“Did you ever get the feeling you’ve been had?”
The notion that Don Draper returned to advertising at the end of his extended road trip could have been presented in any number of ways. The fact that Weiner chose to present it this way, with the moment of Don’s West Coast enlightenment hard-cutting to the Coke ad–is a gut punch to the audience the way Tony Soprano’s abrupt cut to black was.
You thought this show in general, and Don’s preternatural attraction to California and moment of Big Sur enlightenment in particular, was about personal growth?
Not even close.
It’s about selling Cokes and it always has been. Don has merely reinvented himself for another decade. The old Don Draper was completely played out. That’s been the subtext of just about every episode of at least the last season. While all the other characters were evolving with the times, Don remained eerily embalmed in 1950s Brylcreem well into 1970.
Don may have been the last Mad Man protagonist to tune in and turn on to the frequency of the Summer of Love, but in classic Draper fashion, he was the one to figure out how to tap into this new cultural palette to tell the 30-second stories that sell products.
Mad Men characters don’t ever really change over the course of the show, they just develop into fully realized versions of who they always were.
Summer of Love Coca Cola brought to you by the same mind that invented Toasted Cigarettes in season one. It’s not a stretch of the imagination at all.
Now that we’ve finally seen the ending, and being aware that Matt Weiner has said he’s always known exactly what the last scene of Mad Men would be, we can go back and look for the clues he’s been planting.
Think about the sense of beauty and wonder that seemed to imbue all of Don’s trips to California: Disneyland, Anna Draper’s house, the pool parties. We were enchanted by it all as much as he was. California was always Don’s secret Better Place during all the years he seemed to be living the perfect life in New York.
Finally, this season as Don’s old New York life was stripped away from him episode by episode–family, job, apartment–he ran off on a wild goose chase to Racine, and spent the next 40 days and 40 nights wandering the badlands before finally stumbling into California.
Don’s chased his muse in California plenty of times before, usually in the form of a beautiful young woman. This time proves to be no exception as we see a door being opened for him by his beautiful ersatz niece Stephanie, we think it’s going to be another one of those adventures. But Don’s ultimate breakthrough doesn’t involve a nubile, it involves a plain-looking, slouchy, balding middle-manager.
The old Don would have filled a couple of shot glasses, looked the man dead in the eye, told him to shape up, made him drink on it, and considered the problem solved. But that Don has been stripped away of all his social crutches, which is why he was curled into a ball by the payphone when the woman found him. Being abandoned at Esalen by Stephanie was the only way Don could finally hit bottom and begin the process of self-actualization.
Also, knowing what we know now, think back a couple of episodes to when Jim Hobart approached Don after the merger and seductively croaked into his ear the mantra, “Co-ca…Co-la,” like Angela Lansbury playing the Queen of Diamonds in The Manchurian Candidate. Hobart had been laying the groundwork a long time, ever since season one when he wanted to recruit Don Draper to the Coca Cola account so bad, he got Betty Draper the Coca Cola modeling gig.
Don, with his Coca Cola sleeper cell now activated, got up in a fugue state and walked out from the Miller meeting in New York City and didn’t stop until he ran out of road and found the perfect Coke ad.
At the start of that Miller meeting, Don looked around and realized he was just one of a dozen creative directors at McCann. The difference between Don and those men is that Don will break through to the next level of ad guruship by any means necessary–leaving his children, stalking a waitress from Racine’s family, taking a bludgeoning from a phone book, giving away his Cadillac to a con artist, going cold turkey and hugging it out with a bald guy at a hippie-dippy encounter group. He won’t stop until he finds what he’s looking for, and he won’t know what he’s looking for until he finds it.
That’s the Draper mystique.