Tracing the arc of American history through Don Draper

Don Draper—AMC’s Mad Men’s protagonist played by Jon Hamm for seven seasons—had nothing to say. He was sitting in a beige conference room across from a cohort of Southern tobacco company executives. The clients were about to the leave the room, the account about to be lost. He took a slow, methodical drag from his Lucky Strike cigarette and, finally, asked, “How do you make your tobacco?”

The cigarette executive responded, “We toast it.”

“That’s it,” Don replied. “Lucky Strike: It’s toasted,” he wrote on the board placed behind him. The slogan stuck and the pitch was saved.

This greatness is why America fell in love with Don Draper. He was equal parts brooding drunk and creative genius, an outsider in the shell of an insider. His successes and failures, dichotomies and paradoxes, were a direct manifestation of his era: a 1960s and 1970s America. His obsession with material wealth and success—“You know what happiness is? It’s the smell of a new car,” he opined at the same pitch meeting—and marital infidelity represented the worst of his time; his belief in the fundamental greatness of America, the best.

Through almost a decade on television, Mad Men came to define its time, just as Don Draper did for the men of his day. But Don Draper is more than just a character—he is a concept. Coming out of WW II and into the Korean War, Dick Whitman, Don’s name by birth, was adrift.

graphic by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Anne/" title="View all of this person's work">"Anne</a></span>

graphic by Anne Irving

He found himself without a calling or purpose. He was raised in a brothel and perpetually lacked the love and care that a child deserves. Enlisting in the army, Whitman was sent to build a field hospital with only one other man, Lieutenant Donald Draper. After Don died in an attack, Whitman assumed his identity and returned home as a decorated war hero to start his life over with a new name.

This desire to put a dark past behind him and move on with a fresh start encapsulates the pervasive mood of the era. America was assuming its role as the world’s preeminent superpower and was again believing in its supposed divine purpose and manifest destiny. As President John F. Kennedy implored the nation to grab the reins of government and to literally reach for the stars, a newly minted Draper began to rise the ranks of the New York City advertising world. He was seemingly living the perfect life: Cadillac in the driveway, wife at home, and two smiling children to return to every night. He lived the life we were told to live, but not always the life we should have lived.

Don conformed to what the world expected of him because he never was able to discover what he truly wanted and what made him happy and peaceful. He was placed in a box, surrounded by societal expectations of what it meant to be a man: to provide and to dominate. The women in his life—from his wife, Betty, to his numerous girlfriends—were told to subvert their personal desires for a greater purpose and not to live for themselves but rather in the perpetual servitude of men. This subjugation of the self—to be controlled not by the winds of self determination but by those of external pressure—leads to an inevitable loss of the ability to truly recognize who we are.

But this, of course, couldn’t last forever. As America became increasingly aware of its own flaws and shortcomings, so did its leading man. More and more, he embraced his inner demons of an abusive childhood and lack of support in life, turning towards the bottle and self-destructive behavior.

Don began to grow disaffected with the system he was so much a part of. He began to turn away from all of the institutions constricting his life: his marriage, his job, his material possessions. Just like millions of other Americans, he simply refused to be a cog in the wheel any longer and, for perhaps the first time in his life, he set out on a path of self-discovery.

His development as a character closely follows the growth of his country. An early optimism and profound belief in the strength of American greatness was eventually reconciled with the realization that America is not a land of perfection and equal opportunity. The ills that were always there—whether they be Don’s mental state, the treatment of people of color in this country or the Vietnam War—had been subdued too long and were forced out into the open.

Don’s most purely joyous moment of the whole show came in the finale. It was not an afternoon with his kids or waking up next to a beautiful woman, but rather doing the exact thing he had tried to escape from: coming up with a commercial. He may have circled back to what he knew—to what he was comfortable with—but he did so on his own terms, and that’s the point.

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