A few weeks ago, I was watching one of the final Mad Men episodes with my mom and dad. Throughout the show my mom would mutter, "Dirt bag. What a scum bag.”
I think there are plenty of folks who don’t like Don Draper. But we all love him.
We have to. Because in one way or another, we are all Don Draper.
The beautiful thing about the show is the way it communicates hard truths. It’s a dance between the extremes of Don gaining balance in his life and then spiraling out of control. And the world he lives in doesn’t hold any punches. When Don is generous and at peace with himself, the universe often delivers a swift kick to his face. He gets beat up by hitchhikers, loses loved ones, and gets backstabbed at work.
The crueler thing is, often when he's on a bender, the world works for him. Maybe when a man wants something and is willing to hang around and drink until he gets it, the world will hand it over. It makes me think of that George Bernard Shaw line:
Don’s story is about getting what he really wants while realizing that what he wants can change on a daily basis. It can for all of us. And as a result, we act out of selfishness and we hurt and manipulate to get what we need. Sometimes we try to be kind but we get punched in the gut and get wounded and swear off good living again.
So what is he really after? What do we all really need?
I like it when psychologists try to answer the unanswerable question: "what all humans want is..." Of all the proposed answers, I think Brene Brown says it best:
I think Don’s story is about all of us needing to feel like we belong. To believe we’re OK. Don says it himself when he pitches Lucky Strike in season one:
Isn’t everyone after that feeling? Don’t we all want to believe that we’re doing a little better than we feel like we are?
Though my mother doesn’t like Don as a man, I think the reason we have to love him as a person is because he has shouldered a burden for us. He became the bad person we don't have to be. Because we could see his wounds every week on television, they can heal us. Because regardless of how terrible he got, he just wanted the same reassurance we all do.
When we celebrate a show like Mad Men, what I think we’re really doing is congregating around this idea that, if we can just learn to accept ourselves and act out of that sense of affirmation, then we'll be OK. And we learned to accept Don, so that means we can accept us. Despite all of the terrible things Don did, we wanted him to find peace - so that means we can find peace.
There's no shame in living. There's nothing wrong with trying and failing. It's permissible to be broken. Hopefully we learned from the show that healing is so much easier when we let other people in. And our wounds, the stories we feel like we're living all on our own, can be meaningful for someone else if we're willing to believe that, even if we have growth to do in the long term, that we’re OK. We’re doing a little better each day.
We’re all OK.