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.