Tuesday, January 25, 2022
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Don Draper and the unfinished sexual revolution

🕐 7 min read

In the pilot for “Mad Men,” Matthew Weiner’s series about a Madison Avenue advertising firm during the 1960s that begins its final season on Sunday, ad man Don Draper (Jon Hamm) takes department store owner Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) for a drink to try to make up for insulting her during a meeting. Their conversation turns contemplative, and Don delivers a rather pretentious soliloquy about the way he lives his life. “I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one,” he finishes, grandiosely.

But Rachel, who will become the first of several women to see through Don’s various falsifications and self-deceptions, has a devastating response for him.

“I don’t think I realized it until this moment, but it must be hard being a man, too,” Rachel muses. “I don’t know what it is you really believe in, but I do know what it feels like to be out of place. To be disconnected. To see the whole world laid out in front of you the way other people live it. There’s something about you that tells me you know it too.”

The women of “Mad Men” have been the most direct beneficiaries of the changing manners and mores of the 1960s. Older libertines such as Roger Sterling (John Slattery) and younger, more flexible men such as Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) find ways to accommodate themselves to a changing world. It’s Don, who valued and benefited from a certain old-fashioned archetype of manhood even if he didn’t find happiness in it, who gets lost on the turbulent waters. And while there are flashier parallels between the “Mad Men” era and our own, including the persistence of hostile workplaces, Don Draper and the need for a serious re-evaluation of masculinity are still with us, too.

From the first episode of “Mad Men,” it’s clear that Don is, however so slightly, out of step with some of the sexual norms the men around him inhabit so easily. “I’m not really big on those things,” he tells his colleagues, bowing out of Pete Campbell’s (Vincent Kartheiser) bachelor party. He steps in when Pete harasses Don’s new secretary, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), and later gives Peggy her first chances to do creative work and becomes her champion and mentor. When Herb Rennet (Gary Basaraba), a repulsive car dealer who is the key to landing Jaguar as a client, demands to sleep with Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), Don is the one partner at the firm appalled by the suggestion and who forcefully insists to Joan that she’s allowed to say no.

None of this means that Don is a feminist, or even a particularly functional man. He’s an awful husband, a neglectful father, a compulsive womanizer and an arrogant colleague who constantly acts without consulting anyone else.

The first season of “Mad Men” was centered on a literal version of the question “Who is Donald Draper?” But the show’s insights became deeper and richer as “Mad Men” moved beyond the revelation that Don had started life as Dick Whitman and used deception to shake himself loose from the miserable circumstances of his early existence.

For a man who built his public identity so carefully and so deliberately, Don has put much less work on his inner life and sense of self. “We’ve got a gypsy and a hobo. And who are you supposed to be?” Don’s neighbor asks him in the third season when he takes his children trick-or-treating after confessing the details of his former life to his soon-to-be ex-wife Betty (January Jones).

Don’s purgation of his secrets may have cleared the air, but it has also left a void. The suit he’s wearing to go door to door is both his regular work clothes and a kind of costume, but Don can’t explain that. And he doesn’t have an answer to the larger riddle of himself.

In “The Summer Man,” a fourth-season episode narrated partly by Don’s entries in a diary he keeps in an effort at self-improvement, he writes that he hopes to “Gain a modicum of control over the way I feel.” He’s on a constant quest to reconcile his image and his feelings: When Don pitches Hershey in the sixth-season episode “In Care Of,” he says that part of the appeal of the candy for him as a child was that “The wrapper looked like what was inside.”

At the end of the fourth season, when Don spontaneously proposes to his secretary, Megan (Jessica Paré), he tells her, “I feel like myself when I’m with you, the way I always wanted to feel,” seemingly unaware of the contradiction in the sentiment. Faye Miller (Cara Buono), the brilliant consumer researcher Don was dating when he proposes to Megan, ends the call in which Don breaks up with her with a bitter assessment of him: “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

She’s correct. Don is constantly trying to escape, because he has no idea what kind of man he’d actually like to be on a continuing basis. He knows how to transform himself, but not how to live with the results.

Part of Don’s problem is that he rarely spends enough time alone to gain any real self-knowledge. Even for those of us in the audience, the easiest way to catch a glimpse of Don’s interior life is in the reflection provided by the women he pursues almost constantly, catalogued by Margaret Lyons at Vulture.com. But the two with which he has been freest and happiest are the ones with whom he hasn’t had a sexual relationship, who haven’t wanted anything conventional from him, with whom he doesn’t have to personify any particular archetype.

Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton), the widow of the man whose identity Don stole during the Korean War, is a liberating figure for Don because he can’t deceive or game her. “You’re not Don Draper,” Anna tells Don at their first meeting. “Stop lying. You’ve been caught.” Stripped of the possibility and burden of carrying his facade, Anna becomes the one person with whom Don can explore his real feelings.

In flashbacks during the third-season episode “The Mountain King,” we see Don’s giddy enthusiasm about Betty, as he tells Anna “I want you to meet her … I just like the way she laughs, and the way she looks at me.” And during a visit to Anna, she is the person to whom he can confess the failure of his ongoing efforts to resolve his identity. “I have been watching my life. It’s right there,” Don explains sadly. “I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.”

When Anna is dying in the extraordinary episode “The Suitcase,” it’s Peggy whom Don both hides out with and confides his grief and anxiety. The two of them first recognized each other in the first season when Peggy, then working as Don’s secretary, put her hand on Don’s, only for him to remove it: Don recognized that Peggy didn’t need an affair or a husband, and he let Peggy know that he didn’t need her to make herself available to him.

Their relationship in the seasons since is often contentious, sometimes openly raw. But in Peggy, Don has the rare person who doesn’t want to be dazzled by the Don Draper magic. If Anna demanded that he reveal his real self to her, Peggy needs Don to see and value her.

In the first season of “Mad Men,” it was Betty Draper who found her hands shaking, undone by the unhappiness she was unable to articulate and didn’t think she had a right to feel. But as the series progressed, it was Don who became undone, whether he was dropping a cigarette when Betty confronted him about his past as Dick Whitman, or trying to conceal his tremors as he prepared to tell the Hershey executives about his miserable childhood.

Women as a class had more urgent needs than men like Don Draper did during the “Mad Men” years, and feminism roiled their potential roles with corresponding force. But as the melancholy heart of “Mad Men,” Don Draper is a powerful testament to just how badly men needed, and still need, a revolution of their own.

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