As always, lots of Mad Men spoilers – this article particularly deals with the episodes “Lost Horizons” and “Person to Person” so if you have the chance to review the episodes before/during/or after the read, I’d suggest it. I’d suggest watching the episodes even if you don’t read the article. They’re great episodes.
I previously wrote about the finale of Mad Men and how it encompassed the two great themes of the show – time and self-definition (and the grasping of the two). But the Mad Men finale does a great deal more than just that, and having just finished rewatching the final half season I’m drawn to two speeches presented in the final few episodes. They don’t necessarily speak to the broader themes of the show in quite the same way as the topics I previously covered, but they rather beautifully encapsulate (one) of Don Draper’s great transformations.
Donald Draper is ( this is a little bit of retreading, but bare with me) a man constantly seeking re-definition, re-invention. After shedding his Dick Whitman identity he is constantly on the run, from the law, from his family, from McCann Erikson. He treats it like it’s something that has to happen, but it’s not. It’s who he is, and it’s who he chooses to be because he is afraid of himself. He feels he has to achieve something, and he feels like he hasn’t quite achieved it, maybe he never will. He needs to be exceptional, and his deepest fear is that he isn’t. “I took a man’s name, and I made nothing of it,” he tells Peggy in “Person to Person”. His greatest fear is that what he just said to her is true.
There are two pinnacle speeches that frame Don’s final run west, spanning the last few episodes of the show, and though neither is delivered by Don they are exactly a call and response to each other, and indicate one of Don’s final, important transformations. Don Draper wants something with his name on the door, because otherwise how can he be sure he ever existed? How can he be exceptional without a legacy to leave to his invented form: Don Draper. That is the fear of McCann. “They finally got you. They ate you up,” says Kenny Cosgrove in “Time and Life” when he learns from Roger and Pete the agency is being absorbed. The allusion to McCann as a force of nature doesn’t stop there. They are unstoppable, and they aren’t interested in individual hopes and dreams. “You’re my white whale,” Jim Hobart insists to Don as they have a meeting in “Lost Horizons.” “We’re expecting you to bring things up a notch around here.” But it’s all fluff – even in the meeting it’s clearly fluff. Ferg, McCann’s resident “impressionist” offers an impression of Don: “I’m uh, working very diligently, um, on the matter at hand,” he says in what might be a weak Nixon but is definitely not Don Draper. Jim Hobart laughs anyway. There is no consideration of who Don is. They aren’t noticing him.
This fact doesn’t land until Don’s Miller Beer meeting. “We just bought a whole agency in Milwaukee to get Miller Beer,” says Hobart in the earlier meeting. “For me?” asks Don, and though the question goes slyly unanswered until he attends the meeting it’s clear Don assumes the answer is a yes. Walking into a room filled with similar men in similar white shirts (Ferg also insists in the earlier meeting this is a shirt sleeves operation, though Don still recalcitrantly wears a suit) Don greets Ted, who has switched over to look like all the others “Is this every Creative Director in the agency?” marvels Don, sure this meeting would just be for him. “It’s only half of us,” answers Ted. As they meander towards their seats Don overhears someone ask Ted: “So are you here to bring us up a notch too?” “So they tell me.” Don is no one special. It’s exactly as he feared. He’s just the same as everybody else.
It’s a particularly brutal moment for Bill Phillips to launch into his speech. “I’m going to describe a man to you of very specific qualities,” he begins, but that’s not what happens. His “specific qualities” are nebulous. They’re about the “every man” – a concept particularly offensive to Don because he is afraid it could apply to him. He looks around the room, sees dozens of hands flip open packets, begin to take notes. He is, as he tells Peggy at the end of his final phone call with her “in a crowd” (we’ll get back to that later). Even Bill Phillips doesn’t buy what he’s selling. There is no specific man: “We all know this man. Because there are millions of him.” What a horrific thing to say about humans. It’s the exact opposite of Don’s personal approach to advertising. He sees himself being swallowed, and he looks out the window and sees a plane flying past the Chrysler building, and he simply stands up and walks out. He runs away again.
I recently read the book White Noise by Don DeLillo. The book focuses on Jack Gladney, and his desperate search for something (anything) to ameliorate his fear of death. It’s a satire, yes, but I found it deeply difficult to read because Jack Gladney is a truly insufferable man who for the entirety of the book, treats his fear of death as if it is something unique, as if he is the only person in the whole world who is clever enough to be afraid. It controls him, but subconsciously he wears it as a badge of honor. The book is, at least, strong enough to reveal his stupidity, selfishness, and shortsightedness, slowly revealing it is a fear everyone shares. It’s a heavy blow to Jack – his fear of a death is what makes him unique, who shapes who he is, and in that way he is proud of it.
It’s the same with Don Draper. His fear of anonymity, of not making something of himself, is something he imagines he alone feels. It is so core to who he is he can’t relinquish it and can’t imagine anyone else experiencing it the same way he does, which is particularly absurd because his fear is essentially about failing at the American Dream and Mad Men is a show about a bunch of Americans trying desperately to achieve the American Dream. Don’s fear is that he is “in a crowd”, something he says hauntingly to Peggy as he hangs up the phone on her. A crowd is nothing. A crowd of hippies is the same as a crowd of corporate suits. There is no “Don” in either of them.
Directly after hanging up the phone with Peggy Don attends a group therapy session, and we witness the second “final speech” of Mad Men, though it is in truth the real final speech – like the Miller speech it is said by a character we’ve never seen before, and it is the final words spoken by anyone on the show. It is delivered, maybe, by the man Bill Phillips was trying to describe in his earlier speech. He is one of many, and his speech is a final key to Don, so I will reprint it here (and look for the call and response to the Miller speech): “My name’s Leonard, and uh, I don’t know if there’s anything that complicated about me. So I should be happier, I guess…” “Do you remember what I said about Daniel, about should?” “Well that’s good for him. He’s interesting. But I’ve never been interesting to anybody. I um– I work in an office. People walk right by me. I know they don’t see me. And I go home, and I watch my wife and my kids. They don’t look up when I sit down.” “How does it feel to say that?” “I don’t know. It’s like nobody cares that I’m gone. They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but, I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, thinking people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is. I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off and I know everybody’s out there eating. And then they open the door and you see them smiling. And they’re happy to see you, but maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you. And then the door closes again. The light goes off.” And then he starts sobbing, and Don gets up and hugs him.
The speech would perhaps take too long to break down, because it’s truly the heart of Don and the heart of the show. There are parallels to Don’s journey, to his strange sense of restlessness, to many shots throughout the show of him staring into a kitchen with his perfect American family eating as he stands in shadows in the hallway. He works in an office, but do people really see him? He has never been satisfied with family, with work, never felt he’s done enough or distinguished himself enough to really deserve anything from anyone, and so he can’t see when people offer him themselves. He’s plagued with doubts: do these people really know or love him, when he isn’t sure who he is or if he loves himself? We as an audience probably know the answers to these questions (yes) but from Don’s perspective he’s never been sure, can never be sure. You need to know someone to love them, he thinks. But does anyone know Don Draper? Or is he just in a crowd?
And then, in a beautiful twist, his fear is both confirmed and turned into a strength. Yes, this speech says, you are part of a crowd. And the crowd has the same exact fears as you. You are not alone. You are OK (to borrow from Roger). Those fears you have, everyone has them: Betty, Peggy, Roger, Megan, Sally. And maybe if they haven’t quite “noticed you” it’s because they are busy worrying about their own fears, their own identity, their own restlessness. A lesser show would have had Don overcome his fear, given him a thumbs up and a gold star and said “stop worrying so much, you are special, Don!” but Mad Men does something else entirely and says: “stop worrying so much, you aren’t special, Don.” Hopefully, and I think it’s likely, Don will come back with a new openness, a new awareness of those around him, a new compassion.
There is a lot of literary references in Mad Men as a whole, but there are two specifically mentioned in this article that may be worth checking out (and yes, both have been recommended to death. Moby Dick is honestly a better read than I expected it to be, and is one of my favorite reads of the last year. Slightly less famous, while still worth it, is Lost Horizon, if only because you ought to know where Shangri-La originates from. Its a book about utopia and grasping, about a man who is in the perfect place and leaves due to honor and duty only to try to return. I can see why Mad Men would reference in in the final episodes. It also predicts WW2, and for a British book from 1933 taking place in Tibet is surprisingly not too racist (it’s still racist, just not as racist as I was bracing for – it instead goes in hard on imperialism and sexism!)