Mad Men and the Futility of the American Dream

Is that all there is?

    Over the course of its eight-year, seven-season run, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has given us a glimpse into the glamorous life of Don Draper. This is a man who has everything he could ever want: a high-paying job, a vibrant sex life, and a reputation of sheer strength and masculinity. Women want him and men want to be him. And he couldn’t be happier.

At least, that’s what Don Draper wants us to think. In reality, he is weak, depressed, and lonely. Just look at the two definitions of happiness Don gives at different points in the series:

    “You know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” (Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”)

    “But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness.” (Season 5, Episode 12, “Commissions and Fees”)

Both of these quotes come from pitches made to potential clients, and they both expose a serious flaw in the philosophy of the American Dream. You want happiness? Buy a car. Go on vacation. Don’t worry about the decisions you make, because ultimately, all that matters is that you are happy right now. Don knows that the average American will buy anything he attempts to sell to them, as long as he promotes this message of materialism and momentary comfort. He also knows that this type of happiness will not satisfy; it will only make you crave more.

Insight like this is the reason why Don is such a brilliant ad man, but unfortunately for him, he unwittingly buys into the same philosophy that he sells to the impressionable masses.  It is important to note that the decisions that Don makes throughout the series are really being made by Dick Whitman, a poor, small-town man who knows nothing of the “good life.” When Dick becomes Don, he decides to live the life that, in his mind, Don Draper is supposed to live. This includes an attitude of pride and arrogance and an unquenchable desire for success, riches, and women. Dick was led to believe that these are the marks of a happy, fulfilling life, because the American Dream told him so. As Don continually seeks out these fleeting thrills, he feels an ever-increasing sense of emptiness and loneliness. In this way, Don is a living example of the futility of the American Dream. He attempts to find his identity in advertising, drinking, and sex, and he fails to understand that basing one’s entire existence on such temporal pleasures will never satisfy.

Don Draper is sad.

Don’s fellow partners at SC&P deal with similar struggles. Roger Sterling, thanks to his father, has never had to work a day in his life. He experiences a level of success that most can only dream of, but it means nothing to him. His life is completely directionless, so he attempts to drown his sorrows in alcohol, which of course only leads to more depression and self-loathing. Pete Campbell lives in the perpetual shadow of Don Draper, and he wants nothing more than to achieve equal status with him. As far as Pete knows, the only way to do that is to follow exactly in Don’s footsteps. So he begins to present himself in a way that asserts his supposed dominance and superiority, charming both women and clients into trusting him, until he not only loses his family, but actually makes a name for himself in the advertising industry. Looking at every other successful ad man, one must conclude that Pete had finally “made it.” But Pete, knowing this to be false, is able to turn away from his phony, sleazy lifestyle and somehow salvage his marriage that had been long destroyed. This would never have been possible had he not realized the folly of his lifelong pursuits. Lane Pryce is another character who seems to have it all, but one mistake led to another, and the next thing you know, he’s broke and suicidal. It is more difficult to assess the effect of the American Dream on the women of Mad Men, since the sexism of the era made it nearly impossible for them to reach the heights that the men did, but that’s a think piece for another day.

The biggest debate following the series finale, “Person to Person,” has been whether Don actually found real peace and happiness, or if he simply came up with another brilliant ad in which he did not truly believe. Based on the evidence that Don has given us time and time again, I am inclined to believe the latter. Sure, Don might have felt some sort of serenity in his moment of meditation, but it was most likely nothing more than a self-realization. In the final moments of the series, Don realizes that he is an ad man, and nothing more. His love for his children was not enough to spark a revelation, and it can be easily assumed that he will be no more involved in their lives than he ever was. Don realizes while observing this eclectic group of depressed hippies (and Brett Gelman!) that everyone is looking for peace in the midst of the hardships of life. And rather than seeking peace for himself, he figures out a way to tell the world that drinking Coke will provide them all the peace, happiness, and togetherness they could ever want. Advertising is Don’s peace, but it will still never satisfy.

Don Draper is sad. And wearing jeans.

Mad Men is not a story about the glamour of the 60s, or the glorification of materialism; it is a story about broken people who desperately long for some sort of purpose or identity, but have no idea where to look for it. It is a story about us. Deep down, every one of us wants to be as attractive and desirable as Don or Joan, or as rich and successful as Roger or Bert. When will we learn that there is more to life than what this world has to offer? Solomon poignantly describes the pointlessness of the pursuit of earthly happiness in the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:

    “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under then sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, ESV)

The flaw at the heart of the American Dream is not an American issue, but a sin issue. The heart of every person who has ever lived is so wicked and depraved, that a life of wickedness and depravity seems to be the only worthwhile option. As a result, the Don Drapers of the world will continue to promote this sort of lifestyle as fulfilling, and millions will continue to fall for that lie. In reality, the only way to experience peace, joy, and satisfaction that will never wane or expire is to turn away from the sin and hedonism of the world and surrender your life to Christ. As C.T. Studd so elegantly put it, “Only one life, ‘twill soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”

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