The death of Don Draper

The artist formerly known as “Don Draper”?

“Lost Horizon,” which aired on May 3, would have made a terrific final episode of Mad Men. There are two more to go, but that episode felt like we were seeing the character known as “Don Draper” evaporate before our eyes.

Ever since the series’  season 6 opener “The Doorway” (the Hawaii episode), Mad Men has been about Don Draper losing his carefully constructed sense of self. Money and success do not bring happiness. In episode 10 of the current season, “The Forecast,” Don sells his penthouse in the wake of his divorce from Megan (her mother has had her revenge by selling off all of Don’s furniture), and the realtor tells Don that it’s a hard sell, because his empty living room looks sad. Don counters, “A lot of wonderful things happened here.” But I can’t think of a single one, can you? That line might have been the last shriveled leaf of self-delusion clinging to the wintry branches that are Don Draper.

Ever since it began in 2007, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men has told a beautifully intricate story about transformation and reinvention. On one level, it portrays an era — the 1960’s —  when the world took a giant leap into the new, when American society and culture underwent a sea change. It was still a white man’s world in which to pursue the American Dream, but women, minorities and youth, were knocking at the gates of privilege. The meaning of the American Dream, the sureness of the American purpose and individual ideas about right and wrong, about expected life paths, were all in flux.

Mad Men used advertising as the lens through which to view the pop culture-driven ’60s. It gave us advertising as the purveyor of the American Dream, the great tempter, the seller of false aspirations, but also, advertising as an art form, a kind of poetry attaching desires and emotions to objects, making those objects symbols of deep, inarticulate yearnings.

But at its core, Mad Men was about Don Draper, the ultimate self-made man. Born with the inelegant moniker “Dick Whitman,” “Don Draper” is a Gatsby for our time. Don spent the greater part of Mad Men running away from himself. Dick Whitman was raised in a brothel, unwanted and unloved. He was a coward in the Korean War, a deserter who stole the identity of another man killed in the war. Dick was a hermit crab of a man, hiding inside “Don Draper.” Freed from the shame, insecurity and self-loathing of his early life, Don Draper is Dick Whitman’s American Dream made flesh. Draped across Dick Whitman’s frame, Don is an advertisement for himself; he is a masterpiece, a performance piece, and he’s dazzling, tall and handsome and manly, with just the right touch of mystery, so that people look at him and see the archetypical American hero. Inside Don Draper’s skin, Dick is free to express his poet’s soul, and to pursue his longing for home, roots, family, love — all the things little Dick never had. And Dick/Don’s story meshes perfectly with the stories that advertisers need to tell. Don is a walking lie telling beautiful lies to a culture hungry to hear lies.

But inside the impeccable gray-suited prince of Madison Avenue, all was turmoil. The great achievement of Jon Hamm’s acting is his ability to play a man acting as if he’s supremely comfortable in his own skin — virile, in control — and then slowly, through the smallest of changes (like that thing he does where he shows you fear in his eyes and his face suddenly looks ravaged), lets his character’s uncertainty slip through. Inside Don Draper, Dick Whitman will not be still. He sabotages his marriages, he cheats, he lies, he drinks. Enough is never enough to silence the self-doubt and the urge to self-destruct. In the ’60s, America was coming apart from within. And so was Don Draper.

The long unraveling begins in the long opening sequence of “The Doorway,” in which Don doesn’t speak a word, as if he’s sleepwalking through his dream life. He woos Sheraton officials in Honolulu, he smokes dope and makes love with his young wife, actress Megan Calvet. He stares inscrutably at the surf. Toward the end of the episode, he pitches a strange and disturbing ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. His prototype shows a drawing of a beach, a man’s clothing discarded on the sand, footprints leading to the ocean, with the tag line “Hawaii. The Jumping Off Point.”  It was suicidal, in every sense of the word.

That scene (as well as the “falling man” imagery of the show’s opening credits) was echoed in “Lost Horizon,” when Don is shown to his new office at McCann-Erickson (Sterling Cooper has been subsumed by the parent company) and he touches the skyscraper window and it unexpectedly rattles. Startled, Don jumps back. It would be so easy.

I have the feeling that everything from Hawaii on is Don Draper wrestling with Dick Whitman for control. Don begins to show his age, looking tired, haggard. He loses Megan because he can’t rein in his desire for new romantic conquests, can’t stop following his Dick. Don drinks, messily, spectacularly. His hands shake. He sabotages a pitch meeting with Hershey’s by blurting out a confession about his hidden past, recounting how, as a child, he received Hershey bars from the whores for good behavior. Is it Don, trying to patch up his facade, who subsequently humbles himself to accept his suspension from Sterling Cooper, and to pledge sobriety and re-dedicate himself to Megan? Or is it Dick, trying to come clean? It’s unclear who means to obliterate who.  But one thing is clear: Whether metaphorically or literally, “Don Draper” is not going to get out of this show alive.

In the first of the seventh season’s final episodes, “Severance,” Don — or perhaps, Dick — considers the road not taken, as he becomes simultaneously obsessed with a depressed, cryptic waitress named Diana (like Don/Dick, a runaway from her life), and Rachel Mencken, the department store heiress with whom he had an affair in earlier seasons. While pursuing Diana, Don dreams of Rachel, and when he tries to track the latter down, learns that she has recently died.

The timing of Don’s interest in Diana/Rachel is interesting. Separated from Megan, Don appears to be flying on automatic pilot in his attempts to quickly replace her with another brunette. He seems genuinely shocked when he hears of Rachel’s death; his desire for a do-over with the brunette not taken hits a dead end. And so he woos Diana harder, but his wealth and charm appear to have no affect on piercing her aura of profound sadness and mystery.

There’s a comical moment in “New Business,” episode 9 of the current season, where Diana calls Don in the middle of the night, waking him from a sound sleep. He asks her to come over, but in the next scene, he answers the door of his apartment fully dressed in his usual crisp suit and tie, hair perfectly groomed. At least, I thought it was comical when I first saw it. But the more this half-season has progressed, the more haunting and significant that scene now seems to me. Don — or should we call him Dick? — is desperately trying to keep up appearances, to keep being Don Draper. The suit is key. It’s always been his “Don Draper” skin. But now, Diana takes a look at him and laughs.

In “Lost Horizon,” there’s another resonant “suit” scene where Don’s boss at McCann tells him that he’s expected to turn on the dazzle at a big meeting with Miller Beer, and Don automatically produces the Don Draper smile and announces, “I’m Don Draper from McCann Erickson”. Except that Hamm perfectly calibrates the moment, overdoing it just the tiniest bit, so that it feels and looks as if Don (Dick?) has to work harder to sound convincing to himself. Don is not quite Don anymore, and all the outer trappings of being Don Draper are revealed as mere costumery. He is an empty suit.

In the extraordinary Miller pitch scene that follows, Don looks around at his McCann peers, all with pens raised, an identical white, male, necktie-sporting mass. He (and we) see advertising for the first time on the series not as a juicy, brainy creative endeavor but as a cold calculation, a predatory activity. Detached, Don  turns to gaze out the window at a plane flying over the Empire State Building, and something springs to light in his eyes. He gets up and slips silently out of the meeting, leaving that room as if he’s shedding a skin.

Don goes to visit ex-wife Betty, intending to drive daughter Sally to boarding school, but Sally has already left, and his sons are out at their little-boy activities. He has no place there and is unneeded. He’s also homeless;  he’s living at a hotel while his realtor and secretary find and decorate his new apartment. Diana has disappeared, with no forwarding address. And Sterling Cooper is no more. So Don does what he does best — he runs away.

Driving on an impulse to Wisconsin to track down Diana’s ex-husband, Don has a bleary, night-driving visitation from the deceased Bert Cooper, who last appeared to Don as a ghost singing “The moon belongs to everyone, the best things in life are free” — quite a statement for a man who founded a firm dedicated to selling and consumption. I think “Lost Horizon” is Don’s Road to Damascus moment. Don appears to have lost his religion for advertising, appears to be considering Spectral Cooper’s newfound renunciation of the material world.

When Don gets to Diana’s ex’s house, he bluffs his way in by claiming to be “Bill Phillips” of Miller Beer, there to inform Diana that hers is the winning entry in a contest for a new refrigerator. But the ex-husband is not fooled. Don’s (last?) attempt at identity-assuming, something he has previously been so successful at doing, falls flat. In the episode’s final shot, Don picks up a hippie hitchhiker and agrees to take him to St. Paul, and they drive off down the straight, open, empty highway. My wild guess is that we’ll never see Don among his Sterling Cooper cohort again. We may well have seen the last of “Don Draper,” entirely. The question is, does this man have one more reinvention left in him?

©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015

(Thoughts on Peggy to come …)



One thought on “The death of Don Draper

  1. jason May 13, 2015 / 4:38 pm

    Really great analysis! I liked your insights on the importance of Don’s suit, his ‘armor’ as it were… I enjoyed reading this!

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