The show Mad Men is many things.
It’s intense, morbidly funny, sad, and intelligent.
What it’s never been is happy.
Which is why the ending to season three, which was so joyous I felt like dancing around the room, came as such as pleasant shock.
I’ve never thought Don Draper would end well. He’s a man literally pretending to be someone else. His career in advertising is built on telling other people untruths about products.
In short, his entire life is built on lies.
The fascination for me comes in watching him try to balance those lies with what he knows is the inner truth about himself. It’s not a balancing act I’ve ever thought he would win. But seeing him struggle is worth the price of admission.
Warning, spoilers behind the break.
The journey of the other characters on the show echo Don’s struggle. Betty Draper is so out of touch with her emotions that she doesn’t seem to have a clue about what she wants other than to be adored.
At the advertising firm, Peggy is trying hard to make herself into what she wants to be but, so far, she hasn’t achieved it. Joan did exactly what she wanted for years, until she came to the conclusion that maybe she should get married and maybe have a family. Unfortunately, a guy that looked great on the outside has turned out to be a horrible mess on the inside. And Roger thought he discovered the secret to what he wanted last season with his hot, young wife and he’s finding out that’s not it at all either.
And Pete tells the worst lie to himself of all, that he’s really a good, deserving guy when instead he’s a rapist who seems to care for very little except making himself feel good.
Some of these lies, like Peggy’s, are valid projections of what they’re trying to become. But most of the others exist to deny the reality around them.
This is why watching Mad Men is so riveting. Every time there’s a conversation, it happens on two levels.
The first is what they’re actually saying, like suggesting names for the new baby or putting together an ad campaign for Conrad Hilton.
But the second level is what they’re *really* talking about, which creates the underlying tension.
Betty wants to name her baby after her dead father. Don knows his late father-in-law hated him. The ad campaign for Hilton is about dreaming big and taking risks.
This keeps me watching the show even though it seems that most of the characters are destined come to bad ends, save perhaps for Peggy. Predictably, the first two seasons ended on pensive notes, with Don feeling more alone and isolated than ever.
Season three was more of the same. Everything, including the previously stable advertising firm, seemed to be falling apart.
And then came the finale. It all looked bleak. Don’s services were being sold off to the highest bidder. Betty left him for someone who promised to “take care of her.” Pete walked out on the firm. Roger was being put on the shelf. Joan was stuck in her lousy marriage.
The finale turned all this on its end. The characters not only *survived*, they triumphed. I was literally cheering by the time Joan walked back into the firm to help our protagonists were staging a midnight run on the place to steal files needed to start their own firm.
It was the most joyous season ending I’ve watched in a long time.
I cannot wait for season four. I’m sure there will be downsides and grim times again. The show might still break my heart.
But now I’m equally sure now that it will also give me those moments of joy.
And that started me thinking.
Conventional wisdom claims the best way to hook the audience is a cliffhanger that puts characters in jeopardy.
“Who Shot J.R.?” Pretty much every season of Lost. The final page of most comic books.
This worry is supposed to spark interest so the audience keeps coming back.
And yet everyone who watched the happy ending of season three for Don Draper and company feels the same as I do: dying with curiosity about next season.
It’s not always tragedy that holds the audience.
Making the audience feel warmth and joy works well too. And, maybe, in the long term, better than tragedy or mystery.