Culture

Why We're Addicted to Nihilism: The Psychology Behind Mad Men's Empty, Pointless Ending

Sonia Saraiya, writing for Salon, observes the frustration of many fans in the wake of Mad Men‘s rather un-poignant series finale:

I left this finale believing myself to be disappointed in Don Draper, but I’m really disappointed with myself. Disappointed for this narrative of settling for the modern world—which, along with its many perks, like lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy, comes with a horrifying feeling of emptiness from time to time, as we all seem to strive to live an existence that is not great or searing but just okay, just fine, just good enough to get by. Most of us in the first world don’t go bed hungry anymore—but as Peggy observed to the Burger Chef executives, “you’re starving, and not just for dinner.” Don and Peggy and Joan and Sally can’t really flame out beautifully in “Mad Men” because they are modeled to be people just like we are people, and yes, it is disappointing. Some kind of conflagration, of either the body or the soul, would have been so much more cathartic, so much more satisfying. It would have given voice to the roiling emptiness within. But instead we just get scenes from one more day in the lives of these people. One more day is all any of us ever get, until the day we don’t.

It’s a powerful statement coming from a mainstream media source. Not too many are willing to confront the rampant nihilism in today’s media landscape, let alone admit how personally depressed they are by it. Further case in point: Fox’s Backstrom ends with the lead going into rehab because he knows there’s more to life than misery: the show gets cancelled. CBS’s Elementary, facing a similar ratings struggle, has the lead succumb to his heroin addiction: the show is renewed. “Some kind of conflagration” seems to be the ethos of the day, the way to save a dying show. Give the viewers one more train wreck and they’ll keep staring. Depressing doesn’t begin to describe it.

The root of Saraiya’s complaint is that paradise, perfection, nirvana — whatever you want to call it — has been crafted into a commodity that we buy, sell and trade based on personal need. It’s a lame complaint at best, one that accepts the Marxist demand that world perfection is a human struggle instead of a Divine gift. In pursuing the Divine at a hippie retreat, Don retreats into his advertising ethos. Saraiya turns this into an argument against capitalism and, in doing so, caves to the inevitable reality that fed hippie-turned-yuppie disillusionment: You can’t force everyone to drink the Kool Aid (or, in this case, Coke).

Capitalists didn’t turn perfection into a commodity. Marxists simply took it upon themselves to manifest perfection on earth. Like every other revolution before them, the hippies got stuck in the “struggle” bit and have been caught in the muck ever since. Taking a cue from Burning Man, Saraiya’s wish for conflagration echoes the belief that complete destruction is the only way to start over. Think wacko environmentalists who believe humans are a disease on earth and you get the picture. The Kardashians may not be as extreme, but they’re just as pointless.

The sick truth is, no Mad Men fan was hoping for Don to enter some kind of therapy and exit a repaired human being. That was never the way the show was going to go. Right now they’re standing around their office water coolers relishing in their post-series misery the way one would reminisce about a good one-night stand. It was naughty, and now it’s all over, oh woe is me …I can’t wait to do it all again.