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'Mad Men': Who is Don Draper?

July 25, 2010 | 11:51 pm

“Who is Don Draper?” were the first words uttered in tonight’s season premiere of “Mad Men.”  Based on this episode, at least, my reluctant assessment would be: well, he's kind of a jerk.

It’s November 1964. In the past year, the country has been through a tremendous amount of turmoil: The Beatles have landed, the Vietnam War is underway, and the Civil Rights Act has been signed into law.  Of course, there have been some equally seismic shifts in the fictional world of “Mad Men."  It's been almost a full year since Don agreed to grant Betty a divorce and started a new agency.  Sterling Cooper is now Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, a “scrappy upstart” with dazzlingly cool though slightly claustrophobic offices.  Was I the only one who squealed a little as the camera panned around the new office space — replete with bright white floors, primary-colored couches and a slick new logo? It was a moment that felt slightly self-conscious: The writers know we wanted to see that furniture and  were all too happy to oblige.  

But what Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce has gained in cool it’s lost in space — not to mention functional furniture.  The space is visually dazzling but claustrophobic.  There’s no conference table, and employees fib about a second floor to impress clients.  I’m curious to see how the close quarters will affect the office dynamics.  The topography at Sterling Cooper made the power structure clear: women in the middle, open space, men on the side, guardians of their private turf.  Will Don, Roger and Bert be able to wield their authority so completely without cavernous offices in which to sequester themselves?  I think not.

Peggy seems like she’s changed the most over the past year.  Of course, she's got a voluminous new hairdo and a smart new wardrobe, but most striking of all is the change in her personality.  Peggy’s become more assertive over the years, but this was something entirely different.  Formerly awkward, Peggy is now plucky, effusive, downright bubbly.  She’s at ease in a position of authority, telling her cute new co-worker, Joey (Matt Long), to get her drawings in an hour. She dispatches him with a flirtatious “chop chop, Joey.”  She’s got an obedient boyfriend, Mark, who’s whipped enough to go with her to Don’s apartment on Thanksgiving.  She’s even become a smoker (of cigarettes, not marijuana).  Other employees have changed less.  Pete’s still an obsequious schmoozer; Roger still spouts off-color one-liners with alarming frequency (though even for Roger, tonight’s “Come turkey day, maybe you can stuff her” was breathtakingly crude); Joan is still the glue that holds the agency together, though she now does so from her own private office (with "Joan Harris" on the door).

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Though Don loathes the description, Pete has it right when he calls Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce a “scrappy upstart.”  The new agency has made an impression — particularly with Don’s cinematic Glo-Coat commercial — but they’re at the mercy of one or two big-ticket clients.  So when Don botches an interview with Advertising Age — he thinks he’s being humble but comes off, in Roger’s words, like “a prick” — and the agency loses jai lai, they suddenly find themselves in what Lane calls an “untenably insecure position.” The pressure is on Don to woo Jantzen, but they don’t go for his racy campaign suggestion (“So well-built, we can’t show you the second floor”).   Rather than dismiss them coolly — as "1963 Don" might have done — "1964 Don" completely freaks out.

The folks at Jantzen weren’t the only people that Don tried — but failed — to woo.  Nowadays, Don arrives home to a housekeeper and a plate of cold pork chops.  He's now living in a dark, drab apartment at 6th and Waverly,  just up the street from the fabled old Waverly Theater, where I'm guessing he spends a good amount of his time.   Roger sets him up on a blind date with Bethany (Anna Camp), a friend of Jane’s and, as Roger notes with evident glee, a former member of the Mount Holoyoke gymnastics team.  Over a dinner of chicken kiev at Jimmy's La Grange, Don dutifully listens to Bethany’s facile observations about the murder of Civil Rights activists in Mississippi (“The world is so dark right now,” she muses), and listens to her prattle about her dress.  Bethany is clearly meant as a kind of stand-in for Betty.  If the blond hair and women’s college weren’t enough to convince you of that, there’s the fact that she works as a supernumerary at the opera — in other words, her purpose is to stand there, wear beautiful costumes, and look pretty.  Sound familiar?  In spite of — or perhaps because of — Bethany's similarities to Betty, the date is a mild success.  Emboldened, Don tries to make the moves but is shot down. It was unsettling to watch Don try so hard with the opposite sex.  It seems that the unthinkable has happened: Don Draper has lost his mojo. And for the time being at least, he doesn’t seem to mind.  Rather than spend Thanksgiving with Bethany, Don decides to spend his holiday with a prostitute.  Judging from her familiarity with his, ahem, particular kinks in bed, it’s not the first time they’ve been together.  The implications are pretty clear: Don used to be unattainable; now he’s just damaged goods. He’s also not very interested in being in a relationship.   

As toxic as his marriage to Betty was, there was evidently something about it that kept Don’s demons in check.  Now that he’s lost his family and is under huge pressure to keep the agency afloat, Don is volatile, a little unhinged.   Betty once said, “Sometimes I think I'll float away if Don isn't holding me down,”  but the opposite appears to be the case.  Without his family, Don is coming loose.  We’ve seen Don get vicious before — remember when he called Betty a “whore”? — but tonight he was uniformly nasty, barking at everyone from Peggy to his housekeeper.  For Don, I suspect that having a family — even one kept together with lies and denial — meant an enormous amount to him.  Case in point: Don’s most likable moment came when Sally and Bobby were visiting.  Don promises Bobby that he’ll sew a button for him — presumably that’s something he’s learned to do in the past year.  The episode's saddest moment was when Don, with Bobby asleep in his arms, asks Sally to open the front door to his former home; she reaches for the key tied on a string around her neck.  It was a small but poignant detail.  Betty “the knockout wife” and the three cute kids were an essential ingredient in the Don Draper illusion; now he has to maintain the fiction largely on his own.  

We had to wait until almost two-thirds of the way into tonight’s episode to meet the new Betty, now Mrs. Henry Francis. Last season, I applauded Betty for standing up to Don, but I admit it: I am a huge hypocrite and am saddened to see her with anyone other than Don. It just doesn't feel right, does it? In a recent interview, Matthew Weiner said “There's a feeling on the writing team, about Betty, that she's a woman who will learn as little about herself as possible," and I couldn’t help but think of that tonight.  Her growth seems mostly superficial: She’s got bigger hair and now sports the pink tweed suits and pearls suitable for a woman married to a political operative (she’s looking very Joan Kennedy, isn’t she?).  Otherwise, Betty hasn’t evolved or even devolved, like Don.  She continues to act out in childish ways, like intentionally making Don wait up while she and Henry are out on a date, rather than having a frank conversation.  Her identity is still tethered to her husband’s — only now she’s got a new husband, one who literally stands by her side while she bickers with Don.  Betty has moved on to a new husband without once batting her perfect eyelashes, and Don’s stuck dating a cheap imitation of his ex. 

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Henry and Betty are frisky as teenagers, but there are already some ominous clouds forming on the horizon. Something tells me this marriage is doomed, unless Betty ends up pregnant again (dear God, let's hope not). As Don puts it,  “Believe me, everybody thinks this is temporary.”  Henry’s mother loathes Betty and like just about everyone else in America is not impressed with Betty’s mothering skills. Sally hasn’t taken the divorce well and — perhaps following her mother’s example — has started to act out.  At Thanksgiving dinner with her new step-family, Sally spits out a gooey mouthful of sweet potato; later that night, she tries to call Don from the hallway phone.  Betty either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about about the pain that Sally is no doubt going through; Sally’s behavior matters only insomuch as it gets in the way of Betty’s plans.   It appears that this mother-daughter relationship is going to get only worse.  Maybe Don will have to make room for Sally at his bachelor pad?  

By the end of the episode, Don agrees to sit for an interview with the Wall Street Journal.  He’s ready to play the part of the cocky creative genius, and he’s got the self-aggrandizing narrative down pat.  “Last year our agency was being swallowed whole,” he says, over the opening chords of “Tobacco Road” by the Nashville Teens.  “Within a year, we’d taken over two floors of the Time-Life building.”  Don’s learned a hard lesson and is ready to play the game.  The new strategy is likely to benefit Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.  But will Don’s lesson in “public relations” also help his romantic life?  Only time will tell.  

Before I go, there were a few noticeable absences in this episode.  Baby Gene was nowhere to be found, an absence that seemed to rankle Don and only feeds my growing suspicion that something is going to go terribly wrong with the littlest Draper.  Joan was woefully under-used, though I’m sure we’ll get to see more of her in the coming weeks.  And we haven’t learned what happened to any of the former employees of Sterling Cooper, though I suspect, that we’ll hear more about this too.

So, Showtrackers, what did you think?  Is Don no one without Betty and the kids, or is he just in a temporary rut?  Will Sally move in with her dad? Will Don kick Betty out of the house?  And will the agency find a way out of its “untenably insecure position”?  



Related:

'Mad Men': Top ten unsolved mysteries

'The shocking moments' of Sally Draper

Television review: 'Mad Men'

'Mad Men': Sterling Cooper Draper and Pryce

-- Meredith Blake

twitter.com/MeredithBlake

Top: Don Draper (Jon Hamm) broods.

Middle: "Daddy, you're scaring me." Don picks up Sally (Kiernan Shipka) and Bobby Draper (Jared Gilmore).

Bottom: Betty (January Jones) is happy to make Don wait.

Credit: Mike Yarish/AMC


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