I’ve subtitled this blog a series of confessions, so I might as well confess that no television show--not even The Sopranos in its peak years--has captured my imagination quite like Mad Men. Like everyone else, I love the period detail, the consistently good writing, the often-spectacular acting and can’t resist the standing invitation to take a holiday from contemporary standards of moral and political rectitude. And I can’t help taking a rooting interest in the main character, Don Draper, without knowing exactly what I should be rooting for.
Draper’s a study in the limits of creativity. He’s in the business of turning articles of commerce into objects of mass fantasy. But his most fantastic creation is himself. By assuming the identity of another man killed in Korea, he’s turned himself into an object of other people’s esteem and has been leading what looks like an enviable life enjoying the professional, social and monetary rewards generated by that esteem.
For the first three seasons, we’ve been reminded of what he’s left behind through periodic flashbacks of him, as Dick Whitman, the illegitimate son of a sadistic father, growing up during the depression on a failing family farm. But we’ve been invited to think incompatible thoughts about the Whitman-to-Draper metamorphosis. When we see what lengths he goes to hide his past (including driving his real half-brother to suicide) we can’t help thinking that Draper’s an impostor—although it’s hard to say who he’s impersonating. Yet we also root for Draper to keep his secret because we can’t help thinking that it isn’t a deception at all; sometimes his assumed identity seems like it's all the more authentically him for his having willfully assumed it. One sign of Mad Men’s art is the way it keeps us on a knife’s edge between these two interpretations.
With this season, it looks like our balance will become more precarious because Don Draper, the persona, has escaped the control of Draper (or is it Dick Whitman?) the artificer. That’s partly a result of too many people knowing about the artifice. His senior partner has already used that knowledge to keep control of Draper as a business asset. Worse, his marriage dissolved when his wife discovered his past and was repelled by his apparent insubstantiality. Now he’s a borderline alcoholic who isn’t above taking sexual advantage of his secretary after a drunken office party—something that, for all his catting around, Draper would never have even contemplated before his marriage dissolved.
All of this was dramatized expertly in last night’s episode through the character of Faye Miller, a marketing analyst making a presentation to Draper’s agency. When she distributes a questionnaire soliciting personal information from the assembled admen (and woman), Draper abruptly excuses himself without trying to hide the fact that he thinks the exercise is a waste of time. That makes dramatic sense: when you’re your own creation, you don’t need introspection to figure out who you are; you just have to ask yourself what you want to be. When you’re the kind of guy who locks himself out of his apartment because he’s always drunk, however, you’ve probably got some issues worth thinking about.
When Miller asks Draper why he walked out of her presentation, he thinks the question is just her way of flirting with him so he asks her out. "You'll be married again in a year," she replies before adding on her way out the door, "Oh, I forgot, nobody wants to think they're a type." It's hard to say who has been put more brutally in his place, Draper the artifact or Draper/Whitman the artificer.