The Mad Men Finale: Creativity as a Way of Living in the World

As readers of this blog know, I am a huge Mad Men fan. So, whether in the hope of adding something new to the gigabytes of fan analysis and commentary that fill the internet; or consoling my grief at the end of one of television’s finest creations; or simply trying to stop the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song from replaying in my mind all day, I would like to share my own thoughts on the series finale. In particular, although many commentators have described the resolution of Don‘s journey simply as a cynical return to advertising with a great idea for a Coca Cola commercial, I found it to be a deeply resonant insight into the joys and struggles of living a creative life.


First, a few words about the other characters, whose stories expanded the themes of the show with remarkable power:

I found Joan’s story to be the most moving, being both heart wrenching and triumphant. Although I had hoped she would find the love she desired, I had suspected that the need to realize her professional and creative potential would become the center of her life. How can someone with her intelligence endure the abuse of unimaginative, sexist, corporate drones without developing an overwhelming drive to realize the gifts that had been denied for so long?

Although I was initially disappointed that Peggy turned down Joan’s offer of a partnership in her production company, I believe that her instincts were right. Joan was as much a mentor to Peggy as was Don, and it was clearly time for Peggy to move past both of her teachers and navigate toward her own goals. I do not know what will become of Peggy’s romance with Stan, but it is part of the process of finding her own creative voice.

As to Pete Campbell, I found myself happy for him, in spite of his ingrained tendency to selfishness, deceit, and self-pity. Although I doubt he will remain faithful to his wife for long, I do believe he has learned to keep his affairs discreet, short-lived, and out of town – an approach greatly simplified by the Lear Jet now placed at his disposal. I also believe Trudy probably will come to recognize and accept the arrangement, at least at an unconscious level.

I find Roger and Marie’s romance to be surprisingly sweet, and much deserved for a man who was possibly the sweetest character in the series. As they settle into a deep connection, made almost unbreakable by the intensity of their sexual passion and the ferocity of their arguments, I can see them becoming icons of sophisticated, New York Bohemianism, sitting at their usual table in a well-worn cafe, surrounded by a growing community of artists, writers, and assorted eccentrics.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the finale showed Don’s daughter Sally washing dishes in the dimly lit Victorian kitchen while her domineering, cancer-stricken mother sat smoking at the table. I can only hope that Don’s past and future presence in Sally’s life will help her to shake off her mother’s influence and live her own life – a possibility suggested by the strong albeit turbulent connection between Don and his daughter, and by Betty’s surprisingly perceptive comment in her last wishes letter: that Sally would indeed walk to her own drummer.

LOW RES image - Don Draper MAD MEN finale credit: AMC

That leads us to Don’s strange, somewhat ambiguous satori on the meadow overlooking the California coast. Although his “enlightenment” was ultimately grist for his advertising work, producing the famous “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” commercial, I disagree with those commentators who describe it simply as Don failing to rise above his life as an ad man. If we look past Don’s sexual irresponsibility, his desperate alpha-male persona, and the harm he has caused those close to him, we can see his journey as a flawed Everyman’s effort to realize the gifts of great creative ability in spite of the obstacles of modern society and his own fundamental loneliness.

In my own career as a software designer, I was blessed with the opportunity to do creative work. The thing I have always loved about Mad Men was the accuracy and empathy in its portrayal of creative professionals: their idiosyncratic ways of working, their obsessive commitment to their professional disciplines, the joys and struggles of trying to invent something wonderful while under crushing deadlines and short resources, and the extent to which all this shapes their lives. My favorite moments in the show have always been when it moved beyond the characters’ sexual follies to explore their creative lives.

DonAndPeggyOne of my favorite examples of this came in an episode in season 7, when Peggy became frustrated with an ad idea that everyone, including the customer, loved. Her personal dissatisfaction with her own work is all too familiar to creative professionals, as was Don telling her that his approach was to “abuse the people I depend on, take a nap, then start over and see if I get to the same place.” His answer was perfect. Satisfying a creative problem often requires distancing ourselves from people who do not understand either our need for the perfect solution or the sometimes strange methods we use to achieve it. Taking a nap is only one way of engaging the creative power of the unconscious – I find going for a long walk works just as well. Finally, creative work requires an almost reckless willingness to embrace the risk of failure, to risk finding that the solution we dislike may be best we are able to achieve.

I have often found myself in the same situation in my own work, and my solution is pretty much the same as Don’s – including, I regret to say, a tendency to mistreat people I care about. Nonetheless, I have always found the process exhilarating, intoxicating, and impossible to deny. When I look at Don sitting on the hill, clean, sober, wearing a crisp white shirt, his smile almost certainly rooted in his idea for a great ad rather than a Buddhist embrace of the void, I cannot help but believe he had found a deep, spiritually resonant truth about his own nature: that his life as a creative person is the fundamental force of his nature, and it can be a force that is positive, generous, and life affirming.

The creative discipline found in Don and his colleagues, the habits of mind that come from long-time commitment to any artistic or design discipline are something very different from the rest and recreation sought by the weekend painter or dabbler in the guitar. It is a way of living in the world that defines all aspects of our being.

mad-men-season-ChaoughEarlier in the series, when the partners were deciding whether to accept McCann-Erickson’s purchase offer, Ted Chaough balked at the offer’s requirement that he and the others would continue to work for McCann-Erickson for several years. Chaough said he was sick of advertising and just wanted to leave the field. Don’s answer was to remind Ted of his own enforced hiatus from the agency a few years earlier, and to tell him that “you don’t know how much you miss it [the work] until it’s gone.” Don had learned that he could not live without creative work.

Looking across Don’s progress through the entire series, it is clear that the act of invention was something he could not separate from the rest of his life. His triumphs and failures always reduced to the effort to reconcile his creative acts with a longing for something genuine, for something that did not simply grease the wheels of commerce. In the show’s defining irony, Don’s whole identity was an invention, taken from the dog tags he stole from his dead superior officer in order to escape the horrors of the Korean War. His relationship with Betty failed because his inability to reveal the darkness of his origins to this perfect child-woman he had married left him isolated and driven into increasingly risky affairs with increasingly self-destructive women. His periodic, spontaneous absences from his life in New York seemed to explode out of frustration with advertising’s world of artifice and a longing for something genuine, whether it was his touching friendship with Anna Draper, the wife of the man whose name he stole, or his strange connection with the young grifter in Oklahoma, or his brief involvement with the shoestring car racing team in Utah.

In many ways, his entire life seemed shaped by the conflict between his gifts as an artificer and his need for something genuine to heal the wounds of his childhood. His meltdown in the Hershey’s pitch meeting, where he could no longer bring himself to sell the fiction of the loving father and child bonding over a Hershey bar, and instead revealed the stark cruelty and loneliness of his own childhood, reflected the clash between his ability to articulate every person’s deepest longings, and the deep loneliness at the core of his own being.

DonDraperSatoriI believe that Don’s satori on the meadow overlooking the Pacific Ocean was not simply an insight into how he could exploit the hippie lifestyle to sell soda pop. I believe that he had come to realize that whether or not his inventions as an ad man were empty artifice aimed at pushing product was irrelevant. The sense of belonging he had desired, the genuine person he longed to become came from the act of invention itself. On that meadow, Don ultimately accepted, that being “a creative” is not simply a professional specialty, but rather is a unique, fulfilling way of living.

It is also a way of living that is so often lost against the social pressures to measure our worth in terms of possessions, organizational status, virtue, sexual conquests, or even family relationships. Everyone is blessed with the potential for great creativity, but so much of life requires we subjugate it to the norms of work, society, and home. Too much of our schooling seems to be a prolonged effort to suppress creative thinking and bend young minds to the demands of corporate employment, military service, and accepted social and sexual roles. For better or worse, once a person embraces the view of life as a constant, creative interaction with the opportunities the world offers, whether as an artist, writer, musician, ad man, or simply by finding grace in the daily acts of living, conforming to the “normal” institutions of life becomes nothing less than painful self destruction.

Don Draper did more than cynically mine the pain he caused himself and the people closest to him in order to write a better soda pop commercial. I prefer to think that his walkabout in the show’s final episodes led him to understand what it meant to embrace creativity as a way of living in the world, as a form of life that defines our entire being.

I would like to believe he made some small progress toward resolving the paradoxes inherent in a creative nature. Behind Don’s carefully constructed persona, behind the perfect family, behind the office, home, and other symbols of success, was a lonely outsider. But it was exactly that outsider’s perspective that enabled Don to see the deeper patterns of meaning and desire in the society around him. Don’s epiphany was that even if the stories he told were simply fantasies aimed at selling products, the act of creating them was what brought him into his deepest, truest self. It was the channel that connected him to Joan, Roger, Peggy, and all the other creative people with whom he shared his life. It is the legacy that we can only hope he will pass on to his daughter.

In a sense, all the characters in this wonderful series came to this realization in their own ways, whether it is Joan starting a publishing business, Peggy fighting for her creative vision inside the corporate gulag of McCann-Erickson, or Roger finding love with the highly combustible Marie Calvet. Mad Men was much more than its wonderfully drawn, fully realized characters, its spot on period detail, and its deep critique of American society in the post-war era. To me, Mad Men was a decade long love letter to the joys and challenges of living a creative life in a world increasingly constrained by social norms, metastasizing automation, and corporate efficiency.

So, I will thank Matthew Weiner and his entire creative staff for the stories of Joan, Peggy, Don and all the other characters, and hope their examples will provide comfort and encouragement for anyone seeking to live creatively, and to enjoy the friendships of other creative people.

I also hope that writing this article will finally stop that damned “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” song from running constantly through my head.

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