Sally Draper and I are contemporaries, though we grew up in different parts of the country. By the end of the seventh and final season of “Mad Men,” she and I will both have lived through the sixties. We remember that decade mostly filtered through the parameters set by our parents. Decades later, as mature adults, she and I will have vague memories of discontent and upheaval, vivid colors and loud sounds, and a longing to be older so that we could have more fully participated.
Those memories will be sharpened – or distorted – and the overwhelmingly narcissistic journalistic and historical remembrance of the decade, sprung from the belief (of those older kids) that the sixties represented a historic moment on par with the birth of Jesus Christ. Or at least the Protestant Reformation.
Sally and I will reflect on the sixties and understand some of its true importance: the Civil Rights and feminist movements on one end of the spectrum, the assassinations of the Kennedys and MLK and the rise of Richard Nixon on the other end. Nothing like has since taken place in our lives.
We also lived through the afterbirth of the sixties, the asinine stepchild that became the seventies, with its new emphasis on the self-actualization of the individual and a tectonic shift, as the eschatological search for joy and wonder was replaced by the pursuit of happiness and pleasure.
In “Mad Men,” Sally and I are reliving this sad, sordid transformation, but seeing it through our parents’ eyes. And we wonder how any of us – kids as well as adults — survived the self-destructiveness of that world. We have watched most of the “Mad Men” characters launch their own personal expeditions and fail. In a couple of cases – Adam Whitman and Lane Pryce – the characters entered into downward spirals and went through the bottom.
What makes watching such a carefully crafted portrayal of such a fascinating, terrible era worthwhile is arc of the characters’ moral development. They are normal people living in extraordinary times, struggling to make sense of the world they stopped understanding at a point before the series opened.
At the end of the fifth season, I believe we have identified four major characters who are tied inextricably with four supporting characters. These eight characters will drive the last two seasons. Each of them will earn or be granted redemption or damnation, or slip into an existential limbo. The fates of these eight characters will in large measure define the world into which Sally and I reached maturity.
Don and Ginsburg are both “Martians” (Ginsburg’s term), born into inhospitable corners of the world, nurtured by dried-up teats, given up for dead by the divine, and doomed to roam the planet searching for home and their true identities. They are like two sides of the same coin. We can focus on Don’s sins only because he has lived longer. They both want their mothers and cannot have them. The hedonist Don seeks out his mother in the arms of a chorus of women, while the puritanical Ginsburg rejects the temptation of women who could never live up to the sacrifice his own mother made in the concentration camp. I believe things will turn out better for Don than Ginsburg.
Peggy may have left SCDP, but her professional and personal ascent marks her as a modern woman. Joan, a practical person firmly rooted in the past where a woman could advance only by using her body and charms, is nothing if not a survivor. Peggy and Joan have fed off each other since the first season, the result being them both living lives they could not have imagined growing up as girls, when they were raised to find husbands, have children, and find the meaning of life through the nurture of their families. As independent women with no small amount of power in a man’s world, they are pioneers.
Pete and Roger, both born into means, struggle not with the elements of working for a living, but with waking up each day and asking themselves existential questions before getting out of bed. Both are self-destructive as well as indestructible. They are the engines that drove America’s post-war economy to become the world leader. Their lizard brains contain the dark, dirty secrets of the fuel inside the engine. Those secrets corrode their moral selves, creating in each of them a furnace of self-hatred and loathing. Neither possesses a moral imperative, but each follows the prime directive: keep going, keep walking, keep talking, keep moving.
Betty and Sally. Sally and Betty. We have come to know Betty as the “Worst Mother of All Time” as well as the woman who made it easy for Don to lie to her. Yet we also see Betty as a woman of potential: educated, beautiful, graceful. A blonde Jackie Kennedy. When she met Don, she came to a kind of crossroads: choose to live a “traditional” life as wife and mother cosseted in the affluent suburbs as women of her generation were encouraged to do or choose to assert the power of her potential and seek out a life more like those of Peggy or Joan. As we know, she chose wrong, but it is not too late for her redemption. Her daughter, whom we know as a complicated girl-woman, will have the same choices thrust upon her. Will Betty push Sally into one kind of life or nurture her into another?
So what will it be for our eight characters: redemption, damnation, or existential limbo? Here is the fun part of the off-season: playing “Mad Men” fantasy baseball.
Sally will never see Glen again. Instead, she is going to find a way to get to Woodstock. She will linger on the precipice of becoming Forrest Gump’s wayward Jenny, but the love and considerable support of Don and Betty will save her. Post “Mad Men” predication: Sally “runs away” to California and attends one of the Claremont Colleges, then gets a law degree from Stanford. She marries a law school classmate, has two children, becomes a prominent attorney in San Francisco, divorces, and becomes a lesbian activist.
Ginsburg and Stan allow a “creative difference” to escalate into a fight, where Stan is killed. Post “Mad Men” prediction: Ginsburg serves several years in prison and, upon his release, finds work in Chicago as a journalist (with Don’s considerable assistance). Ginsburg ultimately becomes the author of a best-selling memoir and several other books. He is one of the founders of Burning Man.
Before Joan completes her divorce from Dr. Rapist, he is killed in Vietnam. Her virtue thus preserved in her status as legal widow and her finances in order, she marries a now-sober Duck Phillips and they settle into a life of calmness and order. Post “Mad Men” prediction: freed from the drama of her search for the perfect doctor to marry, rising to the responsibility of raising Roger’s son, engaged by the world of high-flying Madison Avenue, and content with a boring husband, Joan quietly amasses wealth, travels around the world with Duck, and raises a perfect son who will graduate from Harvard.
Roger will finally find what he was looking for in the arms of his first wife, Mona, who forgives him. Moments later, he will die after suffering his fifth heart attack. Post “Mad Men” prediction: his last will and testament will attest to his instinct for decency. Those surrounding him will feel intense grief from his passing. Ginsburg will write a book about advertising in in the sixties, in which Roger plays a prominent role, thus memorializing his place in Mad Men history alongside that of David Ogilvy.
Sad, sad Pete will become sadder and hide that sadness in a business savvy and toughness that will drive what becomes Cooper, Harris, Campbell & Draper to become the kind of agency Don envisioned: ultimately, they will become the sole agency for all of Hilton Hotels in the United States. And either Firestone or American Airlines. His wife Trudy is no fool and she is going to divorce his ass – not because of his dalliance with other women or his slavish devotion to proving his mother wrong, but because she sees him as a dark force of nature into which she and their child will be sucked. Post “Mad Men” prediction: Pete will become enormously powerful in advertising, undergo therapy, be seen as “interesting” because of his dark soul, start socializing in Manhattan with Jews and homosexuals, and marry Dr. Faye Miller. Read anything you want into that.
Peggy will win the Virginia Slims derby and become an enormously successful and influential creative force in advertising. Before the end of the series, she will become a national figure, but resist being co-opted by the feminist movement because, as she will tell people, she “defines herself through her work, not her gender.” Peggy will eclipse Don’s success and break through glass ceilings. Post “Mad Men” prediction: Peggy will be happy with a succession of lovers, but never marry. She will own homes in New York, Florida, Los Angeles, and London. She will turn down offers to run for political office, but quietly support women candidates. Paul Kinsey will become her stalker. He will shoot her dead outside her apartment in New York before taking his own life.
Donwill turn down those two women in the bar, even though he knows that he is being abandoned by Megan. The prospect of losing her does not upset him too terribly. Don becomes more self-aware. Just as he pulled himself out of his previous funks, he will abandon his search for a mother figure even as he is haunted by the chorus of women he has seduced and betrayed. He will have a short fling with Betty during her divorce from Henry because he never stopped loving her. However, he will end their affair when he realizes impulse that brought them back together again will lead to their mutually assured destruction. They will part as friends. Don will do his best work ever for Cooper, Harris, Campbell & Draper. He will have an epiphany when he learns that Sally has gone to Woodstock. He will track her down at the music festival – both of them covered with mud. She will convince him to stay and opens up another world of possibility to him. The series ends when he meets H.R. Haldeman and decides to enter politics. Post “Mad Men” prediction. Don leaves New York to work for Nixon’s re-election committee just before the Watergate fiasco blows up. Don is not implicated. He moves to McLean, Virginia and becomes a political consultant and mentor to Lee Atwater. He marries Marie Calvet.
See you next year!