By now all the spoilers are out. In the age of the interwebs, it’s pretty much unavoidable. Still if you haven’t watched the season finale of Mad Men and don’t want to know anything about those photos of what appears to be Don Draper meditating, then we warn you, read no further. Do not pass go. BUT, if you’ve been trying to guess what real-life magical retreat-land at which Mad Men‘s main character ended up achieving Donlightenment, keep reading.
We bet based on the context, the era, and the gorgeous Pacific coast landscape that a lot of you could already make a pretty good guess that the site of Don’s final scene on the show was potentially none other than the Esalen Institute. Did you already figure that one out? Nestled right atop the amazing cliffs of Big Sur, California, Esalen was established in 1962 as “a university without academic trappings, which would combine the best of Western humanistic psychology and Eastern thought,” according to a 1970 TIME magazine article.
Still going strong today, the Institute is likely where Don Draper would have found himself, literally and figuratively.
Mad Men‘s seminar scenes, including the one in which a man’s confession seemingly inspires an emotional, tearful breakthrough for Don, recall Esalen’s “encounter groups.” TIME’s Andrea Svedberg, explained: “People touch, hold hands, kiss, throw each other up in the air, fight, use all the dirty words, tell each other cruel truths. Every aspect of so-called proper behavior is discarded. Every emotion is out in the open—everybody’s property.”
In a 2012 interview with the Huffington Post—upon Esalen’s 50th anniversary—its current president Gordon Wheeler framed Esalen in opposition to the world of Mad Men: “I can’t watch Mad Men without an anxiety attack because that was the world I saw looming ahead of me. But instead, Esalen happened.”
Esalen also likely happened to Mad Men‘s protagonist but whether or not the experience actually transformed him, or simply led him to come up with one of the greatest advertisements of all time, is still up for debate.
The Institute describes itself as “neither a school, nor a church, nor a spa, nor an inn, nor a monastery… and yet its utterly unique mixture contains a bit of all of the above,” and carries with it a storied past of famous mind-explorer guests/teachers including Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, and Joseph Campbell. The 1970 setting of Mad Men‘s finale would make it the prime spot for Don to do some yoga, have a good cry, and come to some self-realizations, whatever they may be.