Having invented the role to escape the destiny of his birth, Don Draper’s ironic fate is to be a Mad Man.
Every culture has its roles: masks, personae, castes. Many of them even come with their own hats: a wizard’s peaked stocking cap, a professor’s mortarboard, Don Draper’s fedora. In some cultures, the role is the man. In a caste society, for instance, people are intended to identify with their roles, born into them as we are into our sexes, races, or whatever you consider unalterable, though external, to your true self. You aren’t just playing a man or a woman, a farmer or a priest, though the term “persona” comes from one for “mask.” You are a warrior’s wife, or a merchant, or a king.
In the West, we value individuality more. Even the king is not only, ideally, a king: he has personal desires and beliefs, weaknesses and interests, that have nothing to do with sovereign rule. American royalty—our most charismatic Presidents, our Hollywood stars—are not just beautiful, but are expected to have personalities distinct from being a politician or an actor. In America, land of cowboys and advertising executives, the man is supposed to devise the role and play it, but not to imagine he could never be anything else. In American stories, the hero often transcends his role: his “true self” triumphing over a system that would crush him into place.
Don Draper was being crushed by circumstances: the poverty of his childhood, the war of his young adulthood. He took an opportunity when it presented itself, and then another, using ingenuity and hard work to rise to a previously undreamed of level of success. Draper and his contemporaries are myth-makers: they create the role of the advertising executive, the “Mad Man,” and they enact it. Every person that followed in their footsteps down Madison Avenue puts on the mask that the original Don Drapers invented.
But even as creative as they were, they invented a mask, not the idea of a mask. Men in the 1960s wore hats; they didn’t invent the hat.
In one of Joseph Campbell’s lectures, on psyche and identity, he describes a man very much like Don Draper: a man who identifies exclusively with his roles as a business executive and family man. Campbell calls this man a “stuffed shirt,” and the audience giggles. Assuming a role and identifying with it to the point that escaping it is impossible, is a failure to develop one’s critical faculties in this arena. This is the preferred strategy in a culture that privileges the mask over the man, where people have very little opportunity to change their lives as Draper did. Westerners, who prize class mobility, choose everything for themselves, starting with a flavor of ice cream and going on to choose our jobs and spouses. We discern and take responsibility for decisions that in other places and times, would have been entirely out of our control. In a dharma-based society, you just don’t have this kind of agency: things happen to you.
A feature of “Mad Men” for the modern viewing audience is how much more Western American culture has become since the 1960s. Characters like a gay Italian-American and a working class single mother with professional aspirations, stand out for me as warnings that there would have been few places for someone with as robust a 21st century ego as mine in matters of persona. I would have had to choose a profession in which my ethnicity, gender, sex, and sexuality could be hidden or would be permitted to exist, in however sublimated a form.
But Don Draper takes so much agency in his work, you say. He changes his name, his backstory; he revolutionizes advertising. Yes, but does he revolutionize his private life? Many men returned from World War II and became other people: they slipped the bonds of class and geography; even markers of identity like race could disappear, when a soldier returned to the States, though most did not reinvent themselves as thoroughly as does Draper. Marriage? His personal life explodes in exactly the way we expect star executives to combust: his first wife leaves him, to be replaced by an even younger and more beautiful woman. Alcohol use? He drowns in exactly as much whiskey and vice as it takes to keep up with appearances. He can’t seem to see himself, or he would not be able to make the same mistake each time cracks appear in the visage: that of applying another layer of paint to his mask.
Sati, or suttee, as it is sometimes transliterated, has come to mean “wife burning,” but the word “sati” comes from the Sanskrit verb, “to be.” As Joseph Campbell explains in a lecture on psyche and persona, she has fully and perfectly performed her role as a wife, in immolating herself on his burial pyre: she has utterly “been” her husband’s wife. Going down into the death world, as Orpheus does for Eurydice in Greek mythology, is a hero deed. In a culture in which wives are expected to burn on their husband’s pyres, a wife who doesn’t do this is “ah-sati,” or “nothing.” The hero death, a free fall into immortality, is indeed alluring. It’s also too terrifying for most of us to seriously contemplate, and a kind of sacrifice that looks old-fashioned to people who value their innermost selves over their role in life. At no time in the last season does Draper appear more trapped than when he stands poolside in LA—a foreign culture in bicoastal America—still uniformed in his New York City executive suit and hat. There is no chance he is going to jump in. It’s hard to imagine that Don even owns a pair of swimming trunks.
Don Draper burns. He runs from each role thrust upon him by birth: son, brother, soldier. He crafts a new mask, the persona of the self-made man, and then holds on tightly as he is immolated in his role. He believes in his own myth, in which he will rise from his own ashes. He has to believe, to be willing to throw himself—all of himself—onto the fire. To receive the ultimate reward of immortality, he not only has to create the legend of the creative executive, the self-destructive genius. Don Draper has to be a Mad Man to the very end.
—Photo Nikko Russano/Flickr