Wait—that’s not fair.
After all Don Draper has done. All the women he treated poorly. The wives he cheated on. The kids he neglected. The co-workers he used and dismissed.
He doesn’t get to stumble upon creative inspiration at a Buddhist retreat and create one of the greatest ads of all time for one of the most recognizable brands in the world.
But he did. If you connect the dots created by Matthew Weiner in the series finale. Sure, some people will argue that Don did no such thing – instead, he stayed in California, found inner peace and became a better person.
The beauty of Mad Men and Don Draper were on full display Sunday night. A character responsible for so much meaning and substance is actually void of any. He has as much depth as the tumbler constantly in Roger’s hand.
Oh, were you fooled by Don’s reaction to the poor sap telling the story of the refrigerator light? Yes, he did have an emotional reaction to it. And yes, a rare demonstration of human emotion. But don’t be mistaken. That was all part of the process. Part of the purge. All so the new Don could emerge, which was the same as the old Don except this one does Yoga and wears white linen shirts.
You don’t have to look too hard to see that the old Don is still there. Weiner chooses a simple smile to represent it in the series’ final moment – like Don is in on a joke none of us are privy to – until he’s ready to let us in on it. This time in the form of the classic Hilltop Coca-Cola ad.
Since 2007 we’ve been waiting to be let in on the joke. Why is Don the way he is? What redeeming qualities will balance all of his actions? But like Tony Soprano before him, we were reminded Sunday night—there are none. There is no big mystery. For Don – and for those of us who have enjoyed watching him – it’s about looking for reasons to continue the journey, not the destination.
And while those around him dare evolve and grow (all except Betty, who tragically and defiantly refuses to change), Don remains the same. Always looking for the next great idea, the next brilliant campaign—the next example of how he is far superior to anyone you dare surround him with in a room full of research reports and boxed lunches.
Instead, self-improvement and personal growth were delivered in many other forms, specifically through Peggy, Joan, Roger and Pete.
Peggy, who many thought was slowly but surely giving into her ‘inner Don’, ends up doing something very un-Don like and decides to follow her heart and admit she loves Stan—something that requires her to deviate from her own controlled process.
Joan, who may have ended up being the most popular character on the show, overcomes sexism, her mother, one more selfish boyfriend and a weird scene in which she tries cocaine to form her own production company.
Roger—and his mustache—learn to speak French and give in to life, accepting that he just might be a one woman man. And speaking of a one-woman man, Pete completes maybe the most dramatic growth arc, as well as the most dramatic receding hair line, by realizing everything is nothing without something. Which, in this case, that something is the love and affection of his family. Granted, it’s a lot easier to do with your own Lear jet parked in the backyard of your home in Wichita.
And yet—all that personal realization and growth are overshadowed by the true meaning of the series. That no matter how hard you try and no matter where you look, the harsh, warm reality is that sometimes people never change. It only took Don’s shove-happy therapy partner mere minutes to recognize what it took us seven seasons to see—you are who you are.
No matter how many times you accept it.