Monday, June 24, 2013

A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR DON DRAPER


Original caricature by Jeff York of Jon Hamm as Don Draper in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
MAD MEN is a period piece. And like all period pieces, it comments on our modern world. So what does a show with an arrogant, lying and bullying lead character say about us today? Exactly. It’s not by accident that MAD MEN is about America during the turmoil of the 1960’s. A time when we started to realize our country was not the sort pictured in Norman Rockwell’s paintings or Madison Avenue’s idyllic images. The same goes for today as show runner and creator Matthew Weiner clearly comments that we’re still buying into a certain amount of candy-coated fantasy where we think we all can become American idols and are still the great saviors of the world. Don Draper is the poster boy for that self-delusion. But alas, there is hope as the season finale so optimistically proved.

For my money, the show had its greatest jaw-dropping moment of all time when Don told the truth about himself in front of a potential new client. Its revelation was both tragic and stirring as Don told his most shameful secret to his advertising colleagues. And yet it made him stand tall in a way he hadn’t all season long.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
The ad whiz was pitching a campaign to a couple of Hershey’s big wigs, regaling them with his ‘Norman Rockwell-esque’ childhood memory about how his dad rewarded him with a chocolate bar after chores. It moved the clients and they were clearly ready to give their business to Don’s shop Sterling Cooper & Partners. But Don stopped them as they headed out the door. He could no longer buy his lies and he didn’t want them to buy them either. With his hands shaking from alcoholic withdrawals, he stood up and set the record straight.  

He told them the real story of his childhood. There was no father. He was an orphan. There was no picket fence and tree-lined street. His actual home was a whorehouse. And a chocolate bar from the prostitutes was literally the only sweetness he’d been shown during those awful, formative years. In that revelatory moment to everyone in that conference room, Don lost the Hershey’s business, the faith of his partners, and his job. But in taking that first step towards honesty, he might’ve started to save what’s left of his soul.
Original caricature of Jessica Pare as Megan Draper in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
Don and the 1960’s are very much like our times today. It’s eerie just how similar things are: the abject paranoia about our foreign enemies; a violent culture making headlines daily; a struggling economy; our disaffected youth struggling to find their place; and racial strife revealing prejudices that haven’t gone away.

I was worried about Don this year. He didn’t seem to be changing his ways for the better and was back-pedaling almost the entire season. His drinking got worse, as did his philandering, and his lying was so bad that he could barely keep his stories straight. Then it all came to a head. He lost the confidence of his partners (office manager Joan Harris could barely look him in the eyes). His protégé Peggy Olson called him a monster. The adoration of his loving wife Megan slipped through his fingers and probably off to California where she's headed to explore her acting career. And he even lost the respect of his daughter Sally when she caught him trysting with his neighbor. 
Original caricature by Jeff York of Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
But then, Don had that meeting with Hershey’s and finally, fatefully, irrevocably confessed the truth. And a few days later, still trying to be a better man, Don took his young son and disgruntled daughter to show them the whorehouse that he grew up in. He faced that horrible shack with clear eyes. And them too. And my God, the look of shocked understanding in Sally’s eyes spoke volumes, suggesting that their relationship might actually be salvageable. What an incredible breakthrough.

The show ended with Judy Collins singing, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” from that great Joni Mitchell song. Don has, you see. And despite the fallout from his new approach - losing him his job, maybe his wife as well as friends - it looks like he's going to prefer the honest side. I hope so. I hope it helps him win back Megan. And I think it might help him return to Sterling Cooper a sober and better man.

Our nation may be sobering up in a similar fashion as Don. We Americans thought we had endless credit. We thought everyone would always love us despite our betrayals and bullying. And we thought each generation would live better than the last. That was the candy-coated fantasy we were still buying into even in 2008. Then the economy bottomed out. And it's been a cold splash of water in the face ever since. Still, we're adapting. And moving forward more honestly now. We’re learning to live with less. We’re learning to open up our tent to more people, different kinds of people, and trying to shirk off prejudice better than we have in the past. And Americans rate their elected officials in Congress with a paltry 7% approval rating. We know we can do better. We want to do better. And we have to.

Can Don Draper find redemption? I think he can. It probably won’t be of the Ebenezer Scrooge variety, but I think his character can keep progressing. If he falls, like he does in the show’s opening credits, it will be by his own doing. Don now has the ability to see the path out of the muck. And if he ignores it, he truly is mad. 

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