Don Draper, Mad Men, the Chevrolet Chevelle, and the End of Innocence

May 19, 2015 04:58 PM EDT | Benjamin Preston

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The last episode of "Mad Men" put front and center a car that became a symbol among American muscle cars.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen the series finale, and don't want learn a little bit about how the show ends, consider watching before reading here.

The automobile made frequent appearances in "Mad Men" throughout the series' eight-year run, from Don Draper's '62 Cadillac Coupe de Ville to the '63 Lincoln Continental his wife, Betty, inherited when her father dies. Some of the four-wheeled props were more prominent than others—those of you who watched the show will remember seeing a Jaguar XKE and a Chevrolet Camaro, but perhaps won't have noticed the Ford and Dodge trucks, delivery vans and vintage taxicabs that dotted the show's automotive landscape. Matthew Weiner, the show's creator, seemed always to make sure cars enhanced, rather than overshadowed character development, but they were, by necessity, a strong presence in a show about the 1960s, when cars reached the apogee of their significance as cultural objects.

So it seemed appropriate that the final episode of a show set in a decade when personal freedom and self expression expanded to an extent never seen before would feature a car in its opening moments. And not just any car, but a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle SS. It was an awesome car at the time and is still awesome today, but more importantly, it was a symbol. The 1970 Chevelle SS was a swan song of sorts for the muscle car era. Never again would such unbridled power—the sort which could exist in its purest form, without much regard for carbon emissions levels, safety features or other drab, worldly considerations—be available in a production car.

The very next year, American automakers began their spiral into the darkness of the Malaise years, choking engines with emissions controls and adding bulky safety items. Those changes were, to be sure, aimed at the betterment of the human condition. But it took a long time for the industry to come to that realization, and as a result, its cars, and automotive culture in general, experienced a setback. As when the first shots were fired at Kent State, the change was irrevocable.

But in the last episode of "Mad Men," we see a snapshot of a sunny moment, the clouds looming behind it not yet in view. Don Draper, the semi-retired ad man and erstwhile used car salesman, is helmeted and behind the wheel of a race-prepped Chevelle as it screams across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Don's sweaty face, the speeding, shuddering car, the salty dust billowing behind it: they're all evocative of the kind of visceral experience of manhandling a machine along the edge of destruction. It's like the '60s; reason takes a back seat in the search for the next thrilling frontier.

Was the dry lake bed some sort of metaphor for the gradual shedding of personal belongings and responsibilities that had occurred over the previous few episodes? Who knows.

Was it Weiner's way of speeding his main character toward some kind of resolution? Maybe, although the audience's brush with car and its unexpected context was even more brief than the time it took Don to get a woman into bed in the beginning of the episode.

That Chevelle was visual poetry. It described perfectly the end of innocence. Like a fully grown teenager ready to erupt into the shadowy intricacies of adulthood, it made one last, noisy show before the messy work of building a better tomorrow got underway. "Mad Men" may have been largely about a man trying to find his identity among the many false ones he had created for himself, but the backdrop was a historiography about a time when America sought to find itself, again.

For better or worse, the '60s are over. But I, for one, am glad that the creators of "Mad Men," a show that so many people watch, saw fit to celebrate a car that so perfectly captured the nexus between optimism, strength, open-mindedness and lack of responsibilities.

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