In Don Draper's last scene in May's series finale of "Mad Men," the tormented ad man flashes a beatific smile while meditating on a hilltop as he conceives the greatest commercial of them all: Coca-Cola’s "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" spot.
Jon Hamm, who breathed boozy life into Draper for seven seasons, said more with that final expression than with all the verbal acrobatics and emotional swings he projected over seven seasons through a character forever in conflict with himself. The actor has earned a reason to flash a blissful smile of his own, come September, with a long-denied Emmy win.
Hamm's Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series nomination, announced Thursday, kicks off his last chance to take the prize after seven straight losses, including four to "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston. The "Mad Men" actor also is up against some strong competitors this time around, among them “House of Cards” star Kevin Spacey and Jeff Daniels, the 2013 winner for “The Newsroom” (but not, surprisingly, Terrence Howard of “Empire”).
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The appearance of handing out awards to make up for past slights can be a tricky business. After getting an honorary Oscar in 1986, Paul Newman won a Best Actor trophy the next year for "The Color of Money," a sequel to 1961's "The Hustler." Newman gave a fine performance, but didn't match past Oscar-worthy turns from "The Hustler" to "Cool Hand Luke" to "The Sting."
Hamm, though, left "Mad Men" at the top of his game. In Don Draper, he presented viewers with a strutting identity crisis, tightly wrapped in a gray flannel suit. We've seen Draper as a cruel womanizer and a confused dad, as a brilliant salesman and a self-destructive workplace scourge, as a wealthy, powerful executive and a poor, scared farm boy, in the form of Dick Whitman, his original incarnation.
The final seven episodes of the 1960s AMC drama brought Draper's identity search, if not full circle, then to a new level of urgency. Draper's final road-trip quest to find himself led him to an unhealthy obsession with a waitress haunted by tragedy, to revealing his Korea War origin story to some grizzled veterans and to tearfully embracing a fellow lost soul at a commune.
Along the way, Hamm peeled away new layers of Draper, who remained uneasy in his own skin until his final on-screen moment.
Don Draper ultimately found himself by creating an unforgettable ad. Jon Hamm, at the very least, deserves to find himself on the Emmy stage for portraying an unforgettable, iconic TV character who exited smiling, on a hilltop, on a high note.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.