Culture

Where Will Don Draper Land?

Our crystal ball predicts the moody ad man ends his days in swank retirement, tweeting bon mots.

By Shannon Rupp 30 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

I'm going to save you the time of watching the last few tedious Mad Men episodes, about which everyone has been complaining, because I know how it will end.

Let me just polish my crystal ball. It offers two possibilities.

Maybe the internet pundits are right and Don will commit suicide, a la the cartoon character in the opening credits, but I doubt it. In the episode called The Forecast, he made it clear he can't envision the future. Any future. He was interviewing the dullest of the dullards at Sterling, Cooper, and Whatever They're Called This Week he was so desperate for some direction. That's one of the classic symptoms of serious depression, of course. So it's not surprising that so many are speculating that Mr. Draper will be leaping off a tall building on the May 17 series finale.

But I think the reason Don can no longer see what's coming next is a clue about the finale to come. He can't see a future because the future has already arrived. Like all period pieces, Mad Men is using the distance of history to comment on the here and now. And if the show is telling us anything with all its (increasingly tiresome) symbolism it's that characters like Don and Roger -- and Peggy who goes right along with them -- made the isolating, consumerist world we now inhabit.

Although I'm not so sure it really was the Greatest Generation's fault. But this is Matt Weiner's show and he seems to be blaming his parents. Weiner was born in 1965 making him the age of Don's baby son, which is why I suspect he keeps showing us that the denizens of Sterling Cooper are spectacularly bad parents, while highlighting the Boomers' idealism and innocence corrupted.

If only they'd been better parents, he seems to be telling us, today's world wouldn't be the soul-sucking landscape of marketing and cell phone culture.

To emphasize that point, expect the Mad Men finale to make a flash-forward into the future, similar to the bittersweet one that just finished off the brilliant F/X series Justified. Although I doubt Don will get the affectionate send-off Raylan's writers gave their anti-hero.

Weiner has cast Don as Darth Vader: the bad daddy who destroyed the world. So it's no coincidence that Don's daughter Sally (born in 1954) often gets the script's best zingers. She's our surrogate and says what Weiner's audience of Boomers and Gen Xers are thinking.

Just consider the Many Traumas of Sally. Who saw Megan's mom going down on Roger at a banquet? Sally. To whom did Don first reveal his dodgy past growing up in what appears to be a Dickens novel? Sally again. And who was it who walked in on her father boffing the wife next door?

Exactly. Sally is traumatized so often it could inspire a drinking game. And the offspring of the other Sterling Cooper principals also have plenty to discuss on a therapist's couch.

In a recent episode, Joan gets lucky with a wealthy older guy who doesn't want to be saddled with her four-year-old son. Within five minutes of meeting him, she announces that given a choice between the pre-schooler and her new beau, she chooses her week-old crush. She promises to send her son "away" although it's not clear where. (Is there a holding pen for four-year-olds in this version of 1970?)

Now, as Peggy points out in another scene, Joan is a millionaire courtesy of the agency's various mergers and buyouts. So as I watched the show I kept wondering: why doesn't she just hire a live-in nanny? Weren't there entire 1960s and '70s TV shows built around the lives of comfortable middle class people who had live-in nannies and housekeepers? And weren't there butlers? I vaguely recall shows with butlers.

Characters as symbols

It's not a stretch. Especially not for a character like Joan, who was previously written as a canny problem-solver. She's no novice when it comes to men, either. So how likely is it she'd throw the baby out with the bathwater after dating a guy twice?

Generally good series have great characters or great plots and the best stories have both. Mad Men was once loaded with great characters, but as it meanders to the finale characters seem to have devolved into little more than symbols in some argument Weiner is making about how the Boomers inherited a lousy world.

Critics have been muttering about how aimless Mad Men has become, and ranting over random new characters, like Diana the waitress. She's a symbol of course, not a character. And another bad parent who has abandoned a child.

In what has become a self-consciously over-crafted show, Weiner has been highlighting all the bad parents for years now, but in these final episodes it has become relentless. There's the weirdly wooden Betty who is jealous of her own daughter and is seen flirting with one of her boyfriends. There's Roger, who abandons his only daughter when he decides to marry his secretary who isn't much older. He later abandons his daughter a second time to some hippie cult. Single Peggy gave away the baby she had with that obnoxious accounts man Pete. Meanwhile divorced Pete is some sort of absentee father to his official offspring.

And let's not even get started on poor Megan's overbearing, pompous father and her greedy, slutty mom who are giving Quebec a bad name.

It could be little more than an allusion to the universal truth in Philip Larkin's famous poem that opens, "They fuck you up, your mom and dad...," but I think not. There is too much pointed hostility to parents.

And yet the evidence that Weiner's villains were part of a generation that was tough, capable, and resourceful is all over the history books. Not only did they live through the Depression and fight a world war, they made some of the social and economic improvements for which Baby Boomers often take credit. Environmental protection laws, labour legislation, and consumer protection laws arrived on their watch. The American civil rights movement began in the mid-'50s with bus boycotts, while the oldest of the little Boomers (who would go on to be sanctimonious hippies) were still playing with yo-yos. By contrast, Baby Boomers would grow up to invent the Peter Pan Complex because the shrinks had to call their aggressively infantile behaviour something.

While critics and viewers alike celebrate Sally, I see her as the symbol of the real villains. She is 16 in 1970, ranting about the evils of the Kent State shootings and Vietnam, which puts her on the right side of history. Briefly. But let's not forget where she will be in 15 years -- getting an MBA and becoming a stockbroker or a pharmaceutical sales rep. With Greed Is Good as their rallying cry, her generation will dismantle many of the public interest laws (and social standards) their parents fought for.

Sally will grow up to indulge her petulant navel-gazing by joining some self-help cult like EST. Eventually, she'll use her money and connections to launch some sort of cynical lifestyle business -- she'll be become a cookbook author, a home decorating guru, or maybe she'll sell overpriced yoga pants. Before long she'll be quoting Ayn Rand and carrying a tote bag that says, "Who is John Galt?"

Not surprisingly, her children will be part of the millennial generation that scores high on the narcissism inventory because they were raised by the Me Generation -- the nickname Tom Wolfe gave the whiny, self-obsessed Boomers.

Final scene

Which brings us to the final scene of Mad Men. A flash-forward to 2015, which has Sally and her family visiting Don, now 90, on the beautifully manicured lawn of his well-staffed home managed by one of those professional butlers who are all the rage again with the smart set. (After the fourth wife, Don gave up on marriage; at a million bucks per ex-wife, it was eating into his retirement savings.)

Sally, at 61, is divorced for the third time, and blames Don (for everything). But Don's knack for public performance has rubbed off on his narcissistic grandchildren -- the fashion blogger, the indie musician, and the nose-to-tail chef. The latter has started an urban hunting club where they pick off the geese in Central Park using a bow-and-arrow. He was featured in the New York Times Style section.

The always-adaptable Don has discovered social media. He tweets daily as @TheAdGuySays, offering pithy advice for all the thriving propaganda trades. "Sell the sizzle, not the steak" is typical of his retro tips and he's a big hit with hipsters well beyond the advertising world.

As the show closes with their now trademark long shot of Don alone, we see our hero alone again, staring at his phone. Meanwhile his equally alone grandchildren stare at their own mobiles. Alone together, they're all happily interacting with their screens, delighted to be in an intimate relationship with their products rather than their family.

Yeah, I don't need to sit through any more semiotics-in-place-of-plot. I can see where this is going. But maybe after May 17 someone could let me know if my crystal ball was right?  [Tyee]

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