Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mad Men: Don's "The Real Thing"

I haven't watched the men and women of Mad Ave. for a couple of seasons, but I did want to find out how the series would end, so I read stories with spoilers. This post will contain spoilers too, if there's anything else to give away.

The stories I've read have focused on the tension between fiction and reality: how bold and clever and somewhat disconcerting it is to credit a fictional character for creating Coke's iconic slogan.

But I think that Don Draper is actually the perfect person to coin the phrase "It's the Real Thing."

This fall, you see, I taught a class on literary hoaxes, where we analyzed how Jimmy Gatz uses clothing to fabricate his new identity, Jay Gatsby; how "Clark Rockefeller," a character in Walter Kirn's literary non-fiction adopted an air of privilege to scam the author; how, in a Neil LaBute play, an art project is disguised as a mutual love affair.

Don Draper would have fit right in with these characters, he who stole another man's identity, who pretended (well, sort of) to be a faithful husband, who went through some motions of being an engaged father, though his mind was elsewhere.

As an ad man, Don lives in a world of creating and selling desire and fantasy. "It's the real thing" is a particular advertising triumph because it alludes to certainties without ever pinning them down. What is "it"? What is the "thing"? We don't know, but the language seems to reassure us that we do.

The slogan reminds me of Don, who has lived a false life since he was in the war; he is not the "real thing" but a poseur; an identity thief.  And, isn't that the purpose of advertising--to convince an audience, a client that some-thing is the "real thing" so that they crave it?

For Don Draper, the individual and the advertising man, then, the "real thing" is the fictional thing--the thing that will make our lives better if only can attain or achieve or know it.

So I read Don's spiritual awakening at a meditation retreat on California not as a personal breakthrough, but a professional one.  Like Edith Wharton's wonderfully conniving heroine Undine Spragg, who ends her novel with all cogs in her mind turning at full tilt, Don has brilliantly co-opted his "genuine" spiritual epiphany into businessspeak.

And, because that choice of adopting advertising language over sincere conversations is indicative of Don throughout the series, the show ends perfectly, with Draper mining his life for a pitch. The real thing--Draper's happy ending--is just another ad.

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