**Spoilers ahead, folks. If you don’t want any of the plot of Mad Men ruined for you, don’t continue.**
“The young man ringing the bell at a brothel is unconsciously looking for God.”-Bruce Marshall
source: Justina Mintz/AMC
Before I started watching Mad Men, I thought it was a show about an attractive guy name Don Draper with supporting characters Sex, Cocktails, and Cigarettes. And sure, Don Draper is a handsome man and there’s lots of philandering, Old Fashioneds, and Lucky Strikes. But that’s not what Mad Men is about. Mad Men is about how to be a human being born with a desire to experience unconditional love, but living in a world in which you don’t know where to find it or even exactly what “it” is.
Several years ago I tried to start watching the AMC series and couldn’t do it. None of the characters seemed to have any hope and I found it too depressing. But after finally watching the whole show this Spring, I don’t think it’s hopeless. It’s just realistic about the futility of trying to live as a full human being without transcendent love.
C.S. Lewis refers to human history as “the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” And that’s what every character in Mad Men is trying to do: be happy with something, anything, other than God.
The good news is that there’s always hope. Hope to discover who we are, what love is, and how to give it and accept it. And while the show isn’t religious, when a character experiences something redemptive it’s often in a human love that reflects divine love.
The show is nuanced and brilliant like a great novel. And there is truth and beauty to the finely crafted story. In the final episode Don isn’t getting baptized, or running into a church in the middle of the night to pray. Don isn’t religious and that doesn’t change in the final episode. But there is so much religious imagery in the final season that can’t be ignored.
What I found to be the most crucial and moving theme of the final episode was Don’s confession mirroring the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This reconciliation is what makes it possible for Don to face his demons and start healing.
Following an old pattern of escapism, in the final season of the show Don walks out of a meeting at work to take a wandering drive across the country from NYC to California. This isn’t the first time he’s tried to escape his life by driving off and disappearing for a few days. And his habit of running away from his life began more dramatically when he switched tags with his deceased commanding office during the Korean war and came back with a new identity.
Born Dick Whitman, he’s been keeping up this facade of Don Draper for several years. But in Season 7, he’s definitely lost in a dark wood (and my medievalist heart loved that he was reading Dante’s Inferno in Season 6).
And like Dante, Don’s redemption begins with a woman, his ex-wife, Betty Draper Francis.
After his daughter Sally tells him that her mother is dying of lung cancer, Don calls Betty to tell her that he will take care of their children, but she insists that they live with her brother and sister-in-law. She wants them to have two stable parents and Don has never been present as a father. “I want to keep things as normal as possible and you not being here is part of that,” she tells him.
While we’ve seen Don experience occasional guilt for his failures as a husband and father, this honest critique seems to hit home differently. Through his tears he tries to say, “I’m sorry” but only manages to get out her nickname, “Birdie.” She tells him, “I know.”
This is the first time we really see him experience true contrition. In the past he has regretted actions or felt guilty, but here he experiences true sorrow and hatred for how he has wronged his family.
As a broken man he travels on to California to find a woman he calls his “niece,” Stephanie. He goes to her offering help, because she’s recently had a child out of wedlock but she quickly sees that he’s the one falling apart. It is notable that she is the only person in the world that calls him by his real name, Dick, because she’s a relation of the real Don Draper and knows his story. In his hour of brokenness, he finds someone who actually knows him. This is crucial because Don runs away from true intimacy and prefers strangers.
In a very un-Don-like move, he agrees to go with Stephanie to a hippie retreat promising to “be open to it.” And for Don the retreat center has almost a monastic quality of quiet and self-examination. There is no TV to distract him, no movies to go see. No busy hum of the office. Just quiet.
In a share-your-feelings seminar, Stephanie shares that she feels judged for not wanting be a mother and having her in-laws raise her son. Another woman in the circle tells her that as a child who was abandoned by her mother, she knows Stephanie’s child will always be watching the door for her to come back. This isn’t what Stephanie wants to hear and she breaks down in tears and runs out of the room.
Don is angered about what the woman said to her, perhaps because he is also a parent who has abandoned his children, and tells Stephanie that she can leave it all in the past and “It will get easier as you move forward.” But Stephanie doesn’t buy his mantra: “Oh Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.”
Trying to face the truth of what she said, he is alarmed when Stephanie leaves him at the retreat center without a ride home. He has no one but himself to face and he is reeling from the news of Betty’s cancer and having his philosophy of life called into question.
He goes to a payphone and calls Peggy Olson, his co-worker and friend who cares about him and knows him well. She has been terribly worried about him. “You can come home.” she says. But he responds, “I can’t get out of here.” Since he’s just at a retreat center and at worst may have to wait a couple of days for a ride, that remark seems dramatic. But I think what he meant was, “I can’t get out of this mess I’ve made. I can’t come Home.”
Moving forward has failed him. He can’t move forward until he faces his demons. He can’t reach the light until he goes through his Inferno.
Peggy begs him, “Don, come home!” And here, for the first time, Don Draper actually confesses his sins. “I’ve messed everything up. I’m not the man you think I am.” And then Peggy, the only Catholic main character in the series asks him, “What did you ever do that was so bad?”
“I broke my vows, I scandalized my child, I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He acknowledges his failures in all his most important roles: as a husband, a father, and a human being.
And there with great contrition, he actually vocalizes his sins to another person. In the past, even when his daughter caught him in bed with a neighbor, he didn’t confess. He told her that she didn’t see what she thought she saw. He made excuses. He tried to just move forward and forget.
My friend Kathryn pointed out to me that Peggy in this scene is reminiscent of Holy Mother Church saying, Come home! There is never something so bad that you can’t come home. And although Peggy’s not a practicing Catholic, she still crosses herself on airplanes and hasn’t been able to leave her faith behind completely.
He hangs up with Peggy, telling her “see you soon” and collapses beneath his pay phone confessional until someone comes along, invites him to the next seminar, and helps him up.
source: Justina Mintz/AMC
What I loved about this reflection of the grace of Confession is that it illustrates how we are stuck in our sin. We’ve messed stuff up too badly to be able to get out. And we can’t get out by ourselves, by sheer will power. We can’t forget and keep moving forward. We can’t crawl out. We can’t hide from ourselves forever. And the voice asking us to come home never gives up on us. If we can have the courage to look at ourselves and see the mess we are, we can seek reconciliation and actually understand love.
And we see the fruit of Don’s confession immediately afterward. In the hippie seminar’s circle of feelings a man named Leonard is describing how he feels invisible to everyone. How perhaps his family and friends really are trying to offer him love, but he doesn’t even know what “it” (love) is. As he breaks down in tears, Don does the most un-Draper-ish thing in the series and walks across the room, hugs him, and sobs.
source: Justina Mintz/AMC
He sees in Leonard a mirror of himself, a man who hasn’t been able to experience love because he hasn’t known himself and hasn’t let anyone else know him, either.
Until we are honest about who we are how can we really understand the precious gift of Love that loves us despite our failings? Love and knowledge are so intimately linked. And each of Don’s many romantic relationships always seem to end when his true self begins to be exposed because he cannot face up to himself. He cannot bear for anyone else to know him and so he cannot accept their love or offer love to them.
And that’s what I think the final scene of Don doing sunrise salutations with a smile on his face is about. He has been confronted with the excruciating quiet to examine his own soul, see it’s flaws, and confess. And he’s no longer afraid of being known and can finally give love to others and receive it.
The series finale of Mad Men doesn’t wrap it all up in a pretty bow for us. But the ending gives us reason to believe there’s hope for Don Draper and for all of us.