"Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too."
—Mad Men, season 1, episode 1
The ending of Mad Men was brilliant. It was like a good mystery novel: Once you know the solution—Don Draper creating one of the greatest ads in Madison Avenue history—you see that the clues were there all along. You just didn’t realize what was important and what wasn’t. Neither did the characters. This was a game played between Matt Weiner and the audience.
The ending, like the entire series, was also a sociological commentary on American culture. Or rather, it was an illustration of such a commentary. The particular sociological commentary I have in mind is Philip Slater’s Pursuit of Loneliness, published in 1970, the same year that this episode takes place. It’s almost as if Slater had Don Draper in mind when he wrote the book, or as if Matt Weiner had the book in mind when he wrote this episode.
In the first chapter, “I Only Work Here,” Slater outlines “three human desires that are deeply and uniquely frustrated by American culture”:
(1) the desire for community – the wish to live in trust, cooperation, and friendship with those around one.
(2) the desire for engagement – the wish to come to grips directly with one’s social and physical environment.
(3) the desire for dependence – the wish to share responsibility for the control of one’s impulses and the direction of one’s life.
The fundamental principle that gives rise to these frustrations is, of course, individualism.
Individualism is rooted in the attempt to deny the reality of human interdependence. One of the major goals of technology in America is to “free” us from the necessity of relating to, submitting to, depending upon, or controlling other people. Unfortunately, the more we have succeeded in doing this, the more we have felt disconnected, bored, lonely, unprotected, unnecessary, and unsafe.
Most of those adjectives could apply to Don Draper at this point. In earlier episodes, we have seen Don, without explanation, walk out of an important meeting at work and, like other American heroes, light out for the territory, albeit in a new Cadillac. He is estranged from his family. He is searching for something—at first a woman, who turns out to be unattainable, and then for ... he doesn’t really know what. He winds up at Esalen, where revelation comes from an unlikely source, a nebbishy man named Leonard. In a group session, Leonard says:
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....
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. They’re happy to see you but maybe they don’t look right at you and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.
People are silent, but Don gets up, slowly moves toward Leonard and tearfully, silently, embraces him.
On the surface, the two men could not be more different. Don is interesting. And successful. People notice him. But he shares Leonard’s sense that his pursuit—of a new identity, of career success, of unattainable women—has left him feeling inauthentic, disconnected, and alone. “I’ve messed everything up,” he tells his sometime co-worker Peggy in a phone conversation. “I’m not the man you think I am.”
The next time we see him, he is watching from a distance as people do tai-chi on a hilltop.
And then the punch line. We cut to the Coke hilltop ad with its steadily expanding group of happy people singing in perfect harmony.
A simple product brings universal community (“I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company”). It also brings authenticity: “It’s the real thing.” Esalen and Coca-Cola. Both are offering solutions to the frustrated needs Slater identifies. But both solutions suffer from the same flaw—they are personal rather than social. A few days of spiritual healing and hot springs brings no more social change than does a bottle of sugar water. It’s not that real change is impossible, Slater says; in the final chapter of the book he hopes that the strands in the fabric of American culture can be re-woven. But optimism is difficult.
So many healthy new growths in our society are at some point blocked by the overwhelming force and rigidity of economic inequality.... There’s a ... ceiling of concentrated economic power that holds us back, frustrates change, locks in flexibility.
The Mad Men finale makes the same point, though with greater irony (the episode title is “Person to Person”). When we see the Coke mountaintop ad, we realize that Don Draper has bundled up his Esalen epiphany, brought it back to a huge ad agency in New York, and turned it into a commercial for one of the largest corporations in the world.