"I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."
That's not from "The Arrangements" but from "The Mountain King" from season 2. That's not Don if you ask me. Yeah, he says the words and all and who am I to tell the people who created him that they don't understand their own creation. It just doesn't feel like him.
And yet, that's the Donald Draper we get for all of season 3. Except, that is, for the very end. In the last two episodes—"The Grown-Ups" and "Shut the Door, Have a Seat". In those Don (and Roger) take control by taking responsibility and they take action. You get a marvelous display of manly men doing what many men do.
But that can't be. So, instead, we get Don spouting lines that don't sound like him: "I have been watching my life. It's right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can't."
Thus, we get a painful scene in which Don and Grandpa Gene talk right past one another. Gene has Bobby out and shows him a Prussian helmet he brought home for the first war. He shows Bobby the hole where the bullet went. Bobby asks if he shot him and Gene says yes ... and then he qualifies it by saying he thinks he did. Why would he say that? Probably because he didn't. Unless he was a sniper, he just fired and hoped, or maybe he didn't. They had a tough time getting infantrymen to fire low in WW1. Too often they fired high out of fear of killing someone.
Gene's war experience is not that different from Don's. He has a helmet he isn't sure he deserves.
And there is something else. When Gene is telling Sally about her grandmother working as a draftsperson he lets slip a line about an engineer whom, he hastens to add, was no threat.
So we have two men who should be able connect not connecting.
And then there is the sleeping beauty twist. The sleeping beauty story is one of a girl who is left vulnerable to evil because her parents tried to protect her from it and left her helpless. It's an oft-retold tale and Betty seems like the latest iteration. Except that, she's a monster.
That's an interesting twist and one that is very apt today when we have a whole bunch of over-protected snowflakes who are, quite simply, monsters who unhesitatingly destroy lives to get what they want. Betty prefigures the type.
But what of Don?
One theory that has been discussed often here is that the best reading of Mad Men is an esoteric one. Now, "esoteric" can mean all sorts of things. What I mean is simply that the text does not mean what it appears to mean on the surface. Usually, when people talk about esoteric writings (or esoteric TV shows) they mean that the creators have intentionally hidden a real meaning under the apparently obvious surface reading. I don't think that is what happened here.
In this case, I think the creators started with two things: 1) a great character and 2) their interpretation of who the character was and what he needed to do to be happy. The problem is that they were just wrong on the second point. This created a tension that runs through the whole series. The great character demanded certain things in order to seem alive and compelling in the story that conflicted with the interpretation of the character the creators favoured.
I'm not the only one to see this. Here are some tweets about the finale culled from a contemporary newspaper article.
The first tweet recognizes that the finale was not a convincing whole. The second tries to get by that by reducing the whole thing to a cynical exercise in promoting Coke. The last blunders into the truth.
Here I make a weird digression to Ignatius of Loyola. While he was in the hospital recovering from a war would, Ignatius entertained two kinds of daydreams.. In the first, he dreamed of being a great lover in the chivalrous tradition. In the second type, he dreamed of being a saint. Bot daydreams gave him pleasure. The difference was that the second lingered while he quickly forgot about the first.
Dick Whitman doesn't really steal the real Don Draper's identity. He takes his name and his legal identity but he uses these to become someone new. He has a bunch of daydreams and some of them take root and others don't. The real Dick Whitman really is Don Draper, not the name or legal identity, but the one he created through his actions.
The end of man is action, and not thought, though it be of the noblest. Thomas Carlyle