This article contains spoilers for all seasons of Mad Men, sort of.
Rewatching the final few seasons of Mad Men these past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about Bob Benson, a character who appears suddenly at the open of Season Six, and then all but disappears at the end of it. I googled him to see what articles popped up, and most of them were questions along the lines of: are we going to see him again? But no. Mad Men has always been a show happy to let characters slip on by, drift away, disappear and go on to live their own lives.
I don’t know if Matthew Weiner is a Buddhist, or if he believes any of the things a practitioner may believe. I don’t even know if he thinks the ending of Mad Men is uplifting or depressing or both or neither. So maybe it’s just me projecting a little. But Mad Men’s finale, a perfect encapsulation of a perfect show, reads as very Zen to me and shines a light on a number of Buddhist lessons throughout the show.
A short disclaimer first: I am not a Buddhist. I have read a healthy amount of Buddhist literature and watched some videos of some Buddhist teachers. I find the religion fascinating and appealing, but to claim I am Buddhist would be a gross overstatement of my understanding and practice, as well as an insult to the practitioners who actually know their stuff. So if you are a better student of Buddhism than me and take issue with my (probably faulty and personal) interpretation here, I apologize.
Mad Men is a show about a lot of things, but the central theme is, to me, grasping and the suffering it entails. Don Draper is constantly grasping for two things: he is grasping at a definition of self, and he is grasping at time, trying to hold onto it.
Self-definition first (though the two ideas are interwoven neatly, as we’ll discuss later): Don Draper’s stabs at self-definition are defeated by his own drive to constantly improve himself. Whenever Draper gets the answer: “this is who Don Draper is” he rejects it and moves forward to a new, better Don Draper. Of course the easier answer may be to simply stop trying to “define” Don Draper.
A human is necessarily hard to define, and it is that grasping for identity (BETTER identity) that makes Don Draper so frustrated. He is trying to build a man out of scraps, but it’s an impossible task for anyone to truly define anything. As soon as we start to reduce things to words or notions we are cutting off bits and pieces of what makes it essential. It’s not a revolutionary concept: in order to comprehend our world we need to reduce it, to compartmentalize it – that’s simply a concession we make. It’s a central Buddhist idea (hell, it’s a scientific idea at this point) that the world we perceive is not the world we actually live in, because the world we live in doesn’t have borders. It’s also a Buddhist idea that trying to grasp onto the world as we see it, to hold it in place, is what leads to suffering. Don Draper is the perfect anti-Buddhist, as these two tenets are things he firmly rejects and strides against.
Mad Men itself doesn’t necessarily agree with Draper. The strongest indicator of the inability to pack reality into neat little boxes is the show’s approach to time itself. The 1960s were a turbulent and radical time of change in America. But they were not isolated. The beginning felt a lot like the 50s, the end felt a lot like the 70s, as probably the beginning of the 70s felt like the 60s and the end of the 50s felt like the 60s. Dividing things into decades is inherently arbitrary. If we decided, collectively, decades ended on years ending in 5 instead of 0, our conception of the same years may totally change because they would belong, suddenly, to a new clump. Likewise, these new decades would still never be able to be hard cut offs.
Don Draper treats time in a linear fashion. He will get better, slowly, and at the end, he will be DON DRAPER, this foreign ideal of who he might be. But there is no “end” and there is no persona waiting there for him to step into. While Westerners largely view history through Whigs theory of time (a term Sam was kind enough to teach me), Buddhism views time as more cyclical (and, again, as a misconception all together in its rigidness). Don may subscribe to the Whigs, but the show knows individual growth isn’t an upwards process, nor is it downwards, it’s just sort of “forwards” and sometimes that forwards really means going backwards or returning to old behavior. Simply, you are whoever you are in the moment.
At the end of “Severance”, which opens the final half-season, Don Draper tries to reconcile the loss of his old flame Rachel Menken. The song “Is That All There Is?” by Peggy Lee fades in (it opens the episode too). Why wasn’t Don happy when he was with Rachel? Why isn’t he happy now? Is that all there is to life, this particular moment? Why does he feel so let down all the time? The answer is the same as the question of character: yes, that’s all there is. Everything is simply the way it is. Grasping onto things that aren’t there is of no use. Don is grasping onto an old flame, but there’s nothing to it. She’s gone, his time with her is gone, and unlike many other things Don Draper can’t bend time to his will. We see him, in his best pitch maybe ever in “The Carousel”, talk about how this product is a time machine. We can have and hold the moments in the pictures forever. But that’s not really how time works. Don keeps reaching for the next moment, the next job, the next woman, and he never enjoys the moment he’s in until it’s gone, and then he wonders why he’s so unsatisfied.
Even when he is happy in a moment, he clings to it. But the show has never treated time as something you can hold onto. It’s too slippery. Weeks and months pass between episodes, or between scenes, or between seasons. It’s never easy, and if you blink a year has passed. Think of “Three Sundays”, which leaps through three weeks easy as can be, dropping days whenever it needs to. Think of the escalation of the Vietnam War, women in the work place, civil rights, the assassinations – try as the characters might the moments keep coming and zipping by. Time itself is a refutation of Donald Draper. It can’t be grasped. It just keeps on keeping on.
When faced with ending Mad Men, you have a few options, but really there’s only one that makes sense to me, and it’s thankfully the one they went with. A lot of people were miffed about the rather inconclusive ending to the show, or the saccharine moments that felt too gratifying. But that’s the only way to end Mad Men. Because Mad Men, when it looks at time, says there is no ending – every ending is also a beginning, and a middle. Joan starts a new company – the last time we see her is with a fresh start. Peggy and Stan get together in a Friends finale style, so sweet and rom-comy. But that’s just a beginning too. Who is to say if they’re meant to be? Only time will tell. The show ends because the 70s have hit, but that’s arbitrary. They could have pumped us through another decade and these people’s lives would still be thumping along with endings, beginnings, and middles.
As for Don, and his moment of peace? Sitting on a cliff he envisions a Coke commercial, and likely returns to McCann Erikson, pitches it, and makes it. Is that just him being cynical? Is it him being optimistic? I’d argue it’s neither of those things, or at least that’s not the intended message. I think it’s hopefully Donald Draper looking at himself, looking inside himself, and seeing an ad campaign. And saying: “hey, I’m good at this”. Not grasping for something else. Not looking for something else to do. Sitting in the identity he has, getting comfortable in it. No longer reaching for what isn’t there but accepting what is there. What’s there is an ad. So what? Go with it.