Don Draper was always a man in crisis. He held on to another man’s name as his fragile secret with which he was able to begin a life from scratch – a blank slate. The new identity was supposed to be a new start, the chance to be whoever he wanted to be and forget his troubled past, but it was never that easy. Don Draper is not just some empty name which we can filled up with one’s dreams for a life without all that “rough childhood” stuff, that is not why the character has so fascinating to millions of Americans. Don Draper fascinates because he is able to take his own crises, his own truly frightened disposition as he teeters on the edge of breakdown into an understanding of the general sentiment of the population – his target audience. By living on the edge of secrecy and isolation, he can connect with the stranger and get a real sense for the desires of a decent sample of the population. His wit, ease, willingness to experiment, and observation skill allows him to probe people, learn from them their concerns, and make great art. Of course, that art is not art for the sheer pleasure of expression or taking sensation in new directions, but to channel that desire sweeping through the country into ends that satisfy the accounts (corporations) – getting people to buy their commodities. Don Draper is the great anonymous stranger, so mysterious and intriguing that you never feel like you can get to the bottom of him, wandering to wherever his fancy takes him as some seemingly wise traveling man of the world, collecting insights during his adventures but always coming back to the firm.
Not that he is necessarily infiltrating the masses consciously and strategically. His own life crises and urges toward flight seem genuine enough, but he also has to work, as nearly all of us do. Don Draper is the idealized businessman on the surface – handsome, practical, and articulate. His job is to reach the customer for the businesses he has helped win to his side; he has proven that he knows the customer and he can enact their desires to buy their products because he is better than any other at discovering what they want. He finds that desire by extracting himself from his contexts (becoming a new man each time) and hooking up with various other interesting individuals. But the individual that Don Draper is is a void, ready to take on whatever new form is needed to learn some new truth about people and assuage his angst. But instead of turning that intensity into existential art and improve himself, as he did for a time during his personal notebook phase in season 5, he tears that prospect up and answers to the client, influences the fleeting impulses of the consumer.
His first known affair is with a young artist of the late 1950’s beat era, establishing himself in the contemporary pop-trends. When she turns to heroin a number of years later, he takes one of her artworks and contemplates it during a crisis at his advertising firm to make a bold strategic move. It is at this moment that he decides to tear up the diary and engage with his business issues more fully, in contemplation of an abstract painting fashioned out of the dark emotions of addiction.
The woman that he dates most similar to himself comes into his life at work. She is a psychologist who utilizes ’focus group’ at an early era for the technique to extract from the participants a sort of group confessional. Her expertise are employed at Don’s advertising agency to extract consumer tendencies and reactions that help them more effectively target people. They made for a good team. She nails him when they break up: “… you only like the beginning of things.” It seemed as if he was taking a life-changing turn, being less engaged with his work at the office, exercising frequently, and acting less impulsively. But that doesn’t last long and his thoughts are recaptured by reestablishing his agency as a major force in the world of advertising. Don Draper must only experiment with different modes of living, affairs with women, and the various persons of interest he befriends. His flashes of inspiration and drifting desires always find their way back to his true home: the corporation on Madison Avenue.
His ad agencies takes on different names as the show progresses, depending on the partners that come to own it, with his name eventually reaching on the wall. After they merge with another agency to be more competitive, they have a hilarious conundrum of how to name a business composed of seven partners. “The business side of life” is always fought with shifting pressures from both the outside and in, which sets up a perfect complement to the other side of the show: the domestic family. Don Draper goes through two divorces and maintains a fairly amicable relationship with the family of the man whose name he stole. The image of the happy family that is perpetuated in the advertising strategies of American advertising in the fifties and early sixties gets upturned in the later part of the series, especially in the campaign they pioneer with the Burger-chef episode. Here Don defers to his protégé Peggy when her research shows that the family is torn up by the supposedly tranquil place of the house and they choose to shoot their commercial inside of the store – a release from chaotic place where conviviality is barely held together into ’another place’ where the family can regain their sense of coherence. Both the firm and the family undergo turbulent transformation throughout Mad Men, where roles are almost always up for grabs.
At one point the agency opens up a branch in California, but after Don draper takes one of his vanishing-act “vacations” that double as quasi-reconnaissance missions. He let’s his desires pull him towards the same place to where a cultural shift is taking place in America: the California coast where young people are flocking to in the mid-to-late sixties. It’s this experience floating around L.A. that allows him to woo a defiant client later on by saying approximately this (left resonating in my head for many years afterward – quoted from memory):
Draper: “A number of people understand this but few can actually implement it, if you do not like what is being said, simply change the conversation.”
Client: “And what is that conversation?”
Draper: “I’ve been to California. Everything is new there, people are filled with hope. New York City is in decay, but with Madison Square Garden… it can be a bright and shining new future.
Client: “Just like that, it’s that simple?”
It was Don Drapers little flight of fancy that gave him the courage to speak like this to a powerful person and win him over to his side. It wasn’t so much any particular epiphany that he had that allowed him to discern what it was about California that made it such an attractive place, he was just following his desires and linking himself up with the general movement of the activated population of young and edgy hipsters. He can detect the tendencies of the target audience – the amorphous persuasions of the movers and shakers of the cultural atmosphere. He can only do this by getting lost somewhere else, evading his identity, and following his impulses. When falling in with a bunch of jet-setter Europeans in California, he says very little at all and merely rides along.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that Don Draper ended up back in California with the only member left of the old Draper family (before he stole the name): a young woman to which he is like an uncle. Together they go to a hippy-communal retreat where much of the sentiments of the time are typified. She leaves him there after she has a crisis about an abandoned child (a common motif throughout the series), which is symbolic of the fracturing of the family at the time while highlighting the difficult choices that women face in gaining more freedom outside of their role in house. Adam Kotsko has a great articulation of this thought on the shifts in reproduction and elite power here [As Good as It Gets: Mad Men and Neoliberalism]. When she is gone, Don Draper goes into crisis mode, becoming totally despondent by the only pay-phone of the secluded retreat and looking like the spitting image of a scared runaway child. He calls back to his home (the agency office) to talk to his Peggy, who tells him: “Don, you can come home…[They’ll] take you back in a second… Don, come home… I don’t think you shouldn’t be alone.” He responds: “I’m in a crowd, I just wanted to hear your voice.” and before that: “I only called because I… I realized I never said goodbye to you.” The scene just reeks of a runaway boy calling home to his family as the feeling of loss and vulnerability crept in. It fits in properly to have a gushy love scene for two soon-to-be engaged office coworkers.
At the hippy-retreat, we constantly hear the refrain “how do you feel?” or “how does that make you feel?” or some other such enticement to express your inner thoughts to the rest of the group. Everyone there is more-or-less lost and seeking some kind of therapy beyond the psychiatric methods of healing that wrecked so much havoc on the bodies of “troubled” “hysterics”, and “deviants”. The psychoanalytic methods deployed on Don Draper’s first wife Betty demonstrate such techniques in the earlier seasons of the series. She would lie alone and talk while the psychiatrist would take notes – and describe his conclusions on the phone to her husband. As objects isolated and analyzed by a scientific procedure, patients cannot be faulted for seeking alternatives for care. The dominant formation of the family model was there at the start and all throughout the psychoanalytic discipline, and the individuals congregating at the California coast retreat are searching for another way. But they are not enacting some alternative mode of living altogether (as was once depicted when Roger went to attempt an abduction of his daughter from a commune [Mad Men’s Commune] – another instance of a mother abandoning her child in Mad Men), instead they are all strangers gathering for some healing in confessional-therapy sessions of the collective kind. This is where Don Draper thrives, but he must go through his dark period first to get his artistic pay-off. Right before his breakdown by the phone, he remarks to an attendant in frustration, “everyone just comes and goes as they please and no one says goodbye?” It’s as if any real attachment that one may find in a family setting or elsewhere cannot be found here.
Here California retreat is where everyone must feel their most open and vulnerable, yet also encouraged by others to and expecting themselves to express their deepest feelings openly and gain some peace and tranquility. Stuck here for a few days is where Don Draper will excel. A woman comes up to him seeing that he is lost and implores him to come to her therapy session, with her stated reason being “I’m late and I don’t want to go in alone.” There, Don Draper is jostled from utter fright and listlessness into passion and direction by one average man’s self-reflection. The man is constantly worried that his family doesn’t love him, but he understands at the same time that “they’re trying” – he just “can’t see what it is.” He says this twice. “I just don’t know what it is.” How does one find that human connectivity, that true bond people always seem to long for in the relationship, that spark in-between we call love?
The man then gives us a dream-image of himself as a food jar on the shelf of a house cupboard in a kitchen, which isn’t picked by his family to eat. In this image, the man is seeking love as the product seeks to be consumed.
The love we feel with a friend or with our family can feel right and true, but it can also feel lacking and for good reasons. The oft-spoken of disintegration of the traditional family that happened during the time-period of Mad Men is a real disruption of a form that only survived and reproduced itself by-and-large through conservative and reactionary means. The rituals and repetitions that solidified that formation took a major hit with advent of new technologies that bursted into the fore with the speed of electricity that flew through them: television, the billboard, the internet and computer all assert themselves into our home lives with a glut of new images and styles. They are suddenly present and demanding your attention, tugging your desires to meet their ends.
Donald Draper is there to fill the void left in the family, a void that he and his like have helped create in their clinical dissection of the desires of the masses. He does this not as the returner of good-old values (far from the case) but as an above average man that learns from his crises – a trait one would find admirable if not for the purposes to which that education is made to serve. His bro-hug with the average man comes off as self-serving and unequal: Don Draper is not overlooked, he is very much desirable, and he is very interesting. He isn’t really commiserating or sympathetic to him. He seems to be saying something more like: “congratulations on such great self-expression. I needed to be reminded of what ordinary people are feeling, for I have been lost.” He is now ready to become new again, “a new day, new ideas, a new you” the guru says, as Don Draper has become many times already. And then the commercial kicks in:
“I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love… And it’s the real thing, what the world wants today. And it’s the real thing…”
If it doesn’t make you furious, or at least irked in a mysterious way, then you have missed the point of Mad Men.