Who is Don Draper? ‘Mad Men’ Season Five opens with a bang

By on April 3, 2012

By Lee Cole–

Who is Don Draper? It’s the question that has haunted AMC’s landmark television series Mad Men since the beginning, and with the premiere of the fifth season on March 25, we seem to be no closer to the truth. We’ve seen glimpses into his secret life, behind the façade, the fictive persona he’s created, but at bottom, Don Draper is still a mystery.

Perhaps as mysterious as Draper’s ascent to the pinnacle of 1960s advertising on Madison Avenue is actor Jon Hamm’s journey from humble beginnings as a school teacher in Missouri and later as a mostly failed actor, dropped by the agency representing him, to his current celebrity and success. Hamm was unknown when he took the role of Don Draper, but thanks to the success of TV’s most critically acclaimed show, he’s becoming a household name. His performance as Draper has been spellbinding to watch, as much a part of the show’s allure as its magnificent set pieces and spot on historical accuracy.

But there is something beyond all that, something elusive and poignant about the show that makes it so fascinating: the story itself. The writing drives the show, and it’s the smartest on television. If you haven’t seen Mad Men up to the fifth season premiere, do yourself a favor and stop reading now.

Mad Men could’ve been a novel, one of those great, sprawling mid-twentieth century books by Cheever or Updike chronicling the lives of upper middle class, white suburbanites trying their best to fulfill the American dream and find that grand goodie at the end of the rainbow: happiness. The men on Madison Avenue make it very clear that they are selling happiness and creating the myth of the American dream. But how long can the lie hold up?

By the beginning of the fifth season, Draper’s house of cards is still standing. It’s 1966, and with one failed marriage behind him, he is now married to his 26 year old former secretary, Megan, and on the verge of turning 40. A senior partner in the firm Sterling Cooper Draper Price, he is living the life he created for himself.

Megan, unaware that Don hates unnecessary attention, decides to throw him a surprise party, much to his chagrin. Here is a man who has everything, but when he is surrounded by coworkers at a party devised by his new, French wife, he is miserable. She even performs a sexy burlesque, to the song “Zou Bisou Bisou” by Gillian Harris. It is only later, however, when Megan is cleaning the apartment on all fours in her underwear, shouting reproachfully, “You don’t like presents. You don’t like nice things. You don’t want people thinking you’re getting this! You don’t get to have this!” that we see the old Don Draper’s incorrigible sexual appetite return. He wants what he can’t have, and this is the essence of the American dream.

Peggy’s trajectory from lowly receptionist to the only female copy writer at the firm continues to captivate, and like Draper, she is unconcerned with anything preventing her from attaining her professional goals. Ken Cosgrove and Pete Campbell continue to vie for higher positions within the firm. The only character that was absent was January Jones’ icy, annoyingly perfect Betty Francis (formerly Betty Draper).

The season premiere, which was really two episodes combined into one, was everything viewers hoped for after a long absence. There was no lack of continuity, and the actors eased back into their roles perfectly. The way the story is going is understandable and believable. I was afraid that after such a long hiatus, the show might jump the shark. Luckily, the shark appears to be nowhere in sight.

There isn’t any one aspect that makes the show great; it’s the whole thing at once, it has panache. The mid-sixties set design, dated expressions, astronaut’s-wife hair-dos, pristine cinematography, crystalline dialogue – it all comes together to make a coherent, salient whole. Don Draper’s world is our world, his America our America. That is what makes Mad Men is so fascinating.

lcole@louisvillecardinal.com
Photo courtesy AMC Television

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