Politics & Policy

Held by the Past

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

‘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.

#ad#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.


Consider, for example, divorce — the personal catastrophe Don faces in this season’s finale. Despite Don’s confession of the truth about his past, or perhaps because of it, Betty has her mind set on divorce. In a meeting with a lawyer, she learns just how difficult that will be if Don opposes it: “New York state doesn’t want you to get divorced.” Clearly the implication here is that divorce laws across America — with the exception of Nevada, to which Betty is headed — are irrational and oppressive. Betty’s pursuit of divorce also clearly anticipates the greater freedom of no-fault divorce that would come in future years. Yet, the show also makes it possible to see the roots of the divorce culture in the rampant infidelity of spouses, in the absence of cultural, ethical, and religious habits that would place marriage and children above the wayward desires of individual adults. The liberated future would foment precisely those passions that make a divorce culture inevitable.

The parting of Don and Betty seemed, if nothing else, a necessity of plot as this season progressed. Sustaining the prospect of Don and Betty reuniting in affection and fidelity was becoming increasingly untenable. Moreover, Betty had become one-dimensional — embittered, cold, and distant toward Don and especially her own children. Again, some will see Betty’s push for a divorce and her unwillingness to reconcile with Don as a sign of female liberation from patriarchy. But it is hard to see how things can work out well for Betty. Her liberation from Don is made possible by her dependence on another man, whom she barely knows. Her resentment of her children is likely to grow, especially as they have already begun to blame her for pushing their father away. Her character is the closest the series has come to a cliché.

#ad#Consider also Don Draper’s self-made entrepreneurial identity, an identity that fuses the personal and the professional. On the professional front, Don faces catastrophe in the last episode. At the very outset, he learns that he will be losing his best account, Conrad Hilton, because Sterling Cooper, already purchased by a British company, is being sold again. That sale will mean a huge loss of independence for Draper and his colleagues. When senior partner Bert Cooper speaks of going with the flow and waiting things out until retirement, Draper challenges him to try to put together a team to buy the company back. Don is insistent: “I want to work, I want to build something.” Here Don’s genuine passion for work is presented as admirable, a sign that he wants to live for more than comfort and ease.

Realizing that buying the company will not be possible, they hatch a different plot: persuade the local British overlord of the company, whose job is also in jeopardy, to fire them and join them in stealing current accounts and setting up a new company. But this will require that Don adopt a quite different attitude toward his co-workers, beginning with the other senior partner, Roger Sterling, and moving on to his younger colleagues Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell. No longer able to ignore them or command their allegiance, Don has to convince them that he values them as individuals and colleagues, that he sees human relations as something more than mere tools of his own advancement — an accusation Roger levels against him. Don does just that, and in a way that convinces us he is not merely acting, but acknowledging something he has never before admitted about his dependence on others.

The last episode brings out the degree of that dependence in a remarkable series of flashbacks to Don’s childhood, to his witnessing his father’s struggles to overcome poverty and gain independence from those who would curtail his ability to succeed. In a final flashback, Don recalls his father’s senseless death. On Mad Men, the flashback is more than a gimmick. It underscores the gap between Don’s self-knowledge and what he is willing to disclose to others, even what he is willing to acknowledge to himself. Don’s flight from his past is decisively shaped by that very past. Draper wills to live in one direction only, that of the future. Instead he is, like Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Thomas S. Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is the author of Shows about Nothing.


Thomas S. Hibbs — Thomas S. Hibbs is the dean of the honors college and distinguished professor of philosophy at Baylor University.

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