Mad Men: The Zero Ending

 Raymond Carver was a master of the zero ending. In his short story “Cathedral,” for instance, the malcontent, pot-smoking, deadbeat narrator is introduced to his wife’s blind, unnamed pen-pal.  The husband expects little from this bizarre collision of worlds, but after several drinks, the narrator begins to feel the unexpected vitality and freedom that this blind prophet possesses.  Oddly enough, they begin to trace the contours of a cathedral together.  The narrator’s eyes are shut.  While the moment is quite poignant, the story abruptly ends before any real epiphany occurs:

 But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

 “Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

 My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

 “It’s really something,” I said.

The end. We are left in the dark, guessing at what is going through our narrator’s mind.  When I taught this story last year, I decided to deal with the ending first. Most of the students were unhappy or unsettled and preferred something more crisp and put together.  They wanted the epiphany.  What was that something? To most of them it was infuriating, but to some, it opened up possibilities and allowed room for the ‘fun’ business of interpretation to begin.

In many ways, this season’s Mad Men finale gave us just such a zero ending. The curtain closes upon an unfinished story. All we are left with is that maddeningly ambiguous final image: a smirking Don Draper clouded in that all-pervasive smoke, glassy-eyed with drink and mulling over the loaded question, “Are you alone?” asked, of course, by a beautiful seductress.

I think most fans of the show were anticipating that something was going to happen with Don, even if we couldn’t quite put our fingers onit.  The pressure was palpable.  Would he return to his womanizing? Would he leave Megan? Would he leave Sterling Cooper Draper Price Campbell…. etc. etc.?  Would he get back together with Betty? Well, none of the above.  We are simply left watching Don: dissatisfied, smug, and precariously on the fence. The season did not end with the bang we expected, but it ended with an arguably more powerful whimper.

There are some interesting symbolic connections to be made with the finale and the previous episodes.  In one of his more rousing speeches this season, Don goes on an Ayn-Randian rant about the impossibility of attaining complete happiness as the consumerist world in which he is enmeshed has defined it.  Happiness is not about having a portion; it’s about having it all.  But “it” – cars, women, money, drinks, smokes – never seems to last long enough before the hunger for more is back.

Yet how does this explain Don’s confusingly clean track record this season?

If, as one critic has argued, Mad Men is “a character study of the breakdown of character,” Don has not simply become impervious to temptation, but his appetites have broadened their scope.  They are now more lofty.  How is this possible? According to C.S. Lewis, the range of vices (and virtues) of which we are capable are limited to what our characters can handle; the eunuch, Lewis humorously argued, can’t really go about bragging about his chastity.  Neither can the rising ubermensch that is Don Draper, be tied down solely by material desires.  Don’s ability to deny himself other women has hardly made him less misogynistic. Don wants ownership, power and control and, as his relationship with Megan continues to highlight, all seem to continually elude his grasp.

In Don’s world, happiness remains illusory because one only “gets it all” when they have severed all ties with those below them (the Nietszchean herd if you will) and with those on equal ground.  The breakdown of his brother Adam and more recently Lane, reveal the consequences of Don’s individualistic ideal and Don’s trampling underfoot of the marginal and weak.   Don is alone.

The recurrence of the hospital (or its equivalent: the dentist office and psychiatric ward) in Mad Men subtly indicates that almost all the characters are sick and broken and in need of healing. Don’s toothache – usually the result of an inability to say no to life’s most enjoyable and unhealthy desires – reveals something of the nature of corruption and, perhaps, opens up various possibilities for Don’s character next season.  As an ad-man (and ladies’ man), Don’s ability to smooth talk is essential to his life in and out of the office; however, the dentist makes a point to tell Don that this tooth, left alone, almost cost him his jaw.  To save the jaw, the tooth had to be uprooted. Don’s corrupt desires, then, are not essential to his character, but if left alone, they have the ability to destroy his essence. Will he uproot them? We’ll have to wait to find out.

In the closing moments, we are not only given a snapshot of Don, but a series of vignettes which, among other things, seems to reflect the varying stages of sickness and decay taking place in the world of Mad Men.  Pete comes home to his wife, physically and mentally broken. Like a young Draper, Pete is just beginning his descent into lies, adultery, greed; and while the consequences are as obvious as a punch to the face, I’m pretty sure Pete’s going continue down this road.

If Pete shows the beginning of Don’s journey, then Roger Sterling shows the end of it.  By the end, we see a naked Roger looking down over New York City with a derisive smirk. But he is alone.  Even Megan’s mother is not included in the shot. Like the naked emperor, Roger stands in his modern castle looking down over the kingdom that, largely, finds him ridiculous.

It seems that the only character immune from the brokenness and decay of the Ad-men is Peggy.  The final image of Peggy is one of contentment. She is safely in her apartment and free from the dog-eat-dog (er…dog-hump-dog?) world of which she had been a part.

It will be interesting to see which characters move towards healing and which continue down their self-destructive paths.

Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.

                -T.S. Eliot, from: The Four Quartets.