“Why Did Don Finally Stop Running?” a headline on Slate.com asked in the days following the final episode of Mad Men. The answer ultimately doesn’t matter, because the question is based on a false premise, one that arises naturally from the fact that show is ending and we want to believe that Don has found some measure of happiness on that cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean, chanting “om” with people who will soon be represented by avatars in a world famous Coke ad.
Here’s the thing: Don hasn’t stopped running, or, to be more accurate, he has simply called off the running for now. He reaches no new level of understanding, and his life is still, as he confesses to Peggy, broken. He just got an idea for an ad, a great one, by going on a road trip and plunging into the culture while straying far from his Manhattan ivory tower. Don didn’t gain any new insight into himself, he only obtained new insight into the consumer.
Don has no self, and never has. All his consternation about McCann, all his soul searching about finding something more than advertising, was, in the end, not part of a search for personal meaning, it was part of his creative process, which we finally realize are the same thing. “Don does this,” Stan reminds Peggy. Roger says virtually the same thing to Meredith. This is what Don does: he questions the meaning of everything, runs away from his life, seeks to find a connection with his past, and eventually comes back with a great idea for a commercial. It’s easy to assume that Don comes up with a great idea for a commercial because he has achieved some level of personal understanding, but this is reading Don’s journeys backwards. He calls off the search for understanding when he gets a good idea for an ad, having learned nothing new about himself, other than the fact that he’s still got it, which is enough to delay his existential crisis for a season or so.
It’s a great take on creativity and is more complicated than imagining that Don was only suffering from a lack of Yoga or unaligned chi. That stranger that Don hugs after a brutal monologue about failing to find love also goes so far as to imagine himself as a product in a refrigerator wanting to be selected. That might be the whole crux of the series right there, the integration of Don’s work as an ad man and his desire to be loved, the anthropomorphized Coke in the refrigerator crying out “pick me, pick me!” What this final episode says is not that Don’s professional aspirations mirror his personal desire to be loved (which is sort of what the series has implied), it’s that they are one: Don’s ability to come up with a new commercial satisfies his desire for real human connection and answers all his vague anxieties over emptiness and meaning, so much so that he can call off the search and head back to New York and create an all-time great commercial.
In the alternate reality where Mad Men continues, Don Draper will do this again. He will become disillusioned and unanchored, he will look to his past and the road for answers, he will feel terrible, and he will come up with a great idea. Rinse, wash, repeat. Don does this. This is a show that is wonderful for its ability to show how people adjusted over a tumultuous decade of rapid change, while ultimately staying the same. Joan becomes her own boss (she was always a boss), Peggy finds love (what she was looking for when she first joined Sterling Cooper) and Don is still an ad man with an empty life. He might have learned something about himself, about his desire to find connections and how that relates to his work. But in the end he’s the same as he was in 1960, an ad-man with no relationship with his children and a longing for a sense of self that doesn’t, and will never, exist.
What he gained, hopefully, was a little better understanding of his own creative process, which is ultimately, all he has. I can’t decide if that’s hopelessly sad or beautifully inspiring. I think it’s fair to say, like the series as a whole, it’s both.