In the most recent episode of "Mad Men," the second-to-last installment of AMC's seminal drama about illusion and identity, Don Draper appears to symbolically (or perhaps even semi-officially) pass along the fake persona he's inhabited for nearly 20 years.
He impulsively gives his Cadillac to a young, unpolished would-be con man trying to escape a bleak life in the sticks. "Pink slip's in the glove box," Draper tells the kid after tossing him the keys. "Don't waste this."
Handing the young man the keys to the kingdom – along with the documentation – recalls young Dick Whitman grabbing the dog tags of the real Don Draper, the commanding officer he accidentally killed on a Korean battlefield years earlier before going on to reinvent himself as a suave New York ad man.
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With the final episode of one of the most compelling dramas in TV history set for Sunday, "Mad Men" would seem to be coming full circle – in keeping with the classic Season 1 segment in which Draper (Jon Hamm) pitched Kodak's slide carousel as a bittersweet jaunt through the past.
But as for where the ride stops, only show creator Matthew Weiner knows.
Sunday's series finale marks the last lap of a journey through the 1960s, whose turbulence is seen through Don Draper, born Dick Whitman, the brothel-reared son of a dirt-poor farmer and a prostitute who died in childbirth. We've seen Draper bed many ladies, down endless booze and weave fantasies of happy family life to sell products.
We've also seen him destroy his two marriages. We've seen him break down in tears over the death of the real Don Draper's wife, the only woman who ever accepted him for whatever he is. We've seen him create advertising magic and implode on the job: Last season, he revealed his sordid past during what started out as a nostalgia-rooted ad pitch for Hershey bars ("the childhood symbol of love"). This season, he turned his back on big bucks to flee the major advertising powerhouse that absorbed his small firm, the business gave him the only semblance of self-worth he had left.
But "Mad Men" isn't just the story of Don Draper. It’s also about the people Don impacted most.
Many made a good argument early on for "Mad Men" being the dual tale of Draper and Peggy Olson, his protégé in advertising and denial. Both held on to a deep secret – in Peggy’s case, the birth of a son.
But in time, Draper's character flaws infected others. Take prickly and privileged ad executive Pete Campbell, who fathered Peggy’s child. Pete’s arc seemingly ended in the latest episode when his wife took him back as he planned to leave for a high-flying job in Kansas, which he sees from afar as a kind of Oz promising the familial bliss he’s avoided through Draper-like bad behavior.
But the character most directly affected by Draper – and, in some respects, most like him – is his teenage daughter, Sally, who has seen her father at his absolute worst. Sally is grappling with the news that her mother, Betty, has incurable lung cancer – a victim of cigarettes, a product Draper hawked (remember the Lucky Strikes account?) and later renounced as publicity stunt, even as he still puffed away.
Draper, meanwhile, is drifting in the smoke, unaware of the crisis at home as he sits at a roadside bus stop in the middle of nowhere, smiling while watching his Cadillac take off without him. This season, he’s on a rootless journey to save strangers – including the young con man and Diana, a mysterious, brokenhearted waitress and the latest in a long line of tragic dark-haired beauties he's haunted by.
In one key scene, Diana tells Draper there’s "a twinge in my chest." If that sounds familiar, it’s because Draper used a similar phrase in the Season 1 "Carousel" scene when he spoke about nostalgia meaning “the pain from an old wound” in Greek. “It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone,” he told Kodak executives, as he showed them slides of Betty and their kids, images representing the perfect life he craved, but could never have.
"Mad Men" is about to settle into the popular memory. But before the wheel stops turning, hopefully we’ll learn whether Draper finally looks to the future and become a settled man who takes care of Sally and his two sons – or whether he ends up the falling man, metaphorically or otherwise, scene in the show's now iconic opening sequence.
In the meantime, check out a nostalgic video released by AMC with scenes from the past seven seasons of “Mad Men.” The clips are set to Paul Anka’s, “Times of Your Life,” which, as The Wall Street Journal reminds us, started as a jingle for a 1970s Kodak commercial.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.