What struck me the most about the 2009 Jason Reitman film, Up in the Air, is how that movie illustrated how important our jobs are to our identities. As George Clooney’s character travels around the country firing people, it’s often not the loss of the income that affects those terminated employees the most, it’s the loss of their identity. This was their life for twenty or thirty years, their job is how they were known to other people, to the friends, to their families, and to have it taken away from them was like taking away who they are, the single biggest defining characteristic of their personality. In the end of that film, George Clooney’s character, likewise, gave up any shot of a relationship or a meaningful social life to continue flying around the country firing people, because that’s who he was: The guy with 10 million frequent flyer miles.
In the most recent episode of Mad Men, “Field Trip,” it dawned on me that Don Draper is not unlike George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air. Don Draper or Dick Whitman — the name has never been that important to him. It’s the job, because that’s how he is defined. It’s who he is: Creative Director of Sterling Cooper. It’s how he wants to be seen in the world. It’s what makes Don Don. Without the job, he is impotent. He has no meaning.
“I know how I want you to see me,” Don Draper says to Megan to explain why he couldn’t tell her that he’d been fired until he’d fixed his situation. But it’s not just how he wants Megan to see him. It’s how he wants to be seen by the world. It’s his job that makes him a man. It gives him his confidence, his sense of purpose. Everything in his life — the expensive dinners, the nice apartment in the city, the two wives, the mistresses, the respect of his colleagues — came because of his job. When he turned down the advances of Neve Campbell’s character, or the stewardess, or Emily Arnett, he may have told himself it was because he was trying to be a better husband, but the truth is, he couldn’t be the philandering ad man anymore because he wasn’t an ad man. The job was the source of his power, and without it, Don Draper felt naked. That’s why he was feeding pitches to Freddy Rumsen and checking in with Dawn every day, because at least it allowed him to continue being that person in his own mind.
It’s also why in the end he had to say “OK” to the offer the partners put on the table. He knew what a terrible deal it was. He knew that if he turned it down, he’d still have enough money to be set for a very long time, and he knew that Megan didn’t care if he had that job or not. But Don did. It was never about the money to him. It was about his identity, and how that job gave him the ability to detach himself from Dick Whitman, the high-school drop-out raised in a whorehouse, who was beaten by his old man, who was raped by a prostitute.
At the end of Up in the Air, when George Clooney’s character crossed the 10 million mile mark with his frequent flyer miles and realized that that would be the sum of his life, it was a depressing thought for the audience: My God, how empty an existence that must be! But for Clooney’s character, that’s who he was, it’s who he needed to be. It was his story, what he told the other people he met. It’s how he wanted to be seen.
Mad Men is the story of Don Draper, and the only relationship that will ever make Don Draper truly happy is the one that he has with his job, and the only people who will have any real meaning to him — besides arguably, Sally Draper — are those who mean something to him by virtue of his career. They’re the only relationships that have ever lasted.
So, if you want to know how Mad Men is going to end at the end of 1969, you only need to understand one thing, and that’s who Don Draper is, and who he wants to be: He’s a man defined by his job. Don Draper is never going to have a Jerry Maguire “You complete me” moment with anyone else, because the only thing that completes him is his work. He’s not going to run off with anyone. He’s not going to jump to his death, and he sure as hell isn’t going to change his identity again. 1970 is going to be begin the same way almost every year begins for Don Draper: With him pitching to clients. It may be as creative director of Sterling Cooper again. It may be as part of a different firm that Don starts with Peggy or Joan or Roger. It may be in Los Angeles. But you can bet your ass that selling illusions to other companies about their products is what Don Draper will be doing. It’s what he’s going to do until the day he drops dead because that’s who Don Draper needs to be.