Don Draper’s relationship to love: What will the Mad Men finale tell us about Don’s evolving romantic worldview?

Does Don Draper Believe in Love?

Does Don Draper Believe in Love?

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May 15 2015 4:26 PM

Does Don Draper Believe in Love?

The seven-season evolution of his—and Mad Men’s—relationship to romance.

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Does Don believe in love? Does the world in which Matthew Weiner has located him?

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by AMC and Shutterstock.

Rachel Menken sits down with Don Draper in a dark Manhattan bar one evening in March of 1960. As with many of Don’s most pivotal interactions, the flirtatious exchange that ensues—ostensibly a business meeting between a department store heiress and the advertising executive intent on landing her as a client—becomes personal when Don is disarmed by attraction. Rachel is a tough woman, perhaps the toughest that Don has ever met, but she doesn’t share his cynicism. “For a lot of people,” she tells him, “love isn’t just a slogan.”

Don pounces: “The reason you haven’t felt love,” he says smoothly, “is because it doesn’t exist. What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons. You’re born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.”

Don couldn’t know then how that speech, written by Matthew Weiner for the show’s pilot episode, would loom over the next decade of his life. Seven seasons, two marriages, and more than 3,000 tomorrows later, it’s still unclear whether Don was pitching more to Rachel or to himself. 

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Mad Men was conceived at a time when television was about as comfortable with subtlety as it was the sight of a pop star’s exposed nipple, and audiences were understandably conditioned to interpret Don’s response as a blunt explanation of his character. By this point in the pilot, however, misdirection had already been established as the slick protagonist’s stock in trade. Just minutes earlier, he’d successfully convinced Lucky Strike cigarettes to distract from the toxicity of their product with the tagline: “It’s toasted!”

Don Draper is quite literally not who he claims to be, epitomizing a cast of characters who are all convinced that they’re hiding in plain slight, blithely oblivious to how carefully they’ve been posed in the show’s immaculate compositions. These are people who think that their secrets are safe, and yet they betray their true natures at every turn. 

When, after we see Don sleep with a Village bohemian and make eyes at Rachel, the episode ends by revealing that he’s actually a married suburban dad, the twist lands with such a terrific impact because it illustrates how the ad man’s greatest deception is reserved for himself. By the end of the season, the same guy who told Rachel that love doesn’t exist will be begging her to run away with him, and she’ll be the one suggesting that someone got swindled. Seven seasons later, Don is driving across the country in search of a woman he hardly knows, reinventing another identity for himself (this time as a beer salesman) in order to weasel his way into her Wisconsin house. On the other side of the country, Pete Campbell—who reassured his estranged wife on the eve of their wedding by saying, “Of course I love you. I’m giving up my life to be with you, aren’t I?”—is getting his life back by promising to be with her, again. The question of love has never faded from the show, but it seems more central than ever as things wind down, as Weiner folds the ’60s like a piece of paper and pokes a wormhole straight through both sides.

In many ways, these are the ultimate questions Sunday’s finale will answer: Does Don believe in love? Does the world in which Weiner has located him?

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On Mad Men, love is often presented as something that you used to have. For Don, and eventually for everyone he knows, it is exclusively the province of the past, the emotion belonging to a mythic golden age that wasn’t appreciated during its time. For Don Draper, of course, the past has never been something for which he was necessarily present. This is a show—often misguidedly taken to task for romanticizing the era in which it takes place—that has always hinged on the stressed relationship between the nostalgia ingrained in its period setting and the immediacy with which its characters are forced to navigate the times. From the very first episode, Don’s difficulties with love have been at the crux of that tension. 

Any discussion of love on Mad Men is due for a head-on collision with Season 1 finale “The Wheel,” which seems poised to endure as the series’ most immediately emotional episode. Kodak brings Don its new slide projector, “The Wheel,” and in a bravura pitch that peddles in cheap sentiment while also providing a rare glimpse at its author’s inner damage, he reinvents it as “The Carousel.” Images from his marriage to Betty project on the screen in the darkened conference room, their lives together rewinding one frame at a time until the days before their wedding. “Nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound,’ ” Don explains. “It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone.” Next slide. “This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards ... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. … It let’s us travel the way a child travels—around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know we are loved.”

Don, both touched by the sincerity unearthed by his pitch and swindled by his own immaculately delivered bullshit, literally travels back home, hoping to catch Betty and their kids before they leave for Thanksgiving without him. At first, it appears as if he catches them in time, his presence inspiring his wife to forgive a season’s worth of marital transgressions. But then, the truth: He’s too late. There’s no way back; it’s only an illusion. As Don sits on the staircase of his perfect Ossining home, defeated in a way that once seemed impossible for a man who could bully life to his advantage, the audience feels the sting of his failure because we have been swindled, too. Don’s nostalgia, so wrenchingly conveyed in the Kodak pitch, has nothing to do with the past. There isn’t a place in his life to which he’s aching to return; there’s only an abandoned Pennsylvania whorehouse and the hobo code. The Carousel is ultimately neither a spaceship nor a time machine—it’s a mirror.

“Severance,” the first episode of the show’s final run, opens with Don verbally seducing an unseen woman, only for it to be revealed that he’s directing a bevy of actresses who have come into the office to audition for a new ad. When we return to the cattle call a few scenes later, Don sees Rachel Menken step through the door. She’s an apparition, a figment, and Don’s wounded reaction to the news of her death reveals that “love” is a very real force for him, even if it may not manifest in a form that he can package and sell. Instead, for Don Draper, and for everyone in Mad Men, love is not something that you have, nor something that you had; it’s something that you’re looking for and faintly remember but can never quite forget, like the echo of an old perfume.

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But that’s not an idea that Don could ever hope to sell, least of all to himself. As the series progressed, Don’s state of mind continued to be reflected in his pitches, which shifted from a desire to recapture the past to a desire to sustain the present.

Heinz: “Some things never change.”

Jaguar: “At last, something beautiful you can truly own.”

For Don, Megan was a woman who didn’t exist on this planet until she began working as his secretary. She was an idea conceived and born behind the desk outside his office, and Don saw her as someone who was as open to new experiences as he desperately wanted to be himself. She represented the moment at hand, and his impulsive proposal was the work of a man who never wanted to look over his shoulder again at the Sodom and Gomorrah behind him. He confessed his origin story to her at the first tactical opportunity that presented itself, hoping that depriving his past of its mythical secrecy might release him from its grip. For a time, it worked. But Don could only deny Megan the full dimension of her person for so long, and every new detail he learned about her—every new act, like the performance of a certain French pop song at a crowded surprise party—felt vaguely mutinous to him.  

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And so Don began to sabotage his marriage by manufacturing new secrets, sleeping with his downstairs neighbor in a misguided effort to forget the reality of being with Megan and to begin idealizing the memory of an idyll he lost without ever knowing it in the first place. When Faye Miller, who Don jilted before his second marriage, accused him of only loving the beginnings of things, she was on the right track. He wants what he can’t have, and for a guy like Don Draper, the only things he can’t have are the things he’s ruined himself. Perhaps this is at the heart of what now attracts Don to the waitress Diana—she’s a vision from his past, albeit it one he can’t quite place. She’s something he’s certain he’s already ruined but feels as though he has yet to enjoy.

It’s safe to say that the final episode of Mad Men will not reveal that Don is D.B. Cooper, nor will it end with him plunging from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper—but the particulars are both impossible and futile to predict. In any event, my reaction will hinge not on Don’s ultimate fate but on whether he’s still convinced of what he told Rachel Menken in that bar a decade ago. It may be too much to hope that, after a decade of trying to use love in order to locate himself in the present, Don will suddenly learn how to reverse that equation. It would probably be disastrous for Don to find Diana, undoing years of slow tectonic progress, but the fact that he seems to have walked away from his career and has committed so hard to the search suggests that he might be on the cusp of distancing himself far enough from yesterday to start living like there’s no tomorrow.

And maybe, as he lights up that last cigarette, he’ll smile as he thinks back to that first meeting with Lee Garner Sr. Maybe he’ll take a deep drag, exhale, and finally buy into the best sales pitch he ever pulled from thin air: It’s toasted.

David Ehrlich is a staff writer at Rolling Stone and a film critic for Slate.