On the surface, the Easter story is simple. A man is crucified. He dies and is buried. A few days later, he returns from the dead. But resurrection is more complicated than that. In the Bible, before his death, one of the miracles that Jesus enacts is raising a believer from the dead. Lazarus has been dead for four days when Jesus brings him back, calling his follower forth from the grave. You will often hear this act referred to as the resurrection of Lazarus, but that’s not strictly accurate. What Lazarus experienced was not resurrection, but resuscitation. When Jesus was resurrected, he was not merely raised from the dead. He returned transformed, to the extent that his followers, his closest companions, did not immediately recognize him. He was changed. He was a version of himself, one who still bore the wounds from his past, but he was not the same.
For a show so taken with themes of death and rebirth, it’s no surprise that Mad Men makes its final (half) season premiere on Easter Sunday. From the moment viewers thought to ask, “Who is Dick Whitman?”, Mad Men cemented itself in the foreground of any television-based conversation about what it is to be born again—even if not in a strictly theological sense. Time and again throughout its six-and-a-half seasons, Mad Men has dug into what it means to find new life out of life’s ruins.
The theme is ever-present throughout the run of the show, whether it’s Joan finding a way to secure her future at the firm after becoming a single mother or Betty using her newfound backbone to secure a life more to her expectations. The series is dedicated to portraying all of the many ways people attempt to reinvent themselves in the wake of misfortune.
The most easily identifiable example of a resurrection tale on the series is clearly that of Don Draper. Born Dick Whitman, son of a prostitute and a drunk, Dick was an orphan by age 10, raised by people who didn’t care whether he lived or died. He adopted his superior officer’s identity upon his death, leaving his old life behind and remaking himself in accordance with an image he alone created for himself. The resurrection narrative seems obvious—a man fakes his own death to be born anew. But that’s not quite how resurrection works, and on some level, Mad Men knows that.
Resuscitation and resurrection are often used interchangeably, but the subtleties between them make all the difference. There are two ways you can come back from the dead: you come back the same or you come back different. With resuscitation you come back to your life, regardless of circumstances, but you are fundamentally the same person. With resurrection, you are that phoenix rising from the ashes, remade through fire. You are the risen Christ. You are changed.
Theoretically, Don did the latter. But as Mad Men’s story has unfolded and as audiences have struggled watching Don making the same mistakes over and over, it’s become ever more obvious that he never really stopped being Dick Whitman. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see this as early as season two’s “Three Sundays,” an episode that, handily enough, concludes on Easter.
Throughout the episode, Betty struggles with the casual lies of young Bobby (whose continual recasting throughout the run of the show is a resurrection essay in and of itself) and tries to discipline him. She begs Don to deal with his son, to spank him and set him straight. Don quails at the thought. As brilliant as he may be and as well as he may live, Don hasn’t stopped being that abused, unloved little boy who lived in fear every day of his life. It’s not that he bears the scars of who he once was. It’s that he can’t truly be Don Draper because he’s far too consumed with the idea of not being Dick Whitman.
To better illuminate the difference, contrast Don with the one character on Mad Men who has been wholly and completely resurrected: Peggy Olson.
In its first season, Mad Men took Peggy on what seemed a vaguely predictable journey. A precocious upstart in a sexist industry, Peggy was waylaid by an ill-advised sexual encounter and paid the ultimate price with an unwanted pregnancy. But the show had very different plans for Peggy, who was so single-minded that she lived in denial about her changed physical state until she went into labor. Even after giving birth, she refused to acknowledge her new reality, to the extent that it landed her in the psych ward. These beats are similar to those of Dick Whitman’s: a young person at odds with their circumstances, doomed to pay the price for things beyond their control. But Peggy’s path was soon to split from Dick’s in a very significant way.
The brilliance of Peggy’s arc further illustrates the ways in which Don has not evolved. It was Don himself who visited Peggy in the hospital, instructing her to do whatever she needed in order to get out and move forward. “This never happened,” he says. “It will shock you how much it never happened.” The advice that Don gives her is the advice he believes he himself lived when taking on his new persona, but in contrast to her self-deceiving mentor, Peggy takes it to heart. She returns to work a changed woman, unbroken by what she experienced, but determined that she will make good on the opportunity afforded her. Peggy still bears the scars of the son she gave up for adoption. She doesn’t deny that it happened, but she actively tries to put it in her past, to forget it. The Don we’ve seen since season one has never been so skillful.
In Christian theology, Jesus was entombed for three days. He died on a Friday, was resurrected on a Sunday. What happened on that Saturday, usually known as Holy Saturday, is one of the central mysteries of the faith. He existed somewhere between life and death, nowhere and everywhere all at once. There are theologians who argue that the tale of Christ’s death and resurrection only has meaning if it entails the whole of the story, the tragedy of death and the triumph of rebirth. In that case, Holy Saturday is the height of drama. It’s the day where everything is heartache and loss and where the redemption we hope for is uncertain. It’s the ache of being trapped between a place we used to know and a place we long to be. Holy Saturday has nothing and it has everything.
Perhaps Mad Men is the tale of Don Draper’s resurrection, just not as we’ve expected it. Perhaps the whole of the series has been Don’s Holy Saturday. Perhaps he is wandering, caught between life and loss, his fate in the hands of something larger than himself. Such a fate would render moot the criticism that Don’s self-destructive decisions are “repetitive.” Being mired in some nebulous other, some region between life and death, is reason enough to never be able to enact real change.
Think of how Don repeatedly sees things that other people do not, especially visions of individuals who no longer walk this plane of existence. Whether spurred by stress or alcohol or trauma, Don has long had one foot in a spiritual realm he doesn’t even believe in, a realm populated by Anna Draper and his father and, eventually, Bert Cooper. Having this inexplicable tie to a metaphysical unknown only speaks to the reality that Don has always seemed a bit like a man out of step with the world around him.
In “Waterloo,” the midseason finale of season seven, Don, defeated, tells Megan that the firm wants him to move on, to which she responds, “Maybe you should.” Maybe this is finally Don Draper’s moment, perched on the precipice of a decision, finally ready to decide whether to live or to die.
The sun is rising on the final days of Mad Men. Others have grown and changed, have chosen the old ways of death or the new ways of resurrection. All that’s left is to roll the stone away and see whether Don Draper is able to throw off the shackles of death that have haunted him since the pilot, to emerge the resurrected man he never was.