Don Draper is the embodiment of all that is male in the epoch when misogyny and the ability to craft a perfect 5 o’clock scotch were two of a man’s greatest attributes. He is the sweet-talking, Panty-dropping, mad man who ruled the 1950’s with his artful craft of persuasion. With a harem of women following at his feet, and a flock of junior employees drooling over his incredible creative abilities, Don is one of the most envied and desired men of the advertising industry. The characters that interact with the elusive Don Draper know little if anything about the man behind the suit. No one, not his boss, wife, or mistress can attest to Don’s true character and identity which in the true nature of a talented ad man, he conceals behind a Teflon-like façade. With the aloofness only a truly successful man of his kind can exude, Don is viewed by his fellow characters as a mystery that they would desperately like to solve.
However, as viewers, our notions of Don Draper are vastly divergent from his contemporaries. We are an omniscient, almost voyeuristic presence that gets to see the four conflicting forces of don: His home life, his work life, his escapist relationships with his mistress and his intimate moments of pensiveness that often result in childhood flashbacks.
In Don’s home life we see him trying to fulfill the traditional masculine role of husband and father- his wife and children, desperately long for his attention, which he mainly directs inward on a constant self-reflection. Even when he is physically present, Don is rarely emotionally or mentally available to the ones who crave his attention and affection most. His dismissive nature, and self-absorption often leads to those in his home (namely his wife Betty) to feel inadequate about themselves. Although Don often fails his wife and children due to self-interest, he always manages to utilize his charms to regain their admiration.
In Don’s work life we similarly see that he constantly compromises the position of others in his self interest. Flights with clients ensue because he is offended by their dislike of his ideas, methods, or practices, and he has no moral issues accepting the credit for work of his colleagues as his own. He is ruthless and detached from the emotions of his work, yet ironically he is the one who manufactures the slogans that evoke the emotions he lacks. Despite Don’s tantrums, and often turbulent encounters with colleagues, he always manages to talk his way to a more than favorable outcome.
When in the presence of his bohemian east village mistress, Midge, we see Don moving outside of his comfort zone and expressing the emotional caring and intensity he lacks in his work and home life. In episode 5 of the first season we see Midge recognizing her role as Don’s “medicine.” It is in the comfort of her touch that Don eases up a bit and unwinds himself. Midge is the only person in Don’s life who does not give him exactly what he wants when he wants it. The rhyme and reason of her mannerisms and lifestyle often mystify Don and drive him to give a bit of himself away in order to unlock her. The two work in a relationship based on a level of reciprocity that we rarely see Don allow with other characters. However no matter, how stubborn and overbearing Don can be with Midge, she is always in awe of his charismatic talents.
Finally we see Don in the most intimate and telling of moments; when he flashes back to his childhood. Other characters in the series are completely unaware of Don’s shameful childhood, but as viewers we are offered behind the scenes passes to the Donald Draper museum of history. His flashbacks reveal the baggage behind all of his emotional distress, and mistreatment of the ones he loves. His mother, a prostitute and his father, a dishonest farmer are sources of humiliation and discontent that burst the bubble of his “perfect” life. Don will do anything to dispel the past that we see creeping into the fabric of his daily life, but the flashbacks are the one persistent reminder that he cannot run from it. Draper’s flashbacks reveal a depth and complexity to his character that goes un-witnessed by his fellow characters.
In Don’s compartmentalized world, he has an unparalleled ability to always emerge as the hero no matter his predicament. For me this is the true mystery behind the man. No matter how many times his fidelity or temper falters, we cannot help but remain inexorably infatuated with Don Draper.
Tags: Mad Men 2009