“Who is Don Draper?” That’s the question Mad Men asked its audience during its first season. Who is this man who carries himself with an air of confidence and mystery? Who is this man who can walk into any room and persuade people of his greatness? Where did he come from? What is he hiding?
Mad Men has sufficiently answered that question over the past seven seasons, but that answer has always pointed more toward the mundane than the epic. Don may have a mythical Gatsby-esque origin story—a bastard child born in a barn and raised in a brothel who conjured up a grand lie to become a world-class ad man—but he’s far more ordinary than Matthew Weiner and company initially established. Like all great characters, Don is rife with contradictions: a philandering drunk with a fierce sense of loyalty, a company man who acts like a prophet, a perpetual outsider wearing the ill-fitting mask of the establishment. Don Draper may look like Gregory Peck and live like a king, but he’s much more like you and me.
Yet, there’s still a tendency to brand Don Draper with convenient labels, specifically the one that hangs over all of the Prestige TV Drama protagonists: antihero. It’s tempting to say Draper’s name in the same breath as Tony Soprano and Walter White because they’re all white men who engage in nefarious acts that compel us to watch rather than look away. They are characters with fierce ids that force their personalities onto others, demanding they contend with them and often leaving damage in their wake. Their strong appetites for sin and vice simultaneously flatter and unsettle, making audiences wince with recognition and disgust.
But Don never comfortably wore that label. He’s neither a murderer nor a psychopath, but he also doesn’t share the same motivations and desires with other antiheroes. He’s not on a quest for power or dominance, he doesn’t strive to destroy his enemies, and most importantly, he’s not beyond redemption. While Tony was the devil who lived next door and Walter was the criminal mastermind disguised as your science teacher, Don is a socially sanctioned confidence man hiding his broken interior with a suit. He doesn’t exist on a good-bad continuum. He’s simply a man who wears many masks. But why?
He’s a coward. He always chases the second chance, willing to burn the bridges behind him instead of turning back to mend them. He ran away from home, stole another man’s identity, and pretended to be dead just so he didn’t have to face his past. “We’ll start over like Adam and Eve!” he exclaims to Rachel Menken back in season one as he tries to whisk her away to a new life when the mere hint of danger arises, unaware just how foolish he sounds. He fled New York for L.A. when his marriage to Betty was on the rocks, and now permanently views the West Coast as an escapist fantasy, a plane ride away from his own personal hell. He abandoned Sterling Cooper when it no longer resembled the agency where he made his bones, built a new agency in his own image while his former homestead crumbled in the rearview mirror. He divorced Betty when she found out their marriage was built upon lies, married Megan because she represented a fresh start, but then allowed that marriage to deteriorate when it became too much work to close the ever-widening gap between them. Of Don’s many addictions, running away is the one he falls back on more often than any others.
He’s a man driven by self-loathing, which becomes a deep wound that festers and grows in his soul as his regrets pile higher and higher. Mad Men is one of the all-time great shows about self-destructive behavior and the toxic cycles someone falls into when they believe they don’t deserve anything better. No one better represents that behavioral pattern than Don Draper. He continually falls back on booze and women to alleviate his internal pain even though he knows they won’t heal it. He bottoms out in season four when a Clio award leads to a weekend-long bender that results in him waking up with a different woman than the one he went to bed with, ultimately forgetting to pick up his children. After Don briefly regains control of his life, spurred by the death of his friend Anna, he bottoms out again in season six when he realizes he doesn’t know his second wife all that well. He settles into an affair with Sylvia Rosen, his downstairs neighbor, is accidentally discovered by his daughter Sally, and then later gets fired after atoning for his lies in the middle of a pitch meeting. Some critics were frustrated by Don as a character in the sixth season claiming his role was dramatically inert, except his inertia wasn’t borne out of writers’ laziness but out of profound, paralyzing self-loathing that’s essential to his character. When you hate yourself enough, you’ll do most anything to forget who you are, even if that means adopting your worst possible self.
Don has common fears of change and dying. As the ’50s recede away into the past and the ’60s bloom in its wake, Don becomes lost in a world he previously understood. He’s growing more and more irrelevant as the young guard replaces the old. He’s the guy who hears “Tomorrow Never Knows” and turns it off halfway through because it sounds like the future and it pisses him off. Yet he’s not fighting against the rapidly changing culture of the ’60s; he’s simply not a part of it. It has nothing to do with him. Whether he likes it or not, Don Draper represents the antiquated power structure the youth desperately tries to dismantle. So Don watches from the sidelines as violence ensues and the nation burns, separated from the fray not only by privilege but also by time.
None of this absolves Don of his many sins. It doesn’t excuse his absence from his children’s lives, which will inevitably affect them for years to come and haunt him for the rest of his life. It doesn’t forgive the many lovers he’s embraced and then thrown away after they were no longer useful. It doesn’t rewrite the numerous lies he’s sold to his family, friends, and the American public. But Don’s actions aren’t grounded in evil; they’re grounded in fear and desperation. They’re the actions of a man longing for meaningful connection but who can’t quite muster it. Don was born into an existential crisis and he may die there as well, but in spite of his many efforts, he hasn’t lost the potential for redemption.
It’s Jon Hamm who’s primarily responsible for communicating that glimmer of hope within Don Draper’s soul. Hamm is nothing short of great in every episode of Mad Men, but his best moments come when he expresses Draper’s internal machinations through subtle glances and slight gestures. It’s the way Hamm reaches for his cigarette lighter after Pete Campbell reveals Draper’s secret past to Bert Cooper; it’s how he puts his hand to his forehand after hearing of Lane’s suicide; it’s the wince in his eyes when Peggy tells him she’s giving her two weeks’ notice. Hamm’s face and body language contain multitudes, and all of them point to a man who’s fucked around, fallen down, gotten back up, and fallen down again, all the while believing that there’s still a way out for him. “The only unpardonable sin is to believe that God cannot forgive you,” says a minister from the memories of Don’s distant childhood. There may not be a more potent line in the entire series.
At the beginning of season seven, Don starts to crawl back out from under himself. He comes back to the agency, hat in hand, and begs forgiveness for his actions, ultimately forced to occupy a dead man’s office and accept rigid conditions per his return. He tries to make his bicoastal relationship with Megan work even though they can both see the end is nigh. He tries to repair his relationship with his daughter by finally speaking to her like a person and not like a child. He mends his fractured relationship with Peggy by fully acknowledging her talent and being there for her as a friend. Yes, he still falters and fails, but he hasn’t given up, because he knows what’s at stake. “What do you have to worry about?” Peggy asks him during a late night drink. Don’s face falls, and he answers in a sad whisper, “That I never did anything, and that I don’t have anyone.”
Walter White lost his soul the minute he broke bad and realized he could take whatever he wanted. Tony Soprano lost his soul every day he chose the easy, comfortable path over the difficult, more fulfilling one. But Don Draper hasn’t lost his soul, not yet anyway. He’s capable of being a better person, one who shares his life with others instead of hiding it. It doesn’t mean he will, but he can. The truth is that it’s always possible to claw your way out of the bullshit you’re mired in; it just takes time and a willingness to change. That hoary cliché is true: It’s never too late for you. Yes, even you.