For almost a decade in real time, slightly longer in Mad Men story time, Don Draper has been an avatar for something timeless in spite of the perfect 50’s suit he’s finally given up for the dull and ugly 70’s lapel. Outwardly, and especially when getting a view inside his Manhattan apartment, Don has a lot of enviable qualities and riches: a sweet office; the built in understanding that day napping and matinees are part of his creative process and the blandly handsome good looks that we know opens doors, sells goods and seduces almost everyone, for any purpose; power and material wealth.
But Don has something else telegraphed on that blandly handsome face, that mask of a salesman’s intoxicated grin and the scowl of the interrupted napper; he’s a man who’s always been haunted, fearful and wracked with grief. We’ve hung in there, watched and stayed with a protagonist, a friend, for 10 years of our lives who’s simpatico. He’s never been happy. Not when we meet him in the pilot, close to a decade into marriage with the nuclear family, Grace Kelly-alike wife and suburban home, not when getting high or getting lost for a while during long lunches with his lover, not in the peak of performance at work that we’ve seen in far too few scenes that are now far in the rear view of a show winding down in just a few weeks.
We know this sadness and grief stretches to childhood via riveting flashbacks that made the early seasons a maddening side trip for those who were only in it for the Mid-Century Modern, but a breathtaking peek into someone’s Id for those of us who always want more and more subtext. Don’s origins were so dark, they put Superheroes to shame. Born of a prostitute and a customer, he ends up raised by a bible beating step mother who hates him for what he represents, for the sin he is. The child Don, who could have easily been protected from all this shame, never escapes it- even matter of factly telling a hobo who comes for dinner one time “ain’t ya heard? I’m a whoreson.”
By the time we get this Freudian explanation for some of why Don the man is the way he is (there are layers that beautifully take several seasons to peel back, in a pacing never before seen and probably never seen again on TV) it’s a confirmation of our armchair psychologist assessments. Childhood Abandonment. Death of a Parent. Intimacy Issues. Like Mad Men does so capably in so many aspects of its production, there is a surface story, images, design, and reading and at least one deeper, slower, darker, truer, more timeless one going on in almost every frame, every story arc, every character, and especially, every facet of the complex Don Draper.
Jon Hamm was an unknown before this part, a necessary choice for showrunner Matt Weiner, for the writers and for the audience to transcribe meanings onto a generically handsome surface. His unknown status meant he could become Don Draper, shaping the character over years with his own reactions and turns of phrase, aided by the Brylcreem and the gorgeous suits and the well-crafted words of others. The precarious tower of kid’s blocks that is Don Draper was built this way, over years, by those on the production, by the media coverage which embraced the show and found reserves of deep analysis and review that had been put on a shelf since the golden age of print, and by us, the audience. He was not likeable, never using interactions with a child or a dog (advertising-style) to gain sympathy. He was possibly not even loveable, as the unflinching portrayal of a hopeless unrepentant cheater unwound with a rare boldness week after week and year after year. He was, for some, fuckable, for others, the many married or coupled monagamists watching at home, disgusting, even as we claimed in the same era to be less conservative than those depicted on screen. For he shook us to the core. We’d love to think that if we had this or that or that, we’d be happy. Don lives in a fantastic, clean sidewalked, impossibly curatorial department stored world we’ll never know. Money is never a problem. Half of his life is expense account worthy, and he has attained all the beautiful things that are supposed to equal a full life.
Lacking the true family support that so many (even non-orphans) do, rootless, cut off from himself, living what is always, fundamentally, the lie of the shamed child, Don looks like a heroic man, a Clark Kent who just might be Superman. But his looks are incidental. A whore uses the display of these same assets to draw customers and sells intimacy for cold hard cash. The risk of a whore’s life is worse than unwanted pregnancy, inability to work and everyday shame. It’s the occupational hazard of death. Don’s genes, his origin story and his environment betray him in a profound way that cannot heal no matter how much cold hard cash has been thrown at him. Rejecting the stable home he’s built, Don is more at home in risky and anti-social behaviour in the guise of fun, or even business.
Regularly, year in and year out, Don wakes up from an alcoholic haze, unsure of where he is and of who might happen to be lying next to him, a look of blank, self created horror in his eyes. This strikes a nerve in viewers that goes deep below the surface of judgement or dark comedy.
Everyone knows that look, despite your propensity for alcohol, promiscuity or wildness. That look and the sensation in the half-light of dawn happens to everyone sometimes, after a bad dream or a bad sleep or a bad job when for a scary few moments, we don’t know what we are. Don drinks to blot out those human moments of primal fear where insanity, where breakdown, lurks. And he reaches for a warm body to feel less alone. To stave off those fleeting seconds when we need a grown up, until we realize we are the grown up, and we may even be all alone with no one to reach out to. Don is advertising writ large: on his blank ad man sketch of a profile, a talented artist or even careful cut and paster can imply that he endorses this or that liquor, the favoured brand of cigarettes (that are surely killing him) that gleaming boat of a car he drives that we know is more wrong than all the sex, though more beautiful, that he’s proof of talent and drive leading to success (just as he’s become more of a poster boy than anything with an original voice) that he knows anything at all: for he’s become what he always was in his heart, all he ever could achieve even if he does have the financial cushion to keep it from being obvious: a drifter, a hobo, one lacking a code, rootless, loveless, and hopelessly lonely. Don is the timeless, existential loneliness that is the fate of everyone as we were smacked at birth and as we all inevitably die. All the stuff, all the women he touched, the beautiful family, the dream job, none of it has rooted into his heart and fixed any of that broken machinery. None of it can.
By Step On Magazine Editors. In these last weeks leading to Mad Men’s series finale, we will be publishing a number of original essays about various themes of the show, its legacy, its filmic elements and characters.