“Who Is Donald Draper?” – Updated

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 our dreams for a life without all that “rough childhood” baggage, that is not why the character has been 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 business clients he himself has helped win over; he has proven that he knows the customer and he can activate 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 turns toward the client.

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 who is most similar to himself comes into his life at work. She is a psychologist who utilizes the ’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.  Peggy instead chooses to shoot their commercial inside of the store – selling it as a release from the chaotic place where conviviality is barely held together and into ’another place’ where the family can regain their sense of coherence. The image of the family moves from the dinning table to the fast-food restraint booth.  Both the firm and the family undergo turbulent transformation throughout Mad Men, where the 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 at the 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 survived and reproduced itself by-and-large through conservative 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…”

There is no doubt that this was a Don Draper commercial.  He has found it again.  The direction of the population, the desire of the youth, the new ways people are formulating for relating to each other: he has found a way to insert the commodity in them.

If it doesn’t make you furious, or at least irked in a mysterious way, then you have missed the point of Mad Men.

The Century of the Self


Well it turns out, according to series creator and writer/director of many episodes including the finale Matt Weiner, you are not missing the point of Mad Men by being angry.  He wanted to end on a good note: [Matt Weiner Interview on the Mad Men Finale]

Fictional characters take on a life of their own however.  It is strange for me to say that Matt Weiner doesn’t understand his own character – one that he has crafted over many years – but my interpretation of Don Draper as a man who uses his own crises to target the desires of the population and better sell things to them holds up.  Don Draper, like his creator himself, doesn’t understand what ad-men like he have done to the world.  It’s not that the Don Drapers of the world were bad people, they are terribly intriguing and get a great deal out of their expressive capabilities.  They can change your life for the better with some profound advice.

No matter how much an artist puts into his artwork, he doesn’t get the final say on it. Both Weiner and Draper don’t know what their work is doing to people.  The call for empathy and an end to the cynical disposition of commentators on Mad Men by Weiner is as naive as the hippies that who pop up in the show every so often.  One’s life is far more pleasant without advertisements and the mad rush for consumer items they inspire.  Don Draper is the creative kernel and pretty face of the most far-reaching mechanism of control ever brought down upon the population.

Mad Men’s Commune

In episode 4 of the current season 7 of Mad Men, one of the central characters in Roger Sterling has a run-in with a hippy commune in upstate New York. Sterling’s daughter has run away, leaving behind her five year-old son to find happiness in a new living situation. The episode brings up some simple yet potent points about the family structure and hierarchical structures in general. The presence of hierarchy and the father figure have been important themes of contention throughout the show, as seen in the intricate dynamics of working at a New York City firm and living in a 1960’s white suburban household at the height of American power. Generally, the show has handled the trials of women and minorities in a male-dominated world very well, with moments of subtle and not-so-subtle imbalances in gendered power relations. But this episode was especially eye-opening for its giving the viewer a glimpse at an alternative living situation outside of the city and suburbia that actively tried to counter family-based power structures. At stake is the morals attached to such a patriarchic family structure and how well Mad Men’s commune subverts them.

Roger Sterling first gets word of his daughter Margaret’s flight to utopia at his office from both his ex-wife Mona and his son-in law who married her. The two are in conflict about whether to even enlist Roger for help and Roger ends up siding with his son-in-law: he should go as the husband to fetch Margaret back and reunite the family. Mona tries to push Roger to head the retrieval party: “A father is a powerful thing”, she says. But Roger abdicates and agrees with his son-in-law: “Let the man be a man!”, he fires back at his ex-wife. But the husband fails and instead of convincing her to come and resume her duties as mother he gets in a fight at a bar and winds up in jail. So Roger and his ex-wife journey through beat-up country roads to try and pull their daughter off of the commune and back into her family role as a mother.

The two together fail as Mona is far too insistent, laying guilt upon her daughter for abandoning her son (breaking the family line, so to speak), but Roger is far more suave. As an accounts man at his advertising firm he is responsible for smooth-talking clients and wining and dining them to give the diplomatic “human-touch” to the business interaction. Some of his one-liners are pretty sharp, but more importantly he has also experimented with LSD many times. As we learn from previous episodes in the season, he has been shacking up with a hippy girl and sharing the bed with random drop-outs of the sixties era. So when he sees the commune his daughter has been staying at, he takes the opportunity to get a taste of the country-hippy culture to go along with his greater goal of bringing back Margaret.

In the car ride, the family-based morality of where Margaret came from is layer bare:

“It was my fault.” Mona says, “She only had one job and that was to find a husband and she mucked it up.”

The two seem only capable of diagnosing her problems as a wife or a mother or a daughter. The family nucleus is the bedrock of happiness, and any deviations from that path to familial bliss can be corrected by family intervention.

Mona goes on: “She has been a little bit strange lately…” “And a little bit philosophical?” Roger interjects. “Yes…” she replies, “I thought she was finally happy.” End scene.

The blindness of the two to is exacerbated by the fact that they divorced when Margaret was young. They come charging out of the city to pull their daughter back to the family, having already displayed the harshness of their own separation . The family is their conceptual limit of the good life, despite their own failures. A bad conscience is shared by everyone in this episode, a perfect tool for keeping all personal and social problems within the realm of the family.

When they arrive, they find Margaret has changed her name to Marigold and she is steadfast about staying. She stares at them with big bold eyes in layered ponchos and moccasins, dishing back the guilt they try and heap on her. Mona demands be responsible and devote her life to her son, when Marigold reminds Mona of her own depression and heavy drinking problems. Roger mostly stands by and offers money – another sign of his absence as a father and devotion to his work.

“I’m tired of accepting societies definition of me,” says Marigold. “I don’t pray to that anymore.”

Her rejection of the family comes with strings attached: the morality of individualized guilt and innocence is kept in breaching the family structure. When the two parents try and convince her to come back, the moral arguments they use are spun right back in their face. It becomes a stand-off over “who is the worse family member?” instead of a competition of living styles. Mona gets fed up and leaves, convinced her daughter is lost, while Roger stays to try and meet her half-way.

It is the short, yet impactful lines on the porch of the commune that lay bare the motivations for leaving behind the family life. They peel potatoes in an old white farm-house with a few other escapees, passing around a joint.


The man who first met Roger and Mona and tried to direct them away says, “There is no hierarchy here man.”

Roger fires back, “Believe me, there is always a hierarchy.”

Another proclaims, “we do things by true consensus here. If we can’t all agree, we come up with something else.” Marigold adds on: “Everyone does what they want.”

“I haven’t felt this at one with nature since I was in the Navy.” Replies Roger.

Roger is critical of the commune’s logic, but he hangs with it throughout the night. He and Marigold rest in sleeping-bags outside, staring up at the stars and chatting. Eventually, she says, “I’m really glad you’re a daddy.” (not “I’m glad you’re *my* daddy”). Margaret is Roger’s only child, so she subtly cuts off her position in the family line but simultaneously affirms his. She’s looking for a way out of family-centered life, but only seems to be able to judge Roger based on his position as a father. He either fails in his duty as a father or is praised as a father, a kind of judgment that Marigold is seeking a way out of, yet having a hard time voicing it.

In the middle of the night, Roger is awoken by Marigold running off into the house with a man. In the morning, the same guy who first greeted Roger and Mona at the entrance to the commune walks out of the house right before Marigold. This is also the same guy who had short words with Roger about hierarchy on the porch. It isn’t much of a leap to say that Roger’s presence on the compound was a threat and the hippy-guy made a play to steal away Marigold from she and Roger’s night under the stars. This is perhaps an instance where “everybody does what they want” becomes troubled: desires and power-plays will forever disrupt a simplistic idea of full-consensus.

When Roger wakes up he is through playing games. He forcefully grabs Marigold and leads her away from the house to leave. He picks her up and carries her kicking and yelling, like a patriarch asserting his dominion over his daughter. “I don’t care what you want”, he says before making his move. In the struggle he slips and they both fall in the mud. He makes one last plea: “How could you just leave him? He’s your baby.”

Marigold responds by essential saying “you where a bad father, it’s your fault as well.” She speaks about the times he was never there, working or screwing around himself without paying any attention to her. “Your conscience must have been eating you alive.” she says. The two only seem to be able to hurl blame at each other. Whose fault was it for ruining the family? is the only question they can seem to ask each other.

Earlier in the season, Margaret has an awkward lunch with Roger in which she forgives him ambiguously. He’s confused as to why, but it is clear: Margaret is seeking the moral high ground and forgiving him prematurely for his sins. The communication between the two is in shambles. They are both experimenting with the radical attitudes of the sixties by taking drugs, having multiple partners, and living communally but are unable to relate to each other’s experiences because of the father-daughter relationship. Both are kind of ‘bon vivants’ but cannot find a way to share those life-altering moments together because of the moral imperative imposed on the family structure. He’s the father and has obligations as head of the household (mostly by providing security in wealth) and is reproached for not fathering enough. Marigold is chastised for abandoning her family role as mother. Her flight to the commune comes off as a moralistic rebellion against her father in Mad Men, framed in terms of who is in the wrong? who is to blame?


The family structure is exactly what communes help subvert and attempt to find a genuine alternative to oppressive patriarchic life and its morality. When the two parents go out to the rustic commune full of hippies to pull their daughter back into that life, they run up against logic constraints that prevent them from adequately expressing themselves to each other. They throw around guilt to justify their actions or else the father resorts to forceful aggression. Even in his attempt to understand the culture and have an experimental moment his Marigold, the father-figure haunts Roger, coming from Marigold’s own voice and the (soon-to-be) dominant hippy-guy’s subtle challenge.

Breaking down those moral-familial relationships is difficult in a society like our own, but Mad Men is unclear in its message as to whether this can or should be done. They often laud the responsible father for reassuming their role in the family as teacher and provider when they have previously been indulging. The father figure haunts the country commune house in this episode, but must it? Living in such a way can seriously and effectively change the patriarchic structure, but all we get is the same moral assertions about who’s family role is performed well and who has a bad conscience. This episode could stand as a warning that escaping patriarchy is more difficult than idealistic youths from the late sixties in America thought, but it could also be a way to load down Roger with blame for not being a good father.

Where the show’s writer and director stand about hierarchy, the family, and communes I still cannot tell. Is Roger asserting the universality of hierarchy merely coming from his embedded and privileged role as successful business man and father? Or is the commune’s free-love idealism and unwillingness to use “technology” misguided simply misguided? Of course, assigning blame to one or the other – the father/businessman or the idealistic hippies – would be to fall for the same moral logic that keeps tripping up Roger and Marigold. I would pinpoint the failure of Roger and Marigold’s relationship there on the moral-ground, but it is unclear as to whether that is the intended message. Seeing as they are both experimenting in the burgeoning counter-culture but cannot communicate except in those terms (“pray”, “conscience”, “forgiveness”), the break-down of their relationship is due to the vain attempt at achieving moral purity or pure happiness instead of just spending time together.

The moral-familial system is the real culprit for preventing Roger and Marigold from sharing their fun-loving experiments in liberation together. This episode was especially powerful in showing this because the commune tried to create an alternative to it, but, like so many communes of the era, failed in confronting the specter of moral purism – one used chiefly for the desire to control populations – but also one that Roger’s business in advertising is helping to perpetuate in the image of the happy, consumer family.