The long-awaited fifth season premiere of Mad Men is finally here and we may finally learn just how far its protagonist, Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), will fall this season. If you’ve seen the show, you know that its opening credits features a male silhouette that resembles Draper’s dapper ad man falling past tall buildings to a presumably terrible fate. We are led to believe that Don is destined for an inevitable crash from his illustrious life and status, and we wonder if, when and how it will happen. As fans, we’re well acquainted with Don’s arrogance, frequent intoxication and habitual philandering, yet we continue to root for him to succeed and avoid that seemingly-unavoidable fall. What is it about Hamm’s complicated Don that captivates the audience?
For the uninitiated, Don Draper is a mask—a persona created by the character’s true identity, Dick Whitman. Dick is a mild-mannered youth from the wrong side of the tracks who escaped the wretched life of some dreary middle-America town and found refuge in the military. An exchange of names occurred after Dick survived the enemy attack that killed the real Don Draper, a fellow soldier, and a lie was born. Dick, now rechristened Don Draper, is an opportunistic quick study who exudes confidence, intelligence and daring. He has become a rock star on New York’s Madison Avenue, the epicenter of the 1960s advertising world, and inspires loyalty as well as envy among his colleagues and competitors. Once in a while, however, we see that there are miniature cracks in the mask because Don is still a product of his past. He is damaged, and therein lies the appeal of the character: Don Draper is a god with feet of clay.
In his personal life, Don/Dick evidently divides himself into his two distinct parts: he plays it suave and sure with colleagues and clients, but sometimes allows that free-spirited boy from the sticks, that longed to escape an abusive childhood and hopeless future, to engage in reckless behavior and thoughtless actions which threaten to derail his carefully-built success. He doesn’t seem capable of stopping himself, however, and appears to come alive when he breaks out of the guise of Don Draper. Perhaps his self-sabotaging deeds betray an insecurity about his true identity—he knows he’s not really the man his admirers see, does not deserve the adulation and respect, and so he can’t really allow himself to accept it.
Draper’s multi-layered, and often contradictory, personality is best described by observing his relationships with others: he is a mentor to young Peggy Olson, his former secretary and the sole female copywriter at the ad agency. It’s easy to see that something about Peggy’s quiet determination, underdog status and similarly dark past connects them and makes her the logical apprentice to Don’s legacy. He’s tough on her, like a father pushing his child for the child’s own good, yet he is reluctant to take on the role of disciplinarian with his own children—preferring to show them the affection they lack from their mother, and which he also never got from his own father. Perhaps he’s more forgiving with the kids to allow a safe haven from life’s harsh lessons at their young ages, but I suspect he shelters his children from the cruelty of a broken family life as perhaps he wishes young Dick had been protected, while urging Peggy through gender barriers not unlike the class divisions Don has had to overcome. So Dick is more the children’s father, while Don is Peggy’s.
In observing Don’s romantic relationships, we see more examples of his duality and how these interactions define him. Don couldn’t let down his guard to his trophy wife, Betty—a flaw that led to extramarital affairs and the demise of his marriage—but he also found himself legally married to Anna Draper and developed a close, caring relationship with the dead soldier’s wife. The fake wife was a real confidante and partner to Dick, while the officially-sanctioned wife was mostly decoration for his public façade, Don. Finally, last season Don was mainly involved in a serious relationship with businesswoman Faye, but after a brief affair with his secretary, Megan, Don proposed marriage and surprised everyone, including himself. It seems the deciding factor was that, while Faye was not maternal, Megan endeared herself to his children easily, and he quickly surmised that she would be a positive influence in their lives. Faye could have been the right wife for Don, but Dick chose Megan.
Every fable is a cautionary tale with consequences for immoral and unethical actions, so we suspect that sooner or later Don Draper’s secrets and excesses will catch up with him and he’ll realize that his triumphs are fragile and fleeting as he hurtles to his demise. Until that happens, however, we will continue to cheer for Don, despite his flaws and rash behavior. We’ll root for him to find happiness and avoid the fatal descent. Why? Perhaps we see some of ourselves in Don Draper—striving to present a confident front to others and hide our own baggage and self-doubts. If he can do it, so can we.
—Photo shane o mac/Flickr