‘Mad Men’ explores the definition of happiness

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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For a series that’s been dark and brooding from the start, the last two episodes of Mad Men have been particularly grim and morbid with Joan’s decision to prostitute herself for the Jaguar account and Lane’s fatal departure from the firm — from life itself. Both choices were motivated by money and commercial success (or the lack thereof). Both were related to cars (Lane first tried to kill himself in the new Jaguar his wife bought him — but failed). And both deeply disturb Don, making him reconsider his definition of happiness. Is happiness having it all, materially? Or is it something else? Lane and Joan make tragic decisions in the pursuit of having it all. Will our hero, Don, fall into the same trap?

Over at the Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy blog, Stanford Law Professor Pam Karlan points out that happiness was a major theme of last Sunday’s episode:

What can give us happiness? Remember when a car, any car, was enough? It is, still, for Glen. Yet for Lane the car just adds to his mortification. … And Don — the man who has seemed so happy all season long, at least until he saw that he might have won Jaguar through Joan’s night with Herb — tells us that nothing will ever be enough.

As we see in the show:

Don goes into Roger’s office and says that he’s disenchanted with what’s going on at work and he wants to think bigger. He’s shaken by Lane’s betrayal and the hand-to-mouth existence employees of the firm seem to be living. He wants meetings with bigger companies. Roger gets him a meeting with Dow.

Here’s what Don tells the executives of Dow, who claim to be happy with the fact that they have 50 percent of market share:

I’ve been looking at what you’re doing and I think you’re in desperate need of change. … Even though success is a reality, its effects are temporary. You get hungry even though you’ve just eaten. … You’re happy with 50 percent? You’re on top, and you don’t have enough. You’re happy because you’re successful. For now. But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness. I won’t settle for 50 percent of anything. I want 100 percent. You’re happy with your agency? You’re not happy with anything. You don’t want most of it, you want all of it. And I won’t stop until you get all of it. Thank you for your time.

That’s the old Don speaking. So is the old Don back — the old Don, whose drive for success and status ultimately compromised his happiness in the earlier seasons of the show? I don’t think so.

It isn’t until later — that is, after the meeting with Dow — that Don learns about Lane’s death. And he’s, of course, visibly shaken by it. It was Don, after all, who demanded earlier in the episode that Lane resign from the company because he embezzled funds. Certainly Don made the right and reasonable call from a business perspective — Lane broke the law and could no longer be trusted to be a partner who is working toward the best interest of the firm. But what are the consequences of his detached businessman’s cool? That’s something that Don is left to consider as he, along with Pete and Roger, struggle to cut Lane’s limp and bruised body down from the makeshift noose in the office.

As the episode comes to a close, a demoralized Don returns to his apartment, where Megan and Sally’s boyfriend, Glen, are waiting. Rather than have Glen take the train back to his Connecticut boarding school, Don decides to drive him the two hours to Hotchkiss. On the elevator down, Glen — who has had his own rough day with Sally and is getting picked on at school — asks Don, “Why does everything turn out crappy? … Every thing you want to do, every thing you think is going to make you happy, just turns to crap.”

“What do you want to do?” Don asks. “If you could do anything, what would you do?”

The show ends with a shot of Don and Glen in Don’s car. Glen is driving it as Don occasionally taps the steering wheel to straighten out the car’s path. Glen is smiling and happy: Thanks to Don’s help, he realizes that “every thing you want to do, every thing you think is going to make you happy” doesn’t have to turn to crap. And Don, for his part, is probably feeling a little better too. In the car with Glen, miles away from New York City, the old Don is extinguished, if just for a moment, by the new Don, who affirms that contributing to another person’s happiness is more meaningful than “having it all.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.