by Linda Beail and Lilly J. Goren
This post pays particular attention to the episode itself while drawing some broader conclusions about the arc of the entire Mad Men series as it pertains to Don Draper.
“Person to Person” focuses on the themes Mad Men has spent seven seasons exploring: relationships and missed connections, invisibility, nostalgia and moving forward, creation and creativity, the value and limits of work, appearance versus reality, emotion and commodification. It’s bookended by two important clients who have defined Don’s work and the arc of Sterling Cooper over the past few seasons: we begin with Chevy, the client who saved SCPD when Don won the account and joined forces with Ted Chaough to form a new agency, Sterling Cooper & Partners, as Don is seen racing a Chevy Chevelle SS across the Bonneville Salt Flats as a test driver. And of course, the episode ends with the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” Coke advertisement. Coca-Cola was the enticing account dangled in front of Don to make SC Partners’ being subsumed into McCann-Erickson palatable. Don has been on the road, running westward away from his career, his family, and his life; but he is also still on the carousel, turning back toward the next client and next new idea, and ultimately back east if we imagine what the future likely holds for Draper.
The “person to person” of the title refers to the three important long distance calls in the episode, between Don and the most significant women in his life: his daughter Sally, his dying ex-wife Betty, and his protégé Peggy Olson. In the first, Sally tells him that her mother has lung cancer and isn’t expected to live long. Don immediately insists on coming home to reclaim his children, but Sally stops him. She says she’s thought about this more than he has, and that Bobby and Gene should stay with Henry, for the stability of being in the same home and school. “Sally, grownups make these decisions,” Don protests, but we see that Sally is the grownup now, taking over the adult responsibilities of both her parents. She is the one thinking about where her brothers should live; she gives up her trip to Spain and comes home from boarding school to talk with her brother about her mom’s death; she teaches him how to make dinner without burning it; and she is the one at the sink washing dishes as her sick mother sits at the kitchen table, still smoking. Sally’s maturity and love show in her own choice not to run away, like her father, but to care for her brothers and mother. Our final image of Sally is bittersweet: not off having the adventure (yet) that her mother predicts for her, but of sacrifice for the people she loves, taking on the responsibilities that her parents have, on occasion, shrugged off.
Don and Betty share an emotional call, in which all the feelings they’ve shared over the years are acknowledged, if barely verbalized: “Birdie,” he chokes out, and she whispers crying, “I know.” Once again, Don says he is coming home, only to have Betty yell, “You definitely are not!” She reminds him that he has created a routine in which he rarely sees his children, and she is trying to preserve normalcy for them – including his absence. Just as in the call with Sally, it is the woman who hangs up on Don, ending their conversation and connection.
The call to Peggy – later in the episode, after a drunk and devastated Don lands on the L.A. doorstep of Anna Draper’s hippie niece Stephanie and then goes with her to an Esalen-type retreat in Big Sur – has some significant differences. This time, it is Peggy who repeatedly urges Don to come home, instead of him insisting it is what he should do. Don asks where home is, and tells her, “I’m not the man you think I am.” Once again, we have circled around to the central problematic of the entire show: Who is Don Draper? Where is his home, the place where he can be himself? Peggy, the lapsed Catholic, becomes somewhat of a father confessor; when she asks him what he ever did that was so bad, he catalogues his sins to her. “I broke my vows. I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name and made nothing of it.” He tells her he only called because he realized he never said goodbye to her, and then in a reversal of the previous two calls, he hangs up on her.
The phone call to Peggy happens after he has heard Stephanie confess that she’s abandoned her child, a revelation he obviously can relate to. Don tells Stephanie not to listen to people who judge her for that: “You can put this behind you. It’ll get easier as you move forward.” The scene is reminiscent of his advice to Peggy after relinquishing her own baby: “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.” Yet while this has been Don Draper’s philosophy throughout the show, we know it isn’t working. His westward journey began as his quest to find Diana, another mother who had abandoned her child. The previous episode opened with Don’s nightmare of being stopped on his road trip by a cop who tells him, “We’ve been looking for you. You knew we’d catch up with you.” Now Stephanie, looking him straight in the eye, tells him ruefully, “Oh, Dick, I don’t think you’re right about that.” Indeed. The entire series has been about Dick Whitman’s reinvention of himself and the ways in which this successful reinvention haven’t stopped him from being haunted by his past. In some ways, that past has literally caught up with him (such as when Betty discovers the box of Dick Whitman personal effects and demands to know who her husband really is). But for much of the story, the truth of Don Draper’s dual identity is not the most damaging fact. Megan Draper knew the truth, and loved her husband anyway—at least for a time. When Pete blurts out the secret to Bert Cooper, Cooper doesn’t care; the charming and profitable ad man Don has turned himself into has become the reality that matters. The person most haunted by the past is Don himself, as he carries that unloved, unseen little boy from the whorehouse into every room he enters. No matter how much success he achieves, he still feels like that unwanted child who had to literally recreate himself, and hide who he is.
That’s why the scene after the phone call with Peggy, in the Esalen-like seminar group, is so powerful. As a nondescript businessman named Leonard explains his own feelings of being unseen and unmissed. “It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me. I mean, maybe they do, but I don’t even know what it is. You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize they’re trying and you don’t even know what it is.” Don stares at him, draws a surprised breath of recognition. As Leonard breaks into sobs, Don stands, crosses the circle and embraces him for a long moment, then begins to cry as well. Leonard has explained that he is not a complicated or interesting person. Don recognizes in this ordinary person, in some ways so different from the majestic and mysterious Don Draper persona, the same feelings of isolation, loneliness, and unhappiness. Perhaps he is finally able to understand his own fundamental humanity; not only his need for connection, but also his need to accept that he is worthy of it, that his strange past (or anyone else’s strange past, or lack thereof) does not make him unlovable. “I should be happier, I guess,” Leonard sighs, and it is the sigh of a nation in this decade of peace and prosperity, consumer luxuries and superpower status, but not contentment. Mad Men has always shown both the glamour and the cracks in the façade of 1960s America. In its final moments, it signals that Don has perhaps come to some understanding that his flaws can be accepted instead of run from or hidden. And perhaps there is a message there for us politically as well: not reinvention or kicking over the traces, but facing up to our imperfections without it invalidating our ideals, or our identity.
Don demonstrates a need to be free, but he has rarely discerned what kind of freedom he must have. His repeated moves to flee from his life indicates this desire for mental and physical disengagement, an embrace of freedom, but at the same time, he can rarely maintain this disengagement, and within the context of these last few episodes, even as he has headed west, he has remained tethered, at least via phone, to his children, especially Sally. He has divested himself of all his possessions by the time we end the series, he has a grocery bag with some clothes or a toothbrush, but he has remained weighed down by who he is, what he has done, as he explains his sins to Peggy. He is feeling the pressure of these sins—because that is very much how he has viewed them. We are reminded that he was “brought up on Jesus” as he notes to Stephanie that she was not, so she doesn’t know how and why people believe what they do. Even as we have seen Don pursue many, many sins, often with some abandon, he is also constrained by the morals he acquired in his youth—which, in context, were in conflict even as he was learning them (Jesus and the whorehouse). This is his struggle—he wants to be free of his conscience, which itself is confused and bifurcated by his two identities. We have come to know the Don Draper who had the freedom to recreate himself in a mythical sense—just like Jay Gatsby—but he is also hobbled by his inability to ultimately leave Dick Whitman behind. He wasn’t born fully formed, as Gatsby imagined he himself was, able to transcend his rough and humble beginnings. No matter how many times Don explains to others that one can forget the past, put it behind and move on, he is unable to do so. It comes along and trips him up, repeatedly.
A montage shows us where each of the main characters end up – Pete, Trudy, and Tammy headed to a new life in Wichita, Roger joking and remarried to Marie Calvet, Peggy happy in both work and love with Stan, Joan with her new production business in her dining room, Don standing at the edge of the Pacific Ocean as the sun sets. His California dream of endless new frontiers and recreations is over. The morning sun dawns, and the yoga instructor intones, “The new day brings new hope. The lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. New day, new ideas, a new you.” The next iteration is about to begin, as Don and the others begin to chant “Ohm.” But a smug grin breaks over his face as the chime rings, like a new idea, and suddenly we cut to the actual footage of a 1971 Coca-Cola ad produced by McCann-Erickson, featuring a multicultural cast of young people (including a girl in braids and hair ribbons exactly like the girl at the retreat reception desk) singing, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke. . . That’s the real thing.”
What are we to make of this ending? Presumably, Don does go “home” to work on Coca-Cola at McCann, and make one of the most successful and recognizable ads of all time. Don, the great ad man who has always insisted that love was a notion made up to sell nylons, has found a way to take counterculture optimism and community and commodify it – a great American narrative. But Don is also the great creative who has always known that selling wasn’t just about selling – it’s about making consumers feel something. It’s about nostalgia, happiness, and yes, about love. So perhaps he takes what he has learned about love and acceptance on a California cliff, and turns it into a memorable jingle on a hillside. It’s both/and: commodification and the unification of Don Draper/Dick Whitman into “perfect harmony,” the ability for them to both keep company. As Joan tells Peggy when she proposes they start their own production company, “You need two names to make it sound real.” Don has always had two names: Don Draper and Dick Whitman. When Peggy turns Joan down as a partner, Joan uses both her own names, “Holloway-Harris,” to start her company. It turns out, she alone is enough. As is Don Draper, at last.
Linda Beail and Lilly Goren are co-editors of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America, Bloomsbury Publishers, March 2015