As Mad Men's new season opens, we don't know if Don Draper is alone. We do know, however, that he is due for a fall.
Getting our bearings in a Mad Men season premiere has become one of the show’s distinctive pleasures. Unlike other TV dramas that lure us back by promising resolution of a previous season's cliffhanger or answering assorted plot questions, Mad Men appeals to our curiosity about its characters, specifically, our curiosity about Don Draper.
Every season, we know that in the time that has elapsed since the last, that Don (Jon Hamm) and Joan (Christina Hendricks) have continued to live their lives. We want to know what's happened. When Season Six begins on 7 April, has Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) switched from Peter Pan collars to blazers for good? Has anyone in the office heard Jimi Hendrix’s "Are You Experienced"? Did Megan’s (Jessica Paré) commercial spot for Butler Shoes launched her acting career? And has Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) settled into a Manhattan pied à terre? We also wonder, each season, how long it's been since the one before.
We can’t base our predictions for the new season on cliffhanger logic, yet Mad Men has in fact established its own narrative logic, one that can be traced from season to season. You might even make the case that the beats of a Mad Men story arc are rehearsed in the show’s opening credits. There’s the figure of the well-heeled businessman stepping into his office, only to begin a freefall past a billboard landscape flaunting images of both happy families and seductive women. Just when it seems like it’s all over for him, we find the man reliably restored to his position, one arm draped proprietarily over the back of his chair, cigarette in hand.
It’s easy enough to see Don Draper in this iconic ad man, based on the suave pose of the silhouette alone, but there’s more to it than that. “We live in a culture where people can transform themselves,” Matt Weiner observes. “‘We have a phrase: ‘Find a job, then become the person who does it.’ Don is one of those people.”
In fact, Don embodies such transformation in every aspect of his life. He seems to exist only in a rotation of iconic roles, posing first as the self-made career man, next as the dashing Lothario, then as the upstanding family man. For Don, these roles function not in harmony, but as mutually exclusive masks: he has to drop one to take on another. Appropriately, the very first episode of the series traces this course in full. We first see Don drinking alone in a pose not so different from that of the opening credits' silhouetted figure, follow him through dalliances with two different women and a work day as the creative virtuoso of his advertising firm, and only in the final moments, watch him return to a family and home that could have been plucked from a Norman Rockwell print.
Don’s discontent with any one of these roles is the tension that drives the show. Outwardly, he is always posing. You might say that he is in perpetual freefall, only grasping at possibilities as he plummets: bathing beauties and gartered thighs, a cozy nuclear family, a tumbler of fine whisky, a pair of wedding rings. Ungrounded as he is, Don shifts from one carefully managed pose to another on a daily basis (think of that drawer full of newly pressed Oxford shirts in his office). And yet the fall that typically spans a season story arc is not so controlled, as one role suffers at the expense of another. The first few seasons saw Don’s marital infidelities nearly sink his role as family man on more than a few occasions; as he falls down, down, down past the women and the drink, we're offered passing glances at happy families. That family life -- the dog, the 2.5 kids, and the Princess Grace Doll of a wife -- was itself an advertisement for the American Dream, the very one Don sold as an ad man even as he knew it wasn't true. And so, every time, he would catch himself just before hitting the ground.
In Season Four, Don hit bottom. He lost the family that once was safely tucked away on the Hudson Line and at least dented the veneer of his Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce pose (when he threw up in the office men’s room, he didn’t bother to change out of his vomit-stained shirt). When he pulled himself up, like the Don of Seasons One through Three, he simply procured another made-to-order bride. Much as Season Two ended with Don clasping his pregnant wife’s hand after he had nearly destroyed their model family life, Season Four closed on Don beside the new model (an actress, in fact) in bed. Predictably, we spent all of Season Five wondering exactly how and when Don would first fall away from his new wife. We had learned the narrative rhythm.
But if Season Five intrigued us, it was because Don Draper finally took a different course. He remained faithful to -- and arguably in love with -- Megan for an entire season. It was his persona at work that nearly fell away, the role that broke down, even as at the same time, Don’s reprisal of his role as a husband was not entirely untroubled. And so, when the Season Five finale found him drinking alone in a bar, approached by another attractive young woman, the question she put to him was significant: “Are you alone?"
The déja vu of that moment was unmistakable. By then, we’d seen Don in that pose, alone at the bar, a million times. We can imagine, too, that that’s how it happened with Betty (January Jones): one day the honeymoon was just over, and he found himself alone at a bar. At the close of Season Five, Don just left Megan on the set of a low-budget commercial, its fairytale-themed backdrop shrinking into the distance as he walked away from it and strode into the bar. When the woman at the bar asked whether he was alone, Don looked at her, but he didn't answer. There he was, the inscrutable silhouette, assuming his pose.
That question, really, and that pose, are as much of a cliffhanger as Mad Men will ever give us. And it’s not that we don’t know the answer. We know that Don Draper is always, essentially, alone. The closing shot of each season’s finale suggests as much: it’s always Don we see, alone. In the Season One finale, it was Don the failed family man, head in hands in the empty Draper home. Season Two faded out on his vacant gaze as he sat with the weight of the family life he’d just reclaimed. By the end of Season Three, Don jettisoned the family man role: as the screen darkened, we saw him walking, a suitcase in either hand, up the steps of a Midtown hotel, alone. And while at the end of Season Four, he was slipping into another marriage with alacrity, sliding back into a familiar role, the closing shot moved from Don and Megan beside each other in bed to Don’s face alone, awake and pensive. The sequence of these closing moments followed the course traced every week by the silhouetted falling man, from fall to reassumed pose. They also reiterated Don’s inability to inhabit any one role fully: he may be wearing the ring or sitting at the kitchen table, but there’s a limit to his engagement.
As the new season opens, we don't know if Don is alone. We do know that he is due for a fall. The question is which pose he's assumed now, and how it might be transformed by the end of the season.