I am not supposed to reveal the specifics of Don Draper’s “romantic life” in the second half of Mad Men Season 7, as per creator Matthew Weiner’s notoriously rigid instructions to critics. And that’s just as well, because what’s more important is the less literal way in which Sunday night’s mid-season premiere conflates Don’s women with his work. Women, we’re given to understand, drift in and out of his life like actresses at a casting session. Or ghosts. These metaphors aren’t shocking, or even necessarily new; what’s surprising is that they say more about Don’s relationship to work than his relationships with his wives, girlfriends, and one-night stands.
In a moment from last year’s finale that perhaps got buried between Bert Cooper’s death and Bert Cooper’s musical number, Don reprises one of his favorite roles: Milton’s Satan, using his charm and his words to convince people to act contrary to their best interests. Ted Chaough, the white swan to Don’s black swan, has realized that advertising is killing him. At a wildly dysfunctional partners meeting, he announces his intention of cashing out his share of the business, dooming a McCann Erickson buyout that would save Don’s job. Of course, it is Don-as-Satan who convinces Ted to stay, luring him with even more money and the promise that ceding ownership will mean getting back to what they all really care about — the work.
But the idea of “the work” as somehow redeeming is a fiction. This is never clearer than in one of the briefest exchanges in the Season 7B premiere, “Severance”: In a casual conversation about the evening’s plans, Ted speaks to Don in a way that’s uncannily reminiscent of Don himself. When they part, Don watches Ted go with a look of unmistakable regret.
This is a tiny scene, one that doesn’t significantly impact the episode’s storyline. (You’re welcome, Matt.) Outside of the context of last year’s finale, its meaning would be entirely inscrutable. But taken together, the suggestion is that Don feels guilty for having sold Ted on staying in advertising the same way he sells clients on ad campaigns and those clients’ products to America. Why would one feel guilty for convincing Ted that he loves “the work,” that “the work” will conquer all, that “the work” is the only thing worth doing? Because he knows it’s not true. Maybe he knew it in the finale, or maybe he’s learned it in the interim.
There are plenty of other signs, in “Severance,” that our received wisdom about Mad Men isn’t just wrong — it’s a total inversion of what the show is really saying. We see the whims of the corporation lift up some employees and push down others, for no good reason. We see characters who have overcome prejudice and discrimination in the workplace face more prejudice and discrimination in the workplace. We see work literally and symbolically prevent characters from doing things that might finally fulfill them. In Don’s glance at Ted and in other moments that I won’t (can’t!) spoil, it’s intimated that the possibility of happiness lies outside the doors of that gleaming, two-floor office space, with its walls of seductive glass windows. This isn’t the story of a handful of people whose intelligence, talent, and obsessive commitment to “the work” they do so well redeems their horrible personal lives. It’s the story of people who looked to their careers to make them whole and who, for that very reason, will never achieve wholeness.
It doesn’t seem like Weiner and co. are dismissing ambition wholesale, though. There has always been a certain romance to the characters who have artistic pursuits outside “the work.” Take Ken and his writing, which brings him so much joy and makes his colleagues so suspicious, or Megan, who found herself through acting (even though the roles she gets aren’t exactly Ibsen heroines) and figured out she was better off without Don and the world he represents. Is it a coincidence that the characters who the show has followed the most closely are the ones for whom “the work” is the only constant in life?
Mad Men isn’t just about advertising because the setting provides good costumes and a clever title; it’s because the show is an indictment of creative careers that ultimately amount to packaging and purveying product. In the case of Don and his colleagues, that means using harmful stereotypes and psychological manipulation to sell cigarettes, fast food, and just about everything else that is still killing America, half a century later. There’s a real irony to the fact that the series responsible for a recent spike in young people’s interest in advertising careers seems intent, in its final episodes, on arguing that art and commerce can never be compatible.
The show’s 1960s setting is no accident, either. I suspect Weiner chose the era not for its design sensibilities and crowd-pleasing soundtrack but because the remarkably quick pace of social change throughout the decade throws the characters’ inertia into relief. Times are changing, but they can’t. Don and, to a lesser extent, Peggy and Pete and Roger and Joan may make progress in their careers, but when it comes to figuring out how to be satisfied, how to live a good life, they’re going in circles. They’re as lonely or addicted or pigeonholed or powerless in Season 7 as they were in Season 1.
In a blog post decrying advertising work as “a scam” that preys on creative personalities, which went viral after his death in 2012, former Saatchi & Saatchi and BBDO art director Linds Redding wrote, “It’s a fucking TV commercial. Nobody give a shit.” At one point in “Severance,” Don Draper says, “It’s just a job.” The tragedy of Mad Men isn’t just that Don is as bad at life as he is good at advertising — it’s that, in increasingly visible ways, he realizes that his job is ultimately meaningless but continues clinging to that job because it’s prevented him from finding anything else.