Falling, falling, falling…. and finally, he fell.
When the clock struck 9:30 pm or so, with our bowl of popcorn between us, we spent many evenings looking in on the strangely sad life of “Mad Men,” the storied series about Donald Draper and his fellows, men and women who populated the advertising world of Madison Avenue during the late 1950s through the early 1970s. And with a weekend in New York City, this seems a good time to ponder the city and its life.
Much could be said, and has been about this multiple Emmy-award winning show. In many ways it was brilliantly conceived, but when all was said and done, my fascination was with the story-teller’s willingness to have Donald Draper “fall.” That seems so counter-cultural, to allow someone to make choices for which there are consequences; mostly we resist that, for thousands of complex reasons in the human heart, in everyone’s heart.
The opening scene with its distinctive musical notes shows a man falling, falling, falling down a building, and then a woman’s leg, which metaphorically is just what Draper did, more and more so as the years passed. As handsome as they come, he lied his way into his life, manipulating everyone he met. Not always with absolute crassness, he was likable in his own wounded way. Remarkably gifted as a communicator to the wider world through his marketing genius, he utterly failed in any relationship beyond a one-night stand, unable to live with the integrity that honest relationships require.
There were high moments, even with their tragic, tender windows into life in the big city. One of my favorites was in the second season. He has found his way into the favor of his employers, achieving a star-status among his colleagues along Madison Avenue, and is rewarded with a raise. Able to buy his long dream of a baby-blue Cadillac, he does so, with cash. The first use of the new car is a night out with his wife, Betty. So very pretty, so very innocent, she wears a gown to accompany him in his tuxedo. At the party he offers to get drinks for them, and she smiles, watching him glide across the floor, with admiration. Another man comes up to her, saying “See your husband and my wife? They’re having an affair.” Betty is shocked, not believing what she is hearing— but she begins looking more carefully at her husband, and the man’s wife, animatedly engaged with each other. On the way home in their brand-new car, they sit in silence…. until it becomes obvious that she is going to be sick. She throws up, the episode is over, and the credits roll.
I thought, “Good for you, whoever you are!” And I began watching the director Matthew Weiner’s commentary after each show. Mostly it wasn’t so insightful, but it was obvious that he was telling the tale he wanted to tell, and that Donald Draper was going to have to live with his life. He was making choices against the grain of the universe, against all that is real and true and right, and he was going to have live with the meaning of those choices… falling, falling, falling, not only down a lady’s leg, but through the cosmos.
The novelist Walker Percy called it being “lost in the cosmos.” Untethered by reality, imagining that we can create our own worlds, we become lost to meaning and purpose, responsibility and accountability. And in an unusual decision in pop culture, the story-teller doesn’t cushion that for Draper. His fall is a true fall, and it wounds him and everyone he knows— which is the way it is in the world that is really there.
So, with all of this being true, I was eager to see how the story would end. Draper’s life unfolds, and implodes, with him finally taking a cross-country road trip, searching for someone somewhere, for something someplace. Like all of us, son of Adam that he is, he longs for more than he has found.
What he finds is a post-hippie commune in Big Sur, so very prominently a part of the 1970s, offering “enlightenment” in its Westernized-Hindu sort of way, with encounter groups where everyone is “really honest” with each other in a sorrowfully superficial way, set amidst the gorgeous views of the California coast. And Donald Draper finds himself finally… chanting “Ohmm” into the silence of the universe.
I remember a conversation with Tom Wolfe several years ago. A long reader of his fiction and non-fiction, I have often required my students to read his essays, the brilliant cultural critic that he is. A few years after “A Man in Full,” his end-of-the-20th-century novel, I told him that I had given a week to his book, sitting on a North Carolina beach— and that I had loved it right up to the very end. I confess that I didn’t have the heart to say aloud what was I was thinking. Amazingly, perceptively, he looked across the table and said, “I don’t finish my novels very well, do I?” Well, he said it, and I think it is true, having read most of his work. He flinches at the end, unwilling to follow through on the logic of the story, the reality that ideas have legs, that choices have consequences.
The director of “Mad Men” didn’t do this very well, either. He blinked, it seemed to me. Rather than the harder, more honest work of requiring Donald Draper to keep falling, falling, falling into the reality of his despair, he is allowed an easier out…. breathing deeply amidst the grandeur of Big Sur, with eyes closed hoping against hope that cosmic silence will be his salvation.
Not that I hoped for him to throw up at the end— especially with all the blue sky and sea —but something like that seems more true to the way the world really is.
For more from Steve Garber, check out his Commons Blog from The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture.