Vanishing Point: Don Draper and the Desert of the “Real Thing”

May 19, 2015 at 8:23 pm | Posted in no-self, pop culture, simulacra, sincerity | Leave a comment

Smile, smile, smile . . . Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth. – Jean Baudrillard, America

The Mad Men series finale opened with an unexpected sequence of images: a dry lakebed, a car zooming by, and Don in dusty goggles behind the wheel. “We just saw Mad Max,” my friends and I joked. The scene was so very narratively improbable and so very narratively unnecessary that I immediately decided that it must be A Symbol, and this insight is what I will try to explain to you today. I did not set out to write comprehensive review of the series or even of the finale, but thinking through this scene has turned out to help me make sense of Don’s character arc, and I hope that it will for you, too.

For the last three episodes of the series, Don has been somewhat inexplicably driving west. This began in the middle of episode 12 of this season, “Lost Horizon,” when he walked out of a meeting with Miller in which their representative, in describing the ideal customer of what would become Miller Light, asked a room full of creative directors to imagine a man “of very specific qualities: he lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio. Some call it the heartland, some call it the beer belt.” Don is the only one in the room who seems perturbed; he keeps looking around to find another eye to catch, and he cannot. The representative goes on to list some more “very specific qualities” about this man: he “has some college,” he “makes a good living,” he “wants a hammock,” and “he likes dogs, because they don’t talk.” Don is the only one who doesn’t laugh at the joke. It’s when the representative says “We all know this man, because there are millions of him” that the mysterious music starts to play and Don starts to look out the window, sees the airplane, and eventually gets up and leaves the meeting.

At the time, I figured Don was hitting the road because he saw through this guy’s bullshit and thought he would go see the heartland for himself to figure out how to market to a real person and not a bunch of stereotypes, and/or to try to track down Tragic Waitress Lady, a goal that might turn out to dovetail nicely with the project of understanding the real midwest. The other option was that Don was ditching the ad business forever, in order to undergo another identity transformation either backwards into Dick Whitman or forwards into somebody else (::cough:: D.B. Cooper ::cough::).

The racing-in-the-desert scene caused me to instantly abandon both those hypotheses, before anything else in the finale happened, because it reminded me so very strongly of Jean Baudrillard’s characterization of America in his book titled simply America. I understood immediately that what we would see would be neither the discovery of an authentic identity (Don’s or Mr. Heartland’s), nor the adoption of a new identity, but the obliteration of identity. Baudrillard, a French philosopher, published America in 1986, after exploring the country via its highway system and declaring based on this experience that “All you need to know about American society can be gleaned from an anthropology of its driving behavior. […] Drive ten thousand miles across America and you will know more about the country than all the institutes of sociology and political science put together” (54-5).* This might sound very much like the “discovering the true heartland” business that I was suggesting above, but in fact it’s quite the opposite: for Baudrillard, the essence of America is not in folksy encounters that one has with people along the road, but in “the excessive, pitiless distance, the infinity of anonymous faces and distances” (9), and the only logical way to traverse them: with unrelenting, dangerous, and delightfully freeing speed.

Speed creates pure objects. It is itself a pure object, since it cancels out the ground and territorial reference-points, since it runs ahead of time to annul time itself, since it moves more quickly than its own cause and obliterates that cause by outstripping it. Speed is the triumph of effect over cause, the triumph of instantaneity over time as depth, the triumph of the surface and pure objectality over the profundity of desire. Speed creates a space of initiation, which may be lethal; its only rule is to leave no trace behind. Triumph of forgetting over memory, an uncultivated, amnesiac intoxication. The superficiality and reversibility of a pure object in the pure geometry of the desert. Driving like this produces a kind of invisibility, transparency, or transversality in things, simply by emptying them out. It is a sort of slow-motion suicide, death by an extenuation of forms – the delectable form of their disappearance. Speed is not a vegetal thing. It is nearer to the mineral, to refraction through a crystal, and it is already the site of a catastrophe, of a squandering of time. Perhaps, though, its fascination is simply that of the void. There is no seduction here, for seduction requires a secret. Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into emptiness: a nostalgic desire for form to revert to immobility, concealed beneath the very intensification of their mobility. Akin to the nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry. (6-7)

Forgive me for the long quote, but we are deep in Don Draper territory here. This is a character who incarnates “the triumph of effect over cause,” whose past has been multiply erased, and yet who no longer has any secrets with which to seduce — everybody knows that he used to be Dick Whitman, and nobody cares. He cannot return to being Dick Whitman, he will never be the real Don Draper to his not-niece Stephanie Draper, and yet “Don Draper” is a well-established brand within the advertising world. “Don Draper” is the perfect embodiment of Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacrum: a copy of something that has become more real than the original, and/or that never had an original to begin with. I am hardly the first one to notice this; the literate blogosphere started making this connection at the end of season one, with Don’s masterful pitch of “the carousel” to Kodak, where his real pain at looking at real pictures of his broken family’s former happiness is packaged and sold as “a deeper bond with the product.” He seems to perhaps feel more emotion while putting on this performance than he did while these things were happening, when he was presumably cheating on his wife and feeling trapped by domesticity: this is Baudrillard’s version of nostalgia, which feels more real than the original experience.

The concept of the simulacrum is, non-coincidentally, bound up for Baudrillard with the concept of advertising: the ad promises more fulfillment than the product will ever deliver, and leaves us grasping for an imaginary wholeness like Leonard from the support group at the end of the finale: “You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realize: They’re trying, and you don’t even know what it is.” This resonates deeply for Don — bearing in mind that “to resonate” is to echo in an empty chamber. Don cries and hugs the stranger, but he has been coming to terms with his own emptiness for some time now. Megan’s mother stripped him of his furniture, he gave away his car, and when summoned to the race at “El Mirage” (a real-life racetrack with a deeply suggestive name), he drunkenly declares “I’m packed,” referring simply to an envelope of cash. He has been rejected as a father by Sally, who tells him correctly that she knows better than he does what should happen to her brothers after Betty’s death, and by Betty, who tells him that for the boys’ sake she “want[s] to keep things as normal as possible — and you not being here is part of that.”

If Don is to continue existing — and Peggy is not wrong to fear that he might not want to — he must embrace an identity that is fully uprooted: one Baudrillard would call quintessentially American. He writes, “America ducks the question of origins; it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity; it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present. Having seen no slow, centuries-long accumulation of a principle of truth, it lives in perpetual simulation, a perpetual present of signs” (76). Don Draper as simulacrum is Don Draper as quintessential midcentury white American male: a product of late capitalism, postmodernism, and television. If the show has dealt too lightly with the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, and other upheavals of the 1960s, as some critics have claimed, it is perhaps because these movements are grounded in firmly-felt identities and are therefore relatively alien to Don and to this aesthetics of surfaces. (Which is not to say that the show wouldn’t have been more interesting if it had attempted more nuanced development of these things, particularly of non-white characters.)

I now believe that Don left the room at McCann not because he didn’t buy the Miller representative’s description of “a man of specific qualities” who somehow lives in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio simultaneously, but because it was the beginning of the vision of the emptiness at the center of identity that would lead him to both an acceptance of “Don Draper” as pure simulacrum and the Coke epiphany. “We all know this man, because there are millions of him,” the line that causes Don to get up and leave, is a paradox: the only way to really know someone is individually — “person to person,” to invoke the episode’s title. To claim that you know someone’s “specific qualities” because “there are millions of him” is either to generalize (and therefore to lie about the “specific” part) or to get the zeitgeist of late 60s / early 70s America exactly right: if sign has replaced substance, then there’s nothing under the surface to know.

That zeitgeist finds its perfect expression in the “I Want to Buy the World a Coke” ad that Don dreams up while — significantly — emptying his mind in meditation at the new-age retreat. He empties himself, after a long period of having aspects of himself stripped away, and has a vision of an empty multiculturalism, a smiling we-are-the-world montage that a post-“Summer of Love” America wants to be sold, a million people of “specific qualities” all coming together to share goodwill in the form of Coca Cola. NPR’s Eric Deggans sees Don’s epiphany as a mining of his personal experience for ad copy just like when he hit up a black waiter for ideas about how to sell Lucky Strikes in episode one, but I think this is actually the opposite of that. That was a “person to person” interaction, that was the equivalent of going out to find the real Mr. Heartland, and this is an utter rejection of identity: shiny, happy people with visually-marked “specific qualities” singing in apparently heartfelt harmony that “what the world wants today” is “the Real Thing.” It’s “Don Draper,” human simulacrum and ad man extraordinaire, who can give it to them.

*Jean Baudrillard, America. New York: Verso, 1988.

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