Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Mad Men"'s Don Draper: Sympathetic?

I have been binge-watching Mad Men this summer. I'm only a little ashamed, because it really is an amazing show.

If you haven't seen the show and are planning to watch it on Netflix (or some other means) in the future, please stop reading as this post will have spoilers. (And I do recommend watching it!)

Now. Don Draper. The main character of Mad Men.  Is he a sympathetic character, or not?  I've read some other online commentary on the topic (asking if he is "likeable" and such). And I've read actor Jon Hamm's own take (he does not find Don Draper sympathetic). Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course.  As for me, I do find him sympathetic, ultimately, in spite of his many flaws.

So, let's acknowledge some of the flaws. First of all, he assumed the identity of a fellow soldier after an explosion in the Korean War. In the process, he upended the life of the original (or "real") Don Draper's family and his own family of origin too. Also, therefore, he is technically a deserter.

He's a horrible womanizer, throughout the series.

He's fairly ruthless in his work.

He doesn't appear to care about much other than life's creature comforts... he doesn't seem to have much social consciousness, and the 60s is lost on him in many ways.

There are other things, too, but those are some of the most obvious flaws.

Now, his central secret of having assumed another man's identity? Ultimately, I find this oddly sympathetic. He was very young, in shock from an explosion and the terror of battle, and he makes a quick decision. His punishment, really, is having to live with this secret and the stress it produces.  He does, of course, also become close to Anna Draper (the "real" Don Draper's widow) and helps her out.

It's harder for me to overlook the other flaws, really. But we also know that he grew up in a horrible and miserable situation that wounded him deeply. In that sense (and literally I suppose) he is a survivor. And so he has learned to "look out for number one" at all costs. Again, not a pretty picture, but somewhat sympathetic when you know how tough his start in life was.

There are two scenes that stay with me as summing up Don Draper's tragic predicament. One is when Marilyn Monroe dies. In one scene, Don is in the elevator with Peggy, discussing the death and how surprising it was that she was so miserable in spite of outwardly seeming to have it all. The elevator operator says, "Some people hide in plain sight". And that, of course, could be referring to Don Draper himself. If Marilyn Monroe was miserable "hiding in plain sight", surely so is Don Draper. And so I find him sympathetic in part because one of the tragedies of his life is that his first priority is taking care of himself and being successful and comfortable, but in spite of his efforts, he's clearly miserable. (As is noted here, of course, the elevator operator himself is "hiding in plain sight", being an "invisible" African American in a White Man's World.)

The other scene that stays with me is when he reads Frank O'hara's Meditations in an Emergency (pictured here). He sees someone reading it in a bar, asks about it, and the person reading it says something like "you probably wouldn't like it" (probably assuming Don Draper to be square or what have you). Later, we see him reading this very book. And we hear lines from the poem "Mayakovsky" (you can read the poem here): "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern." We get the sense that perhaps Don Draper feels that beneath it all, his personality is a bit of a catastrophe. He seems outwardly confident, but deep down he's full of self-doubt.

And so, in spite of his flaws, I wish Don Draper well. I want him to stop being miserable and hurting himself and others in the process. I want him to assess where he's "a catastrophe" and work on setting it right.  We've seen hints of his good side (e.g., when he's with Anna Draper, and his daughter Sally and son Bobby; when he's helping Peggy's career, etc.); I want him to bring that out more. Hopefully he'll learn (as Bert Cooper sang in the season 7 "half finale") that "the best things in life are free". I eagerly await the final episodes. I do hope that somehow he can find peace.