In Defense of Don Draper

It’s hard to find an article on Mad Men that doesn’t pass judgment in some way on its protagonist Don Draper. I find myself in lonely company as a Don apologist. But, I should make it clear that I don’t think of him as either a good or bad person. I see him the way I think series creator Matthew Weiner and star Jon Hamm would like us to see him: as a complicated character. Don has had his fair share of moral failings, to be sure, but I don’t see him as a monster, and all this overzealous hatred across the blogosphere is puzzling. You don’t see the same kind of hatred for Tony Soprano, Walter White or Nucky Thompson, all of whom make Don Draper look like Mr. Rogers. So why so much hate for Don?

It’s become something of a pseudo-fact that Don is morally bankrupt. It’s like a meme that gains currency as it’s repeated more and more often until it’s accepted as unquestionable fact, like when people say the earth is overpopulated or that there are more people alive now than have ever died. There is a conspicuous lack of evidence for the claim. Instead, you find vague generalizations and distortions. It should be obvious, these Don-haters tell us, that he’s a bad person.

The view is encapsulated by Pop Matters contributor Jose Solís Mayén. “The truth,” he writes, “is that Don Draper could never inhabit our times, either; his views on sex, parenting and work ethics would deem him a misogynist or a complete lunatic…” Rolling Stone’s Sarene Leeds took the view to the extreme in a Season Five recap when she asked, “…what makes Don Draper any different from Richard Speck, the student-nurse murderer?” Really? Is that a serious question?

First of all, Don’s never killed or raped anyone. The scene to which she is referring, in the Season Five episode “Mystery Date” is a fever dream/hallucination in which Don strangles an old flame to death. The scene is meant make us believe, for a few moments, that he may have actually done it. Everyone watching the episode was genuinely shocked and I have a hard time believing Sarene Leeds wasn’t shocked as well. If anyone actually believed that Don was morally tantamount to a murderer, the scene would have no effect. We all have dreams in which we do something we wouldn’t normally do in everyday life, and the scene clearly acted as a metaphor for Don’s struggle to kill his old, adulterous impulses.

When it comes to parenting and work ethics, Weiner goes out of his way to make Don the voice of moral reason. He’s gentle with the kids and always tries to explain complicated issues rather than ignore them. He refuses to hit them when Betty asks him to, citing his own childhood beatings from his father. Compared to Betty, who slapped Sally with force when she cut her own hair and threatened to snip Sally’s fingers off with scissors when she was caught masturbating, Don is a regular saint.

In matters of work ethics, his record is also impeccable. He consistently remains loyal to clients, as when he fights the firm over letting Mohawk Airlines go, and he is the only one to flatly reject the proposal for Joan to sleep with Herb Rennet, the Jaguar dealership manager, in exchange for their business.

The one sin for which we can certainly pronounce Don guilty is infidelity. But so are Pete, Peggy, Joan, Roger, Lane, Betty and Harry. In fact, only Sally and Bert Cooper remain innocent, and Bert is missing his testicles and Sally only recently reached womanhood, so give her a few years.

Additionally, it’s not clear that cheating on Betty makes him a sexist. Adultery is obviously immoral, but it doesn’t necessarily imply that the adulterer believes the opposite gender is inferior. He’s guilty of sexual objectification occasionally, but his affairs have the potential for tenderness and real caring as well (I’m thinking of his Season Three romance with Suzanne). More than any other male character, he treats female characters as equals and he is capable of having a meaningful, non-sexual relationship with a member of the opposite sex (think of his close friendships with Joan, Anna Draper and Peggy).

His complicated relationship with the opposite sex is best exemplified in the infamous elevator scene from Season Two in which two men are making lewd comments and engaging in locker room banter. Don looks at them as though they’re immature, but doesn’t say anything until a woman gets on the elevator and they keep up with the vulgar language. “Take your hat off,” he says to one of them. When the man refuses, Don takes it off for him and shoves it into his chest. When the doors open, he motions for the woman to exit first, and looks at the two, less physically imposing men as if to say, “What are you gonna do?” It’s a classic Draper moment and just one more example of Weiner suggesting that his characters are complicated and not as easy to categorize as we would like them to be.

Weiner seems to back this up in interviews. He tells us in an an interview with The Huffington Post following Season Four, “I love the idea that the show is, on some level, forgiving of human foibles. Don is not a great guy, but he is really trying…” Weiner has expressed a similar sentiment throughout the show’s run. In an interview for Zap2It, he states “Don’s infidelity to me is like so low on the list of tensions. If you think the show is dependent on that, we’ve really failed.”

So what could account for all the haters? One thing all of the Don-haters have in common is that they’re frantically trying to get the reader to agree with them about Don’s moral reprehensibility. It’s really bizarre, in fact, how much energy is expended trashing him. They don’t just say he’s bad; they go out of their way to say that we should find it obvious. After beginning her article with the now clichéd opener “Who is Don Draper?”, Sady Doyle of The Atlantic writes, “Don Draper, it would appear, is a pretty bad person. This has, in turn, created an even more puzzling question: Is there any possible resolution that could make us care about him again?” She’s not satisfied telling us what she thinks about him; she has to make it clear what we should think about him as well. Jen Kalaidis, also of The Atlantic, writes, “Despite his chronic womanizing, rampant alcohol abuse, and social prejudices, viewers have no problem sweeping Don’s imperfections under the rug.”

As you read these kinds of articles, a pattern starts to emerge and the source of all the vitriol becomes a little clearer. It’s not just that they hate Don: it’s that they hate the fact that people idolize Don. It’s like they’re flabbergasted and enraged that he’s become a cultural icon. Unlike Tony Soprano or Walter White, he’s incredibly handsome, suave and a genius when it comes to creating a feeling not just for consumers but for those around him. He’s likeable in so many ways and he isn’t easy to pigeonhole, and this has to be frustrating to critics who would like to write him off.

If there’s one other discernible pattern among the Don-haters it’s their undying admiration for Joan — Joan who is guilty of infidelity, racist remarks and sexual gallivanting herself. I happen to think that Joan probably ranks higher, morally, than Don, but Weiner makes it clear that Don and Joan are two sides of the same coin (just think of “Christmas Waltz” in Season Five, when Don and Joan trade wry barbs at the bar about their libertine pasts).

Don-haters don’t just think that he’s a bad person — they desperately want him to be a bad person, so much so that they deliberately misrepresent scenes. For instance, Molly Friedman, writing for Wet Paint, tells us that “The ease with which he ripped the gutted Don’s dog tags off and replaced them with his own is pure villain territory.” Anyone who actually watched the episode in question, where we finally learn the exact circumstances in which Dick Whitman became Don Draper, could see that it wasn’t easy for him at all. In a scene that’s acted brilliantly by Hamm, Whitman is injured himself, covered in mud and blood, trembling with fear and crying. He takes the dog tags to escape the horror of war, and who could blame him? Friedman makes it sound like he coldly jerked away the tags, flipped off the corpse of the real Don and said “peace out.”

Perhaps part of the problem is that we remember the first season versions of all the characters. The first season might be the weakest, as all the characters are more like impossibly misogynistic and racist caricatures of themselves. Take Ken Cosgrove. He actually chases down and tackles a secretary on the Kennedy/Nixon election night episode and lifts up her skirt to see what color panties she’s wearing. “They’re blue! Who had blue?” he shouts back. And this is the same Ken Cosgrove that by Season Five is a caring, faithful husband and a writer sensitive enough to produce “The Man with the Miniature Orchestra.”

But even in Season One, when the characters are at their worst, Weiner places Don slightly above the rest. He’s unwilling to make sexual advances or lewd comments in the office and he treats African-Americans no differently than he treats white people. Weiner even has him reevaluate the widespread anti-Semitism of the time, although it comes by way of an affair with Rachel Mencken.

Maybe it’s just easier to use Don as a punching bag because he’s the main character. Most of the office sexism and racism come from the minor players, and no one really cares what Harry, Stan, Paul or Sal think about things. In fact, I couldn’t find a single instance of Don being truly racist. And in the Season One episode entitled “Babylon” in which anti-Semitism is tackled, the harshest anti-Semitic statements come from Sal and Pete. By the end of the episode, you get the sense that Don realizes it was wrong, anyway.

So maybe it goes like this: A reviewer watches an episode from the comfort of their glass house and they hear a lot of chauvinistic and racist garbage coming mostly from the male, white coworkers constellated around Don. They begin to type up their article and realize halfway through that no one cares that Pete or Harry said something sexist, so they just attribute the general atmosphere of misogyny and intolerance to Don because it will sell papers or magazines. People read these articles and start to take it for granted that Don is terrible. Then, the next thing you know, Rolling Stone is comparing him to a murderer and a rapist.

After a Season Five in which Don, still a newlywed, maintained his resolve and avoided stepping out on Megan, it looks as though he’s up to his old tricks in Season Six. The Season Six opener mirrored the show’s pilot, except rather than have you think the entire time that Don is single only to find out in the end he is married and having an affair, we are led to believe he’s still happily married to Megan throughout the two hour opener only to find out in the end he is having an affair. Adultery remains Don’s cardinal sin, but at least he has some sense now that it’s wrong. When Don’s new love interest asks him as they lie in bed what he wants his New Year’s resolution to be, he tells her “I want to stop doing this.” Like Weiner said, he’s not a great guy, but he’s trying.

Maybe the greater message in all of this is that ranking characters morally in a television show, movie or book, misses the point altogether. Betty and Pete are rich, entitled and act like spoiled children most of the time, but I don’t hate them. There are probably as many Betty-haters and Pete-haters as there are Don-haters, but they’re all missing the point, which is to look at the characters in context and see how they move the plot forward and reinforce themes. The men and women of Mad Men are like men and women in real life: complex and morally ambiguous. Maybe Don’s behavior in Season Six will make him a monster, but I highly doubt it. Don, like the other main characters, doesn’t have the capacity for true evil. In other words, he’s no Richard Speck.