(This will be quick)
The show had quite a bit. Style, 2/3 excellent acting, great humor and did I mention style?
The most powerful, pointed works of art reach both outward and inward. A character is recognizable as both a symbol of some telling aspect of the world around him and as a human being.
The problem with Don Draper was that, in the end, he was all symbol, and not, as written, recognizable as a real human person.
What did he symbolize?
The modern man’s lack of identity and roots. His willingness to slip in and out of roles with no deep sense of who he is. The resultant endless search and treatment of other people as non-persons as well.
The endless circle of materialism that we exploit and dig into as we search, search, search.
Interpersonal exploitation and exploiting what one learns in the exploitation so one can dream up ads for crap that no one needs but now thinks they do because they, too, are searching, dreaming, and yearning.
But Mad Men, unlike, say, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, ultimately, I think fails in this regard (while it succeeded in many other) for two reasons:
First, the absence of any real satirical edge. I wrote about this before. Mad Men gives us all these interesting people tossing about occasionally interesting ideas and recognizing certain truths in service of….ads for stuff. And if you look at advertising in the 1960’s, it’s mostly goofy and ridiculous and lame and doesn’t match the pseudo-elevated tone of the creative strivings of the characters. There were flashes here and there, but the whole series would have been more honest if there had been at least one character who consistently grappled with the moral questions that arise from striving for wealth and using one’s gifts to produce awkward clips that seek to manipulate consumers into buying things.
Secondly, as I began this post…Don Draper is ultimately not a real person. And perhaps that is the point? Okay, but again, here’s where irony and satire comes in play. If the ending had been satirical, I would have bought it with great enthusiasm. And perhaps it was? But…I don’t think so. It’s presented as the completion of a circle of sorts in terms of Draper’s relationship with himself and advertising as an extension of himself. Fine. There’s a point to that that is consistent with the entire series.
But. It’s coy and unsatisfying as well because it doesn’t address the fact that Don Draper has failed as a human being. This failureis symbolized most powerfully and even ironically, in terms of the whole series, by the fact that cigarettes, where he made his mark, killed the woman who became his ex-wife because of his lies about his identity and his infidelity. That’s no secret, and yeah, Betty’s still smoking in that last shot, lung cancer or no.
It’s not unrecognized in the episode, either, that failure. When he tries to give the same “You won’t believe how easy it is to walk away from your child” speech to Anna’s niece as he had given to Peggy, she rejects it out of hand, and in that, he is forced to confront the falsity of his entire life of walking away from his children.
And he does, breaking down into really nothing.
Then he meditates, cut to Coke.
Which, as I said, works on a certain level…when you have had a character development trajectory that has been dosed with a knowing satirical and ironic critical edge all along. Yup, here we go, we’d be able to say. One more con. One more attempt to compensate for your moral failure by creating an advertisement that expresses what you should be bringing to your actual life, but aren’t.
But we haven’t had that edge, testing and teasing Don. We’ve been immersed in Don’s endless agonizing and victimization of others as a serious human quest for identity and acceptance, and therefore, the resolution should be consistent with that path.
It wasn’t. The bare facts of it could have been, but structurally, it didn’t work and wasn’t satisfying, not because we “need to know what happens” regarding Don and his kids, for example, just because we’re curious, but because that along with all of Don’s personal problems, was an issue.
In the end, Weiner couldn’t create a character that held all of this in the right sort of tension, balancing truth about human life and choices with a knowing, ironic look at all we throw out there as a distraction and ultimately fruitless compensation.
But yeah, I’d watch The Campbells of Wichita. In a heartbeat.