Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
– Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” 1923
Most of the notable television dramas that have aired since 1999 (called by some the Golden Age of Television Dramas) have used the language of cinema to examine certain issues. The Sopranos uses that language to deconstruct an American myth, the Wire to examine the troubles of urban America, and Breaking Bad to document one man’s descent into evil.
Mad Men’s storytelling has much more in common with the Modern American Theater of Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neil than these other great dramas. It doesn’t examine myths or cities or evil. At its core Mad Men is about something much more intimate – the unrelenting arrow of time.
Don Draper has often been described in the same breath as the criminals and monsters of some of these other series – but what has he done? Don doesn’t kill anyone, and the one crime he does commit haunts every aspect of his life. That doesn’t make him a good person – far from it – but just because he’s not a hero doesn’t make him an anti-hero. In the end he’s just a man with problems and flaws that, the desertion and identity theft part aside, aren’t that different from the problems and flaws of regular people.
While Don is the central pivot of the show, it really is an ensemble. The core six characters (Don, Peggy, Pete, Roger, Joan, and Betty) each has their own unique hopes and dreams, struggles and flaws. The only character that gets a definitive end is Betty, the rest just keep moving along.
One of the key frustrations of watching Mad Men is that its characters never seem to change. I would argue that if you watch all eight (sorry AMC, seven) seasons in a row you would see the characters change a lot, but not drastically and not quickly. There are no epiphanies, just six main characters doing their best to adapt to changing circumstances.
The slow and erratic progression of the characters makes the last few episodes all the more satisfying when the core characters finally appear to start learning from their mistakes. Each of their endings, in a vacuum, would feel a little too tidy if it weren’t for the fact that these endings are the result of a decade of trial and error.
And what of the final scene? There are two interpretations that come to mind, and both fit the central theme of the show. Either 1) Don has found some semblance of self-forgiveness and moved on, while the advertising world moves on his absence or 2) Don has come up with another brilliant idea and, setting his baggage aside, returns to a job that he’s very, very good at.
Matthew Weiner couldn’t have Don explicitly create the famous Coca-Cola ad. After all, real people came up with that real ad and should be given their due credit. Whether Don contributed to that ad campaign or not, it doesn’t matter. The world keeps moving along, and our characters will need to adapt to survive. And even if they seem content today, nothing gold can stay.
(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe