Note: wow, can you believe that the following article written the night after Mad Men ended contains spoilers about the last three episodes of Mad Men?
I never figured on writing about Mad Men, what with it being a show about gorgeous, well-lit rich people in New York City, but damn it, they had to go and say something about the open road, and that’s my territory, so here I am.
Let’s start with the word movement. The American character is defined by movement, so great American art must at the very least address the road. It’s what our best art is all about, from Huckleberry Finn and straight down to Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” or Smokey and the Bandit. The road is where we can see our future in a new destination, and our past in a crumbling old barn or a bygone tourist attraction. There are laws on the road, but we discard them if we know where the speed traps are. There are people on the road, but we move past them and behave largely out of naked self-interest. The road is where we learn things about ourselves that have enormous weight but can never be articulated quite right – the simple rituals that mean so much, where we get coffee and how we drink it, how we fidget with the radio, how we behave when no one is around to pass judgment. There remains no better way to evaluate red-blooded Americans than by watching them drive for too long.
In the last three episodes of Mad Men, our archetypal American Don Draper does what every archetypal American dreams of doing. He walks right off his steady job and drives west. He goes cowboy. Of course, it had to end like this to have a shot at being Great American Art. If it didn’t, you might be left with another bygone prestige show whose cultural capital is at the mercy of tomorrow’s political climate, like The West Wing. A road arc is cultural insurance. The question is whether it works.
And here my evaluation method is authenticity. Or, if that word is too treacherous, we can go with emotional honesty. I’ve never trusted Mad Men. It wasn’t the cast. If it were a comedy, it would have had the best ensemble since Newsradio. It wasn’t the directing or self-conscious music selections or the rarified and alien field and city it depicted. It was its viewer income. I didn’t trust it because it was a show for rich people. And the road is working-class cultural territory.
Speaking both as someone whose income level is firmly in “knowing what a McGangbang is” territory and as someone accustomed to making impromptu 8-hour drives every few weeks, I can confidently evaluate exactly where Don Draper’s third act rang false.
It wasn’t false when he was driving too late at night and hallucinated the presence of his dead boss. When you woke up that morning on three hours’ sleep, and you’ve been out all day, and it gets so late that nobody else is on the road, you see things. One midnight, I was driving in the middle of nowhere and listening to “The Master’s Call” by Marty Robbins and thought the stars had formed crosses that were crashing all around me. A talking ghost is orders of magnitude more plausible than that.
But it rang false when he picked up a hitchhiker. It’s not necessarily that it’s impossible, it’s that it’s too structurally convenient. A lonely man on the open road is an acceptable number of archetypes. But throw a hitchhiker in there and my eyes narrow. That’s where it starts to seem like you learned about the road from, you know, one of those musicians with a nice little place in Laurel Canyon who did all this dope and thought everybody in Texas wore cowboy boots.
Surprisingly, Don’s tenure in Oklahoma was fairly plausible, if a bit on-the-nose with the “Okie From Muskogee” diegetic music. It makes sense that he’d break down and get laid up at some little motel for a few days, and he’d definitely lose an insane amount of money doing this. It even makes sense that he’d go out boozing at a VFW function for want of anything better to do. Getting beat up over a misunderstanding about stolen money is a little “wow, how’s Jim Arness gonna get out of this one?” but I’ll allow it.
Giving his car to a small time hustler is deeply unacceptable to me, but hey, maybe millionaires do that, driving around all alone, giving Cadillacs to dirtbags for weird self-mythologizing reasons. I don’t know. Not my territory.
Really, it’s the end of his journey that bugs me. Up to that point, he was having a fairly convincing if secondhand experience of the idealized American road. There were no forays into melodrama and he stayed at anonymous motels and drank in front of a small television. That all had mood accuracy, albeit heightened. Certain details were missed, sure. He never once slapped his face or poured water on his head to stay awake or yelled along to songs on the radio, gradually replacing all the words in the chorus with obscenities, but that’s forgivable. It’s that he had his big moment of realization while meditating. The scene is fine, his breakdown and recovery is fine, but the eureka moment happens in the wrong place. Driving alone across the entire country is enough of a spiritual prompt for self-discovery. He should have figured it out on his way home, at 80 miles an hour.