Don Draper in Season 6, Episode 1. Even in paradise, (in this case, Hawaii) Don remains in hell. Photo: Michael Yarish/AMC
When he fell through the sky on our television screens in 2007 Don Draper seemed to be everything we could want in a retro bad boy: he was dashing, duplicitous, adulterous, emotionally withholding, hard-drinking, and, perhaps most significantly, handsome.
If the saying ‘ladies want him while men want to be him’ is too much of a throwback cliché to stomach, then you might want to reconsider your response while looking at this website, What Would Don Draper Do? Or this section of AMC’s Mad Men website Which of Don’s Women are You?
Or this, 10 Reasons I Wish Don Draper Was My Boyfriend, one of many overtures directed at the most filmed nape in television.
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Jon Hamm had a better childhood than Don Draper but only just. His parents divorced when he was two and his mother died of cancer when he was 10. Then his father died when he was 20. But things started looking up when he met his best friend Paul Rudd through college friends. In Jon Hamm's Mad Men audition Matthew Weiner immediately guessed that he 'had not been raised by his parents.'
Don has had every conceivable type of woman and ruined his relationship with each one. Granted, not all of them were relationships, but that too speaks to his intimacy intolerance. In season 1 this was aspirational, in a ‘guilty-pleasure-pre-second-wave-feminism’ way; in season 4, tolerable. But now, in season 6, as Don begins his quasi-conscious descent into the ninth circle of hell, it appears despicable.
At least that’s the message from viewers, and not a few critics, who appear to have grown weary of Don’s predictable carousel-of-women-and-booze lifestyle. As New York’s Matt Zoller Sietz put it two weeks ago,
‘I'm less interested in Don right now than I've ever been, notwithstanding the possibility that the writers are setting him up for some sort of horrendous tragedy.’ He continued in the same vein this week, calling Don ‘unlovable.’
Ta-Nehisi Coates from The Atlantic threw up his arms two months ago in an article expressing frustration for the way the character keeps relapsing.
‘Don is a beautiful philandering stud. That was always there but it was wrapped in so much more ... What's left [now] is a dude who makes adultery look beautiful. My impulse is to say that this Don Draper is a lot less interesting.’
TV critic Emily Nussbaum expressed similar disdain over at The New Yorker,
‘[Don] was a great premise, a mystery we were dying to understand. But, the more the puzzle has been filled in, the more he’s begun to feel suspiciously like a symbol, a thesis title rather than a character: 'American Masculinity as Performance'.
Well, hold onto your malt liquors. What could be more interesting than what happened this week with Sally? What could be more interesting, even surprising, than watching a man admit, eyes brimming, that he didn’t love his son until he did something so unselfconsciously decent Don thought his ‘heart would explode’?
What is more interesting than finding out that Don has a terrifying sadomasochistic side and he’s not afraid to flex it when he’s feeling powerless?
‘Masculinity as performance’? Performance implies contrivance and there was nothing contrived about Don, sweaty and unkempt, drunkenly throwing up in someone’s house – in the middle of a eulogy, no less.
All of that happened in season 6.
Nussbaum is right, Don is a mystery - creator Matthew Weiner has admitted that he's filled with 'ambiguity' - but that’s consistent with all the characters on Mad Men, (Bob Benson anyone?). We know they have rich inner lives, but they reveal only droplets! And that’s the single most thrilling thing about them.
The two greatest shows of the last 20 years, (and arguably of all time), Seinfeld and The Sopranos, both featured protagonists who never learned a thing. Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld even kept his cast and crew on track with the mantra ‘no learning, no hugging’. Why then do we expect it of Draper? Well, a couple of reasons.
Don Draper is good looking. That right there is why audiences expect so much from him. It’s difficult to foster feelings for a handsome loser. It creates too much cognitive dissonance.
Here’s the other thing: Don Draper is the reincarnation of the Camelot myth. John F Kennedy remains aspirational because he was assassinated; it’s easy to reconfigure a dead president as a martyr. But, for all of his physical beauty and stately acumen, JFK still cheated on his wife and he still made some rather shady political decisions. But we cover these indiscretions under the blanket of early ‘60s nostalgia and blind faith in jingoism, and then somehow forget that Draper is Kennedy without the White House.
Now, can we talk about the little Freudian elephant in the room? Part of the pull toward Don Draper is because he reminds plenty of people of their dads. Jon Hamm himself has admitted this. Weiner has mentioned he gets it a lot. The Brylcreem scented nostaglia is part of it but so are the long silences, the sangfroid; the cold machismo; the elegant way in which he refuses to open up emotionally.
Now, all of those relationships, father, lover, President – unlike Jerry Seinfeld or Tony Soprano – represent a high stakes psychological nightmare if the love, or at least admiration, is unrequited.
In the case of television, requited love and admiration comes through a connection to a character, whether in the form of a cerebral growth spurt, borne of a profound epiphany or, alternatively, the unveiling of a deep mystery. If he doesn’t show us this we at least want to know when he'll return to his winning Alpha Male self. Why is Don no longer in control of the situation like my bad boyfriend / Daddy / Prez should be? So we get upset and call him ‘less interesting’ because we want to let a fictional character know we’re not going to take this for much longer!
But Weiner refuses to reform Don for the simple reason that while we’d love it in the moment, we’ll tune out in the long term. Every time two characters get together on any TV show the viewership drops off. We think we want resolution but we don’t – we want drama. Unpredictable, slow-moving, high-stakes drama.
It’s not Don who is our bad boyfriend then, it’s Weiner. And as creator and guardian of the show, Weiner is also our very strict daddy.
Weiner made clear in an interview only recently that ‘fans don’t run the show’ – and thank God too. Look at Arrested Development, the creator listened to fans and hurriedly developed a whole new season – and it was an abysmal failure.
But if you still find yourself disappointed by your Daddy Lover President, you can heed the words of Weiner, who defended his creation in this interview:
"I don't think about likability. I think about lovability. And Don, at the bottom there, was the most lovable I've ever seen him. He needed love. He is a man who never asks for anything and doesn't know how to. He's a man who keeps such distance that the grains of vulnerability that he expresses are the moments for us to put ourselves into his life."
Don may reform himself in time for the final season, or he might plunge deeper into hell. But isn't it the not-knowing that sustains us? So let us ask not what Don is doing for us; let’s instead wonder, in endless recaps and articles and essays and arguments and book clubs and blogs, what kind of expectations are we placing on Don Draper?