The Real Thing

The series finale of Mad Men ends with a lingering moment of feel-good levity, just right after the melancholy of the final episodes.

In an art-imitates-life moment, a television series about false narratives, and in part, about the cultural power of television itself, ends just as the medium itself is disappearing. Netflix, Snapchat, Periscope, YouTube, Amazon, Hulu and now HBO -- these and others we've yet to see are the new "channels." Those of us on the fortunate side of the digital divide no longer "watch television" (other than sports) so much as thumb multiple screens while we stream "content." Don Draper's genius was to see the future, as the asana of his placid final grin clearly showed, but in 1970 even he could not have anticipated the end of television.

Seeing into the future was once the province of academics, pseudo- and actual scientists. But today's advertising industry, once using focus groups of a few people to produce commercials for print, radio and TV, now calls its products "creative content," and uses patented algorithms and analytics to track global trends and behavior in order to predict and reshape the future. Forget pedestrian product placement -- global corporations now finance entire online television series to socialize their brands and messages. The line between manufactured and organic truths has never been blurrier.

But the genius of Don Draper's ability to "invent truth" for mass marketing of consumer products derived not from content analysis of proprietary data sets, but from his acutely refined intuition for inventing his own truth. Remember the premise of Draper's character, as he reminded us this week: the son of a prostitute mother and alcoholic father, Dick Whitman killed his commanding officer and stole his identity, scandalized his child, broke his vows, and wound up with nothing to show for it.

Draper spent his life tapping this hustler skill-set to invent the emotional foundations of the mass, consumer market: call it self-delusion, or the basic insight that people have desire and agency to grow away from their family, social or culturally determined constraints.

But Mad Men is not just about the paleolithic era of mass marketing. It is also about how political and cultural history shapes our notion of the possible. Just one example: Don Draper may be Weiner's anti-hero and muse, but the women of Sterling Cooper-- Joan Harris, Peggy Olson-- are the multitasking brains (and yes, bodies) of the show: they shape their own futures against so many odds. Mad Men's punch line: finding inner peace with his own big lie gives Don the clarity to invent the iconic 1971 Coca Cola commercial. Weiner treats us all to a big laugh precisely by suggesting that a confected truth sometimes is just as good as the 'real thing.'

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.