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Mad Men: Don Draper's America

05/19/2015 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

Now that Mad Men has reached its endpoint, with critics dissecting its meaning and import, not to mention its influence and destiny during awards season, it is time to further point out its antecedents in literature. In a penultimate episode, the viewer could contemplate Don Draper's demise by dropping from the windows of McCann-Erickson, as he took a look out and measured the window's width, eying the vista sadly. The viewer could only conclude he would make this fatal jump. But in the finale, he's seated in lotus position on a cliff at Esalin, chanting. The end of all his bad boy behavior, identity crises, marital troubles, ambivalence about the world, he's on the West Coast far away from the business of advertising and family. Learning from Sally that Betty is soon to die of lung cancer, he is asked to stay away, finding out you can't go home again, in the words of Thomas Wolfe, an American author of the early 20th century who died at age 33 after completing only four novels. Of course that's a lesson he's learned again and again through seven seasons.

The author Thomas Wolfe has been out of style for a while, but he was all the rage in the midcentury, his elegiac rhythms an influence upon Jack Kerouacs. In that penultimate episode, in a dream sequence when Don drives cross-country in hot pursuit of a waitress named Diana (although it is not really clear what he is chasing), the recently deceased Burt Cooper chats with him from the passenger seat, quoting On the Road: "Whither goest thou America in thy shiny new car in the night?" It is an eloquent moment in the series, summing up so much of the Don's vacillating emotions, his world in flux. If Cooper is a ghost, so too is the Ghost of the Susquehanna that chases Kerouac's Sal Paradise as he traverses the American highways seeking his hearthside ideal, and reminding him of the presence of death even in the joy of life's exuberance. It's a ghost of American ideals, a dream that has no traction, and can only be experienced in fleeting glimpses. That Mad Men's creator Matthew Weiner could capture the ethos is his, and his show's genius. Shanti. Shanti. Shanti.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.