Monday, September 13, 2010

Mad Men: Regret

There’s always been less to Don Draper than meets the eye. That’s been the secret of his success. Dick Whitman’s character was too forgettable (to himself and to everyone else besides Anna Draper) to get in the way when Korea presented him with the opportunity to play Don Draper. And Don the fur salesman could turn himself into Don the ad man in the time it took him to get Roger Sterling drunk enough not to remember whether he’d hired him.

What makes Dick/Don such an accomplished shape-shifter is his inherent shapelessness. He’s nothing like a method actor struggling to find something of himself to bring to a new role. He has played Don Draper so convincingly because the person behind the Draper mask is too insubstantial to leave behind tell-tale signs of his serial transformations. The measure of his shapelessness is his incapacity for regret. He has succeeded in becoming Don Draper because he hasn’t known himself well enough to miss what he has lost along the way.

That worked well enough as long as personal and professional circumstance defined the dimensions of the role he had to play. But the dissolution of Don’s marriage and Sterling Cooper left him adrift. There was still no one Dick/Don would rather be than Don Draper, but now that the social space Don inhabits lacks clear dimensions, he no longer knows quite how to fill it. That’s left Don flailing around drunkenly for most of this season trying to find himself, only to run up against the barriers to introspection that he’s been erecting all of his adult life.

In last night’s episode he finally got serious about it. He starts undoing some of the physical damage his drinking has been doing to him by swimming laps at the New York Athletic Club. His primary instrument of psychic rehabilitation is a diary, the first entry of which reveals that a genius at using language as an instrument of commerce, has never written more than 250 consecutive words, and never before turned language on himself.

The last diary entry signals his (re)discovery of regret. He sees that his zeal to get things he doesn’t already have has anesthetized him to what it has cost him. The people who watch him most closely can see the difference that makes. Faye has observed Don from a clinical distance all year. But her detachment melts away over a glass of Chianti when she sees his regret at losing contact with his infant son. Betty’s reaction when he crashes Baby Gene's birthday party is even more memorable. A few days before, she’d lost her composure seeing Don’s forward-looking leer at Bethany after she and Henry ran into them at a restaurant. But she can't keep a pang of affection from crossing her face when she sees Don, bouncing his son in his arms, building a bridge between his past and his future.

I’d have preferred a less hackneyed device for dramatizing Don’s new introspection than the wooden voice-over reciting his diary entries. But, as usual, the creative team behind Mad Men finds a way to deliver the dramatic goods. I loved the scene in which Kenny Cosgrove signals that an office conference has begun by handing Don a drink. Don looks at it like he has never been handed one before, and then turns his eye to his drinking colleagues as they’re being enveloped in fog. After a few seconds you realize that the colleagues are the background of the image and the fog itself fills the foreground. Don is seeing the cloud of hubris and alcohol that’s been obscuring his view of everything, himself most of all.

5 comments:

Mad Woman said...

Another week, another brilliant show. I call this one the Metamorphosis. Don is evolving before our eyes AND he's doing it under his own control. Using the device of the voice over while he's writing is very clever. We are now in his mind. As always, Mr. Replogle, you provide keen insight and an interesting take on the man and the legend, Don/Dick.

Anonymous said...

Don didn't crash Baby Gene's party. He was invited. He tells Faye that on their date ("but I'm not welcome"). If he had crashed, he wouldn't have gotten the same reaction from Betty.

Anonymous said...

great post -- i think your insight that don/dick has not much to reveal is an excellent one. i have always been bored by the "revelation" aspect of this show - i do not really think that is where the draw is. you have identified what is precisely brilliant about the show... we assume that masculinity in the 1950s was a stable, concrete "thing", that father knew best etc etc. but don/dick really pierce that lie showing us that what the 50s did well was to give us prescribed roles - husband, father, adman, rake - and we could just don them as we might a grey flannel suit. this is a notion of identity as "exterior" to one. in the 1960s, however, those prescribed roles began to fall apart and we had to create a subjectivity sui generis. it makes perfect sense that the voiceover is wooden - how can it be otherwise. there is not yet a self from which the voice emanates. it is just words and sounds that don must now work to fill.

great stuff.

sangita

Anonymous said...

Anon at 9:19 is correct. Don did not "crash" Baby Gene's party. Henry specifically told Don that it wouldn't be a good idea for him to come, but I agree that Don was invited by Betty. She just didn't think he'd come because up till now, he wasn't good about family commitments. The fact that he went speaks volumes about how he is changing.

Richard Knox said...

The mask is a heavy lode to luge around.An mask all of ours.The defenses ,the sword and shield,the castle walls, are well built and there to protect us from discovery.Don was very clear in an earlier episode ,telling Peggy(again), that if his wife knew who he really is she would reject his "dick"(that metaphor is constant and reoccurring).All the bravado and tumult is designed to hide his real self.We see the vulnerable soft side with Anne in California.Anne would have recognized the glee and joy of Dick winning the Cleo.The swimming is akin to the watery ocean of our feelings ,where Don/Dick first broke down under the weight and exhaustion of maintaining his mask obviously in California. The alcohol is the release from all the controls Don employs over this deception. Maintaining the idealized self-image is exhausting. The modern word is "image". The image he must maintain .(the world will reject my "Dick" if they know).Vulnerability is Death the world refrains. The Universe whispering constantly "vulnerability is Life"!!!! The innocence of the journal is that adolescent beginning to grow up.The real self wants intimacy, not to bang the the woman who might come to really know him,so he takes his time. I would wager his mother was blond; Beth ,the little chorus girl and now the psychologist/Polster.He wants a relationship, a partner. And he must change if he's going to get another real one...Easier said than done.