look to television and cinema for bursts of unfettered decisiveness! (Forgive my at-times overblown rhetoric. I’ve been reading a lot of Paglia.)

He’d spent large portions of Season 4 burrowing into his psyche, trying to prize out meaning. He’d cut back on the boozing and started journaling; yet in one of my favorite moments in the series, he threw all those pages of handwritten self-introspection into the dustbin. Like any good creative soul, Don instinctively recognized that his most interesting work—any interesting work, for that matter—comes when you get out of your own head and transform into art what you experience in the world around you.

In Megan he saw a chance at a fresh start; maybe happiness, too. I’ll never forget the moment he lay with her in bed. ’Twas quite piognant, for me. I’d never seen Don more vulnerable. He was on a precipice; he knew it, and he was ready to make the jump into the unknown with someone new. His platonic soul mate, Anna Draper, had just died. Life was too short to wait around for something good.

So what exactly was he looking for? Simply, a way to feel a little less alone, a little less empty. Here was a well-to-do man bathed in the amenities his station in life afforded him. Come from dirt-poor farmland; worked and achieved material prosperity beyond his wildest dreams. Creative director at a high-powered advertising agency, with a family and a beautiful home. Everything a man could ever need.

And yet…if we were to diagnose just how Don Draper became such a cynic, able to tell a potential client with a straight face that the all-consuming notion of “Love” she grew up with was just something advertising men like himself had invented to sell…nylons, it might have come about in the space between what he’d hoped to get out of life and what he’d ended up with. How pitifully reality compared to the dream that had gotten fixed in his head.

I think first and foremost of his daughter’s birthday party in Season One, during which one of the kid’s fathers sidles up to Don and remarks upon the picture-perfect setting. How great is this, he marvels.

Yep, this is it comes Don’s canned response, minutes before he jets off, ostensibly to pick up the birthday cake, but really to just drift away in his car, returning long after the party is over, his wife livid—but daughter enraptured, because he’s brought her a dog.

What made Draper fascinating was that, like Gatsby, he was never more harried, that cool and calm persona withering away in a moment, than when someone poked through and saw behind the curtain of that carefully crafted persona.

With work, Don calmness personified, never more in his element than when a crisis was at hand. Witness him storming into Jim Cutler and Leo Avery’s secret meeting with Philip Morris to put the proceedings on his own terms, or grabbing fate by the throat to heave off and start a new company when a merger threatened to destroy him. All those clients he’d left speechless with yet another powerhouse presentation.

Maybe it was that constant deception that turned him into a rather lonely man who instinctively eschewed the company of others. I think of De Niro in Heat, telling Pacino “I am alone, but I am not lone-ly.

Oh, that poor girl, his first wife Betty says of Megan. She doesn’t know that loving you is the worst way to get to you.

So the question remains. What did Don Draper find? Did he find what he was looking for? The show’s ending has been endlessly debated, but I found it interesting that the creator, Matthew Weiner, did not share in the widespread snark and cynicism many greeted it with, when we see Don’s face enraptured in a sense of total serenity—in a Coke commercial.

But there was a real sense that been run through the gamut, and come out on the other side. Finding a way to keep moving forward. Making things right with the three women in his life at that point: former wife, current co-worker, daughter.

It rang alongside a quote from Brad Pitt, around the release of Moneyball.

“In scripts today,” (Pitt) explains, “someone has a big epiphany, learns a lesson, then comes out the other side different. In these older films I’m talking about, the beast at the end of the movie was the same beast in the beginning of the movie. What changed was the world around them, by just a couple of degrees. Nothing monumental. I think that’s true about us. We fine-tune ourselves, but big change is not real.”

This was one of the most brilliant elements of Mad Men—that we were able to watch Don, and to a lesser extent his family and co-workers, react to the societal upheaval that defined the 1960’s. So often painted as a man outside his time, unable, or unwilling, to understand the tide of change coming his way, Don comes out the other end older, maybe wiser, but with a delightfully uncynical take on what has happened to him along the way, in the form of that expression of utmost serenity.

I think of what Tarantino said through his actor surrogate of David Carradine toward the end of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, waxing lyrical about the myth of Superman. How Superman’s chosen alter ego, Clark Kent, is a withering criticism of the way he views modern American society.

To disappear amongst his peers, Superman dons the uniform of one of those men Thoreau would claim was living a life of quiet desperation. So it went in reverse with Dick Whitman’s transformation into the all-conquering ubermensch Don Draper, who because of his lonely path to the top, struggled with intimacy, always feeling most at home with strangers.

Any time he let his guard down and let someone in, whether his first wife, Betty, learning the secret of his past, or that scene in the conference room with Hershey’s, when he reveals elements of his true self he can see that no one wants to hear about it; and if they do, they look right through him. So why let them in, at all?

I re-watched the show recently for the first time since I’d binged in anticipation of the final season in 2015. Like any return to a fundamental element of your past, I was struck by how differently parts of it struck me. Certain plot points were more poignant.

But a fact remained. Don was as enthralling as ever. He is a true American hero, in large part because he extracted a sense of meaning and, like some explorer of old, he carved out a place for himself amid the thrum of modernity. He found a life for himself to live. For once, instead of always pushing forward, he was content to simply be.

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