Why Don Draper Is: Season Five of Mad Men

IMAGE: Mad Men (AMC)

[Spoilers!  Spoilers Everywhere!]

I’ve spent five years stunned by the exquisite slow burn of the AMC drama series Mad Men.  Few narratives have the elegance, the poise, the thematic self-awareness to exhibit themselves with such mindful, tempered pacing.  Mad Men gives its characters time to breathe, time to evolve, sometimes even time to utterly wallow.  There are characters within this fiction that – despite watching with enraptured awe – one cannot even come to understand until five years into the run of the show.  Indeed, this most recent season alone has provided several character-defining moments, organically peppered into the narrative, that have fundamentally altered the way in which we view these personalities, that provide telling new insights into their behaviour as it has played out over the entirety of the series’ run.

And this has been nowhere more evident than in the fluid identity of the series’ central protagonist, Don Draper (played masterfully by Jon Hamm), a man who in the past has lived multiple simultaneous lives under oppressive veils of secrecy; who has literally changed his very identity; and who, in the final scene of this latest, profoundly transitional season, is once again left at a crossroads in his development, potentially about to tumble into old self-destructive ways and re-enter a pattern of infidelity, deceit and self-loathing that has already cost him a marriage, friendships, and years of psychological peace.

Don Draper is a man who has been haunted the majority of his life with the perpetuation of a falsehood that eventually ate into every facet of his existence.  Indeed, in the first season Harry Crane declared that Don could very well be Batman for all anyone actually knows about him.

Born Richard ‘Dick’ Whitman to destitute parents – a prostitute mother who died in labour and a drunken, violently abusive, emotionally unstable father – ‘Dick’ grew up in a cycle of abuse and poverty, eventually going to war to escape his life.  While fighting on the frontlines, he watched a superior officer named Don Draper die and decided to steal his name in order to get the hell away from the carnage.  And so, returning home in the guise of another man’s identity, awarded a purple heart for a heroism that mocked his own cowardice, he lived that deception for the remainder of his life, working, marrying, raising children, superficially excelling in every avenue of his experience, all under the weight of a fundamental disguise.

In the first three seasons of the series we therefore watched this man – a charming, debonair, effortlessly successful advertising executive; father to two healthy young children, husband to a beautiful wife – chafe under the enormity of this deception.  He drank too much; smoked until his lungs spilled over with tar; whored around with numerous women; letting each one glimpse only a fraction of his rigidly compartmentalised life.  And it was killing him.

As the divisions between each aspect of his identity segmented even further – father; husband; lover; roguish workmate; mentor to an aspiring female copywriter in an oppressively patriarchal environment – Don seemed to be wholly detached, play-acting through it all, only finding the most transitory moments of solace in the slivers of self he let break through the facade.  And he remained extraordinarily talented at his job, for precisely the same reason he was torn up inside: his whole life a lie, he was a natural at the advertising industry’s world of artful deception, running for his life to deadlines just as he sprinted to keep ahead of his inevitable exposure.

Because, throughout it all, he remained terrified of losing everything at any moment.  His colleagues thought him a war hero, not little Dick Whitman, scrapper from nowhere.  His wife, a woman of means and elegance, was wholly unaware she had married an abandoned pauper made good.  And so, when the biological brother he left behind decades previous appeared, hoping to reconnect, Don rejected him – both fearful of exposure and no doubt reluctant to once again confront his own suppressed history – unwilling to yet fold those disparate selves back into a final oneness.

This season, however – for the first time – Don was able to exist in the relative truth of himself.  Having had his deceptions exposed at the end of season three, having fallen in love with a new woman who was willing to accept him for who he actually is, Don could finally live in a unified selfhood: at last, through Megan, he was known in a way that no one else in his life ever had, no longer strangled by deceptions but freed to simply be.

Just down the hall from Don at Sterling Cooper Draper Price another character had likewise pursued this sensation of unified experience.  For much of season five, Roger Sterling has re-examined his life under the effects of LSD.  Having shared a controlled dosage with his wife, he believed himself to have looked into the ‘truth’ of his existence, into the clarity of all life.  And the impact of this experience reverberated through his imagery this season: a geometric pattern that reminded him of the drug’s effects hung on his office wall; and his final appearance in the concluding episode presented him naked, again tripping out of his mind, and staring out into the night through a hotel window.

One of the effects of LSD is said to be a dissolution of divisions between the self and the objects one observes.  The mind looses itself in non-spatial, non-temporal sensation – Roger saw himself aged and youthful at once, even witnessed himself playing Major League baseball in a game concluded years previous.  Under the influence of the drug the delineation between inner and outer dissolves, and one simply is.

Aldous Huxley in the paper ‘The Doors of Perception’*, spoke of his experimental experience taking mescaline in 1953 – over a decade earlier than Roger let a laced sugar cube dissolve on his tongue.  (Mescaline, of course, is different to LSD, but for the purposes of this discussion it evokes similar effects.)  When Huxley verbalised the visions and observations that swam over him, he spoke of objects shining with their own, pure, undiluted light.  He became, he said, alert to the ‘is-ness’ of things, able to discern an object’s reality, it’s singularity of purpose – sign and signifier unified as one whole unutterable truth:

‘[Plato, who separated object from idea] could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.’

Like Huxley, Roger appeared to have experienced a similar dissolution of divisions; viscerally alert to the is-ness of the world, although only by chasing it down a pharmaceutically induced rabbit hole.  In contrast, for the first time in his adult life, Don appears to be at last truly living this kind of singular unity.  Freed by Megan’s acknowledgement of the many sides of his identity, finally seen, affirmed and loved by another human soul, Don is finally able to embrace his own, newly unified, is-ness.

And yet…

In that final scene, Don still seems poised to slide back into a life of pretence and betrayal.  A beautiful woman leans in to ask if he is ‘alone’ – a flirtatious exchange that brims with potential – and we are tempted to read into Don’s momentary pause a genuine moment of consideration as a new fissure in his identity looms.  His relationship with his wife – something he had held sacred for the span of the season, is suddenly revealed to be at genuine risk, with the question of why reverberating back through the narrative.  And it can be seen to lie in that notion of deception that has haunted Don his whole life.

Despite being a predominantly healing presence in Don’s life, Megan herself has, over the course of the season, struggled with the nature of Don’t career; and he in turn had baulked at her seeming dismissal of his chosen profession.  Megan was revealed to be effortlessly talented at the advertising industry – imaginative with the concepts; good with the copy; at ease with the delivery; and a master of the soft sell to clients – she was a natural, excelling at the job despite the inherent sexism of her workplace (a success that Peggy, who had worked so hard for so long, seemingly both envied and vicariously celebrated).  But Megan rejected this calling, unfulfilled by the profession that Don had devoted himself to, instead seeking to make her mark as an actor.  Advertising for her was not a dream – it was an easy, shallow enterprise, one that she felt, ultimately, to be empty.  At times in the season Don even felt judged by her attitude toward his career – one glaring example being the hilariously anti-consumerist play she took him to see, a performance against which Don bristled.

However, while he was clearly hurt by her decision to abandon this calling, and at first reluctant to ever let her travel far from him, there is a sense in which Don truly did want her to succeed, to be invigorated by her chosen pursuit.  In that final episode, sitting awash in the series’ signature haze of cigarette smoke cut by a flickering projector, Don watches Megan’s screen test, warmed by her innate luminescence, drinking in the is-ness of her drive and purpose.  A heartfelt smile breaks on his lips.  He seems to want success for her – to see her shine with contented joy.

Only minutes later however and that bliss was soured.  Megan struggled to excel at acting, and becoming frustrated with numerous rejections she pleaded with Don to give her a role in a commercial (even stealing the idea from her friend).  Don, not wanting her to go on suffering, agreed; but in his heart, he knew he was perpetuating a lie.  Seeing her embrace egotism rather than effort, to be rewarded by placation rather than validation, seemed to diminish the truth that they had celebrated in each other, and weaken the bond both shared.

When Don walked away from Megan as she was preened and prepped for her performance, there was a sense of encroaching darkness.  As the happy, fairytale scene (literally, she was shooting a ‘Beauty and the Beast’-style commercial) faded behind him, Don suddenly seemed overcome with a sense of mourning: something perhaps had died.  She had embraced the fantasy of the advertising deception, rather than the truth of her passion, and although she was back in his advertising world she was image now, not substance; an object and idea divided against itself.

This season has entirely been about change, about growth into a new state of being.  Socially, a new generation of thought, opportunity, and culture has started to spread into the world.  The season began with the hiring of an African American woman to the firm (albeit somewhat unintentionally); new music disseminated itself into the communal consciousness (in what has got to be the greatest use of music in film ever) with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ by the Beatles swirling inexorably into the social sphere before being somewhat ominously silenced prematurely by Don; a rising European intellectual and artistic sensibility has begun permeating conversation and culture (we might miss the subtle shifts in ideologies and fashion, but no one will be forgetting Megan’s provocative birthday dance).

On the personal scale characters were likewise burgeoning and evolving (sometimes at a terrible cost): Peggy finally sought to step out from under her mentor’s shadow, taking a job with another firm where she can finally express her autonomy; Joan finally left a husband who thought of her as little more than an appendage and negotiated herself into a partner position (although she had to bargain off her body to do so); the penultimate episode even ended with Don’s daughter starting her period, herself entering a new, unfamiliar phase of life.

But the question of exactly how far Don Draper has changed, or in what direction this alteration will lead him, awaits a definitive answer.  When the woman at the bar asked him if he was alone, his face – his eyes – seemed to spark with a familiar old fire, but what that moment meant still awaits revelation.  Maybe we saw flicker there that old self-destructive sexual opiate that would numb the division in his soul; or perhaps, more hopefully, he was just stalled for a time, collecting himself before declining and returning home to his wife and his life – the place where for the first time he has found acceptance and truth, and the tranquillity amongst all the haze to simply be.

Only season six will tell…

* Guess where Jim Morrison got the name…

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