A while back, I wrote about why we like mad men (fun fact: it’s one of the most popular posts of all time here on Jeneric Generation). In that post, I quoted Matthew Weiner, the creator of the show, in saying this: Don Draper may not believe he is capable of being loved. And with the close of Don’s story, these words are all the more insightful.
Before the season ended, some people predicted Don’s demise and others, his redemption. In the episodes leading up to the finale, it wasn’t clear exactly what the writers had in store. Don’s behavior was strange and even more unpredictable than usual, but certainly not in any way that suggested he was about to walk down the aisle and pray the sinner’s prayer.
At first glance, the ending may seem to be open for interpretation. But I believe Don is on the path to redemption. This is Mad Men, where change doesn’t happen in an instant. And this is Matthew Weiner, who revels in fleshing out the subtleties of human growth.
So let’s look at that quote again: Don Draper may not believe he is capable of being loved. Those words are extremely powerful in their truthfulness. In Don, his inability to believe he is capable of being loved is not a sign of humility but of pride, and as such, the root of what could possibly have been his downfall. For Don to be redeemed, he needed to believe he could be loved.
There are three reasons why I think this happened: the confession, the embrace, and the Coke ad.
As we see in one of the final scenes of the last episode, Don hears a man confess his loneliness and feelings of isolation to a group of strangers. We see something alter in Don’s thinking as he suddenly becomes vulnerable in his connection to this man. It is a sign of humility and a sign of change. But there is more to it than that.
In the previous seasons, when we wonder if Don is beyond any hope of changing, Don is hanging on to a past that he allows to torture him– when he allows himself to recall it. In his office on Madison Avenue, Don is exceptionally talented and uncannily successful. And yet, on Madison Avenue, Don doesn’t ask to be loved not only because he believes he is not capable of being loved, but because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be loved.
It takes seven seasons for Don to fully face what makes him undeserving of love.
As long as Don was hiding from his past, he was hiding behind the lie that he is incapable of being loved. It is this false belief that causes Don to shut everyone out of in his life who is capable of loving him, including his own children. At the end of season 6, when we see Don show his children the house where he grew up, we see more than a man facing his past. Because in the moment when Don faces the truth about who he is, and who he will always be, the stage is being set and the path between pride and humility is slowly being forged.
In his belief of unworthiness, we see Don continue to build the walls he has surrounded himself in. Until his phone call with Peggy.
His confession: ““I broke all my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” was previously buried under the false assumption that his sins set him apart from everything good–that they made him an unforgivable man. But Peggy wasn’t scandalized by Don’s confession. She didn’t care about his sins. Don chose Peggy as the recipient of his confession because she was possibly the only person in the world he truly respected. But if he was hoping for some relief after talking to Peggy, he didn’t get it. Don walked into that meeting a haunted man.
And for those whom are haunted there is hope. In uttering those words to Peggy, and then embracing the man in the meeting, Don is no longer trapped in prideful solitude. When Don stands up in the circle of chairs and turns toward the man recalling his dream of sitting on a refrigerator shelf, invisible to the world but catching brief glimpses of it, his confession is complete. Don Draper no longer sees himself as an island. In hearing the words the stranger in the blue sweater spoke at just the right moment, Don is able to articulate the truth to himself.
In facing the truth behind what made him undeserving of love, Don allowed himself, for the first time, to be loved. When the threat of total isolation is behind him, Don recognizes that love is not about being deserving, but simply about receiving. In admitting that he is not alone, he is admitting that he is no different from anybody else. And that’s a big deal.
And let’s talk about the Coke ad: Did Don make it? I think so. I didn’t know the cultural importance of the ad until I heard my parents talking about it. They remember it as being absolutely iconic–the kind of commercial that made everyone run to the TV when they heard it playing because there had never been anything like it before. As Matthew Weiner points out, ads five years beforehand didn’t have black people and white people in the same commercial, let alone people from all around the world. A commercial had never before dared to stray from selling to cinematic.
And I think there’s a lot more to it, if Don created it. You can’t hide in your creations. Whether you try or not, your motives and desires are revealed in the things you create. Don’s genius was in his ability to make people want things before they realized it themselves. Ads are just another form of manipulation on a psychological level, and that’s what Don did best. To create good ads, you have to be in tune to the subconscious desires of your target audience. For Don to be able to create that Coke commercial, he had to be a changed man.
That commercial was still selling Coke. And it could be argued that manipulation can’t be entirely separated from any commercial. But in a larger sense, that commercial didn’t seek to settle under the skin of the viewer in a hidden way. It was honest, “it’s the real thing, what the world wants today”. It was out in the open, vulnerable in its boldness, daring and unifying in its diversity, and it reiterated the humbling and life-altering truth that Don has finally come to embrace: he is not alone.
In the isolation of our own heart, there is ample room for deception. In facing the truth that we aren’t who we want to be–that no one is entirely who they want to be–we find ourselves less at risk for believing the lies of a quiet voice within. When Don allows himself to relate to a stranger in the final episode, he is finally able to see that his grief does not set him apart from every other person on the planet. On the contrary, we are united to one another in our suffering. It is in this realization that he finally opens himself up to being loved.
Can we say that Don Draper was finally redeemed? I think we can. The signs of a changed heart are subtle, and not always detectable. But in Don, we see signs. In his confession, belief, and the realization of both in his Coke commercial, there is, at the very least, incredible hope.
I’d love to know if you agree or disagree. What did you think of the show’s finale? There is so much more that could be said, and about much more than Don.