Some half sure & half-baked notes on the endings of Breaking Bad and Mad Men. Spoilers for both shows follow, naturally.
In his article for the LA Review of Books, "Gilding the Small Screen," Javier Grillo-Marxuach argues that the trend of protagonists with dual-identities found in many of the better television shows of the past ten or fifteen years stems from a generation of latchkey kids-turned writers seeking a kind of (unconscious?) revenge on their delinquent parents by portraying them as "inscrutably trying to reinvent themselves at the expense of their dependents." An interesting observation, and possibly correct on the whole. Or the main source of this duality might simply be the most obvious one: superhero comics. Certainly in the case of Breaking Bad, at least. And perhaps even in Mad Men (who is Don Draper if not the Superman to Dick Whitman's Clark Kent?) Regardless of its origin, both of these shows indulge this cliché with varying degrees of success, and to differing purposes.
Breaking Bad ultimately fails in its promise to end in a way that gives the most substance to everything that preceded it, not because Walter White buys into the myth of his alter-ego Heisenberg (that's part of what makes the series so compelling), but because the show does. Rather than exposing Heisenberg as the pretense of an insecure egomaniac, the man in the pork pie hat is made flesh once again in the finale, appearing one last time to dole out justice in a moment of MacGyver like satisfaction. Though we may have come to dislike (or even despise) Walter White at some point during the series—a conflict the show created that was, for me, its guts and glory—we're meant to unambiguously root for him once more in the end. Our own personal badass and virtual superhero, Heisenberg, returns to deliver justice to the evil—yes—nazis(neo), as well as a kind of redemption (or at least catharsis, which we share) for Walter White. Everything that was most interesting about the show is flushed away, its lowest points quickly underscored and brought to the surface. The series was not, it turns out, as daring as its best moments made us believe. White, who began Breaking Bad as a man, ends the show as Heisenberg, a cartoon, the slow transformation finally complete.
Mad Men's exploration of dual-identity functions differently because Dick Whitman is never comfortable as Don Draper, he never quite buys into the myth of his alter-ego. Perhaps White and Draper's relationship to their other-selves stems from their source. Heisenberg is created by accident: a hat worn there, a poster put up there, a reputation exaggerated. And Walter White sees it, likes it, and takes it on, exploiting it both for his own use—to instill fear as a drug lord—and because he thinks it's cool, acting as a corrective to his view of himself as an unsuccessful, ineffectual man. Don Draper, on the other hand, is consciously created by Dick Whitman as a way of starting over, and it is of course much harder to believe your own (conscious) lies than the lies created for you by others (advertising counts on the latter being easy to swallow and hard to free yourself from).
Unlike Breaking Bad, Mad Men ends in a way that gives more, not less, substance to everything that preceded it.
In Season 2, episode 5, Don Draper references Antonioni's 1961 film La Notte in a moment that can be read as an illustration of Draper's truer, deeper self. See, he's actually a deep, misunderstood guy, not just some cynical, status-quo enforcing adman. In context though, it's not exactly that. Don, if you remember, is in the car with a "sophisticated" woman, Bobbie, who asks him about movies.
BOBBIE: You've seen the foreign ones? So sexy.
DON (softly, with trademark furrowed brow): La Notte.
It's as if Draper acquires culture merely in order to add it to his arsenal for seducing women, perhaps having recently come to the realization that, without it, certain women will forever be beyond his reach. (It's not a coincidence that the women he becomes obsessed with are the ones he can't have; specifically, the ones who rebuff him emotionally. The ones who can get enough. He wants their love, too. Needs it.) This is, after all, a man with no sense of identity, a black hole who sucks up everything around him, destroying or warping it to his own ends. He uses manipulative advertising tricks on everyone he encounters, especially women, constantly lying to, and playing games with, them. In retrospect it would be easy to say that he uses culture as a way of mining the zeitgeist for advertising material, as paths towards finding a way to get into the heads of various types of consumers—whether the product being sold is the next big thing from a client, or simply Don Draper™ himself. In fact, everything he partakes in can easily be seen as a form of research for his job rather than an end in itself; after all, he's always stumped when forced to consider the things in life he's truly passionate about (aside from sleeping with women, of course).
We see this later when he's reading Portnoy's Complaint, one of the most talked about books of 1969. If everyone is talking about it, Draper, the adman, thinks, I should probably know something about it. At the same time, yes, Roth's book also acts as a cultural signal flare, a reminder of the times, functioning in a way similar to the show's costumes and sets. This is also true of the scene in Season 5 where we see Pete Campbell reading The Crying of Lot 49 on the train, something that doesn't jibe with his character and rather seems like a misstep, the writers tipping their hat much too overtly to 1966 (or perhaps to Pynchon himself). Of course I understand that, for the sake of realism, such markers are to some extent unavoidable. The particular choices, however, are not. And now that the show is over and the arc is complete, we can go back and see the presence of Lot 49, not as the misstep described above, but as another adman mining the emerging counterculture. Not out of character after all.
On one hand the show, like Draper, views art and culture as a pretense, part of a disguise. On another, as something that's adorned and used to communicate information, a mere accoutrement. Another book-on-film moment occurs in Season 6 when Don sits on the beach reading Dante's Inferno, though this time the book isn't there to signal the times or lend easy depth to the character as much as highlight a theme within the series and give it some "depth." In other words, it's not meant to adorn the character but the show. Draper, in voiceover, reads the oft-cited opening lines about the "dark wood." (Forget that it's Don Draper; who reads Dante on the beach anyway? I know, I know. It's a metaphor. He's directionless, in a kind of Hell. Or something. The beach. Hot. Inferno. Etc.)
It also comes across, especially in retrospect, that the episodes where Don hung around beatniks and hippy types were nothing more than his attempts at reaching into the minds of the upcoming demographic, a form of hands-on research. It would have been interesting if the show had gone further with this, showing the youth culture as being little more than a lifestyle (fashion) for the future Drapers to sell to corporations—which of course is how advertising works now, with the selling of consumers to companies rather than the other way around. (The ending allows us to now say that this reading is implicit.)
I suppose there is also much to be said about Kerouac's On the Road in all of this. . .
Anyway, with the above in mind, here is how I viewed the final minutes of Mad Men:
Draper's smile is real, sincere, a true moment of comfort and understanding. Though he mines and commodifies his experience later (as is his habit), he isn't thinking about the Coke ad at the time. As an adman at heart, someone who has spent years selling the world an image of himself but never fully believing it himself, the only way he can find value in the experience moving forward is to turn it into something tangible. Not just money—though that—but also prestige, status, even self-expression.
Gore Vidal once famously said that advertising is the only art form America ever invented.
In the end, having failed to find meaning in his personal life, Draper buys into his profession's own lie, finding meaning in his talent, his place, his status—not as some vacuous, rapacious adman, but as a creator, a voice in the culture, an artist. Peace comes because he's finally able to believe his own advertisement.
The slow transformation is complete.