Last weekend, I watched the last season of Mad Men. If you know me, or have any sense of my sensibilities, you might be surprised to know that was the first time I watched it. After all, it’s been in the world since last spring and, as a devoted mid-century aesthete, I’ve been obsessed with Mad Men since it premiered in 2007. I’ve seen every episode of the series more than once, used to write philosophical essays about each on my website and regularly immersed myself in others’ essays and recaps. I love Mad Men. Yet I’ve been deliberately avoiding the most recent chapter of the story for over a year.
The reason for this is the reason Mad Men is relevant in the first place. It’s only a drama about mid-century culture and history on the surface. Underneath, it’s really about our lives as we live them now. As a result, sometimes that story of careful artifice, unmoored modernism and unfulfilled expectations reflects reality too closely to be entirely comfortable. Granted, art should often make us uncomfortable. But even aesthetes occasionally need a break. And then, necessarily, a restart.
The story of the character central to the show, Don Draper, has always been one of starting over. Of reinvention. To youth, reinvention is a story about power and possibility, of slickness and ease and the ability to escape unwanted bonds. This is what people who think Don Draper is a hero see when they look at him. But his story has inevitably been morphing towards its natural conclusion, which is one that everyone catches on to as they get older: reinvention without deep-rooted growth is merely borrowing time. If you can make anyone believe you are what you want to be, you will eventually come to question why you even want to. And even if people believe a positive image of you—maybe especially when people believe a positive image of you—it will not save you. Instead, they will take over the story you started to tell and dictate its ending to you.
The stories we tell about starting over end up precluding us from actually being able to do it. We think in order to start over, we have to find new places, new jobs, new people, new revelations, and we have to do it all at once, in a single dramatic sweep, or it isn’t real. We think starting over is about finding new external solutions. But the only way to start over is to do it slowly, and take as much of yourself with you as you can. Otherwise, starting over will become the same habit of trying to get what you need from what happens to be around you. Otherwise, starting over will become the series of same mistakes you make over and over again.
In the second half of the last season, Pete says to Don, reflecting on their divorces and moves and future: “You think you’re going to begin your life again and do it right. What if you never get past the beginning?”
It seems to me the story of most of the people I’ve ever known has been a series of failed beginnings. All that differs is how they reacted to it: with anger, bitterness, fear, denial, apathy, acceptance, avoidance. I grew older, and I started to see the same happen to me. I recognized my mother and father’s mistakes made over again. However many years that go by, people really rarely change.
So we tell that story. We hope recognition will divert our course, that awareness will create a new path. Maybe it will. Unlike Mad Men, our storylines won’t be tied up neatly, and it will take a lot longer for us to reach the end. It’s messy enough to hope. But it’s difficult to live every day with the awareness that hope requires. We’ll take breaks. Then we’ll get up and try again. Because, if we learn anything from the stories we tell, we learn that while starting over is difficult and confusing and heartbreaking, not doing so is worse.