Teaching The World To Sing

At first glance, you might not think Ted Mosby and Don Draper have much in common, but they do.  Mosby (from How I Met Your Mother) and Draper (from Mad Men) were both young, handsome, and well-to-do in their chosen professions (architecture and advertising).  Both had a list of girlfriends and wives longer than your arms and my arms put together, and both, despite their success with many eligible women, still hungered for the singular attachment, the one relationship that would reveal the meaning of true life.

Mosby, of course, found his wife eventually, lost her to cancer, and then married the woman he had loved all along, his best friend, Robin Scherbatsky.  Trouble is, two of those three significant events were crammed into the final ten minutes of the last episode of an otherwise well-written, consistently-funny sitcom.

No such rush job afflicted the long-awaited series finale of Mad Men, called “Person To Person.”  Draper, having chucked his lucrative position at McCann-Erickson and all that the position represents, has found himself on the road for the last three weeks, trying to escape from a life he no longer wants and escape, too, perhaps, from a man he no longer wishes to be.

Matthew Weiner promised his audience that the finale would not end the way a lot of people wanted it to; nor would he try to give each character a final moment in the sun.  He followed through on both counts.  Jessica Pare’s Megan is nowhere to be found in this episode; neither is Henry Francis, the politician-husband of the now cancer-stricken Betty Draper.  Yet, there was method in last night’s madness that was wholly admirable.  Don’s search for redemption and meaning in his life was set up three weeks ago. The nightmares caused by the identity he stole in the Korean War of the 1950s and the wealth he acquired in his advertising career of the 1960s have, as the 1970s begin, nearly cost him his soul. Draper goes back to the only family who really know him, that of Stephanie Draper, niece of Anna Draper, the wife of Dick Whitman’s commanding officer in the war, the man whose identity Dick Whitman stole in order to survive. Anna, now long-dead from cancer, knew Dick Whitman, knew what he did, but understood why he did it and loved him anyway. Stephanie, with problems of her own, checks out, as the expression went back then, and takes Don with her to a commune in the California hills.

Don’s co-workers at McCann-Erickson know nothing of this, of course. Don’s pulled the disappearing act before, and they figure he’ll eventually show back up at work with some excuse, be it lame or believable. In the meantime, they are trying to come to terms with their own lives, each of which has been impacted by their relationships to the huge corporate structure of McCann-Erickson that has swallowed the agency of Sterling-Cooper whole. In something of a writing miracle, Weiner keeps the work of the behemoth agency in the background while he focuses on resolving the lives of his characters. It’s shocking, in fact, to be reminded, as Peggy Olson does when Draper calls her from the commune to tell her that he is somewhere in California, that McCann-Erickson is now engaged on one of the biggest ad campaigns ever devised: “Don’t you want to work on Coke?” she asks him. “No,” he replies. “I just wanted to hear your voice.”

That’s what life in the commune does to Don Draper. It strips away his pretense, his ability to hide from himself or others. At first, he thinks he knows these hippies and he tells Stephanie so when she runs away from a particularly bruising encounter-group session. But when Stephanie leaves and takes the car with her, stranding Don there, with no means of escape, he cracks and falls, slumping against a wall of the building after his phone call to the worried Peggy, actually out-of-control, tumbling down, just as the black-silhouetted ad-man has tumbled at the beginning of every episode for the last seven seasons. He is conscious, at last, of everything he has left behind, of everything he has given up, and of his complete inability to reclaim any of it for himself. “I can’t move,” he wearily tells the woman who leads his encounter group. And for a beat–the briefest moment–we believe him. But only for a moment.

“Of course you can,” she tells him matter-of-factly. “Take my hand, and come with me to the session I have to lead.”

So, he does. And when he does, Don meets himself in that new group. A despairing office worker tells the group the story of his life, his story of being ignored, unloved–not even seen–at work or by his family at home; of his nightmare of being an item in a refrigerator, unchosen by those who open the refrigerator door and then close it again after making a choice, leaving the item on the shelf, surrounded only by the darkness of the closed door. The grief of that conscious, daily, crushing rejection is too much to bear and he who tells that story breaks down and weeps. Don, whose ears had perked up at the mention of “office-worker,” has been listening intently. He sees, or hears, something in this man’s suffering akin to his own. Maybe it’s the man’s story; maybe it’s not; but Don then does something he’s never done in the history of the show: he walks over, puts his arms completely around the man, holds him there, and weeps with him.

I say it again: Don Draper has never done this with anyone–his girlfriends, his wives, his children–anyone.* Yes, he’s held lots of women–when he wanted sex.  He’s held his children–on the occasions when he was trying to be the father he never wanted to be. But he has never held anyone as an act of compassion; he has never held anyone with his own vulnerabilities so exposed to another human being. Whether he is Don Draper or Dick Whitman in that moment really doesn’t matter. He is, in that moment, as fully human as he’s ever going to get, and it is inevitable that he will stay–at least for a time–right where he is.

Life goes on for the others, in the meanwhile. Peggy finally realizes she loves Stan as much as he loves her; Joan realizes she doesn’t need the wealthy-but-controlling Richard to start her own business.  Roger Sterling loves, fights, and eventually marries Megan Draper’s mother.  Don’s daughter, Sally Draper, gives up her dream of traveling abroad to assume a responsible caretaker role for her siblings and her dying mother.  Pete Campbell jets off to a new career with his reunited family, away from the pressures of a New York office.  Each achieves, in his or her own way, that prize–so elusive, so illusory–we all seek in life.  The prize called “Enough.”

And McCann-Erickson itself plays a part in creating one of the most memorable television commercials ever created: the glorious, hilltop choral arrangement of “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” for Coke. That paeon to love and peace did indeed emerge out of the violence of the Korean War, and the destructive strife of Vietnam and the civil rights movement.  For a while, it was a counter-melody to the driving rock of the 1970s and the shrillness of our social discontent.  It is possible that Draper could have had a hand in its making and a share in the millions of dollars in profit that it generated for the agency and its client. It’s also possible that the Draper we have known could never have created it. At best, he would never have believed in it, sitting in his office, high above Manhattan.

The cynic in us would point out, however, that believing in something is hardly necessary for an advertising man trying to sell us Coke, any more than a lawyer has to believe in the case he or she argues before a judge. The idea that people exist to be manipulated is at the heart of advertising, and it is this idea that gives the last two scenes of Mad Men their emotional coloration. Weiner gave us in those scenes something more intriguing than an ad-man clearly reconciled to his career and his choices: he gave us in those final images a picture of a man ambiguously smiling in meditation–a man either trying to become the kind of man that chorus is singing about as we fade to the credits, or a man who, though living so long as a failure to himself and others, will return shortly to the life he knows with new and more subtle knowledge of the world around him, perhaps to create a song of lasting cultural impact, a song embodying values he does not share. Given the broken Don Draper we have seen in this last episode, I rather doubt that the cynical Draper of my imagination could exist, and I believe that Peggy Olson, writing at her typewriter and happily kissed on the forehead by her loving Stan, might have created the spot. Then again, I have to admit that I do not know. Given also the extraordinary number of times Don Draper has held the real thing in his arms and yet let it go, given the number of times he has tried to do something good without actually doing it, it is possible that the sweet, gentle tune I heard so much on the television of my youth carries underneath it the saccharine taste of crass commercialism; that it is a hollow, cutesy sales pitch which only a madman like Draper, returned to the world with lessons learned and unlearned, could have created.


Postscript, May 20, 2015 12:00 Jon Hamm (Don Draper himself) inclines to the more cynical view of the finale’s last two scenes, and offers insights, as well, to other scenes in the episode.  For more on the song “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing,” go to the Wikipedia article.

Mad Men was a marvelous television series–one of the best ever done. It did not rely on the time-tested (and time-worn) formulas that have been developed for cop shows and lawyer shows and doctor shows over the last half-century. The writers and producers faced the enormous task of recreating every week not just the style of the 1960s but the substance of it, both bitter and sweet. They did a fantastic job. I love the show, and I will miss it–at least until I can see it all again on Blu-Ray. It belongs in that small class of television series, including Hill Street Blues, I, Claudius, as much of Gunsmoke as you can find, and Buffy, the Vampire-Slayer, whose episodes are so well-crafted that they need to be seen and re-seen by those who love to write–which is why I have spent so much time over the last two days writing about this subject.

*Postscript, June 17, 2017 10:45 a.m.,  Strictly speaking, my statement about Don Draper never holding anyone in a purely empathetic way is not true.  In the first-season episode “5G” Dick Whitman’s brother Adam, whom Don left behind long ago, recognizes Don from a photograph in the newspaper and tracks him down in New York.  Don, wishing his past (and the identity he stole) to remain his secret alone, eventually visits Adam in his hotel room (room 5G) and buys him off for $5000.  Adam, knowing that Dick (Don) will give him nothing else, breaks down and sobs in Don’s arms.  Don puts his arms around him.  His eyes acknowledge that he is abandoning a brother but, given that he’s just bought that brother off, his effort at giving comfort is halfhearted, and the audience knows it.]


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