Tuesday, May 26, 2015

No One Left To Lie To

So, what did I think of the series finale of "Mad Men?"  I wanted to see something more dramatic, actually.  I knew that Sterling Cooper & Partners (or SC&P) had won the account to sell the upcoming Chevrolet Vega, and I knew that Don Draper was headed for a fall.  I wanted to see the Vega turn out to have ruined his career.  (The rumored scene of an older Don looking back at the sixties in a TV interview never materialized.)  But the symbolic free fall of Don Draper in the opening credits pretty much signified how his career ended with the 1960s.
Don had spent the decade as the perfect anti-hero - a white male American whose very race, gender, and nationality made him a recipient of privilege and prestige.  And he used it to sell lies in the form of advertising.  He made a handsome living out of convincing a nation of gullible consumers how corporate America was bringing wonderful things to a free and proud people.  He sold a lifestyle, an idea of what happiness is.  He invented a world built on falsehoods.
Bear in mind that Don Draper was invented.  I'm not talking about him being originated by Matthew Weiner, the creator of "Mad Men";  I mean that Don Draper, in the show, was invented by Don Draper himself.  The suave, cultured New York ad executive was actually a backwater bumpkin named Richard "Dick" Whitman, a guy who grew up in a whorehouse and got out of the Korean War by stealing the dog tags of his commanding officer and assuming his identity.  Dick - now Don - managed to keep his past secret from almost everyone he knew or worked with, and still no one ever really knew who he was.  Not even his first wife Betty, who learned the truth of his past.  He was the perfect advertising creative director; he presented the appearance over the actuality. He also cheated on wives, he drank heavily, and he was blissfully unaware of his own vacuousness.  And as the sixties progressed, with racial minorities confronting their own oppression, with women asserting themselves, and with youth rebelling against the lies of their elders, Don's powers of persuasion - his ability to convince people of what a wonderful dream life could be - diminished. When McCann-Erickson (a real-life ad agency) incorporated SC&P, which it already owned, into its own offices, Don attempted to save SC&P as a separate agency and proposed moving it to California, but his ability to persuade was gone . . . which became more apparent when he failed to sell the absorption of SC&P to his employees as a good thing.  It wasn't; everyone from SC&P found it miserable there.  McCann-Erickson's Jim Hobart, who goes on to treat Peggy Olson and Joan Harris like little girls before they put their feet down, quashes Don's proposal with an ironic statement regrading control of SC&P's choice accounts: "You won."  
The other characters changed with the times to some extent.  Peggy became more self-confident, and Joan, after accepting sexist behavior from her male counterparts for too long, stopped accepting it once she'd had enough.  Roger Sterling became more laid-back, while the insufferable Pete Campbell had a road-to-Damascus conversion that made him see the error of his piggish ways.  The show ended with the seventies well under way, and with happy endings abundant.  Pete, having been redeemed, reunited with his daughter and ex-wife and moved his family to Wichita to start a more lucrative job.  Joan started her own business, while Peggy and coworker Stan Rizzo - having been in a competitive relationship for so long - fell in love and became happier at work.  Roger fell into a happy marriage with Don's second wife's mother.  Fittingly, there were no happy endings for anyone who ever went by the name of  Draper, who had to deal with the aftereffects of all those lies.  Don's first wife Betty was dying of lung cancer - symbolically, a victim of the amoral ad campaigns to get people to smoke cigarettes (cigarette ads would be banned from broadcasting in 1971), but also a casualty of Don's many affairs. Their daughter Sally became the woman of the house, teaching her brothers how to cook dinner and cleaning up afterwards.  Don had already lost the right to raise them after Betty's death; her brother and her wife would do that.  And so Don ended up in an spiritual retreat in California seeking some sense of spiritual fulfillment.  The series finale ended with the incredibly corny Coca-Cola "Hilltop" ad from 1971 (developed by McCann-Erickson), in which a rainbow coalition of would-be consumers reduce brotherhood and harmony to singing about buying the world a Coke.
That's the song Don Draper sang.  Only in the cynical seventies, defined by Watergate, oil crises, skyrocketing divorce rates, and the beginning of the decline of the American middle class, his song would be out of tune. So there he was, at the start of the 1970s, where we leave him, with nothing left to lose . . . and no one left to lie to.
And that Vega (which in real life was advertised by the Campbell-Ewald ad agency) was a real piece-of-crap car.  Imagine a car so bad you're glad your father bought a Pinto instead!

Farewell, Don Draper - you ol' snake-oil salesman! :-p 

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