I think there’s a good argument to be made that Don Draper will never be happy with the life of a rich and good-looking ad exec. Time and time again over the course of the show’s seven seasons, we’ve watched as Don has become unsatisfied with some part of life, left those around him hanging, and set off on the open road. In the past, he’s always come back, because, well, there’s always been something to bring him back. His job. His family. This time, however, Don seems like a man without a purpose. He’s divorced. Again. Betty’s taking care of the boys. His daughter is growing up and can take care of herself. And McCann-Erickson has crushed SC&P beneath its boot heel. If Don goes back, what is he going back to?
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like he has anything. Don realizes this, and goes off looking for something that’s going to infuse his life with meaning. He chases Diana the waitress, only to find out that she’s a crazy person. He eventually finds out that Betty has cancer, and tells her that he’s going to come back and take care of the boys. She wastes no time telling him what a godawful idea that is, and I have to say I’d be hard pressed to disagree with her. So he makes his way out to California to visit Stephanie. I don’t know if Don dropped in on her thinking that he may find some role to fill in her life, but one presents itself nonetheless when the two of them visit Esalen — that hippy-dippy commune out on the coast — or something very much like it.
While Stephanie and Don are sitting in on one of the community’s break-out sessions and the baby that Stephanie gave up is mentioned, she runs out of the room crying. She gave up her child, and feels horrible because of it. Don, spotting a problem he can fix, runs after her. He tells her that he can help her work through this, and that the whole thing will get easier the further away she moves from it. The whole thing just feels like a weak retread of a similar speech he gave to Peggy in the show’s second season. And I think it’s meant to. Where Peggy was like a sponge, ready to be led and guided by Don, Stephanie doesn’t want his help, and she later slips out in the middle of the night with nary a goodbye.
What is Don to do now? He has no car, and on the west coast he’s literally run out of road to travel. There’s nowhere else to go. Stuck, he’s forced to confront some very harsh truths about himself. And in a phone call to Peggy, he rally lets it all out and tells her that he broke his wedding vows, scandalized his child, stole another man’s name, and made nothing of it. And as he gets off the phone with her, it seems as if he’s content to sit there and feel like garbage until he’s rescued by one of the retreat’s counselors? Teachers? Support staff? I don’t know… and invited to another session.
It’s here that Don takes even more punishment, as he listens to Leonard talk about how unloved and unappreciated he feels in both his professional and personal lives. It’s just too much for him to handle, and Don breaks down, hugging Leonard and balling his eyes out. In this man, Don has recognized a kindred spirit. A man who’s vocalizing things that Don himself feels. It’s cathartic, and to some extent helps Don exercise his demons.
When we see Don next he seems to have assimilated into the New Age lifestyle and come to the realization that he can move on from his past. That seems to have been illustrated by the yogi leading Don and the others in their meditating. As Don closes his eyes, we hear a slight chime and see a smile spread across his lips before breaking away to the I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing Coke ad, created by McCaan-Erickson in 1971.
So what’s this now? Was Don’s smile meant to convey satisfaction with his new-found life, wearing sensible pants and meditating on grassy hills? Was the Coke ad only meant to serve as a coda to the show, similar to all those robots we saw rocking out to “All Along the Watchtower,” at the end of Battlestar Galactica? Or was his smile, coupled with the bell we heard, meant to signal inspiration? That old Don Draper magic striking one more time? I have to say I believe it’s the latter.
While Don could occasionally grow bored with his work, he did enjoy it. Even in the first half of this last season, he’s able to set his ego aside and write tags for Peggy, because he realizes that this is what he wants to do. And while some people may take a more cynical approach, and think that these last scenes were meant to show nothing more than Don answering the siren’s call of creating that one great ad, I prefer to think that, well, yes, he was answering that siren’s call, but was able to do that because he had to some degree forgiven himself for his many sins. And we know that in this world of his, forgiveness is possible. When Don visits the veterans’ fundraiser and tells those he meets there about how he killed his commanding officer, they basically shrug and tell him to rub some dirt on it. For them, the war(s) was all about getting home. And if a few commanding officers were blown up and had their identities stolen in the process, well, what are you gonna do?
So I can believe that Don is able to absolve himself, at least partially, for the things he’s done. As the yogi says, “Lives we’ve led, the lives we’ve yet to lead. New day. New ideas. A new you.” Don realizes that he’s done some very bad things, but also realizes that tomorrow is a new day, and that he can do better. And in that moment inspiration strikes, and he goes out to write the best damn Coke ad the world has ever seen.
If that was the reading Matthew Weiner wanted us to take from the episode, why wasn’t he a little more direct in laying it all out? Well, keep in mind that Weiner made his bones as a writer on The Sopranos. And as a disciple of David Chase, I think he enjoys presenting things in an ambiguous way, and letting the viewer take from it what he or she will. Again, let’s not forget that that Coke ad was a real thing, that was produced by the real McCaan-Erickson, and aired on real television. I don’t think Weiner could really have said to directly that no, the entire thing was created by Donald Francis Draper. The world doesn’t need its face rubbed in it. It’s enough that we know.
Also, take a look at this…
— Emily Miller (@emillersmith)
I mean, come on now.