Mad Men is a slow burn. You’d be hard pressed to find spontaneous plot lines and last-minute shockers in a show that foreshadows as intensely as Matt Weiner’s does. It comes as no shock that Don Draper’s departure from Sterling, Cooper & Partners, and his metaphorical death, reflects in the build up to one of the quietest yet most significant finales.
Hints at mortality sprinkled throughout season six ranged from Don’s reading Dante’s Inferno in Hawaii (not exactly a laid-back summer read), to his morbid pitch for The Royal Hawaiian Hotel (“The jumping off point”), to the hazy party in California which ended with Don’s not-so-intentional dip in the pool. The in-your-face morbidity culminated in Don’s unceremonious dismissal from SC&P.
Not unlike Dante, Don traveled through various rings of hell in season six, and managed to walk out the other side alive. By the season’s close, Don has fallen as far as possible. Sally has discovered his infidelity, his alcoholism has reached an unsettling peak in which he sees it reflected in his own daughter, he “shit[s] the bed” in an important meeting with Hershey execs, current wife Megan walks out, and Don takes a forced leave of absence. However, the season doesn’t end there. The potential for rebirth is clear when Don takes his children to see the whorehouse that was his childhood home. Just as Dante is able to leave the Inferno, so is the door left open for Don to potentially lift himself out of his own seventh circle.
Don’s public acknowledgement of his past is only the first half of his metaphorical death. Don’s death is much more than the professional “death” implied by his leave of absence; it extends into his image as a mysterious man who easily and smoothly achieves everything he desires including, but not limited to, women, money, and creative talent. The second half of Don’s death comes when his bare honesty about his past, really only revealing a hint of his true roots, is met with rejection from his peers. When Don’s facade falls, we see the death of the gilded veneer Don has worked so hard to uphold. The people standing behind Don never wanted to see the “real” him—they wanted the man they could admire with unwavering faith.
In many ways Don is at once the American dream (outwardly chased, adored and mythologized by those around him) and a man unable to achieve it. Ex-wife Betty Francis drops a now rare piece of wisdom when she tells Don that Megan is doomed because “she doesn’t know that loving [him] is the worst way to get to [him].” Megan is chasing the invented version of Don and Don is chasing women who will never satisfy his desire for what he can’t have.
If we follow this line of symbolism, then the death of Don as an ideal man is also the death of the American dream as achievable and real. However, the significance of Don’s death is that it is also rebirth. Don made a very clear decision to unearth his past; it wasn’t under threat of blackmail or any other coercive method. Don chose this path for what could arguably be the sake of his life and/or his children’s lives. If Don truly saw himself in a seventh circle then there’s nowhere to go but up, and he confronts his most fundamental of lies: who he is and where he comes from. If Don truly seizes this opportunity to change himself and his life’s ambitions, then by extension, so could the show’s thematic approach to the American dream.
The consideration of “alternative” American dreams, more akin to those of Peggy, Ginsberg and Stan’s age, could mark a great turning point for the show. For example, an American dream that includes Peggy’s success as a woman would be refreshing. One that includes people of color would be equally welcome and appropriate considering the show’s glaring lack of attention to the Civil Rights movement. The glass ceiling has been cracked throughout the past six seasons by the likes of Peggy and Joan, but it has yet to fall in any meaningful way.
Although the white male elite is integral to both the tone and the plot of Mad Men, its creators cannot deny that a focus on aging white men is unsustainable creatively and historically. The likes of Don and Roger have to face their own mortality and waning relevance at some point, and Don has been given this chance to face himself in a quiet, dignified way. This moment may well be the true test: does Don sabotage himself in the face of yet another opportunity, or has something about him changed since season one?