Don Draper: The Winter of His Discontent
After six seasons of Mad Men, a central irony stands out: Don Draper, the advertising svengali who manipulates the desires of millions, still cannot find personal happiness. It’s actually worse than that, for Don’s conflicted persona can find no peace.
In Season Six’s opener, “The Doorway”, Don lounges on a beach in Hawaii, his stunning trophy wife beside him. The camera zooms in on Megan’s sleek bikini body and we can almost smell the cocoa butter.
Wealth and Power? Don’s got it. Beauty? Check. Happiness? Don’s still as miserable as ever and happiness remains as elusive as Charlie Brown’s little redheaded girl.
To Don’s credit, his misery isn’t superficial but rather deeply rooted in a profound yearning for family, stability and order. Don seemed happiest during his first marriage, when his wife and children provided a foundation of stability and purpose.
Yet Don Draper has always been an enigma. Even his name is a cypher, for he’s really Dick Whitman. Born in poverty, his mother was a prostitute and his father an abusive alcoholic. Raised in a brothel, the past haunts Don and he carries those ghosts with him from his Manhattan penthouse all the way to Waikiki Beach.
Within the world of advertising, Don is a puppet master extraordinaire. “It’s how a product makes you feel,” Draper tells a client. “Romantic love? We invented it.” Another ad campaign for Popsicle features two boys splitting the treat in two. “It’s about friendship,” a Draper protégé says.
Loneliness, greed, the need for love—human weakness is constantly exploited by corporate power. et the puppet master is betrayed by his own desires—Don’s rampant philandering destroys his first marriage, puts his second marriage at risk, and undermines his relationship with his daughter. At its dark core, Mad Men is an epic poem to rapacious capitalism.
Don’s philandering provides a subtle corollary to the empty void of consumerism. His affairs bring him little happiness and much grief. And with each new sexual conquest, whether it’s a hot young secretary or a neighbor’s wife, you get a palpable sense that Don is slowly drowning.
Early in Season Six, Megan gets her big break as an actress by playing a lusty maid on a soap opera. Don hypocritically reproaches his wife: “You kiss people for money—you know who does that?” The ghosts of the brothel are never far away.
Yet Don isn’t a typical chauvinist; at Sterling-Cooper he treats his female colleagues with dignity and respect. He mentors and promotes Peggy Olson from a secretary into an advertising wunderkind. It’s these contradictions that make Don Draper one of the most fascinating characters on television.
Mad Men has been quite adept at conveying the cultural shift in America from the late ‘50s to the ‘60s. But in “The Flood”, the show loses its footing. After Martin Luther King is murdered, widespread despair grips everyone at Sterling-Cooper, from the executive suite on down to the secretarial pool. This is nothing but a sentimental anachronism.
In 1968, MLK was considered a dangerous radical by the American right and a Communist sympathizer by many, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. MLK’s high-profile opposition to the Vietnam War and support of organized labor only stoked that paranoia. The reason MLK was in Memphis on that fateful day was to support a labor strike by the city’s sanitation workers. It’s highly doubtful that the Madison Avenue business class would’ve been so grief-stricken on that horrible day.
By the end of Season Six, creator Matt Wiener tips his hat towards a dénouement for the final season. Don’s dishonesty has already jeopardized his second marriage and compromised his relationship with Sally. So Don slowly starts moving towards the one thing that he fears most: the truth.
Pitching an ad campaign to Hersey, Don’s icy veneer finally cracks. He admits that he adores the candy bar—that as a boy it provided comfort and solace while growing up in a whorehouse. Don’s horrified colleagues quickly usher their shocked client from the conference room.
In the season finalé, Don takes his children to the shuttered brothel. “This is where I grew up,” Don tells them. In a remarkable closing scene, Sally turns to her father and coolly acknowledges this kernel of truth. After so much deception, this truth telling may eventually destroy Don. But it may be that Don Draper needs to be cast aside so that his true self can live, so that Dick Whitman can finally be at peace.
The Blu-ray set of Mad Men, Season Six offers a clean video transfer with a solid DTS 5.1 sound field. Also included is a documentary on Dr. Timothy Leary, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”. This is a curious choice for an extra. Within the Mad Men universe, the drug de jour has always been alcohol in copious amounts. At times Don seems to be a functional alcoholic, and he has plenty of drinking buddies at Sterling-Cooper, which is a whiskey soaked, profit-driven circus. A documentary on the history of LSD seems curiously out of place here. Other extras include “Recreating an Era”, a virtual tour of the show’s set design and a “Summer of Love” interactive gallery.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article