Don Draper and the “Mad Men” Moment

Darryl Campbell explains why we are all in love with Don Draper, despite his glaring flaws.

Don Draper; illustration by Priya Rajdev.

I. How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways

Before he showed off his hip-thrusting skills as Sergio the saxophone player and Senator Scott Brown on his last stint hosting Saturday Night Live, Jon Hamm paused to make fun of men who say that they identify with Don Draper — “which I’m pretty sure means that they just really want to cheat on their wife,” said Hamm, with a knowing grin.

That comment perfectly encapsulates the majority of critical and not-so-critical reactions to Don Draper: as the old chestnut goes, women want him, men want to be him. Dayo Olpade of the blog XX Factor calls him an übermensch; Katie Baker, writing for Newsweek, reports that her female friends describe Draper with terms like “a straight-up man” with “shoulders to cry on and a jaw that causes women to swoon,” who “makes me feel like a woman via the TV”; and, in Brooklyn, he is “every Park Slope mom’s fantasy,” according to one 40-year-old housewife. Frank Rich of The New York Times sees him as a cultural touchstone for bailout-era America, while James Stewart of The Wall Street Journal brings up Draper’s name in order to wax nostalgic about a time not only when men were men, but when American-made cars were cars. Even Alan Taylor, who directed the pilot and three other episodes of Mad Men, called Don Draper — and Jon Hamm — a “wonderful icon of maleness.”

To wit: Jon Hamm’s delivery, which alternates between diamond-hard and downright sentimental, and the bon mots of Matthew Weiner et al.

But there is a kind of winking acceptance about Draper’s home life, and in particular his philandering (as another gendered cliché goes, a woman who sleeps around is a slut, whereas a man who sleeps around is a stud). Here’s Katie Baker, again:

By any measure, the character’s a cad. He constantly cheats on his wife. He skips town for weeks and won’t write or call. He doesn’t talk much, and anesthetizes any feelings with copious amounts of booze. He’s an enigma, a locked box of a man who resists, maddeningly, easy explanation. And yet he excites an attraction among women — particularly ones my age, women in their late 20s and 30s who were born after the era that Mad Men portrays — that seems unmatched by any leading man on television today.

To paraphrase, he may be a philanderer, but just look at those shoulders. And as a result, despite his many, many faults, Don Draper really manages to escape the umbrage of critics, producers, and housewives alike, and to resist what Vanity Fair’s Bruce Handy called the “wised-up, at times even loathing nostalgia” that people have for, say, the casual anti-Semitism or sexism that pervades the show.

But surely there’s more to it than Jon Hamm’s perfectly square jaw.

II. Man-children, Metrosexuals, and SAHDs

In the 1960s, fictional characters discovered the psychoanalyst’s couch. J.D. Salinger’s 1957 novella “Zooey,” for instance, is not only steeped in Freudian terminology (“you listen to the conversation of a bunch of nitwit college students, and you decide that everything’s ego, ego, ego”; “Detachment, buddy, and only detachment. Desirelessness. ‘Cessation from all hankerings.’”) but in many ways exemplifies “the talking cure,” as carried out by two precocious Manhattanites. By the mid-sixties, the emotional lives of men became the subject not only of novels, like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, but also children’s literature, such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and even books on political philosophy, like philosopher Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies and Jacob Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy, which argued that Plato and Rousseau, respectively, were secretly totalitarians because of psychological traumas from their past.

As men in particular got in touch with their emotions, they lost touch with their masculinity. According to conservative columnist George F. Will, the 1960s ushered in the fall of masculinity. “Permissive parenting,” feminism and pacificism (which Will lumps under “1960s radicalism”), the end of the Western as a viable genre of film, the transition from movie stars like Cary Grant (“dapper and debonair”) to Hugh Grant (“a perpetually befuddled boy”) — all of this, Will writes, were the first signs of the apocalypse of Man.

By the time the frat-boy mags like Maxim and FHM, the metrosexuals, and the stay-at-home dads (“SAHDs” for short) arrived, real men were in full retreat. Today the only men left are emasculated, disaffected, and affected, a far cry from the days of the gimlet-eyed, coolly competent protagonists of Ernest Hemingway or Ian Fleming. “If you just compare [Draper] to, say, Patrick Dempsey on Grey’s Anatomy,” says one Park Slope mom, “Dr. McDreamy comes off as a whiny little sensitive bitch.”

Just look at the man-children of Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, who are dragged kicking and screaming into grown-up situations and responsibilities, or the indecisive and impotent characters like Miles Roby of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, or Sam Clay of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Even the new Captain Kirk from 2009’s Star Trek comes off more as an immature brat than the Shatner incarnation. A.O. Scott, The New York Times’s movie reviewer and sometime cultural critic, has talked about Gen X’s arrested development, The Guardian documented the spiritual plight of twentysomething “YUCKIES” (Young Unwitting Costly Kids), and the themes of wrongness, error, and failure have been explored over 400 episodes and counting of This American Life. Before long, we might all be crying for our mothers.

This is not to say that all of these characters are somehow incapable of being good, entertaining, thought-provoking, or even poignant — I dare anyone to say that the business of writing comic books, as presented in Kavalier and Clay, is any less intense than most battle scenes from war novels, or that perpetual losers like Miles Roby are too one-dimensional to evoke anything but pity. Nor do I want to suggest that, after millennia of heroic heroes, from Gilgamesh to Beowulf to Robinson Crusoe, such a change isn’t welcome. But it is clear that, as far as pop culture goes, we are awash in protagonists that are anything but heroic in the classical sense, and even insurance advertisers have noticed.

III. Ecce Homo

Enter Don Draper, the last John Wayne among a cultural landscape filled with Jon Gosselins. He embodies a particular brand of heroism that tacks somewhere between the independent, mysterious, hoisted-by-his-own-bootstraps kind, featured prominently in spaghetti Westerns, and the much more familiar kind of “business-heroism” that celebrates competence, professionalism, and workplace acumen, and that elevates lawyers, doctors, and teachers into fictional heroes.

Among these Perry Masons, Men With No Names, and Dr. John Carters, Don Draper tacks the right course between mysterious and familiar, superhuman and sub-human, the object of both sympathy and envy. On the one hand, he is unnaturally impeccable in dress, speech, and action, and extremely good at his job. On the other hand, his vices — sex, booze, unannounced vacations — are also safe, relatable, and suitable for your typical upper-middle-class WASP. He works in the field of advertising, which everyone encounters on a daily basis, but whose inner workings are a mystery to the general public. He has enough self-doubt and inner turmoil to keep viewers interested, but not enough to threaten his masculinity. As The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates put it:

[Mad Men] has that same rejection of good and evil, that same detailed humanity that we loved about The Wire. But also, to its credit, it lacks the anger which ultimately contaminated The Wire’s final season. Furthermore it rejects the naked cynicism that’s poisoned efforts as diverse as Crash and Desperate Housewives.

Duality, “detailed humanity,” and a lack of overwhelming anger or cynicism — put another way, Don Draper manages to be complex without being too dark, or too discomfiting.

At the same time, if you try to pin Don Draper down, he comes off as downright confusing. After all, the audience is just as hoodwinked by Dick Whitman’s past as his contemporaries are. We know just enough to feel sympathy for him — that Dick was an orphan, that his adoptive parents were cruel and abusive, that he drove his younger brother to suicide — but not enough to understand how his past affects his motivations or intentions. Except in the pitch for the Kodak Carousel, we never see the Draper family in happier moments, so it’s easier for us to excuse his philandering because we only ever associate Betty with fighting and general misery. And we see Don’s aggressive, bull-headed streak succeed in the conference room and bedroom so many times that we consider it an asset, even though it alienates his wife and children at home.

So when Don drowns his ennui, we the viewers slide into stupor along with Don. We know what he’s escaping from, but not why; in fact, we know so little about Don Draper’s inner life — except through the odd non-verbal metaphor, such as his Christ-like bath in the ocean towards the end of season two — that we can never quite see what makes him tick.

As a viewer, it’s frustrating that after three years, I can see that Don Draper is still in motion — he’s founded a new ad agency, decided not to fight Betty’s divorce, and, as he confided in Anna Draper, “I have been watching my life. It’s right there. And I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.” — but I don’t know what he’s moving towards, or what exactly is driving him. And I can sympathize with Ross Douthat, who points out that Don Draper is mysterious to a fault, especially when compared to Breaking Bad’s Walter White.

I think, however, that Don Draper’s almost-but-not-quite backstory is actually an asset. After all, as Alexander Pope (or was it Tower of Power?) said, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing: people tend to prefer what they understand only partially to what they understand, warts and all. We like Don Draper for the same reason that people took Wall Street‘s Gordon Gekko to be a role model: on principle, we understand that we shouldn’t like them, and in our guts, we know that they are misguided or corrupt in some important way. But Mad Men only mines Don’s past for sympathy, and never quite delves deeply enough into his psychology to see his true motivations.

And because the portrait is incomplete, we can easily shrug off Don’s shortcomings and worship without guilt Don’s abilities to make, do, and act in ways that are increasingly rare in the age of redefined masculinity. I suspect this is the reason why The Atlantic’s Peter Suderman argued that Don was likable only for his personal demeanor, for instance.

Don’t get me wrong: Don Draper is neither simple nor badly thought-out. But the reason that he ranks among the contenders for future television icon rather than the ranks of cable cult heroes is precisely because of this cocktail of character ambiguity, traditional masculinity, and pop-cultural timing. In other words, Don Draper as a character depends much more on what happens off-screen than what happens in the world of Mad Men alone.

Illustration by Priya Rajdev.

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.