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'Mad Men's' farewell: Can Don Draper ever be happy?

Don Draper isn't a happy man. Sure, he's had a couple of moments of almost unutterable ecstasy and even a taste of actual contentment during the course of his seven-season tenure as Mad Men's Existential Hero.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men."
Jon Hamm as Don Draper in "Mad Men."Read more

Don Draper isn't a happy man.

Sure, he's had a couple of moments of almost unutterable ecstasy and even a taste of actual contentment during the course of his seven-season tenure as Mad Men's Existential Hero.

But as we head into the final seven-episode stretch of AMC's award-winning drama, it has become painfully evident Don will never be happy in his personal or professional life.

His second marriage, to the divine French Canadian actrice Megan Calvet (played by the divine Montreal native Jessica Paré), collapsed before the show went into hiatus. And though the first part of the season ended with a professional triumph, Sunday's episode has the ominous title "Severance."

There are even rumors Don may end up dead.

Just be happy

You're happy? But what is happiness? It's a moment before you need more happiness.

- Don Draper

It's appropriate, before the end, to pose the question in the back of everyone's mind: Why can't Don, or, for that matter, anyone else in Mad Men, be happy?

Well, that is except for the perpetually stoned Stan (Jay R. Ferguson), who has the sort of crazy beard only the joyous could pull off.

Series creator Matthew Weiner often speaks of the world of Mad Men with wistfulness, even sentimentality. Yet with all its humor, style, and sexy sizzle, it's a world of pain. It's a milieu populated by people so utterly, blindingly obsessed with finding happiness they end up mired in its opposite.

This is the peculiar ironic genius of Weiner's creation.

Mad Men is not only as artistically accomplished as the great literary works of the 1960s it evokes, such as John Updike's Rabbit, Run, John Cheever's "The Swimmer," and Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road, it also iterates, with stunning dramatic and visual effect, their harsh critique of American values in the post-World War II era.

The upper middle class portrayed in the series suffers from a terminal case of bad faith - Don, his ex-wife Betty (January Jones), his pal Roger Sterling (John Slattery), and their set seem unable, if not unwilling, to stay true to any binding sense of moral duty. They embrace self-deception rather than resist the seductive pressure to conform to social norms. They embrace the outward signs of success and happiness - wealth, beauty, power, and freedom from social responsibility. They embrace consumer values - everything is a commodity to be bought and sold. And they reject traditional ones - we have sacred moral duties to others.

The Kodak moment

Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? . . .. It's freedom from fear.

- Don Draper

Happiness was never really an issue for young Dick Whitman. The son of a prostitute who died in childbirth, he was raised in a hellacious world of poverty and pain by the woman's client and his hateful wife.

A hobo teaches young Dick to be attentive to the chasm between what adults preach and how they act. All you need to get along in the world, Dick realizes, is to show people a mask that reflects their expectations.

So begins Dick's transformation into Don. In a marvelous feat of Jay Gatsbyesque ingenuity, he gets out of military service in Korea by trading dog tags with a dead officer and cons his way into the good life.

It's conceivable that deep inside, Don believed the American Dream sold by Madison Avenue would bring true happiness, as would marriage and children.

Yet who has attained matrimonial equanimity? Not Roger, Joan (Christina Hendricks), or Pete (Vincent Kartheiser), and certainly not Don, who cheats on both his wives and treats his kids as strangers.

Decades after meeting him, Don reaches the same conclusion as that hobo: The American Dream has become a sham. Don and his colleagues operate on the principle that happiness is a real, if hard to attain, goal, which they try to evoke through their ads. But it's a mirage, a lie that helps sell product.

Consumer culture is an ingenious system: The only way to motivate folks to keep buying is to make sure their gratification is temporary and mixed with equal amounts of anxiety and fear.

It's a conclusion that will tear Don apart. He begins to break in a supremely ironic and tragic first-season scene that has him pitch Kodak execs an ad campaign for their new slide projector. He treats company execs to a show of pictures from his seemingly ideal life with his family. "It goes backwards and forwards, and it takes us to a place where we ache to go again," Don says of the machine he dubs a carousel, as the projector produces one perfect Draper family moment after another.

Could such a place ever exist? Or is this an empty promise?