When I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. Not a writer of advertising, but rather of great novels or great entertainments or great, lucid explanations of scientific wonders for laypeople. Serious fiction, plays, journalism–I’m not sure what specifically I wanted. It was all interesting to me. I wasn’t passionate or single-minded enough to focus on any of it.
And so I ended up in advertising. Which seems like such a compromise until you realize that, in advertising, I get to do a little bit of all of the above. I get to make up stories, imagine whole worlds about people who want things. I get to make little movies in thirty or sixty seconds. I get to report on the frontiers of medicine and technology. And I get to do it every day, for pay.
Which is the answer to the dilemma Megan’s mother Marie presents to Don Draper in “The Phantom,” the Season 5 finale of Mad Men. She tells Don that Megan has “an artistic temperament,” but she’s not an artist. What are you supposed to do when you feel like an artist, but you’re not one?
You go into advertising.
That’s what everyone else is doing. Three months have passed since Lane Pryce took his own life, and things are looking up around Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Business is great. The office is filled to bursting with new staff and freelancers.
So why is everyone so miserable? Why is everyone feeling so alone?
Because that, my friends, is the human condition. In spite of our best efforts to connect with other people on this Earth, we are profoundly alone. We can imagine what’s going on in other people’s heads, but we’re just fooling ourselves. We can’t really know.
So we try to control it–as Howard does with his wife Rory Gilmore, also known as “Beth.” Pete is surprised to see Beth accompanying Howard on the train into the city, and finds out she’s there for electroshock therapy to cure her “blueness.” It isn’t the first time. She seduces Pete, who’s been pining for her and suffering for the better part of a year, for a moment of happiness before the shock treatment wipes it all away. Sure enough, when Pete visits her later at the hospital, Beth doesn’t know him. It’s awful: in some ways, the cure for her depression makes Beth less human. Take away our memories, and what do we have left? Pete tells her he’s at the hospital to visit a friend whose home and family are “a temporary bandage on a permanent wound.” That permanent wound is your life, Pete Campbell. Would you rather smooth over all of it?
No worries for Don: his memories haunt him, literally, as he hallucinates images of his dead brother Adam, who hanged himself after Don rebuffed him in the first season of Mad Men. Don has a bad tooth, but Adam, hovering over Don in the dentist’s chair, lets him know that it’s not his tooth that’s rotten.
And it’s true. There is something rotten at the core of Don Draper’s life, and it’s likely that what’s rotten is the Don Draperness of it. All of Don’s compassion comes from his inner Dick Whitman. He knows what it’s like to try to escape from your life. No one has done a better job of recreating himself as a new character in a different drama. Yet, the past is always right there to put you in your place. You can run, but you can’t hide.
And so where does that leave all of our favorite Mad Men characters? We find out in the closing montage, set beautifully and perfectly to “You Only Live Twice.” Don realizes that Megan will probably never be the artist she wants to be and casts her in the agency’s Butler Shoes “Beauty and the Beast” commercial. Megan is thrilled–temporarily, because happiness is fleeting. Peggy is holed up in a motel in Virginia, happy (temporarily) to be working on a big cigarette account. Roger is happy (temporarily), embracing the world stark naked. Pete is miserable (permanently?), drowning the world with headphones on, eyes closed. Lane Pryce is still dead.
And Don Draper, his tooth pulled (permanently), walks away from the fantasy of the television sound stage and sits at the bar. He orders an Old Fashioned. A beautiful young woman approaches him and asks if he’s alone. He doesn’t answer.
Because he knows the answer. You only live twice: once for yourself, and once for your dreams. But your dreams aren’t really your life: they have a life of their own, and it may or may not include you.
On his deathbed, the author William Saroyan said, “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” But nobody’s on the Saroyan Plan. It’s going to end badly for all of us.
Saroyan was no fool. He also said, “Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
That’s the plan I wish for Don Draper, and I plan I wish for you: may you make of your life something worth dying for.