Held by the Past
Mad Men's Don Draper has no use for history, but it won't let go of him.


Thomas S. Hibbs

‘So, who are you supposed to be?” a man asks Don Draper on Halloween night as he and his wife, Betty, take their children trick-or-treating. That of course is the abiding question of the critically acclaimed AMC series Mad Men, whose satisfying third-season finale aired on Sunday night. Featuring Jon Hamm as Don Draper, a brilliant ad man for the Madison Avenue firm Sterling Cooper, the series, set in the early 1960s, is renowned as much for its detailed and luxurious sense of period style as it is for its acting and plot lines. In the Halloween episode, the third-to-last episode of the season, Betty discovers what viewers have known since the end of the first season, namely, that Don has a secret past: He was adopted, raised in poverty, and subjected to physical and verbal abuse; as an adult, he stole the identity of a fellow soldier killed alongside him in the Korean War. That discovery, along with Betty’s knowledge of Don’s infidelities, plus her own adultery, would seem to spell doom for their marriage.

Doom is an apt description of the final two episodes. But disaster in the penultimate episode was not familial but national. A series that likes to take risks took a big one in electing to focus an entire episode on the assassination of President Kennedy and its immediate aftermath. The mood was somber, the silences even more pronounced than usual in a series that is not afraid of silence. The action of the plot came to a standstill, as did the activity of the entire nation.

The finale, which neatly tied together a number of plot lines, threatens catastrophe for Don in both his personal and his professional lives. Earlier in the season, a co-worker told Don, “You have everything, and so much of it. Don, the exemplary self-made man, who proclaims at one point that there is “no American history, there is only the frontier,” is surprised at this comment. Don embodies the restlessness of the American soul astutely described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America:

A native of the United States clings to this world’s goods as if he were certain never to die; and he is so hasty in grasping at all within his reach that one would suppose he was constantly afraid of not living long enough to enjoy them. He clutches everything, he holds nothing fast, but soon loosens his grasp to pursue fresh gratifications. . . . Death at length overtakes him, but it is before he is weary of his bootless chase of that complete felicity which forever escapes him.

Of course, for Tocqueville that is only part of the picture of American life and its restless entrepreneurial spirit. The other part of American life, the part that tempers the potential vices of commerce with the virtues of association and the countervailing forces of the home and family, is missing from the world of Mad Men, as Harry Stein points out in “What Mad Men Gets Wrong.”

Although not heavy handed, the series brings out the bigotry and sexism of the period even as it underscores the hollowness of a life lived for nothing more than meeting or exceeding social expectations. It gives no attention at all to the decent, family-oriented, patriotic men and women who were likely living in the same neighborhood as the Drapers. In that respect, the series might be seen as playing off the same unconvincing, reductionist views of capitalism and suburban anomie as those operative in Sam Mendes’s film Revolutionary Road, a film set in roughly the same time and place as Mad Men. But Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men is much more complex and interesting than anything Mendes has done.