Oh “Mad Men,” how I have loved you. The drinking, the smoking, the infidelity, the misogyny, the midcentury modern decor. It's all been wonderful.
And for me — an East Coast transplant watching from my fake Mission-era couch in my bastardized California bungalow — perhaps the best part has been watching Don Draper and company spend time in sunny 1960s Southern California.
“Mad Men” makes Los Angeles into the luminous city I always expected it to be. I moved to L.A. from gray and gloomy Washington to find that shiny city. Maybe I arrived too late, but on “Mad Men” it still exists.
On Draper's first trip to L.A. in Season 2, TWA loses his luggage, and we see him in his gray flannel suit standing by the hotel pool — the usually suave advertising exec looking awkward and stodgy surrounded by laid-back Angelenos. Halfway through the episode he finally sheds his wingtips and ends up in the proverbial hot tub with a pretty, naked woman.
“Who are you?” Draper asks, and he is asking himself as much as her. “I am Joy,” she says.
But there is something rumbling beneath the sunshine and saturated colors. L.A. is the place where Draper's past begins to bubble and erupt. He's uncomfortable not just in his suit but in his skin. He picks up the phone. We think he's calling his wife, Betty, until he says, “Hello. It's Dick Whitman.”
Who is Dick Whitman? Who is Don Draper? In the next episode we learn that Dick Whitman assumed the name of Don Draper, a fellow soldier and Californian who was killed in the Korean War. Only one forgiving, understanding woman, Anna, the soldier's widow, knows the truth.
Of course Whitman tried to reinvent himself in L.A.; reinvention is the city's stock in trade. And it doesn't happen just once.
Through the seven seasons of “Mad Men,” Los Angeles comes to signify new beginnings. In Season 4, on a trip to Disneyland as a divorced father, Don watches his secretary, Megan Calvet, interact with his children and falls in love with her. Away from the expectations and disapproval of the office in New York, he becomes his best self. He sees in her — and in Southern California — all the answers to what's wrong with his life. He asks her to marry him, offering her the ring given to him by Anna Draper. He has a chance to be reborn as a monogamous husband.
But back in New York, that chance meets East Coast reality. Megan's acting career hits the rocks, Draper misbehaves, and their marriage falters. Once again, it's Los Angeles that Don seizes on as a place for them to start over.
“We were happy there,” he says with tears in his eyes. “We can be happy again.” Megan buys it completely.
When Sterling Cooper & Partners sets up an L.A. office, it's just what the Mad Men need, a place for unhappy ad executives to hide and to transform. It is the gleaming citadel from which various Manhattan refugees — Pete, Ted — go to do battle with their pasts and their regrets. Don should join them, but he won't — can't — escape New York's harder edges.
Megan goes to L.A. without him, and at first, she and the others begin to emerge from their East Coast cocoons as tanned, successful, counterculture butterflies. But then the L.A. facade begins to crumble. Megan still can't make it as an actress. She and Don can't repair their marriage. Pete's smiles seem more and more forced. Ted misses Peggy. Could it be that L.A. is just a city?
At the end of last season, no one is saved. Too little was truly changed. Draper stays in New York. Whether he goes by Dick or Don or any other name, he's stuck being the man he always was. And isn't that the way it has to be?
I left the serious, conservative, angsty world of Beltway political work to become an easygoing screenwriter in L.A. I would laugh more, exercise more, be better in every way. But I've never had a single meeting by a pool. I find the sunshine relentless, and I'd still rather be inside writing or reading the newspaper or a book. It doesn't matter which coast I'm on, I'm not laid-back. I hate to jog and now I hate Pilates too.
Like the Mad Men, I found L.A.'s luminosity was oversold. Maybe the sky has fewer clouds. Maybe there are more beautiful people than most places. But my life here has not been glamorous or star-studded. It's just been my life, filled with happiness and disappointments like anybody's anywhere.
Like Don, I wanted Los Angeles to change me. It didn't. Now I know that no matter where I go or what kind of car I drive or whatever view I look at out my living room window, it can't make me anybody other than who I am.
But as the final season of “Mad Men” begins, I fervently hope for Don Draper to find my missing magic -- here or in New York or wherever he ends up -- and be totally transformed. He's a character in a story, after all. I'll be sitting on my couch waiting.
Diana Wagman's latest novel, "Life #6," will be published in May.