Wednesday, May 20, 2015

"Mad Men" finale: Don Draper did not write the Coke ad

I've been a fan of AMC's series "Mad Men" over the years. It's one of the few shows that I make time for. As the program aged, it had bouts with absurdity but overall, it's held up fairly well.

I feel the same about the show's ending which occurred this past Sunday. There were some aspects of the episode that could have been done better (such as the way that Stan and Peggy were so utterly unaware of the weirdness of their situation) but overall, it was excellent television and excellent drama.

"Mad Men" was good drama because it did more than merely entertain, it also explored larger philosophical questions about what it means to be human and did so in a way that was never didactic and closed-minded.

That brings me to the hotly discussed topic of the final moments of the show which (spoiler alert) featured Don Draper engaging in meditation on a California hillside after he seemingly abandoned his entire life as a serially divorced advertising executive. Immediately thereafter is a cut to the iconic 1970s Coca-Cola ad "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke."

Everyone agrees that the ending is deliberately ambiguous. That's another aspect of good drama. It leaves you with a sense of finality which is simultaneously undetermined.

It's easy to think that Draper is said to have created the ad. Throughout multiple seasons of the show, it was discussed repeatedly about how amazing it would be to write a spot for Coca-Cola. Coke products were also discussed again and again in the final story arc. Series creator and principle writer Matthew Weiner even got homophonous in having Joan sniffing coke the drug with her then-boyfriend.

It's no coincidence that actual cocaine was used in the making of the cola beverage early in its history--it's where the name derives from in fact.

But just as a life of cocaine was not what Joan needed or wanted to be happy, neither was Don going to be happy working for Coca-Cola. 

That's why he couldn't have written the ad. Not because he didn't have the talent to do so but because he finally realized that his whole life was nothing but a series of staged fantasies, just like advertising itself.

No product is ever as good as its advertising and simultaneously while everyone was jealous of Donald Draper's situation as a rich guy doing interesting work and having lots of sex, in reality, he was never as happy as others might have thought he'd be.

In the end, Dick Whitman found happiness by finally coming to terms with himself by ceasing to run from the totality of his life experience: his miserable childhood, his accidental killing of another human being, and then the elaborate series of lies that he told as he repeatedly reincarnated himself as Don Draper.

Dick/Don's moment of catharsis came when he realized that he was actually the same person as the man who broke down in the chair during one of their self-help sessions. Both of them were desperate for love and yet never found it--not because it was never available but because deep down they were both emotionally insecure. The man in the chair never had the success at masking his unease but ultimately both men were running from themselves and from others.

The usage of the "real thing" ad was meant to be an inversion of the words of the jingle. Advertising is not real. Donald Draper was not real. Our star found peace when he went back to being Dick Whitman, a man with nothing but his name. But now he at least was finally being true to himself. That is the real thing, not a touchy-feely ad for a sugary drink or some cheesy hippie ripoff of Hinduism.

Dick Whitman found happiness because he came to terms with himself. It's something that everyone should do--particularly people who came from such challenging environments as he did. The past is not something to run from but rather something to embrace and learn from. We must live in the present but no one can divorce himself from who he was. That, to me, is the final message of "Mad Men."