“Who is Don Draper?”
That’s the question that opens, and energizes, the fourth season of Mad Men, AMC’s sharp and angular take on ‘60s Madison Avenue culture. The show’s first season referenced Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s philosophical novel populated with prime movers and titans of talent. Atlas Shrugged opened with a similar query, namely, “Who is John Galt?”
Donald F. Draper, Mad Men‘s central figure, is depicted as a multi-faceted, often contradictory, cut of a man through Jon Hamm’s dynamic portrayal. Draper might not be as singularly focused as Galt, who dedicated himself to leading an underground rebellion of skilled visionaries against society’s complacent acceptance of mediocrity. He is, at best, a composite of two Atlas Shrugged personalities: John Galt (the wellspring of creativity) and Francisco d’Anconia (the apparent playboy). Otherwise, as individual characters go, the more appropriate Ayn Rand comparison is between Don Draper, the sometimes brilliant and unpredictable advertising executive with a seemingly unyielding sexual appetite, and The Fountainhead‘s Howard Roark, the brilliant and unpredictable architect who’s no slouch with the ladies himself. These men—Galt, Draper, and Roark—are secretive, driven to excel in their trades, and productively self-interested. The characters that inhabit the world with these men are continually searching to understand them, to decipher their actions, and locate the intersection between who these men are and what their actions say about who they are.
Mad Men: Season Four
(AMC; US DVD: 29 Mar 2011)
Don Draper, ad man and ladies man, is dealing with an identity crisis, the seed of which was sewn in the first season and has grown intensely in season four to occupy a significant theme in the show’s growth. That Draper is the creative fulcrum of his newly formed ad agency, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, remains clear. When Draper is edgy about securing new business in season four’s first episode (“Public Relations”), account man and rainmaker Pete Campbell reassures him that a competitor poses no creative threat, “You know why? Because you don’t work there.” Yet, it’s Draper’s advertising work that prompts the season’s opening salvo, “Who is Don Draper,” and it comes from an Advertising Age reporter.
Afterward, the interviewer inadvertently reveals his prosthetic leg, the significance of which, other than inviting the sardonic wit of agency partner Roger Sterling (“They’re so cheap, they can’t even afford a whole reporter”), is that it hints at the areas of his life Draper would rather keep secret: his numerous past affairs, his current divorce, and of course the truth of his identity. “What do men say when you ask that?” is Draper’s response to the question of who he is. He ultimately says nothing substantial about himself, which turns out to be bad for business. Basking in the accolades from his innovative commercial for Glo-Coat, the interview turns out to be a missed opportunity for Don Draper to advertise himself and continue to build his young company’s reputation.
Thus begins season four’s thematic touchstone, as the show continues to shake the relative stability of the business and personal lives of its characters. At the end of season three, Draper founded a new ad agency with colleagues (and their clients) from his old firm: industry veteran “Bertram Cooper” (Robert Morse), account men “Roger Sterling” (John Slattery) and “Pete Campbell” (Vincent Kartheiser), copywriter “Peggy Olson” (Elisabeth Moss), television specialist “Harry Crane” (Rich Sommer), finance wizard “Lane Pryce” (Jared Harris), and office manager “Joan Holloway” (Christina Hendricks).
By season four, viewers understand that every reference to Don Draper’s identity brings forth the possibility of his back story being publicly revealed. In Episode 10 (“Hands & Knees”), Draper’s fear of this jeopardizes a much-needed account with North American Aviation. An application for a government security clearance brings the FBI to town for a background check—on “Donald F. Draper”! FBI agents start with Draper’s ex-wife, “Betty” (January Jones), asking her about his affiliations and political leanings before completely unsettling her with, “So, do you have any reason to believe that Mr. Draper isn’t who he says he is?”
Here’s the reason why she was unsettled. Don Draper was not always a successful advertising executive. In fact, he wasn’t even “Don Draper”. His given name was Richard “Dick” Whitman. His mother was a prostitute who died in labor. His father was physically abusive. He went off to war in Korea, and while he was helping the real Don Draper with a field hospital, an explosion occurred, killing Draper. Since Draper’s body was beyond recognition, Dick Whitman saw an opportunity and he took it. He swapped his identification tags for Draper’s and, after receiving a Purple Heart, Dick Whitman lived his life as Don Draper. The shortened version of his name speaks to his veiled origins, the nickname “Don” doubling as a verb, meaning “to wear” or “to dress”, while his last name brings to mind a “curtain” or other covering. Draper worked in sales, hawking cars and furs, before developing into the go-to advertising agent we see in the pilot episode.
Don Draper—the creative force behind Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce—is a popular man, in the Mad Men microcosm and beyond it. In addition to thorough and insightful commentaries for all 13 episodes, season four provides an intriguing extra: “How to Succeed in Business Don Draper Style”, narrated by business and advertising experts. Thanks to Draper’s cool demeanor, innovative spark, and results-oriented decision making, some folks in the business world are supplementing Sun Tzu’s The Art of War with yet another query, “What would Don Draper Do?”
That’s Don Draper. Nobody’s asking what Dick Whitman would do, but every move “Don Draper” makes now is Whitman’s. By the end of the third season, the truth about Don Draper was known to a select few: Pete Campbell, Bertram Cooper, Betty Draper (married to Dick Whitman reinvented as “Don Draper”), Anna Draper (widow to the real Don Draper), Dick Whitman’s half-brother Adam (who committed suicide shortly after reconnecting with Dick/Don), and loads of television viewers. It’s a little amusing, then, that the DVD extra, “How to Succeed in Business Don Draper Style”, lists “Know Who You Are” as its first piece of advice. By season four’s midpoint, Anna Draper (the lively Melinda Page Hamilton) succumbs to cancer, but a new confidante emerges in consumer psychologist Faye Miller (Cara Buono).
The fact that so many of us are calling Dick Whitman by his assumed name, in spite of what we know, proves that the image of “Don Draper the Ad Man” is Dick Whitman’s greatest advertising campaign of all. Sometimes, it’s not altogether clear that he realizes what he’s done. There’s an ironic thread in Episode Seven (“The Suitcase”) where Draper remarks that boxer Muhammad Ali has a “big mouth”. “I’m the greatest,” he mocks the champ. “Not if you have to say it.” The irony is that Draper has adopted a new name and lifestyle yet continually calls the boxer “Cassius Clay” rather than his preferred Muhammad Ali. Refusing to call him Ali seems perfectly accurate for the time period—I know people who still refuse to call him anything other than Cassius Clay, whatever—but, here again, Draper is well acquainted with the importance of names, identities, and fresh starts. It’s funny that he mocks something he knows so well.
In a 13-episode story arc that mirrors its inaugural season, Mad Men unpacks its central character, serving up more cracks in his veneer where he had previously come across as so smooth and self-possessed.
His temper costs him clients. Same thing goes for his identity theft, in addition to scaring him half to death with worry that he’ll be incarcerated for deserting the military. Kudos to Hamm on playing the panicked side of Don Draper so very well.
His unconventional thinking enabled the power play that gave rise to his new company. It also placed him in a partnership with an overreliance on a single client (the “Lucky Strike” cigarette brand) and a relatively unproven track record.
His excessive drinking causes him to pitch a borrowed idea to a client, and he has to hire the originator, “Danny Siegel” (Danny Strong, who you might know from the Yale era of Gilmore Girls), cousin to Roger Sterling’s wife, to rectify the error.
His debauchery haunts him in the form of ladies for hire whom he pays for sexual favors, including sadomasochism, not to mention a past flame (Rosemarie DeWitt’s “Midge Daniels”) who looks him up in search of money to feed her drug habit.
His, and Betty’s, parenting problems receive scrutiny, as his daughter Sally misbehaves, at home with Betty and at Draper’s office. Impressively, Kiernan Shipka plays Sally as an inquisitive, complex ten-year-old struggling to make sense of divorce, non-traditional family structure, and her own maturation. Much like her father, she is an unpredictable force that eschews rules and boundaries but is capable of tremendous compassion and empathy. Episode Nine (“The Beautiful Girls”), in which Sally runs away from home and finagles her way to Draper’s office, dramatizes the collision between Draper’s personal and professional interests. As if cued to Sally’s distress, the DVD set offers a three-part feature about divorce in the ‘60s, including statistics and legal aspects.
Draper is not the only character to experience the merger of personal and professional spheres. Roger Sterling, the dismissive and cavalier successor to his father’s fortune, brings his mental scars from World War II into the workplace, tossing insults and bluster at executives from the Japanese-owned Honda corporation, a potential account (“We don’t want any of your Jap crap!”). Elsewhere, he has suffered personal setbacks, from the two heart attacks impacting his health to what he views in season four as his lost romantic opportunity with Joan Holloway (now married to Army-enlisted doctor Greg Harris). After the two are mugged one night on a dimly lit street, the trauma and adrenalin cause Joan and Roger to rekindle their affair (on the same street as the mugging no less!). Later, Joan discovers she is pregnant. I called him dismissive a second ago, but the gentle manner in which he approaches Joan’s pregnancy highlights his caring and nurturing side.
At the same time, Roger Sterling has taken to reflecting on his life as he dictates audio for his memoirs, which reveals his long ago affair with “Miss Blankenship” (Randee Heller), a now elderly woman who steps in as Draper’s secretary. It’s supposed to say something, I think, about Sterling’s perspective on himself and his accomplishments that this woman, who sat at a personal and professional intersection for him, has aged somewhat ungracefully. As Draper’s secretary, she is comically forgetful, mistaken about announcements, and slow to act. Her death in the office leaves Sterling pondering his own demise, “Damn it, I don’t want to die in this office… If it looks like I’m going, open a window. I’d rather flatten the top of a cab.” Further, the company’s loss of the lucrative Lucky Strike account has Sterling’s partners wondering what it is he actually does for the business. Sterling embarks on a series of omissions and lies designed to mislead his partners about his advance knowledge of Lucky Strike’s defection.