The Great Escape:
The Final Transformation of Mad Men
By Morad Moazami
A story’s happy ending does not necessarily guarantee happiness for its characters. “Person to Person,” Mad Men’s final episode, ends on a sourly happy note, suggesting that Don Draper concludes his decade-long spiritual journey by returning to McCann-Erickson to create one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated advertisements: the iconic 1971 Coca-Cola Hilltop commercial, images from which conclude the series. Whether this is a happy or bitterly ironic ending remains ambiguous, but Mad Men has always hinted at darker undercurrents below its placid surface. Despite being set in the advertising world, creator Matthew Weiner’s series has never really been about advertising, or the ethos and social mores of the 1960s, for that matter. It’s even problematic to merely characterize the show as a critique of its corporate characters’ empty lives. On account of its meticulous, almost baroque storytelling, the series has never limited its scope to one subject. All the same, its strains have nevertheless persistently returned to one, distinguishing refrain of great American art—the prospect of escape. Mad Men is about a young nation’s dubious promise and potential for continual reinvention, and the desire this instills in the individual to forget one’s history and past, and in its place, construct another life and identity afresh. Draper’s brief smile in the final minutes of the series betrays confidence more than it does serenity, hinting that perhaps the show never was about a man named Don Draper so much as it was about a man in the process of becoming him. Placed together with the Coca-Cola commercial that follows it, the tracking shot moving in on Jon Hamm’s beaming face suggests the culmination of an eighteen-year odyssey, which had originally begun with rustic Dick Whitman’s struggle to leave himself behind in search of another life.
At first sight, the figure of Donald Draper seems to represent one principal narrative: that of the self-made man who has bravely shed his past in order to reach the summit of reward. Born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth, Draper appears to have transcended the disadvantages of his childhood in order to reach the advertising firm of Sterling Cooper and Partners. No one seems to question Draper’s origins, thanks to his natural confidence and boundless creativity: he looks as though he was born this way. That is the Don Draper first presented to the audience back when the show began in 2007: an enviable model of a man, whose paradigmatic suburban life, complete with a model wife, model children, a model car, and model occupation, is in itself a facsimile of the perfect lives seen in glossy American advertisements. Mad Men begins with this paragon only to chip away at it over the course of ten years, to show that the layers this character has shed have exposed a hole at his center. Other characters, like Don, have also forced themselves to forget elements of their pasts in order to attain money and social status. Yet their pasts persist: regardless of how many years they’ve spent donning new clothes, they are almost all haunted by those which they once wore.
The quintessentially American theme of escape—whether through shed identities or journeys from home —is persistent throughout literature, from Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, to, finally, at the tail end of the twentieth century, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. The tradition surfaces time and again in the country’s cinematic history as well, seen in the works of Orson Welles (Charles Foster Kane’s hankering for a lost childhood; Gregory Arkadin’s alleged loss of memory with regards to his history in Mr. Arkadin), Coppola’s Godfather films, and especially Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the ultimate escape film. As he stands at the end of a century looking back, Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, reflects in The Human Stain: “So much yearning, so much plotting and passion and subtlety and dissembling, all of it feeding the hunger to leave the house and be transformed. To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving—and the energy and cruelty that rapturous drive demands.” That flight, at once inherent and contradictory to the American Dream, is specifically what Mad Men endeavors to encapsulate.
From Joan Harris to Peggy Olson, Pete Campbell to Roger Sterling, as well as supporting personages such as Sal Romano, Lane Pryce, and Bob Benson, Mad Men’s characters, like Don Draper, are each hungrily determined to flee past conceptions of themselves. Roger, for example, the coddled child of the man originally in charge of his company, Sterling Cooper, yearns to cast away the shadow hovering over him and push past his own fears of being inefficient or irrelevant. And yet, with that proving difficult, he settles for simply escaping the product of his insecurity, carousing in order to cast away the self-doubt instead of the shadow. Joan’s narrative arc, on the other hand, is perhaps the series’ most triumphant, as it follows a woman who at first wields her sexuality in pursuit of her peers’ respect in a harshly male-dominated setting, only to see her finally escape their—as well as her own—objectification of her body, and discover, instead, her gift for executive management. By the end of the series, Joan no longer defines herself by the men in her life, but by her own intellect and willpower. Though over the years, Peggy Olson has been often talked about as the show’s feminist center, that position is, in fact, best suited to Joan, whose at times punishing journey to strength and self-awareness comes to express more than just the blinkered careerism to which Olson often falls victim.
In that sense, Peggy’s arc turns out to be less of a heroic journey than a complicated sort of cautionary tale. Her narrative of escape is reflective of a transformation eerily akin to Draper’s. Vehemently, Peggy excises her family from her life, gives her newborn child up for adoption (and being counseled by Don in a flashback from season two’s “The New Girl” to forget that it ever happened), leaves her church, and without any more ties to sever begins to sabotage one romantic relationship after another. For her, career is paramount, and when, in season seven’s “The Forecast,” Don asks her what she sees for herself in the future, her answers are once again solely work-oriented. Peggy’s escape, in this way, is a flight from the disorder of everyday life into a world that is, despite its misogyny, manageable—its objectives are explicit, its ambitions tangible and attainable. Her growth into an influential copywriter, therefore, is as much a consequence of her yearning to escape a part of herself that continues to torment her, as it is a reflection of her social consciousness. (This is manifest in season seven’s “Time & Life,” when she is faced with a campaign that demands her to interact with children, which she does uncomfortably.) Although by the conclusion of Mad Men, Peggy seems to have been granted a happy romantic ending with her dependable and amorous coworker and subordinate Stan, there is no guarantee that her cycle of failed relationships won’t persist, negatively correlated as it is to her continued career-based triumphs.
The character that best mirrors Don, however, is, remarkably, Pete Campbell. To him, Don is a man who seems to have everything, charisma and authority above all. In season one, Pete seems like everything that Don is not: weaselly, malicious, and destructively selfish. (Initially, jealousy drives Pete’s to such an extent that, upon accidentally discovering Don’s true identity in season one’s “Indian Summer,” he divulges the facts to Bert Cooper purely in order to get Don fired.) Toward the end of the show, however, as Pete gradually ascends to Draper’s executive rank, and acquires some of the sway and repute he had often craved, his life trajectory begins to resemble Don’s as well. In Draper-like fashion, he begins to flee his domestic responsibilities, alienate his child, philander, break his family apart, and evade his problems by remaining in Los Angeles, while also accumulating the hollow confidence expected of an executive. Pete’s journey toward maturity, however, unspools in a much briefer span than Don’s. Because he never chose to take on another guise, as Don did, Pete Campbell always remained Pete Campbell, and is thus able to recognize that he has sacrificed a truly happy life with his family in favor of one with the promises of rank and authority. By going back to his wife, Trudy, and beginning a new life by her side, Pete, in contrast to Don, is able to return to himself before his life falls apart.
Don Draper is tormented by a more intricate past than any of these characters. As seen in flashbacks throughout the series, he lived his early life in a brothel as Dick Whitman and seemed fated for a life wholly contrastive to the one that sees him settled in a prestigious advertising company in Madison Avenue (first Sterling Cooper, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, and finally Sterling Cooper & Partners). Several years prior to the beginning of the show, Dick’s first chance at escape had come in the form of a fellow army man in Korea named Donald Draper, whose accidental death at Whitman’s hands propels the latter into a life surely unimaginable to Whitman. He takes the army man’s name, and by transforming into “Donald Draper” shapes an ostensibly ideal existence from it—as though all he needed to begin anew was contingent on something so inconsequential as a name. There is, of course, consequence: the name Dick Whitman comes to haunt Draper throughout Mad Men. He is actually less afraid of being exposed for his infidelities than he is of being revealed as Whitman, the name that shoulders the burden of his boyhood and youth. In fact, in its seven seasons, Mad Men has always been about Dick Whitman, and only through Whitman has it also been about the unsteady creation of the being known as Donald Draper. As we see him in his eighteen years since the Korean War, it becomes clearer that this Draper is not yet complete.
Finally, in the series’ last episode, Whitman comes to understand that a stolen name was never enough for him to begin afresh, as is clear from the despairing phone call he makes to Peggy from the Esalen-like retreat in Big Sur at which he has been abandoned. (Fitting to her character, the career-obsessed Peggy tries to lure him back by reminding him about the possibility of working on Coca-Cola.) Even with the prospect of a new beginning, he managed to trample on every opportunity granted him to actually forget his past and to embody the Don Draper that he wished to be—a marriage to the wealthy Betty Hofstadt, three children, a stable job at an esteemed advertising firm. But the allure of flight seems entrenched in Whitman’s nature.
His disappearances never last long enough to become permanent, however. As he demonstrates throughout Mad Men, Whitman is incapable of commitment. This manifests in both his love life and his career—Draper only signs a contract with Sterling Cooper when he is blackmailed into it in season three’s “Seven Twenty Three” due to Cooper’s knowledge of his true identity—but especially in his relationship to his Draper persona. Every once in a while, he lets his true self slip out, and Dick Whitman is laid bare to lovers or executives, usually under the California sun, and most recurrently, to himself. The first time Whitman returns to California in season two’s “The Mountain King,” a drastic transformation overtakes him, as he eases out of his metropolitan persona. He is so relaxed there that it seems as though he doesn’t want to be Don Draper, yearning to one day return to his life as Dick Whitman. Moreover, as his carefully crafted existence begins to fall apart in season six, Draper, for the first time, begins to exhibit an impulse to entirely excavate his past and familiarize others with his former self; he even confesses about his whorehouse upbringing to a group of Hershey executives in that season’s final episode, “In Care Of.” Ironically, this momentary truth telling is also what brings about his dismissal from SC&P.
Don’s expedition to California in “Person to Person” marks a profound breakthrough, a step toward eliminating the schism that negatively defines him. The trip is initiated, however, for all the wrong reasons. When Don walks out of a meeting at McCann-Erickson upon catching sight through the window of an airplane flying over Manhattan, he drives off with the pretense of finding Diana Bauer, a waitress he had met in season seven’s “Severance,” who had sparked in him, once more, the impulse to divulge his true identity. And yet it’s important to note that Diana hadn’t allowed Don to tell her his full story, preemptively severing her relationship with him and fleeing New York shortly after. When he fails to track down Diana in Wisconsin, Don then continues on to California in search of Stephanie, the niece of the real Donald Draper’s deceased wife, Anna. After her aunt’s death in season four’s “The Suitcase,” Stephanie is among the last individuals to know Whitman’s full story. Don’s spiritual journey from New York to California, then, is not undertaken with the intention to alleviate eighteen years of crippling guilt, but driven by a desire to escape again into the sanctuary of Dick Whitman.
At each destination he journeys through in his final trek, Dick leaves behind another piece of his assembled Draper persona, assuming, as the audience does, that a life as Dick Whitman is to be his resurrection and salvation. Symbolically, this journey begins in New York, where Draper is first divested of the furniture in his apartment by his estranged second wife, Megan, and then the apartment itself as a result of a sale. When McCann-Erickson subsequently swallows up SC&P, another part of Draper’s legacy has been
eradicated. (Each of these episodes ends with stark shots of Draper standing alone, first in his apartment, then his hallway, then his office, forced to the center of the cavity he had long tried to ignore.) Furthermore, following his exit from New York and the failed search for Diana, Draper is forced to confront his past in the Korean War when he attends a veteran’s fundraising event during a stopover at Alva, Oklahoma. By the time he reaches Utah on his way to California, his fellow travelers are seen referring to him only as “Dick,” suggesting that the last traces of Donald Draper have dissolved. With Draper definitively shed in Utah, Whitman then assumes that by journeying to Los Angeles toward Stephanie, he could secure another—this time conclusive—new beginning. But it is ultimately California that prompts his eighteen-year enterprise to crumble.
After catching sight of Dick’s disheveled temperament when he reaches Los Angeles, Stephanie convinces him to accompany her to a spiritual retreat. It is here that Whitman’s visit to California reaches its nadir. Following an emotional revelation, Stephanie makes off in the middle of the night, leaving him alone and quashing his every hope of salvation. She has no relation to him, after all, as she soberly reminds Dick, and thus no real obligation. Her escape is also precipitated by an instant when Dick, echoing what he had once said to Peggy, tells Stephanie—who had also given up custody of her child—to put her past behind her and move onwards, hinting, with his tone, at his own success in having done so. “I just know how people work,” he tries to assure her, the previous Draper-like self-possession not quite registering. As the failed man counsels her to follow in his footsteps, her image of Whitman as a wise, lifelong protector begins to crumble, occasioning her decision to distance herself, and triggering her flight. Without Stephanie, the quest that was intended to regenerate Whitman and leave Draper behind forever is turned on its head, and the new life Whitman had in mind is laid bare as a pipe dream.
The next day, an unassuming man named Leonard enters the picture, confessing in a seminar at the retreat that he feels like a ghost. “People look right by me,” he says. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone.” Whitman comes to recognize that sentiment immediately. When, in a stupor, he embraces Leonard and weeps into his shoulder, the empathy that Whitman experiences suggests that he doesn’t really wish to return to a life like Leonard’s. His past personas—the boy that dwelled in a whorehouse, the unknown soldier, the used car salesman, and the fur coat retailer—were all arguably configurations of Leonard that Whitman had escaped long ago. Here, Dick finally seems to recognize the futility of holding on to a past that had only afforded him anonymity and suffering. And with Betty dying of lung cancer, Megan gone, Anna Draper and Bert Cooper deceased, Peter Campbell off to a job in another city, Dick’s half-brother driven to suicide after Don’s refusal to acknowledge him, and Stephanie having left without a trace, he is finally rid of every incentive he had in keeping Dick Whitman afloat.
And so, Don’s journey to reclaim his former self terminates with the eradication, the death, of Dick Whitman. Perhaps this trajectory also signifies the death of the authentic in favor of the artificial, the evolution of a man tormented by his anonymity to a product unbounded by a past. The former Dick Whitman can now seamlessly transmute into his previously half-finished creation. The title “Person to Person” (which also refers to three essential phone calls Don makes in the episode) had been suggesting this all along: with Whitman disposed of, the fully formed Don Draper can take shape, a man without a past—and thus a man finally empty.
The previous incarnation of Don, haunted by Whitman, longed for authenticity while operating duplicitously. As Mad Men ends, however, with the intimation of Don’s successful return to McCann-Erickson, Draper seems to have conceded his quest for authenticity to a careerism akin to Peggy’s. Even Don’s revelatory experience as a revitalized Dick Whitman has been merely repackaged for a Coca-Cola commercial, the depth of the experience having been expunged for the sake of an advertisement. A chorus of multicultural figures standing on a hilltop caroling about their shared affinity for Coke stands in stark contrast to what Don had experienced during his cross-country expedition, where the only shared experiences among people—from war veterans to free spirits at a retreat—were their isolation and regrets. But since, throughout Mad Men, Draper’s unique creativity had continually been inspired by the dramas of his own life, this conclusion is ultimately not so surprising. The Coca-Cola ad exhibits that Draper’s talents have remained intact, and now that he has been unburdened of the past, they might have even amplified.
Nonetheless, in Weiner’s split-second transition from Draper’s ambiguous smile to the overtures of the Hilltop commercial, Mad Men communicates a new narrative about not only Draper’s life but also the trajectory of the entire series, wholly refashioning the latter as a result. With that final cut, the show reveals the clever deception of its seven seasons—and ironically, the moment Mad Men reveals its true self comes precisely at the same time that Draper learns to forget his own. Although the series had always appeared to be about Draper’s return to the prior self he had forsaken, it had actually been anticipating the inverse all along: the disintegration of Dick Whitman’s authentic self.
The abrupt end of the series also indicates that once Draper has finally done away with Whitman, he too has ceased to be a figure worthy of our, and Matthew Weiner’s, attention. Draper hasn’t just left behind his past, but his spirit as well. And with Whitman gone, Mad Men’s enigmatic Donald Draper also recedes from view.