**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.
YES!!! I loved that moment, I turned to my father (we watch it together) and said, “It’s Confession!” It was also very telling that the first thing he asked Peggy was “Is everything falling apart without me?” He was still, even then, holding onto denial.
When you summed it up there in the end, it struck me that this is so much like Lewis’s ‘Til We Have Faces. Amazing!!
I hadn’t thought of the similarity to Til We Have Faces! Christy and I will be discussing that one in our next book swap episode!
What a thoughtful and lovely tribute to Mad Men. I generally watch very little t.v, but this series drew me fully in. Thank you for the post about it, as it helps me celebrate such a brilliant series. I love reading your posts, and the combination of reading about Mad Men on Carrots was delightful!
SO glad you enjoyed it, Karla!
This was an interesting take on the ending. I’m not Catholic and didn’t take Don’s phone call to be quite as cathartic as you did. But more importantly, I thought the smile on his face at the end was a sign that nothing has changed — he got an ad idea, went home and made the Coke ad, and basically started the sad cycle all over again. Your interpretation is certainly more optimistic! What do you think the Coke ad represents for Don?
Sarah Schweizer says
The Coke ad is a song about love and the coke is merely an excuse to begin friendship-something that Don has never understood or really participated in in the whole show because, as Haley pointed out, he always preferred strangers. In addition, this is the very first commercial that uses love. Before Don never allowed his team to use words like love or friendship, and always played on power or lust. Also, another thing to consider is that Don’s mode expression is advertising. He has the power to spread and vocalize the need for friendship and unconditional love, so he did. Just because it is his dream to write ads for Coke does not make it inherently bad. Instead, how he executes the responsibilities with the resources and knowledge given to him is what determines whether it is morally good or bad. The Coke ad is nothing like any of his other work and shows exactly how far he has come.
Haley, thank you for writing about his confessional scene! This is exactly what went through my head as I watched the last episode!
Yes! Definitely agree with Sarah on the significance of the Coke ad. It shows that he didn’t keep running away from his life but went back to it with the ability to create something that communicated love because he has finally begun to understand love.
Kallah Oakes says
Hi Haley! I’m a new reader – a friend of mine who knows my deep love for Mad Men sent me the link to your old Carrots podcast episode with Kathryn just this past week. I LOVED it – your insights were so excellent! – and googled to see how y’all responded to the finale, cause I think you were just watching season 4 at the time.
This truly made me cry: what a beautiful analysis of the last episode!
I heard Matthew Weiner say that he created the whole show with the Coke ad in mind – wondering how an ad man couldn’t come up with such an authentically human ad; he said he asked himself, what would a man have to go through to create this without irony or disingenuousness?
Your analysis would absolutely go along with his own intent there! 🙂
Hi Kallah! So glad you’re here!
So I’m very much with Haley on the cleansing dynamic of confession in the final episode. As a Catholic it seemed to be one of the more explicit things Weiner has done, (but maybe it just lends itself to a sacramental imagination). However, I think Brook’e point about the Coke ad can’t be brushed aside.
If Don goes back and sells Coke as “the real thing” then he’s not quite gotten to the real depths of meaning. Everything that Don experienced in CA is genuine yet it is also not yet fully matured. Remember, we’re talking about someone who has just begun to step into reality out of a contrived world of denial and fabricated make-your-own-way determinism. It would be a little much to think that Don simply offers a hug and a cry and then promptly steps into clarity.
I think the Coke ad is a reminder that Don, (like the rest of us), still has miles to go.
So close, yet so far away.
I’m in season 6 right now and every time I try to explain the show to my husband he just thinks don is a bad guy. And I’m like no he just doesn’t know what else to do! I love this post. I’m looking forward to finishing the series up.
Kathryn mentioned in the podcast episode we did about Mad Men that she heard Terry Gross from Fresh Air interviewing the creator, Matthew Weiner, and she asks, “How much are we supposed to hate Don Draper?” And he was shocked and replied, “You’re supposed to love Don Draper!” Haha. It is hard to understand if you know the plot but haven’t seen the show!
Okay i’ve covered my eyes for this post and the comments, but how do you watch the final 7 episodes? I have Netflix and only the first half of season 7 is available? We don’t have cable.
You can buy them at Amazon or Itunes!
We have a friend who gets AMC so that’s how I watched! I’m sure they’ll be on Netflix eventually. :/
Wow – loved this thoughtful post about the final episode. There is still so much I am digesting about the end of the show and this was such an interesting and fresh perspective for me!
I have to agree with the previous commenter that said he went back to his old ways – this was just another moment in his cycle – though each one seems to go deeper into himself and move towards redemption.
megan w says
It has been years since I’ve watched “Mad Men”, I stopped partway through season 4 I think because it just got too stressful, but this has made me want to go back and try again. But what struck me the most about this post was the beautiful truths about Reconciliation you interwove into it. I am a baby Catholic, just joined the Church this past Easter Vigil, and so going to Confession is still very new to me. My first confession was a wonderfully burden lifting experience, but I was kinda nervous about going back again. It was still intimidating to have to admit out loud to the priest all of my sins so I just kept putting it off, but I went this past Saturday despite all of the reasons I had in my head on why I could just wait one more week. And it was once again, and amazing thing and I felt so much lighter walking out of the confessional. Don Draper is not someone I would want to hang around with, but through confession we are all wiped clean even if we do go back to our jobs and come up with another ad idea instead of taking a different path. Thank you for this!
Welcome Home, Megan!
Yay, Mad Men commentary! I credit you and Christy for getting me back into the show just in time for the series finale after I stopped at season five, so thank you for that. 🙂
I wasn’t quite as positive about Don’s confession as you are. Though it does mirror the sacrament pretty closely, I think what bothered me most was the lack of penance. While forgiveness is indeed free, Christ’s mercy also leads to restoration, a change of life. We don’t know what Don does in his personal life after his enlightenment on the cliffs, but I find myself doubting that his experience was anything more than personal emotional catharsis, a Me Generation version of contemporary authenticity culture. I think you make some great points though and I always wonder if I’m understanding the sacrament correctly in the first place (I’m a convert too!).
Love your point about penance, Julia!
“I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony! I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company. That’s the real thing.” I absolutely loved the final episode and I think your interpretation is spot on. Well done, Haley. Now, what shall we watch? Turn? The Hubs and I watched the first episode a few nights ago on Netflix and really enjoyed it.
Oooo! I haven’t watched any of that one but I saw it on Netflix!
Girl. I know. I KNOW. Lol!
This show was so good and profound in so many ways. So interesting too how despite all that Don had done, we STILL rooted for him, still wanted him to find peace and happiness. What was that quote you and Christy talked about on your podcast? “To know all is to forgive all.” That is my take-away from this series. Good lesson in general!
Although I so wanted some sort of reunion with Don and the kids. and when he offered to just pick up and drop his family and move to california to help Stephanie with HER mess I was like “clean up your own mess, Don!!!!”
I think its good lesson though about people being imperfect, making decisions that are bad for themselves out of ‘habit’ but sometimes…sometimes something good will reach out and grab them no matter how hard they fight it.
Last night my husband and I finished series 1 of True Detective. Have you guys seen it? Wow, so very powerful, and the theme of confession runs through it in a very literal sense (the most damaged ‘hero’ of the series is the one with a gift for getting people to confess).
While it is gritty and (very) dark, there are some great themes of redemption and a tiiiiny bit of hope, lol. If you and Daniel can watch Game of Thrones, you can certainly watch this. it knows when to pull away from the horror (because it is about homicide detectives…) unlike some shows we know *cough cough Winter is Coming*
But I digress…. 😉
LOVE True Detective. Love it so much. I wasn’t expecting to like it but then…..whoa. Amazing.
Claire in the UK says
Mad Men is one of those shows I’ve always meant to watch but never have done. Now I know what happens in the end I can’t wait to watch it !
sari Leslie says
Great post Haley! I love the fact that we can watch a show like this and find the grace in it. Ps, I signed up for Stitch Fix because of you. How do you get the credit? Do I need to call them?
I read this the other day and came back to get the link because I was just talking to my friend about it. He’s recommended Mad Men and Daredevil to me over and over and over again – so after reading this and Kendra’s post on Daredevil at Catholic All Year I had to laugh (my friend is not Catholic). But after re-reading this so that I could discuss it with him, it hit me that I haven’t been to confession in…….. 17 years. Before my first communion. Eek.
I was technically raised Catholic, but that meant I was baptized, made my first confession, communion, confirmation and that’s it. It wasn’t really ever part of our lives otherwise, and I think I went to church with my family maybe twice. (I did go quite a bit in middle school because I was in the choir, but I don’t remember most of my childhood, and I can’t remember anything about going to mass back then other than singing with my friends.) So yeah, I hadn’t given thought to confession as a kid. I kinda jumped back into Catholicism in the last couple years and for some reason still hadn’t thought about it but after realizing it’s been so long last night I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it… which is nerve wracking because I know basically nothing about it or how to do it or what I’m supposed to even confess??? I mean, of course I’ve done bad things and sinned and everything – but it’s more long term things like envy or not working to forgive and that kind of thing (because I’m assuming spending hours going over every.single.thing from the last 17 years is not the answer). Might need to go spend some time on google haha.
Great post though!!
Sometimes it is hard to think, “what have I done, what do I confess”, that is why it’s good to have an examination of conscience each night if possible, and also, there are many books with actual lists of sins to help remind us. Confession does lift our burdens, sometimes unseen or unrealized burdens, from our shoulders. Come back into confession, it is such a gift from God, and it is there for us, if we only choose to accept the gift!
Anne McD says
I just wanted to add, don’t worry about making a perfect confession. Just go. :). Spend some time in prayer, and ask the Holy Spirit to help you see what you need to confess. You may remember more days or weeks or months later, then go again. There is so much grace available to you. I’ll keep you in my prayers today. 🙂
How good is spending all this time on Mad Men, really? Despite all the things mentioned in the post, was it really worth our time? I began watching the show years ago, I think I got through two seasons… And I very much enjoyed the show, but something (my conscience, I suppose), reminded me that I could certainly be spending my time more wisely. There was so much bed hopping in the show that I just had to turn away. We become immune to all that after awhile, don’t we? I have seen many Catholic mom blogs recommend this that and that show, with caveats, but oh! Certainly there are better things to give ourselves to! Recommendations of catholic radio where we can learn apologetics, or EWTN where we actually spend time thinking about God rather than Don Draper. Yes I know, there are redeeming qualities in many shows that might teach someone something…but there is the absence of God as the redeemer. They seem to stop short of actually mentioning Him. Aren’t we supposed to elevate ourselves instead of wallowing in the mire? I do not mean to say I haven’t, or do not still, find myself watching some of these shows, but I always end up thinking I made a mistake that I will have to pay for when I have my judgement before God. I keep thinking about the question the angel asked the three children of Fatima, when he found them playing. “What are you doing?!” Urging them to spend their time with God instead, and praying for the reparation of sin. I think we think we are okay people because we don’t commit the big sins, but if we could only see the state of our souls…