Imperfect Offerings

Stories, interviews, and commentaries on accepting one's own—and other people's—limitations.

A Prayer for Serenity Shapes Mad Men's Latest Episode

Free Fall Vs. Serenity: It's Not Over 'Til It's Over!

As a child, I memorized without understanding a short prayer on a plaque in my grandparents’ guest bedroom. I loved the curlicued lettering and somber tone. Later, I learned that the “Serenity Prayer” expresses the creed of Alcoholics Anonymous, the group to which my uncle attributed his sobriety after hitting bottom. God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, wisdom to know the difference. I’m not in a position to debate AA as a recovery method, to advocate for religion, or to instruct on the nature of addiction. I know from personal experience, however, that the Serenity Prayer holds power to deepen breath, ease muscles, and shape intention and action--something I thought about on Sunday night as I watched AMC’s "Mad Men"--a show that usually mythologizes Serenity’s opposites: teeth-clenching ambition, deception, and addiction.

As reviewers note, many of the characters in the Season 7, episode 2 of “A Day’s Work” find themselves at the mercy of things they cannot change: Dawn and Shirley absorb the lodged racism of their white employers; Peggy, Ted’s resolved distance; Joan, the greater, whimsically enacted power of male colleagues; Pete, his lack of status at work; Don, his enforced absence from work; and Sally, her father’s propensity to lie.

When characters accept their powerless over obstacles, we see levity and tenderness. Dawn and Shirley laughingly call each other by their own names—accepting/mocking the fact of their white employers’ racist blindness. Pete looks dumbfounded then relieved when Bonnie reminds him (paraphrasing here) that Acts of God happen to all of us. Sally relents and shares a meal with her embarrassing father, having taken in that he’s no longer large and in charge.

When characters find the courage to change the things they can, the show moves. Dawn, the most serene of them all, “pretends” when she has to, but sticks up for herself when she can, reminding Lou that she was out buying a Valentines present for his wife when he wanted her at his desk; indirectly this self-assertion leads her to Joan’s job. Meanwhile, afraid to move on from Ted’s rejection, Peggy scrabbles gerbil-like in a petty cycle of drink-fueled denial—ostentatiously muscling Shirley’s roses (that she assumes are hers from Ted) back and forth from her desk to outer office, then blaming Shirley for her embarrassment when she learns the truth.

Wisdom hangs in the balance for Don Draper at the end of “A Day’s Work.” Battling addictions to alcohol and deceptive control, the ad man clings to image over reality—getting dressed in work clothes at 8 PM after a day of watching “Little Rascals” in order to meet his secretary who delivers (off-the-clock) news of the job from which he’s barred. When his daughter asks why he can’t move to LA with his wife now that he’s out of work, he offers the vague admission that he’s in New York “to fix things.” “How?” Sally asks. “I don’t know,” Don admits, a clearer truth.

Many "Mad Men" fans wonder if the final show will reveal Don as the falling man in the weekly opening sequence: he has already been jailed, lost his job, alienated his second wife, betrayed his daughter. He has stared out the window while drinking, and into an elevator with no floor while drunk. But it’s not over until it’s over. What might the final season of "Mad Men" look like if Draper accepts what he can’t change: his past; the ethical and creative limits of the ad world; his tendency towards addiction? Or fights to change the things he can—his dishonesty; his inauthentic relationships; his profession or at least his professional approach?

At the end of season 7’s 2nd episode, Sally tells her father in curt teenage fashion, “I love you. Happy Valentine’s Day.” This deadpan admission strikes both tensely sweet (she knows him and loves him) and painfully telling (it’s Valentine’s Day and he hasn’t even talked to his wife.) The line startles because nothing the great manipulator Don has said could have forced it.

The truths we can’t change are sometimes painful, beautiful, and motivating. If Don Draper finds the courage to embrace serenity, this will be a character arc more surprising and dramatic than any drunken free fall to the pavement.

 

Karen Sosnoski, Ph.D., is a mother, writer, and documentary filmmaker.

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