By Mohamad El Masri
Mad Men, arguably one of the finest literary and cinematic achievements the last six decades of post-modernism has wrought, comes to an end tomorrow night. The series finale brings with it melancholy more than anticipation. Creator Matthew Weiner has never been one for plot driven histrionics. The series must remain true to itself, melodrama would only betray the symphony of character development it has orchestrated over seven immaculate seasons. Its core theme has coloured every current that runs through its story: Times change but people are essentially unchanging. Particularly Don Draper.
The finale is best understood in the context of last week’s penultimate episode, which brought thematic closure to many of the threads launched in the pilot eight years ago. The show has used advertising as a metaphor for the lie we collectively construct that tells us things are going to get better. That the next great moment in your life is just around the corner. That things are everlasting. Advertising manifests the meaning we inject into the meaningless. But if Mad Men’s character arcs have taught us anything is that the truth has a cleansing quality, like cauterizing a wound with fire. The real story, the honest one, is about the slow, meandering and inevitable decay of all things.
Entropy defines the journey of existence for everything inanimate, living, emotional and detached. Everything breaks.
In last week’s episode Pete uses Colgate to treat his daughter’s bee stings, certainly not as advertised. Years of smoking have caught up with Betty, leaving her with terminal lung cancer. Not only is her body broken, so is the lie Don Draper’s creative genius has been spinning about cigarettes from the very beginning. Betty’s husband Henry, the epitome of North-East blue-blood baby boomer manhood, has to be consoled by a resolute Sally, a woman coming into her own at the dawn of second-wave feminism. Don’s brand new Cadillac breaks down in Kansas. Again, not as advertised. He checks into a motel where he’s surprised to find a man working as a maid. He’s also surprised to find the maid is a con man, not unlike him. The motel’s typewriter is broken. Don’s TV blows a fuze. That wasn’t in the pamphlet. The Coke dispenser is out of order. Looks like no one will be giving anyone a Coke anytime soon. Finally, Don discovers that the supposedly idyllic small town middle-American existence he’s been shilling to clients and in beer commercials for the last fifteen years is actually a sad, fractured, decaying, violent and archaic way of life that rejects him outright.
Every pretty picture Don Draper has painted has been lie. About American life. About the ’toasted’ qualities of Lucky Strike tobacco. About a million products and services that “meet our needs” and presume to bring order and linearity to chaos and nature. The entire industrialized, consumer-driven modern age has bene defined by the vain effort to bring linear control into our violent and short lives, a relatively new (and absurd) idea that is less than a century old. Straight lines, fine edges, linear relationships, don’t really exist in nature. They are conceptual at best, sense-makers that help us understand cause and effect.
The tragedy isn’t just that everything breaks. That the universe is slowly but surely ushering us out the backdoor. It’s also the inevitability baked into it all. That everything is in the process of breaking, from before conception.