Review by Zachary Boren
“Who is Don Draper?”
The fourth season of BBC4’s Mad Men – a show that focuses on Madison Avenue advertising executives in the early 1960s – opens with this question and it’s one which Matthew Wiener – the show’s creator and head writer – has explored since the show’s inception. In many ways, Don Draper has remained the same inscrutable alpha male that he was when audiences were first introduced to him in 2007 but his circumstances have certainly changed, the world around him has certainly changed and it is these changes that challenge the fallibility of the Don Draper construct. Don Draper, you see, was not born Don Draper. After assuming the identity of a superior officer who had died in Korea, Dick Whitman reinvented himself as an ad-man and, liberated from his destructive pseudo-family, fundamentally changed his character. In this sense, Mad Men is a programme that explores the construction and consequences of a false self, a show that examines the complexity of identity, the difficulty of true change and the definition of masculinity.
The construct of Don Draper is the epitome of classic masculinity: he smokes and drinks excessively, sleeps around despite being married with children and is held in high professional regard. The character has this ineffable quality – an air of authority – that drives those around him to please him, accommodate him, make him proud. The masculine bravado that demands such respect and special treatment, however, is not sincere but rather Dick Whitman’s attempt to fit society’s notions of what it is to be a man. To become Don, Dick had to repress everything about himself that had existed before. At one point in the series, Don tells his emotionally traumatised secretary Peggy: “This never happened. It will shock you how much this never happened”. Here, Don is extolling the virtues of his psychological and emotional defenses: denial and repression. The extent to which he represses aspects of his personality and of his history is illustrated when he forgets to repay Peggy for bailing him out of jail, explaining that sometimes he “needs to forget everything”. Don’s decision to embrace oblivion and to repress his true self is what prompts his existential ennui; he says that he “doesn’t feel a thing” and this is the case because he won’t let himself. Don’s inability to feel is rooted in his desire to remain Don Draper and his rejection of his true self and birth name is a major obstacle on his road to an authentic existence. One theme that Wiener has effectively explored through Don’s low grade sociopathy is that of Appearance, Reality and Perspective. Don’s self-inflicted misery doesn’t inspire sympathy from his peers but rather admiration; he appears indifferent when, in reality, he is frustrated, sad and, occasionally, cowardly. His behaviour is quintessentially masculine and, consequently, those around him project on to him their own preconceptions because Don Draper is, at his core, a cipher; he is a narcissistic construct. The audience too projects much on to the Don Draper construct; many see Draper as the man their father was and the way that men are “meant to be”: strong, quiet, dignified. The era in which the show is set only reinforces the way that the audience regards Don. He is often said to be, by viewers and critics alike, a ‘real man’ but his behaviour is more reprehensible than manly. Don Draper doesn’t “feel a thing” because he doesn’t exist; he isn’t a real anything.
Wiener has said that Mad Men is a show about consequences, a theme that has become increasingly prominent in this, the fourth season of the drama. The show’s upcoming episodes deal with Don’s addiction to alcohol. The show goes to great lengths to illustrate the extent of Don Draper’s denial of his ‘drinking problem’. The employees that once worshipped him now refer to him as “pathetic” and call him “a drunk”. The romantic illusion of Don Draper has been sullied by his increasingly erratic decisions that show he is consumed by all he believed he didn’t have to face. The escalation of Don’s alcoholism was brought on by the news that the real Don Draper’s wife – the only person who knew and accepted him as Dick Whitman – was terminally ill. Her death means that there will nobody else to preserve the memory and existence of Dick Whitman and he will be left either to bury Dick Whitman or integrate him into his life. At the beginning of the series, Dick was efficiently split off but, as time passes, Don finds him increasingly difficult to quiet. One of the key subplots of Mad Men is the slow integration of Don Draper, a hyper-masculine advertising exec, and Dick Whitman, a vulnerable farm boy. Towards the end of every season, Don makes a concerted effort to temper his behaviour and co-habit with Dick and every season he makes noticeable progress. He may be a narcissist but his self-awareness makes self-betterment a distinct possibility. Don Draper is a deconstruction of traditional notions of masculinity because he has built his identity on an illusion and over time is unable to maintain the persona of unaffected, masculine charisma. His downfall is at the core of the series as his False Self crumbles. Don Draper is the greatest ad man in New York City and his greatest creation is himself but, as 1960s culture demonstrates, things change.