Readers of a certain age may remember a television commercial about a boy, a bottle of ketchup, and a hamburger: In alternating close-ups, viewers witnessed the condiment’s slow descent and the boy’s ever-heightening expectancy, all while Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” blared seductively in the background. The ketchup poured; the burger was put to the bite: “Worth the wait,” we were told.
The commercial was so successful for Heinz that twenty years later they would refer back to the ad when introducing their squeeze bottle and a new sloganthe truthful but much less memorable “No Wait. No Mess. No Anticipation.”
Both ads could have come from the mind of Mad Men’s Don Draper, an advertising genius whohaving been raised in a seedy brothel, and then having stolen the identify of another man in order to abandon his pastachieved dynamic success while manipulating stories for maximum effect, and near-ruin, for telling the truth.
Matthew Weiner, who created Draper and the men and women of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, is a genius, too. WithThe Sopranos, Weiner ushered in what has become an era of great original television programming. Mad Men has only burnished his reputation as a creator of memorable characters that hold us spellbound, because within them we see just enough of ourselves to be endlessly fascinated.
Still, when Weiner announced that Mad Men’s seventh and final season would be interrupted halfway throughand that a denouement seven years in the making would be held tantalizingly out-of-reach for nearly another yearit felt too clever by half and a little creepy, to boot.
Weiner knows it is creepy; he signaled as much when he showed us Don Draper, returning to his office after a lengthy suspension and being received poorly by his longtime colleaguesparticularly by Peggy Olsen and Joan Harris, who seemed to find him downright repellent.
While there might never be a good time to announce a background of bordello-bastardry, Draper’s suspension had been precipitated by a particularly ill-timed revelation made before clients. Upon his return, his fellows find it almost intolerable to be in his presence because in knowing him, they see themselves, and they are not fascinated. The illusory Draper had been a screen upon which they might project their ambitions but Dick Whitman, the benign innocent brought up among hussies, shows them too much about their own costly whoring.
Amid the men, this is difficult enough, but Peggy Olsen has a secret, unacknowledged child and only Don Draper knows it. The supremely gifted Joan Harris prostituted herself for an account, and only Draper tried, too late, to stop her. His behavior toward both women, for better or worse, never changed as their circumstances did, and that paradoxically makes his presence all the more intolerable for them, because it singes memory, strips away illusion andgiven his lowly backgroundimplies an undesirable parity. He is an unfortunate, and a nobody. And so are they.
There is an irony, here: A man of shadows, Don Draper has unexpectedly become a light of truth; his co-workers stand revealed to themselves as the same despised strumpets and pimps of his life’s earlier acquaintance, only working among a “better” class. They try to slap away this uncomfortable reality by offering him an insulting contract. Draper, seeming to perceive the fear at work in the offer, defeats them by accepting it. Whether this humiliation means he is willing to simply rejoin the prostitutes, or wants to make war upon themor hopes to earn redemption for himself and for them toois the dangle that will keep viewers coming back.
Delaying viewer gratification in order to create an “event” finale may be a smart (and increasingly common) tactic for cable dramas, but when it comes to Mad Men, it seems intentionally meta, and here’s why: Weiner’s Madison Avenue story has given viewers a tutorial on how creative agencies and media manage first to influence, then to predict, then to anticipate behavior untilall without realizing itthe public has become controllable, programmable. People who are willing to perceive slow ketchup as beguiling because the pitch sounds and looks good, are people who can be made to wait for thingsparticularly if, while they are waiting, they are treated to teasers, reminders, strategically released secondary projects and retrospectives all meant to promote a sense of anticipation for a cultural “moment” in which they will happily participate, even if, as with the finale of The Sopranos, they are ultimately left unsatisfied.
We are being manipulated by a media and marketing master, and now we know it. We completely understand that Weiner is contriving a pop-culture touchstone for future reference, and in our continued viewing we participate in and accentuate the meta. Mad Men is the story of people whofrom the prostitutes of Don Draper’s youth, to his colleagues on Madison Avenueare all selling the same thing: anticipation; the promise of something great, and fulfilling. And it’s about the sad patrons, too, who keep believing and buying, even though the transactions are mostly empty and unsatisfying, because true contentment is elusive and usually has nothing to do with what excites our imaginings.
Weiner, in forthrightly withholding the gratification of a climatic conclusion in 2014 is selling the same anticipation. Our willingness to buy it is what creates this tease of a funhouse mirror: We await the promise of fulfillment brought to us by a man telling a story about people who sell the promise of fulfillment to strangers, who know that what they’re buying will never give them the thing they seek, which is the same thing the people at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are ultimately seeking: redemption.
And redemption, at least, is worthy of anticipation. In a story and in life, it’s worth waiting for.
Elizabeth Scalia is the author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols of Everyday Life and the managing editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos.com, where she blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles can be found here.