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‘Mad Men’ and Beyond: A Swan Dive into the Final Season

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amadmen1When we last saw our favorite anti-hero Don Draper, it was 1968. He had been unceremoniously placed on “indefinite leave” by SC&P and left standing in front of his childhood whorehouse-of-a-home.

So the big question still remains: What will become of Don Draper and the rest of the partners of Sterling Cooper as they hurtle towards the end of an era (in more ways than one)?

We already know the television specifics in terms of when Mad Men’s run will come to an end on AMC (spring, 2015). The cable network has announced that the final season will pull a page out of Breaking Bad‘s lab notebook, and split the final season into two halves (containing seven episodes each) airing spring 2014 and 2015.

If creator Matthew Weiner follows his current timeline for Mad Men, we should be returning to Madison Avenue in the fall of 1968 or early 1969 (as he has been known to skip significant amounts of time between seasons). But Weiner has coyly admitted that there is no certainty about when the series timeline will end.

Could we be treated to a futuristic Don Draper, disgruntled during the Watergate era, and drinking his way through the death of disco at the end of the ’70s? Could a 50-something Draper (with a battered and bruised liver that would make Larry Hagman blush) flourish during the decadent ’80s, grimacing as MTV finally puts a man on the cable television moon?

Quite possibly, we might find the character (with the advances of modern medicine and some help from forces beyond our comprehension) in our present day at the ripe old age of 87. And what would a stoic ad man groomed in the ’60s think of things like iPhones, Instagram and Facebook? Would he be tweeting out his disdain from a nursing home in New Jersey under the Twitter handle @TheRealDickWhitman?

I would not put anything past (present or future) an innovative writer like Matthew Weiner. But whether or not he plans to take a quantum leap between the different decades of Don Draper, I believe it would be foolhardy to take a pass on such a historical year of change like 1969 and just “Let It Be.”

The breakup of the Beatles on a rooftop in England, the Rolling Stones and Hell’s Angels at Altamont, the ultimate hippie concert convergence at Woodstock, the murder spree of Charles Manson in the Hollywood Hills, Senator Edward Kennedy and Chappaquiddick, John and Yoko’s bed-in for peace, PBS is established, Wal-Mart incorporates, Vietnam protests escalate and Richard Nixon becomes President of the United States.

“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

And what about the first man on the moon? How would the partners at Sterling Cooper spin as something as culturally significant as a NASA astronaut planting an American flag on the only natural satellite of the Earth? Maybe Roger Sterling could set up a meeting with Coca-Cola about the first lunar billboard from space? Perhaps Peggy Olson would quip: “Oh sure, we can find a way to put a man on the moon, but we still can’t find a way to put pantyhose inside of an egg.” (Hint: Peggy should probably take her L’eggs over to Hanes because they are about to beat her to it.)

But here is another idea about “taking a giant leap,” and it involves the top of the Time-Life Building. It is the home of Sterling Cooper & Partners, and also the location of the infamous falling ad man in the opening credits. Presumably, it has been popular opinion that the falling silhouette is our favorite anti-hero, Don Draper, who after too many years of shallow one-night stands decides to take that fateful swan dive.

But wouldn’t Roger Sterling be a more logical choice to take an LSD-induced leap of faith into the great beyond? Roger has always been the bigger fish out of water in this post-World War II era and the biggest advocate of anything mixed up by Dr. Timothy Leary to ease his apprehension. Not only would it bring some final resonance to this story if Don Draper was to witness his friend and mentor end it all after the unhappy years in advertising but it would also bring to light Richard Nixon’s stinging statement that Timothy Leary was “the most dangerous man in America.”

And let’s be honest: Most fans of Mad Men want to see Don Draper have some sort of shot at redemption rather than ending it all in an easy way out finale formulated purely for shock value. Sure, a dramatic exit like the one proposed above would be just the sort of stunt that Roger Sterling could pull off, but I believe most people want to see Dick Whitman (alias Don Draper) live to see at least one more decade.

“Kent State, May 4th and Four Dead in Ohio”

There are many speculations on just how Mad Men and the life of Don Draper will end. Will he reconcile with his current wife, Megan, or does she end up one of the unfortunate victims of the Manson slayings? Does Don reconcile with his former wife, Betty Francis, after she loses her current husband to a political assassination plot in a time of social upheaval? Does he finally come to grips with his years of womanizing and binge drinking during the work day, rejecting his stolen Donald Draper persona and reverting back to his ‘true self’ of Dick Whitman in a final Darth Vader-like fashion?

How about none of the above. For a show as complex and well-scripted as Mad Men, and strung along by the events of the turbulent decade of the 1960s, what better way to end the story of Don Draper then at the point in the history where most felt the decade died itself: May 4th, 1970.

The last time we saw Don Draper was Thanksgiving 1968, after he was given an unspecified leave of absence from his duties at Sterling Cooper & Partners to “find himself.” Peggy Olson has most likely taken his place as Creative Director for SC&P and (as mentioned above) his mentor and the closest thing Don had to a father figure, Roger Sterling, has tragically jumped to his death (in my version of the Mad Men universe anyway).

Disenchanted and distraught, Don decides he needs to get as far away from the world of Madison Avenue as he possible can and (once again) reinvent himself. Don takes a job at a state university in Kent, Ohio where he teaches (no, not advertising) creative writing to groups of college kids with far less cynical minds.

Donald Draper is content (never happy) with his newfound life in academia but soon finds his demons follow him wherever he may go. He still has trouble controlling his drinking and his eye wanders endlessly amidst the legion of young beautiful ladies wandering the campus of Kent State.

On the other side of the advertising world, maybe Joan has become a respected and pivotal partner after landing Avon and Pete Campbell becomes a talent agent after leaving for California to head up the west coast office of Sterling Cooper & Partners. Pete is about to produce the next Academy Award winning blockbuster film right before he gets eaten by a shark during a swim in the ocean (Ironically, like his now-deceased father and mother before him).

And the newly widowed Betty Draper Francis has decided to take up political activism to honor her late husband, Henry. But not until she marries (again, for the third time) the tennis pro at the local country club. They all live happily ever after (sort of) and ‘political activism’ has never been snarkier.

All is well and good until Don’s oldest daughter, Sally, decides to visit her father at Kent State University (or maybe she is an incoming freshman touring the campus) right around the time of May 4th, 1970. After all, what could go wrong with Richard Nixon in the White House and a Cambodian Incursion going on?

Sally Draper is still angry about catching her dad ‘in the act’ with their downstairs neighbor (among a laundry list of other offenses), and she is as defiant as ever, running off to Woodstock the year before with her childhood friend, Glen Bishop. With a flower in her hair and a vengeful lust in her heart, Sally still has dreams of bringing ‘Daddy Dearest’ down a peg or two in the meantime.

I don’t have the entire thing scripted out (that’s where Matthew Weiner and company probably come in) but I could not think of a better way for a series as mind-bending and time-tripping as Mad Men to end then at the backdrop of one of the most turbulent and jarring events in U.S. history. The May 4th shootings at Kent State University shattered an era of free will and uprising (and a character like Don Draper could be in the center of that, to witness it, to absorb it, and have it be a catalyst for personal growth and change).

Of course, with someone like Don Draper, there are no simple solutions or overnight transitions. I could see these tragic events that symbolized the death (and innocence) of the late 1960s also being the demise of Don Draper’s false persona that he inherited while fighting in the Korean War.

He could shed his fake identity, confess his sins to authorities, pay his debt to society and resume his life again as who he was all along. Of course, the final minutes of the show would show a man entering Peggy Olson’s office to interview for a job. The shadowy figure would then throw a ‘Help Wanted’ ad in the New York Times down on her desk.

The final shot would be of Dick Whitman, without the finely combed hair, tailored suit or false bravado, who smirks and asks: “So I hear you’re looking for a writer?”

After all, who is going to do the advertising for The Peace Corps, Apple computers or Microsoft Windows in the not too distant future? That is the way I would like to see the world of Mad Men come to an end.

The final season of Mad Men returns to AMC on April 13, 2014 at 10:00 pm.

Dedicated to the memories of Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder, Sandra Lee Scheuer and all those affected by the tragic events on May 4th, 1970 at Kent State University that day. Please visit, support and reflect at The May 4th Visitors Center at Kent State University.


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About Chris McVetta

Chris McVetta is a writer and comedian from Cleveland, Ohio. He is a graduate from Cleveland State University and an alumni of The Second City comedy writing program. His first job in journalism was as an Editorial Assistant working with Harvey Pekar ("American Splendor") at The Free Times. Most recently, his was invited to speak at the Ray Browne conference on Pop Culture at Bowling Green State University.
  • bliffle

    Good article. Though I haven’t been following Don closely the last couple of years, I feel entitled to chime in because I survived that era in American business and society. So I’ll review s06e12 and e13 to prepare for the denouement.

    What a mess society and business are! And relationships, too! Like most of my cohort I’m surprised that I made it this far without suicide, homicide or flamboyant accident. As the French say, the most important emotion is insouciance. I never would have made it without. Now, I can laugh when I hear the hangmans heavy footsteps behind me.

    Don Draper will not suffer some grand redemption for the simple reason that it is stupid. Regret is just the last dying ember of past passions, trying uselessly to rekindle impossible dreams. We waste all our lives building intricate battlements and edifices to convince others of our goodness and our success, hoping that if we can fool all those other people we can fool ourselves.

    In the end Don Draper won’t care whether it is this woman or that woman or no woman. It simply doesn’t matter. Fade to black.

  • Victor Lana

    I enjoyed this article. I think in the end Don is not going the way of Dexter (Dexter), Vic Mackey (The Shield), or J.R. Ewing (Dallas). He won’t get off free, and I don’t think he will have a Tony Soprano (fade to black) ending either. I’m thinking he will be more like his fellow AMC character Walter White (Breaking Bad) and end up (after too many glasses of booze) dying on the floor staring at the ceiling.