Don Draper and the Lonely Crowd: Reflections on the Mad Men Series Finale

Guest blogger and CU-Boulder Ph.D. student Graeme Pente writes about Mad Men’s last episode.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper, Courtesy AMC

After the final episode of the AMC show Mad Men aired in May, many entertainment critics latched onto the last scene, where the main character, adman Don Draper, meditates at an Esalen-inspired retreat and then smiles before the iconic 1971 “Hilltop” Coca-Cola commercial runs onscreen. Some critics interpreted this ending cynically, as Don appropriating a peaceful ethos to sell Coke, while others believed Don was genuinely trying to make the world a better place through advertising. However, they all missed Don’s allusion to sociologist David Riesman’s classic book The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950). The last person Don speaks to before he reaches his most emotionally desolate point is his protégée Peggy Olson. Becoming concerned for Don’s state of mind, Peggy tells Don she doesn’t think he should be alone, to which Don replies, “I’m in a crowd.” Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd speaks to the driving theme of the whole series: Don’s efforts to come to terms with himself as what Riesman called an “other-directed character type.”

Riesman argued that postwar America saw the increasing emergence of a new character type: the other-directed person. Because of macro-economic shifts, increasing bureaucratization, increasing leisure time, and an emphasis on consumption over production, American society was no longer dominated by the “inner-directed person” – whom we might associate with traditional conceptions of white American masculinity and self-reliance on the frontier. According to Riesman, this character type has a rigid sense of self and is able to maintain balance between the demands of his life goal and those of his external environment. The inner-directed person is related to what Riesman calls a scarcity psychology. The other-directed person, by contrast, emerges from a psychology of abundance, which is why Riesman saw this type as becoming dominant in the postwar period. This character type has a more malleable sense of self. Mass communication increasingly mediates his relationship to the external world and to the self, and he defines himself through those relations. “The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift[…],” Riesman writes, and “it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.” Without a fixed conception of identity, tied by necessity to productive processes, modern people seek to define themselves through their relationships to others. Amidst the abundance of the postwar period, the other-directed person aims to keep up with the Joneses “not so much in external details as in the quality of his inner experience.”

Don Draper’s journey through the Mad Men series, and certainly in the course of this last half-season, was about Don trying to come to terms with this transition from inner- to other-direction, a transition of which he himself was an instrumental part in his role as adman. Growing up in the scarcity of the Depression years, Draper was born Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute mother and an alcoholic father. By the time we meet Don he is a seemingly self-assured figure in the advertising world. But his identity is already malleable, having adopted Don Draper’s name out of a freak accident in the Korean War. Again and again, we see Don flee relationships with other people. In the last few episodes, he undertakes his own Manifest Destiny march west across the continent to the coast. These are the locales of frontier life, the domain of the inner-directed person. Yet, as Riesman noted, “the other-directed person has no clear core of self to escape from.” Though Don runs from his relationships, he has no true sense of self without them.

In the final episode, Don makes his way to California to a surrogate daughter figure in Stephanie, the only person who knows him as Dick Whitman (even the episode title, “Person to Person,” invokes the way in which the other-directed character type defines himself). Stephanie is the one who emphasizes the futility of flight. Having abandoned her child, she has no illusions about Don’s advice that continuing to move forward will make dealing with the pain easier. Stephanie abandons Don in turn at the retreat. The other-directed person may not be able to escape a core self, but if he is defined by his relationships with others then escaping them means escaping himself. And this is exactly what Don manages to accomplish once he is alone in the crowd. However, at this low point, Don learns the importance of human connection. At one of the retreat’s group therapy sessions, he sees himself in Leonard, an office worker who has “never been interesting to anybody.” Leonard confesses his difficulty in understanding love when it is offered to him and breaks down. Don crosses the room and embraces Leonard, in some sense embracing himself and his identity as other-directed.

Historian Lizabeth Cohen, writing about the era in A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), identified and explored many of the trends that supposedly created the other-directed character type. She argued that during what is often referred to as “the Golden Age of American Capitalism” (1945-1973), an idea of the “purchaser as citizen” dominated the relationship between Americans’ identities as consumers and citizens. In this ideal, when consumers satisfied their personal material wants, they simultaneously served the national interest, which centered on a robust economy in the wake of the deprivation of the Depression years. Cohen highlights the shortcomings of this vision, noting that the “universal prosperity and equality assumed to be intrinsic to a vital mass consumption economy succeeded more in making promises than in ensuring delivery.” Over the course of the series, we watched as Don and his compatriots came up against the disappointments of those unfulfilled promises, ones that they themselves (and Don, in particular) helped create.

By the late 1950s, advertisers had the idea to focus their efforts on “market segmentation.” That is, they would market products to specific groups in order to increase sales as opposed to seeking a mass market. Cohen argues that this strategy served to reify existing social divisions during the 1960s. As one reviewer noted, the decade saw “earnest ideas of free love and deeper understanding… juxtaposed against assassinations and spectacular societal discord.” Through increasingly sophisticated marketing tactics aimed at market segmentation, Don and those around him may have contributed to that very discord through which we watched them suffer. In its way then, the “Hilltop” Coke ad is Don’s attempt to atone for his role in that suffering. Having recognized his own need for human connection, Don will try to help the nation heal by crafting a new ideal for which the other-directed can strive. But, as Cohen suggests, the equality the mass consumption economy promises often comes up short of expectations; Don’s vision for Coca-Cola’s role in global harmony will surely be no exception. Even so, when the audience leaves Don with his smile, he is truly experiencing inner peace. He has come to terms with himself as other-directed. And we, as viewers, should not fault him for his optimism.

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