California. It has always lingered in the background of Mad Men, the ultimate symbol of rebirth, a place where Don Draper could go when he needed another chance — where he could shed his identity and become another, better man. In this first half of the show’s final season (thank you for forcing that awkward wording, AMC), which concluded on Sunday night, Don tangoed with Los Angeles as a permanent possibility. It glittered in the distance, a city on a hill. He had his chance to take it. But it didn’t quite happen. Why was that, and what does it mean?
The season started with Don and Megan in a long-distance relationship, Megan taking up residence in the canyons, trying to get into acting in LA as a too-old ingenue. Don had stayed in the penthouse apartment in Manhattan, exiled from his company, using Freddy Rumsen as a mouthpiece in order to sell some ideas and to keep working.
The first fight, out of many fights, between Don and Megan arose when it became clear that Don could’ve moved to California with her. Cut nebulously loose from Sterling Cooper & Partners, he could’ve just quit and found something else in a different town. His only real ties to New York are his kids, cloistered upstate with Betty and Henry, and at Miss Porter’s School. He claimed he was staying in New York for work, and it was a lie.
But Don didn’t quite fit in California. Perhaps he was too old, too set in his ways. Everything there was like trying to stick a square peg in a round hole. Pete was flailing hilariously, desperately trying to remake his life in a Don Draper-esque fashion, and all that entailed was wearing golf pants and dating a real tiger of a lady and eating at Cantor’s. (The perfect life, really, but Pete was not comfortable, which seemed like a sign.)
Megan was adrift; Don’s absence severed their connection (which, in Season 5, certainly seemed rooted in a hot sex life, one that quickly cooled). When Stephanie Draper, a pregnant Madonna, came, radiant, to stay at Megan’s place, it was clear that these were two very different women who had both gotten close to the ever-elusive Don, and that incident sent Megan into a funk. It’s as if it showed that she wasn’t special, that it wasn’t the power of her personality or charm that got Don to open up to her — just timing and luck.
The tension on Mad Men comes from the fact that it’s a show about changing times, changing mores, and changing attitudes, with characters that, at their best, want to change. More often than not, however, they remain constant. They are, like Frank O’Hara famously wrote, “quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern.”
Yet in this season, Don did change. He lost his true love (his job) by telling clients the real, ugly, Dick Whitman truth about his sad childhood waiting for the chance of a Hershey’s Bar. As a result of his alcoholic reverie, people shunned him and sent him out of the kingdom. He had to get Zen to a degree, to go back to zero, to get over his ego and to do the work in order to get back to a place where he could succeed again. Women threw themselves at him all season long and he didn’t even take advantage; that’s a new man, avoiding his past vices. While he could’ve made it work in California, it wasn’t the time. He had to grit his teeth and find his own California of the mind, his own freedom, to become a slightly more functional man.
Perhaps it is for the best. California may be the manifest destiny of the American mind, the last place you go to when you need to make a new life, but it can be a place of menace as well, a sort of drowsy fall into a placid life and a good death. Look at Joan Didion’s writing throughout the ’60s. In “Notes From a Native Daughter,” she intones, “the Valley fate… is to be paralyzed by a past no longer relevant.” If Don had done it, if he had taken the chance that California would’ve offered, he would’ve been wrestling with ghosts, from Anna Draper to his fading connection to the Don of several seasons ago.
In its denouement, Mad Men is making very slight strides towards the future. Don Draper is evolving, becoming a man who’s taking responsibility for his life and his actions, ever so slowly. He doesn’t need to be the football player in a suit anymore, and he can’t make sweaty, desperate Dick Whitman work. He’s finding a new path. He’s learning how to be a man. For a show that runs on a feeling of dread and obsolescence, it’s been rewarding, seeing how even Don Draper can approach some level of grace.