Will Don Draper Join the Redeemed?

Two months ago I stopped to review the first half of Mad Men season six. Beginning with Don Draper sunbathing in Hawaii as he reads Dante’s Inferno. The season descends as every joy and glory that Don once lived for is crushed. His former idols ooze with self-loathing until they lie empty and hopeless. His marriage, his creativity, his children, his drinking, his career, and even his affair are all, to quote  T.S. Eliot, a heap of broken images.

He, like Dante, falls headlong into a self-made hell. Don put it best in an ad mock-up:

Hawaii is the jumping off point. From there Don sheds every shell of self that once defined him, until (SPOILER ALERT) he is forced to shed his partnership and false identity as Don Draper. We wonder, as Don shows his children the brothel he grew in, whether we’re finally seeing the real him.

Could redemption find Don once he admits his broken, orphaned past? When all the lies that make him “Don Draper” dissolve, will a real human being be found in the center? Ted Chaough pleads with Don by appealing to the “good guy” he knows is in Don’s heart. As viewers we’re more jaded than Ted. We’ve seen Don “change” in the past. It’s never serious. That’s the whole pathos of Mad Men: if you expect goodness in people, then you’re naive. But we still can’t help but wonder: will Don change?

Dante’s inferno ends with he and Virgil standing before Lucifer himself. They peer upward into a cavernous tunnel, cut by Lucifer’s fall from heaven. Then, together, they ascend the tunnel to earth’s surface and stand at the foot of Mount Purgatory: the place where sinners are purified before they enter heaven.

Season 6 leaves us in a similar place. We’ve seen hell. Don is at the bottom. He gazes upward to the hope of a changed life. Will he climb? Matthew Weiner said in a recent interview,

…our whole goal for the season was to put Don in a position where he knew whether he was going to change or not. At least looking in the mirror and admitting who he was, in some ways, was going to make him feel better, and alleviate that anxiety that he has been feeling all year.

Maybe only Don knows whether or not he’ll change. I have no idea.

Someone once called cynicism the muscle of a weak mind. I suspect it’s the muscle we’ll be forced to exercise in Mad Men’s final season, as Don breaks his upward glance toward transformation, and makes his abode with the devil.

Yet, Christians must choose the harder, truer, deeper, more complex answer: hope. Not hope for Don Draper himself. Mad Men, although it claims realism, is actually a fantasy. Goodness, hope, and transformation exist in the real world – only fantasy worlds can exist without it. Instead, we choose hope for the Don Drapers of the real world: ourselves. He is our  mirror. He’s the man in which our darkest fantasies come to life. But unlike Don, we live in a universe with a God who came at the right time to save sinners. That gives us hope.

Don can’t be redeemed (metaphorically or otherwise) because he’s living in a world without God. In fact, should Weiner choose to transform Draper, I’d be disappointed, because it’s not honest to the show’s worldview. Instead of redemption, Mad Men will continue proving how absurd our petty idols are (without offering anything better). Eventually we’ll get bored of this hopeless world and the show will end. Until then, I’m satisfied to let Mad Men keep persuading me my idols really are worthless gods.

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