The 'Mad Men' Finale, Coke And Don's Quest For Enlightenment

What The 'Mad Men' Finale Can Teach Us About Enlightenment

Two days after the “Mad Men” finale aired, what more is there to say? So many critics have weighed in with thoughtful and insightful essays; even when I don’t particularly agree with another writer’s opinion, I’ve been floored by how eloquent and intelligent the post-finale commentary has been.

So is there anything more to add? Sure. The mark of a truly great TV series is that we think about it long after its gone. My view of “The Sopranos” has evolved a lot since that famous cut to black, and there are moments and ideas from a dozen other long-dead shows that still percolate in my brain to this day.

When it comes to the closing images of “Mad Men,” I just want to add my voice to the chorus of those who have said that there doesn’t necessarily have to be a binary choice when it comes to how to view Don Draper’s smile and the famous Coca-Cola ad.

I lean toward the idea that Don did write the ad, but does the answer to that question have much of an impact on the ending?

It does and it doesn’t. Let’s consider the choices:

Don didn’t create the ad. That means the smile was about Don reaching some kind of self-acceptance and inner peace, and hooray for that. What next? Well, I think it’s clear that Don would eventually leave the retreat (if nothing else, it seems awfully short on alcoholic beverages). It's only common sense to think he would eventually go back to advertising. Being a mechanic or a drifter doesn’t pay all that well and results in the occasional beating, and Don does have three children to support. Whatever the payouts from various business dealings, the money in his bank account wouldn’t support vacations, private schools and college for three children, let alone the posh lifestyle Don likes to lead when he’s not crashing in cheap motels.

But more than that, Don, like Peggy, has an itch he simply must scratch. He’d get back into the ad game because he loves the thrill of the chase, and pursuing a great ad concept has always brought him more joy than any relationship. He has meaningful bonds with Peggy and Sally, but dealing with other human beings has been and will always be work for him. Being an ad genius, chasing ideas and the ghosts of ideas -- that also can be hard work, but also contains moments of uncomplicated joy.

Don can’t not be an ad man, at the end of the day. As I said in my finale review, this is how he communicates with the world. In fact, it’s the only way he’s consistently been able to connect with the rest of the human race (beyond Peggy and Sally, that is). For the most part, other people are abstractions to whom Don pitches ideas about connection, home and affection with wry intelligence and elegance. Ultimately, he’s trying to sell himself ideas that he has been resistant to, because he is a reject, an orphan, an outsider who finds it hard to experience or feel love. Maybe if somebody accepts those things, he can learn the trick of it.

Don can’t stop being an ad man because he will, until the day he dies, be pitching himself on the idea of “perfect harmony.”

So, if he didn’t have a great idea for a Coke ad -- and I think the show strongly implies he did -- he’d have another great idea about another product someday, and, being who he is and needing a paycheck as well as validation, he’d simply have to follow through. One day, he'll ditch morning yoga and don (!) the power suit and floor a client with something they didn’t know they wanted but need, once he creates that need inside them. No one understands the dance of yearning and satisfaction more than Don Draper, so of course he’s not done with the ad game.

Don did create the ad. I lean toward this interpretation, partly because, as I said in a Twitter dialogue on Monday, the expression on his face was the satisfied smirk of a man who knew, in his bones, he was going to absolutely crush a pitch. I find nothing wrong with that interpretation of the smile: The satisfied Draper smirk is a beautiful thing. I haven’t watched every episode of “Mad Men” twice (if not more) because I only want to see Don wallow in a vat of cheap booze and self-pity.

When he’s on an upward trajectory -- calm, confident and cool -- that is also intensely magnetic. My nickname for early-seasons Don Draper is “Sex Batman” -- you know it’s true -- but when he’s on his A-game at work, you could also think of him as the Iron Man of pitches. Part of the reason that Don mode is so entrancing is because, in those moments, he’s unapologetic, commanding and incredibly sure of himself. These qualities in any human being are attractive; we all want to think somebody knows what they’re doing (hence our love of superhero stories). Like Don’s clients, we want to believe a man can fly, and the sharp-suited, suffer-no-fools, tells-us-what’s-what Don Draper lets us believe, for a moment, that liftoff is possible.

I’ve referred to a couple of Don modes here -- to go with the theme of Sunday’s finale, we could call them Downward Dog Draper (booze, self-pity) and Upward Dog Draper (Sex Batman, pitch master). But the fact is, these modes are just two different stages of the same cycle we’ve seen Don go through for seven seasons. It’s all about the wheel, really.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Led by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.
-- The Dhammapada (Gil Fronsdal translation, Shambala, 2005)

You know I was just waiting to bust out a classic Buddhist text, right? I’ll get to why I’m doing so in a bit, but that reference to a wheel may ring a bell.

At the end of the series, we saw Don enter a phase we’ve seen him in many times before (perhaps one or two times too many, which is why it was time for the show to end).

The Don who walked into the ocean in “The Mountain King” is the Don who embraced Leonard: We are seeing Don, once again, find a few precious scraps of self-acceptance, self-awareness and compassion. He will emerge from the retreat with a little more understanding of himself and his inner workings. Will that give him a power-up as an ad man? Well, sure. Is that the end of the world? Not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make Sally or Peggy ashamed of him, and not if he conducts himself in a way that doesn’t make him lapse into self-hatred (well, not too often).

If I had a problem with the finale, it’s because throughout, I wanted Don to go home to Sally, the human being with whom he arguably has the most powerful bond. She was in pain and in crisis, and even though she addressed those problems with typical efficiency, she was still in great need of someone to lean on. Surely Don, of all people, could recognize the plight of a frightened child who feels alone in the world?

The Don who dropped everything, no matter what, to be with that child is a Don who’s truly gained some real wisdom. I accept but can't love Don’s story in the finale, because it was distracting for the formerly unwanted child to ignore his own childrens’ obvious and pressing needs.

I'll digress a bit to give another reason for why I found the finale a bit deflating: There are many flavors of “Mad Men” episodes, and this simply wasn’t one of my favorites. Part of the fun of the show is that it has many different modes -- heist episodes, contemplative episodes, character-driven duets like “The Suitcase,” Ingmar Bergman-esque episodes, formal stylistic experimentations, Cheever short stories, hobo episodes. Nobody asked me -- shocking! -- but the truth is, I didn’t want the show to end in hobo mode. My preferences lean toward either the "Suitcase” or “Shut the Door. Have a Seat.” styles. Did I want “Mad Men” to finish on the “Jet Set” end of the spectrum? Not so much.

It did end in that mode, and though I found the themes and ideas surrounding Don a bit on the repetitive side, that’s okay. Maybe I’m being overly kind, because the last few seasons have been a bit repetitious, but I’m inclined to be kind to a show that has produced so many moments of pleasure and great art. So here's my most generous interpretation of the series finale: Maybe the repetition was the point.

Will Don lose a good chunk of the self-awareness he gained on those cliff tops and in those group-therapy rooms? Will he go down into a spiral and come out the other side again? Almost certainly. Whether or not he created the Coke ad, he’ll have success with some other client. And he’ll still sleep on the couch in his office, have sex with inappropriate women and wake up depressed. He’ll make a bunch more money, and he’ll still experience moments of intense loneliness.

Don’s life -- success and money and Coke aside -- will be a constant turning of the wheel, cycles of self-doubt and pain followed by halting attempts at self-awareness and connection. Isn’t that the way for all of us?

I’ve been to about 10 meditation retreats in the past decade or so. Once, on the way back from a retreat, I was seated next to a young mother who had a toddler on her lap. The child, who was about 15 months old, was adorable; my own son was only a few years older at the time. I smiled at the child’s attempts to climb all over me as well as her mom; for the first hour, all the patience and kind feelings engendered by the retreat held sway. The second hour of the flight was decidedly less rosy. By the time I deplaned, my jaw was set and I couldn’t wait to get away from all other humans.

Did everything I learned on that retreat about compassion and forbearance seep away in one plane flight? Maybe. But that’s the great comfort of Buddhist thought: It takes it as a given that we are all stuck on the wheel of samsara, an eternal cycle of endless rebirth. Am I a better person because I go on retreats and meditate? Nope. I still snap at people and act like an idiot on a regular basis. But do I think, over time, I have gained more awareness of how my mind works and the patterns I’ve fallen into? Yes. Like Don, I’m a work in progress, but part of that progress is an awareness of my worst impulses, which in turn creates more opportunities to interrupt them. But it’s a process -- a cycle -- not a destination.

The same goes for this show. The great legacy of “Mad Men,” I think, is its mastery of the episodic form of television. So many ambitious shows divide their season-long story into 10 or 12 or 13 chunks and call it a day -- and that approach can work. But call me an old-fashioned classicist -- I love an episode of television that feels like an episode of television.

Like “Lost,” or “Star Trek” or “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” would often take the viewer on a discrete, concrete journey within one episode, which could be about an idea, or one or two themes, or one or two people. Matt Weiner was masterful at telling great short stories on screen and populating those richly imagined stories with believably complex, intelligent, driven people. And while "Mad Men" gave viewers several excellent season finales and penultimate episodes, I don’t think anyone will look at the series finale and put it on a list of Greatest Finales of All Time. The best episodes of “Mad Men” sometimes came at the end of a season, but the show's true treasures were often middle-of-the-season gems -- postcards from a journey, not statements on a destination.

In any event, I’m okay with the somewhat ungainly finale because of what preceded it. Don has changed a lot in the past decade. Each turn of the wheel has left him with a little more knowledge than he had before. That might be wishful thinking on my part, but television is projected into our eyeballs and we project our hopes and dreams right back. Did he change this time? Sure. It's the real thing. Or the wheel thing, destined to turn again and again.

I don’t know if Don dabbled in Buddhist teachings while he was at that clifftop retreat center, but I’ve found it to be a great comfort in times of trouble, because the Buddhist masters take it as a given that we will cycle through this life, and other lives, again and again as we attempt to achieve higher states of consciousness and less injurious modes of living. (The character began life as Dick, who killed Don and was reborn in that identity, which he killed off again to re-embrace Dick. Wheels within wheels).

Everything I’m bringing up here -- it all sounds hippie-ish and earnest and vague, and yes, the quest for self-awareness can quickly slide into a state of self-absorption (which certainly happened in the ‘70s and undoubtedly happens now). It’s easy to mock certain aspects of self-help culture, but underneath Don’s quest for constant reinvention is a desire to help himself. “Mad Men,” for all its sharp humor, didn’t diminish or poke fun at that aspiration, even in the finale.

Under a slick exterior is a show that is sincere in its hopes for its characters. They might be out to make a fast buck at any cost, and they might also be people doing some good in the world. They might be in the pay of heartless corporations, and they might also be perceptive people with smart, subversive ideas. It might be cynical to beam out ads about love and tolerance into the world in order to sell sugared water, and it might also be a meaningful act that promotes kindness. All of those things can be true.

That’s why the world of advertising has been such a fertile arena for the show: Don is pitching the world on what he wants to be true, and as consumers, we also want to edit reality into something we can cope with and possibly even enjoy. That's the real circle of life, at least in our capitalist world. People are receptive to great pitches, which can be double-edged swords; "Mad Men" reminded us every week that "the truth" can be malleable, which is a scary and thrilling idea. Don’s whole journey is that of someone who turns insights into slogans he can use to sell cola and nylons -- but, when it's phrased right, don't we long to buy to what he’s selling?

A great pitch leaves room for the imagination of the pitch's recipient -- we complete the circle. And Don's no different than anyone seeking to get ahead. We all use our perceptions to our advantage. Aren’t I turning my insights into clicks right this moment?

I find the Coke ad, and Don’s possible role in the creation of it, no more and no less cynical than Don’s role in the creation of the Carousel pitch, which, viewed from a certain perspective, tells the entire story of the show. “It goes backwards, forwards ... Around and around, and back home again.” (Back “om” again.)

The wheel of samsara -- death and rebirth -- is one of the central symbols of Buddhism, a faith that takes it as a given that we are always cycling through different modes, trying to find comfort, trying to find a home, trying to find ourselves and some kind of meaning among the pain and wonder of life. The quest always brings us back to the same place. The Dhammapada again: “Hatred never ends through hatred. By non-hate alone does it end. This is an ancient truth.”

Don is able to bring a mode of Buddhist-flavored thought to the creative process: He can make observations and evaluations that help him and his protegees -- and the work -- evolve and change for the better. He's not great at turning that dispassionate eye inward and framing what he finds in ways that help him survive the darkest times with minimal damage. He can be tin-eared and clueless about social change, but he's even more blind to his own blundering tendencies. Non-judgmentally observing and understanding the patterns formed by bad choices is harder than seeing what's wrong with ad copy. He has his moments -- the Coke ad is a genius distillation of an aspirational cultural moment -- but it can be frustrating to watch Don make the same mistakes over and over again.

Don's trying, but he's tried before. When he recounted his sins to Peggy, that speech felt a little rote, if I’m being honest. That said, Jon Hamm conveyed Don’s revulsion and shattered disgust incredibly well. And at least that moment of hitting bottom led somewhere.

When Leonard spoke, part of the reason Don cried was because he recognized himself in that entirely average man. Don/Dick’s entire life has been marked by the kind of early rejection that he will never truly overcome. He has been chosen, but sometimes, he doesn’t feel chosen, wanted. The refrigerator light goes off.

But that’s okay. Don looked at Leonard, and saw that there was nothing wrong with him; Leonard’s just another human being, trying his best. We all bring what we want to bring to the Rorchach test known as “Mad Men,” but I think Don experienced two crucial revelations in that scene: He recognized that Leonard was a good person who did not see his own goodness, and he -- Don -- recognized that he also has some good in him. He realized that he can’t do much, but he could be kind and open in that moment, and tell another person: “I see you. And I care about you.” The cycle of samsara is broken -- or at least interrupted -- when we can look beyond the self.

That’s sincere, earnest and uncool and I don’t see why else we’re on Earth, if not to experience those moments. Here we are stuck on this wheel, this hamster wheel, this carousel. I see you.

Don will shower, shave and put on a suit that’s a little old-fashioned. It will be a suit that projects an unmistakable air of power and mastery.

Don will go back into an airless office and drink and pitch and make deals and make money. He’ll try and fail to connect to his kids, but once in a while, he will actually connect. Those moments will make it worth the attempts.

His kids and Peggy will know that the cycle will trend downward again. He won’t show up to meetings and baseball games and holiday parties and crises. He'll win awards. He’ll be unreliable and self-absorbed.

Don will start to think another person -- probably a Sad Brunette -- holds all the answers and can heal him. He’ll try to save someone else and forget that, all along, he has been trying to save himself. He will undoubtedly listen to the siren song of fear and rejection.

And he’ll be reborn. Again. So turns the wheel.

I talked in-depth about the “Mad Men” finale in a podcast that will go live Wednesday or Thursday at the latest. Previous Talking TV podcasts on “Mad Men” are here.

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