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February 23, 2016

What is Don Draper thinking?

Don_Draper_WikiDraper. Who knows anything about that guy? He could be Batman.” —Harry Crane

“What is Don Draper thinking?” —frequent jotting in my notebook during my rewatch of Mad Men Seasons 1-3

The first time I watched Mad Men, it confused me, and the reason I’ve just rewatched the first three seasons for (perhaps?) the fourth time is that it still does, which is precisely the point. I didn’t realize then. That the very thing that compels me to the show is that so much of it and its characters remain a mystery, some of which becomes clearer as I watch it again (and again) but some of it doesn’t.

I don’t get Don Draper, but then nobody does. Inconsistency is his salient feature, that a man whose treatment of women is shameful admonishes others about being respectful to them (and his other respectful bents too, men taking off their hats in the elevator etc.), although he’s really kind of horrible to everybody. One thing I do know about him is that he gives terrible advice, and that’s why I loved the final episode of the series, where he delivers one of his sermons to Stephanie, who doesn’t buy it and thinks it’s bullshit and tells him so—that’s a huge moment, I think. His pitches and his advice are all the same, and their power is his delivery, which might convince you that it almost means something. But I’m starting to think it never does.

5-bettyI am forever married to the idea of Don and Betty, and I can’t shake it. In the final episode, there is a connection between them, though I don’t think it emerges until they split. (Remember what she says when he sleeps with her while he is married to Megan? That line [paraphrased] about the worst way to get close to Don is to love him? When Betty stops doing so, she starts to really mean something to him as a person in her own right.) My insistence on their substance as a couple mostly stems from about twelve seconds in the episode “The Wheel” in which his pitch for Kodak’s Carousel is so good that he buys it himself, and comes home believing that he loves his family. We see him meet him at the door—he’s coming for Thanksgiving after all. He’s done the right thing. But then it all dissolves and we realize it was a fantasy (or a nightmare), and that his house is empty. He sits down on the step while “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” plays, and here is where I wrote, “What is Don Draper thinking?” I used to think he was regretting mistakes he’d made, that he wasn’t a better husband and father, but now I’m not so sure.

“It shouldn’t have happened,” Don tells Rachel Mencken during the first season, and it seems like he’s referencing his feelings toward her with the “it”, but now I’m thinking that he’s talking about his marriage. Later Betty alludes to the fact that their marriage came about suddenly—they got engaged quickly and then she got pregnant, or perhaps it was the other way around, and that was the end of their New York life. The details of everyone’s life pre 1960 are quite hazy on the show, which is strange because it’s so pointed about so many details. But for so many of these characters, you get the sense that they didn’t exist before the cameras started rolling. An example: in their entire friendship, Betty never once tells Francine that she used to model until that one episode where Francine comes over to borrow a dress? There are others like this, scenes between Don and Roger when it is hard what they’ve meant to each other, and the haziness is underlined by the weird flashbacks, dopey early Don who seems so different that the surefooted Don we know in the present (although he isn’t really—he’s just better at playing the part). There is a flashback of Don in California, goo-goo eyed about a girl he met called Betty, and it seems false to me. Similar to one that comes later in the series when we see how he hoodwinks Roger into giving him a job, though this isn’t consistent with the story that Roger tells, and Don just doesn’t seem like Don in any of these scene. But who is Don, anyway? And are his flashbacks as made-up as his pitches?

(“Who ARE you? is a question that characters ask each other throughout the series, in all manner of tones.)

So the revelation to me was that Don and Betty might have never meant anything together at all, that the Don’t Think Twice… moment wasn’t meaningful, and even if it was, that’s just twelve seconds of meaning. Plus remember later when Don tells Megan that he didn’t love his children…until he did (and I think he does, but who knows?) but when did that start? Though I think Betty does love him when the series starts, or at least the idea of him, or at least she wants to have sex with him, but he doesn’t even give her that. (Season One is very much about notions of wanting and desire, in both the consumer and the carnal senses.) “All this,” is the thing they talk about, usually with a hand gesture toward their lurid green headboard or their plaid kitchen walls. What “this” is is never clearly delineated—it seems to very much be the house and its contents (“What do you put in that freezer I bought you?” Don asks her), which is strange because neither of them really likes the house. To Betty,  the house is a prison, and to Don it is an anchor of the worst kind. He longs for freedom, a lesson he learned from the hobo who told him, “Home, mortgage, a family—I couldn’t sleep. Went on the road with the clothes on my back, and now I sleep like a stone.” The trouble is that he also wants power and status, and these things come with baggage. And without the wife and house, he doesn’t have the power or the status. He needs Betty, even if he doesn’t want her.

The only proper, reciprocated connection between them, I realized, was in the third season when Don is contemplating moving up the ranks at PPL and being moved to London. He tells Betty about this, and she’s thrilled with the possibility of getting out of the suburbs, and you see that they’re good when making plans like this (and here they’re at their most Revolutionary Road-ish). It’s the ordinary they have more trouble with, the role-playing they’re really poor at, whereas their scene in Rome, when they’re both pretending to be people they aren’t, they’re amazing. The trouble is, however, that Betty knows who she is and when she’s posturing, but for Don Draper, there isn’t any difference.

I thought a lot about Pete Campbell this time, with more sympathy than I had before. I’ve always found him loathsome, and he is, but I see now that he’s not simply a foil to Don, he’s also having parallel experiences. And that he’s much more foregrounded in the show than I ever thought he was—the show begins with his marriage to Trudy and indeed they’re the only couple that stays together throughout (and I always think of Sarah’s comment now: “people who dance that well together, in such a very ambitious way, should never have parted”). Trudy is wonderful, and while Pete is loathsome, their marriage is such a partnership in a way that Don and Betty’s never is, or Don and Megan’s either. (Trudy was not a virgin when she got married—remember? She lost her virginity to the publishing guy who offers to sell Pete’s story in Boy’s Own Magazine. I think this is signifiant.) Trudy knows what she’s doing throughout, and she is the one character who really does get what she wants. Though the idea that this is somehow emasculates Pete and the show’s preoccupation with their power dynamic, and how powerful women  are emotionally trying for men is one thing I find really tiresome…

Peggy too is one of the show’s anchors—the pilot is her first day of work and she develops in a way that none of the others do as the series progresses. She is also a version of Don, assembling her persona from what she sees of others just as he does, and I think we understand Don better because of Peggy’s openness with this. She is always watching, watching, while Joan is always being watched, and for each woman, this is her path to power, each one using this, respectively. But here’s another thing I got wrong the first time, another thing that confused me—Joan and Peggy throughout the series, the two paths for women to success. And I was thrown off by the ways in which they were alike and different, and none of it was entirely congruous—where is the symmetry. But no, I realized, as I watched the first three seasons this time. These are not THE two paths for women, but simply two paths, and they aren’t parallel or in opposition, but they’re both different, and each one gets each woman to where she wants to go. This is huge, I think. Peggy and Joan aren’t defined in relation to men or even to each other, but as individual people. It’s a hard thing to get one’s head around.

But a lot of things are: this is deliberate. And it happens because of the bizarre surrealness that permeates so many scenes of the show, the moments that have no footing in reality except to make viewers cringe: Sally Draper driving, Peggy stroking Don’s hand, Glen watching Betty pee, when Lois drives a lawnmower over that guy’s foot. Our reactions are visceral and sometimes the scenes are inexplicable, and all of it keeps us as viewers from getting complacent.

2 thoughts on “What is Don Draper thinking?”

  1. Sarah says:

    Oh, I love this! No amount of thinking about Mad Men will ever be enough. Pete is awful, but I think it’s hard to watch without feeling some strange tenderness to him (and, incidentally, Harry, who seems so much nicer to start with, turns out to be so very much worse). I’m interested in your idea about Don giving terrible advice. The one piece of advice he gives that works is telling Peggy that she can forget & start over as he did — and then it’s the undoing of that advice (telling her secret) that allows Stan to truly know her. Can’t wait for you to re-watch the rest! (PS I almost choked on my coffee when you quoted me!)

  2. I find Pete Campbell to be a fascinating character and both the writing and the actor really delivered. Joan was my favourite character of all time. During my watch of the season, I worried constantly that the writers would try and put Don and Peggy together. Thank god they never did. Their relationship and the way they interacted with each other was another one of the most fascinating relationships on the show to me.

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