“I really thought I could do it this time.” So laments the pathologically philandering Don Draper to a glamorous widowed co-passenger as he flies back from the latest attempt to maintain his faltering long-distance second marriage at the start of Mad Men’s final season, bemoaning a turn of events which has surprised precisely none of its audience. The only surprise is that he resists her invitation of a post-flight assignation – but then she is far too straightforward a conquest. It is but one instance of the paradoxes, the dualities which have made Don Draper one of the most mesmerizing figures in contemporary popular culture. If Mafia boss Tony Soprano, his antecedent in the long arc TV series which are the social realist novels of our times, was the epitome of the brutish but charismatic anti-hero, the character of Don Draper is simultaneously both anti-hero and hero, compounding his influence and appeal for legions of disoriented post-feminist men, and, I suspect, not a few female viewers.
It is often observed that our enduringly iconic male heroes have a comprehensive appeal to both sexes because women want to be with them while the jealousy of men is neutered because they want to be them – James Bond being the familiar example. While I can’t entirely confirm the first claim, I can vouch that several men I know indeed continue to seek an identification with Don Draper, manifested in sharp, classic dressing, a professed taste for Canadian Club rye whiskey and a studied attempt to appear coolly self-possessed, aloof and emotionally unavailable, but with the intimation underneath of being flawed and wounded in an intriguing and hopefully sexy way. Furthermore with Draper any envy among male followers at his unmatchable prowess in the bedroom and boardroom is mitigated by the knowledge that whatever professional victories and accolades the self-constructed über male attains, however many beautiful, refined women of higher status he ensnares, it will never be sufficient to fill the pitiless void which reflects a weak sense of self born of his brutalised childhood and compounded by the adoption of a dead man’s identity. In the best tradition of the flawed icons who captivate us in art and in life, Don Draper’s ability to enchant and seduce, to grab whatever he thinks he needs by his matinee idol looks and his Machiavellian guile is matched only by his utter estrangement from the source of his turbulent emotions and imperious actions. He has become a mask without a face, unable to relate to, let alone confront, what lies beneath. Thus Don Draper is continually, captivatingly on the point of implosion, and not just owing to the criminal implications of the identity theft which allowed his personal transformation. The erstwhile Dick Whitman’s double existence is but one of the dualisms which makes his story so compelling and so richly resonant.
The sublime spectacle of Mad Men affirms what we all inwardly accept, the reason that good fictional drama works on us at all – that great writers and great actors cumulatively, intuitively provide a more pungent, potent rendering of the human condition than a thousand dry theses of psychologists or philosophers. It is testament to the brilliance of its creator Matthew Weiner and the observational grasp of human psychology of the writers, manifested in a career (perhaps genre) defining performance from Jon Hamm, that the fictional (in the literal sense) Don Draper has immediately been accorded the kind of scholarly psychobiographical assessment normally granted to two hundred-year old literary characters – and in his case, not from English Lit lecturers who’ve read some Freud, but from psychiatric professionals (just Google “Don Draper personality” to see). And the general consensus seems to be that the bewitched Dick/Don suffers from a severe (possibly borderline) personality disorder and a chronic fear of abandonment derived from his deprived and depraved childhood experiences. Which, on paper looks – and indeed is – harrowing. And yet when manifested in his onscreen behaviour, in the consummate sexual conquests, the remorseless machinations and the easy trouncing of professional rivals, can nevertheless leave starstruck male watchers thinking, “what a cool problem to have”. So, one duality of Don Draper is that he allows the viewer to have their cake and to eat it -we can rail at and profess empathy for the arbitrary miseries of his upbringing, piously rueing life’s underlying inequity, while vicariously savouring the illustrious victories as he makes hay out of the resultant psychopathology, compelled ruthlessly to grasp the only trophies which our culture ultimately respects.
Don Draper is all about contradictions, and here is one: he depicts much that is bad, and much that is noble, which can spring from merely trying to get on as an agent in the world. Bad, in his impulsive, unreflective infidelity, his callous disregard for gentleman’s agreements and other unwritten oaths, and in the initial abscondment which underwrites his forged persona and his near-homicidal zeal in keeping it hidden. And good, in that he has his own bespoke code of chivalry; he is fiercely loyal and authentically sentimental towards the widow of the actual Don Draper. She comes, again paradoxically, to represent his only “true” family, and he is inconsolable on her death. He generally attempts to be upstanding with his three children, though he cannot properly connect with them, while his conscienceless cuckoldry is marked by the occasional extraordinary, selfless act for a mistress, even if its motivation is inaccessible to him. And despite the solipsistic egotism of his career, his politics are markedly progressive; he is vocally opposed to the war in Vietnam, is colour-blind with regard to race and, memorably, drunkenly assaults an evangelical pastor for asserting that the fallen Kennedys, Dr King and the Vietnamese have no place in God’s heaven. This generally enlightened sensibility makes his lack of sympathy for a homosexual colleague’s plight (“You people!”) seem shockingly, jarringly dated to modern minds – though, let’s be honest, only by about twenty-five years. In other regards Draper is a man of the Fifties rather than the decade in which we find him, and his cynical, dismissive attitude to the burgeoning hippy counterculture can cast him as reactionary – “square” – but, with our retrospective knowledge of the movement’s degeneration into hedonism, navel-gazing spiritualism and libertarian or neo-conservative politics, his reservations seem, like John Lennon’s ambivalent ‘Revolution’, not too wide of the mark.
More broadly, Don Draper symbolizes everything that is remarkable and everything that is lamentable about the American model of consumer capitalism. He personifies the American dream as both reality and illusion; his herculean achievement in attaining its outward trappings is impressive, but is seen to exact a pyrrhic cost. And we may marvel at how Draper and the other creatives at his agency take products which nobody knew they wanted and, by intuitive appeal to their deepest subliminal impulses, make them believe that they need them. (That this kind of manipulation can also be brought to bear on the clients themselves gives his team a two-pronged efficiency.) The creation of new demand for new products is, so capitalist economists (the only accredited economists) tell us, how growth is achieved, and their part in this alchemy is shown to derive from a process of rumination and inspiration exactly the same as the artistic creative process. Yet we may also regret that such exceptional energy and imaginative ingenuity is squandered in the promotion of inane, frivolous items and the assertion of illusory distinctions – this is made plain in the agency’s deliberations over the likely allure of a cheap margarine brand as opposed to a (excuse the pun) marginally more expensive one. (Meanwhile in the Soviet supermarkets of the Cold War adversary which looms menacingly through the series, there was usually just the one kind, which you’d pick up and then get on with your day.) Given Don Draper’s instinct for a clinching aphorism and for the way to an audience’s heart we are left with the impression that, were he not so beholden to the validation of material success and a need to manipulate others and more ready to countenance his early sufferings, he could have channelled his powers as a great (drink-sodden) American writer, a Eugene O’Neill or a Raymond Carver.
Man Men is a superlative example of a once literary, now televisual formula of charting sweeping social and historical developments through the experience of individuals who are fictional yet so comprehensively, vividly rendered that they might as well – in fact probably did – exist. It has helped bring us such worthy successors as last year’s superb Deutschland 83, set during a similar spike in Cold War tensions, whose hero Martin Rauch is another identity-stealing fraud, in this case professionally as an Eastern spy in the West German army. But while that character, though well-drawn, is largely a cipher for the grand geopolitical standoff and the moral ambiguities and dilemmas it entailed, in contrast Don Draper seems larger than Mad Men itself, a figure whose significance stands apart from its time and place. For his plight is but an extreme version of the Faustian pact we all must contemplate when seeking advancement in our atomised, materialist societies. It also alludes to a rarely admitted but psychologically-established phenomenon, first floated in the decade after Mad Men, that of ‘imposter syndrome’; the guilty sense that one is playing a part, is a fraud in career or elsewhere, forever on the point of being unmasked as unworthy or incompetent. Draper, an actual imposter, is merely that common condition writ large. Yet he whispers in our ear an invigorating notion – if you’ve got to go through life feeling phoney and living a lie, why not do it in style, and go hell-for-leather? Perhaps that is the ultimate, existential allure of Don Draper.
At the beginning of season 7 we find Draper on enforced sabbatical, his alcoholism having just this once got the better of his venerated professionalism. He is of course still pulling the strings, feeding superior slogans by proxy to his agency: “Accutron – it’s not a timepiece, it’s a conversation piece.” Mad Men may be an outstanding study of the most significant era in modern Western history, one which continues to inform our social and cultural dispensations, but through Don Draper it further becomes an allegory for many of the profound discomfits and dilemmas which mark the modern (especially male) experience in developed societies, pressures which have not significantly changed in the interim. And in this respect Mad Men is not a period piece, it’s a timeless piece.