Entertainment » Graham Gordy

Don Draper, reborn



There's a part of every great film and television show that is wish fulfillment for the viewer. We love mob movies and shows because the wish-fulfillment is instant justice. Someone crosses Tony Soprano and he takes him out. These characters, despicable or not, serve as our collective id on-screen, bearing out our basest desires.

Yet when it comes to Don Draper of AMC's "Mad Men," he at once enacts and completely undermines our wishes. He lives a life of wealth and power that we envy, in an era where men didn't have to apologize. It's a life that is a classic Sunday night antidote to our contemporary Sunday afternoon Build-A-Bear Workshop or trip to Lowe's.

But we watch Don Draper and we worry about him. He re-committed to Betty and their Westchester ideal at the end of season two, only to court (and eventually find) disaster once again in season three. Throughout, he gropes, fecklessly, to make himself whole, flailing between poles of eros and thanatos. He's spent dozens of episodes building walls of traditional happiness, only for the deviant pleasure of plunging into the dark and knocking them down once more.

Of course, we shouldn't be surprised that Don anesthetizes himself to his family, while pouring his heart, balls and guts into everything else. The pilot episode clearly spelled out "Mad Men's" thesis: During the Lucky Strike campaign, a frigid German psychologist tells Don that human beings have a "death wish," which inspires Salvatore to say, "So we're supposed to believe people are living one way and secretly thinking the exact opposite?"

The first three seasons of "Mad Men" have balanced on a tenuous string that runs between the way Don really thinks and the way he tries to live. Between the Manhattan he is and the Westchester of his dreams. It's not until Don has an affair with his child's schoolteacher that his id collides with his home, helping usher on its destruction once and for all.

So where does that leave Don Draper in season four? He's in Manhattan. Domesticity in Westchester is a distant shore. And while Don may've always viewed domestic bliss as a lie, it was at least an anchor for a woeful soul. Can he really survive once he's completely unfettered?

If episode one is any sign, this is what Matthew Weiner plans to delve into. Don's new domestic life has a dark, sad quality to it. His business is fledgling at best, and may be failing. He loses his cool at a client and throws him out of the office. He's rebuffed by a blonde Betty look-alike, and his only "plans" on Thanksgiving involve a prostitute slapping his face over and over again while she has sex with him. (That was Dr. Freud in the background, being carried out on a stretcher, by the way; the actualization of his virgin/whore complex being too much for him to take.)

Really, the only buoyancy at all in episode one for Don is in its final scene. Don is being interviewed by someone from the Wall Street Journal as the "face of the agency." It's a role he's not used to. Not knowing himself at all (his entire existence being made from whole cloth up to now), he wants his "work to speak for itself." Yet, what he learns in this episode is that his sublimated ego shtick has become passe in 1964, so he brings his ego to the fore and spins a new yarn, creating a mythology for Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce that puts him at the center, as the man in the white hat who risked it all, the man who, rather than "die of boredom," decided to "holster up his guns" and create something new.

A new Don Draper is born in this scene. A simulacrum. A copy of the copy. Whether it's the selling of a product or the selling of himself, telling the lie is the only place Draper seems truly happy. In this moment, we're comforted that Don will get by fine without his Westchester, but we're also struck by the worry that Manhattan seems to hold no greater truth.

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