Don Draper Hits Rock Bottom; Can He Change?

Get ready - Mad Men’s seventh and final season premieres this week.

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Man Men
Man Men

“Are you ready?

“Do you have time to improve your life?”

Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, certainly hopes so: these are the lines he uses to open Mad Men’s seventh and final season. Their context? A pitch.

It’s mesmerizing. Over a long-take that manages to feel as tight as any shot on television, we watch in close-up as one of Sterling Cooper & Partners’ oldest hands, Freddy Rumson, does what Mad Men’s characters do best: sell us something. What’s he selling us? A watch – but like the very best of this show’s ads, much more, too. Beyond the obvious layer of “meta” going on here (he’s telling us, the audience, to get ready for the latest season of the show!), this is a pitch for the American dream: that we can change who we are, become who we really want to be.

We just need a little more time. We just need to be ready.

In the first episode of Mad Men’s final season, that’s the change the characters long to believe in. And character by character, this season’s opener tempts us to believe each of them really has changed, too – before exposing that dream as an unattainable illusion.

‘Empty lives, wanting fulfillment'

When Freddy finishes that pitch, the camera follows his eyes to Peggy. We see that he’s been pitching to her as he’s been pitching to us. We’re reminded of just how much these two have changed since the show began in 1960. Back then, she was the secretary and he was the ad man. Now it’s 1969, and she’s in charge. Or so it seems.

Peggy’s apparent self-mastery turns out to mask inner turbulence and fragility. Bullied by Don’s hokey, doltish replacement as Creative Director (“I guess I’m immune to your charms,” he tells her) and rattled by Ted Chough’s reappearance in the office, she ends the episode alone in her apartment, on her knees, weeping.

This narrative plays out across the cast as each character greets us with her – well, “his” in most cases – strongest face and leaves us with her most vulnerable.

The California sun seems to have cured Pete Campbell of the pain of separating from his wife and the grief of his mother’s tragi-comic death at sea – until we see the defensive arrogance and desperate self-aggrandizement beneath his ludicrous new sideburns and pastel boat wear.

Roger Sterling, lord of the one-liner, has discovered free love and begun his latest resurrection-by-new-sex-partner. By the end of the episode, however, this silver-haired sex phoenix has returned to ash. Getting lucky in a free love compound won’t fill an old man’s heart: when everyone loves everyone without regard to who they are, nobody loves anyone for who they really are.

Freddy himself seems to have come into his own as a masterful ad man – since when could he deliver a pitch like that? – but as we learn in one of the episode’s few plot twists, his eloquence is, well, not entirely his.

Eerily, Weiner presents Richard Nixon as the model here. He, too, has spent the years since his 1960 loss to JFK trying to change himself. He, too, seems to have succeeded. The man many saw as a divider and a reactionary has, by 1969, won the presidency by recasting himself as a leader and a healer. The nation’s problems are spiritual, he says onscreen in his inaugural address: “We see around us empty lives, wanting fulfillment.”

There could hardly be a better diagnosis of what ails these mad men and women.

Yet we know what Mad Men’s characters can’t: soon, the sins of this false prophet will replace their desperate dreams with weary cynicism once and for all.

The man himself

Of course, no one on Mad Men is more vulnerable to the allure of the American dream than the man who sells it best: Don Draper.

Last season, you’ll recall, we left Don where we often find him: brooding. He had fractured the foundations of his life. The partners forced him to take an indefinite leave of absence from the firm after a rare moment of self-revelation turned a triumphant Hershey’s pitch into a chocolate confessional. Megan walked out on him after he reneged on his promise to move to California with her (his pathetic offer that they make their relationship “bicoastal” is deservingly derided again in this episode). His daughter Sally, appropriately traumatized after walking in on him having sex with their neighbor, started drinking. Don seemed more lost than he had been since he set aside his boyhood as Dick Whitman and became the man Donald Draper.

Yet Don also seemed eager for a final transformation – less another metamorphosis, perhaps, than a quiet redemption. In last season’s surprisingly hopeful closing scene, he brought his kids to the dilapidated whorehouse that he once called home because he wanted to show them how he had become the distant man they knew as their father. Perhaps he wanted to show himself, too.

Don was even trying to stop drinking. Well, trying.

So it’s completely fitting that in this season’s first shot of Don, he’s looking in the mirror and cleaning himself up.

The scene that follows, however, is far from what we’ve come to expect from a show generally grounded in sober realism. The sultry psychedelics of the Spencer Davis Group’s 1967 hit single, “I’m a Man,” set the mood. Then, in a stylized sequence so smooth it borders on slick – at one point Don literally glides across the screen, courtesy of one of those moving airport walkways – Don disembarks from an impossibly luxurious airplane and strides outside into the California sun before locking eyes with a radiant Megan, who exits her gleaming sports car and stares longingly back at him before gliding forward and entering his eager embrace.

The scene couldn’t possibly be hotter. If you were wondering whether Don and Megan were back together, this scene seems to bellow a resounding, “Oh, yeah.”

And for that reason, you know it has to be a mirage.

The first words out of Megan’s mouth are basically, “Hurry up, we’re going to be late for dinner.” Immediately, they bicker. The mood deflates. Being bicoastal seems about as lame as it always sounded. As he leaves warm California for frigid New York, Don fears that he has already lost her. “I really thought I could do it this time.”

At the close of the episode, we leave Don where we left him at the close of the last season: brooding. Only this time it is night, and he is alone.

The falling man

Mad Men’s opening sequence depicts a strong, silhouetted executive – a man who looks strikingly like Don Draper – entering his hi-rise office and setting down his things. Suddenly, the portraits on the wall fall down around him, and he tumbles towards the earth.

As his world collapsed around him, did he fall or did he jump?

Keep that question in mind throughout these final episodes. (Remember, the final season has been divided: seven episodes will come out this year, followed by seven more next year.)

Don’s world has collapsed around him. Will he resign himself to the inevitable – suicide has always haunted this show – and leap down with his baggage? Could he gradually return to his feet after that terrible fall?

For Don, the answer lies within. As Nixon proclaims in his inaugural, “To find that answer, we need only look within ourselves.”

Are you ready to find it?

I know I am. And if this episode is reflective of what lies ahead, I can believe that Matthew Weiner and the cast have crafted Mad Men a riveting, beautiful final season.

I just hope I don’t find that my dream is nothing more than a cruel, seductive illusion.