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‘Mad Men’: Is Jon Hamm up to the challenge of Don Draper?

October 10, 2008 | 11:09 am

Jonhamm In last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, former Times TV critic, now Sunday magazine columnist, Virginia Heffernan theorized that actor Jon Hamm might not yet be up to the task of conveying the complexity of the character of Don Draper, and, consequently, he may not be able to fascinate the audience and hold the show together the way James Gandolfini did in “The Sopranos” (or Michael Chiklis does in “The Shield”). Specifically, she says, “If the show is to mature and last, Hamm will have to risk being hated,” rather than looking sometimes as if he doesn’t want to be this newer, more odious version of Don Draper.

But is that what the writers of the show want –- an antihero in the vein of Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey? I don’t know one way or the other, and I’ve struggled this season to decide whether Hamm is faltering as an actor, Don as a character is underwritten or if all of this is intentional and perfectly executed and will contribute ingeniously to the development of the character and the show.

We’ve seen much more of Don Draper this season, but we are even more in the dark about who he is, what he wants, what he’s afraid of, what his secrets are. Don seems to share traits with two now-archetypal characters from the literature of the 1950s and early 1960s: Tom Rath of Sloan Wilson’s “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” and Frank Wheeler of Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road.” In going about his unfulfilling daily post-war life, Tom Rath employs a nihilistic mantra that he created when jumping from planes in the war: “It doesn’t really matter. Here goes nothing. It will be interesting to see what happens.” Such a philosophy has seemed to govern Don’s choices this season, from agreeing to drive with Bobbie Barrett to the shore to moving into a hotel without much of a fight. Don bears little resemblance to the Tom Rath in the final third of the novel, when everything turns out unbelievably well. I think we can assume this isn’t where “Mad Men” is headed.

Frank Wheeler, meanwhile, harbors an inflated perception of himself and believes that he’s a different sort of person from his neighbors in the suburbs. He believes he was once a sort of bohemian; he thinks he and his wife will move to France. He drinks too much and has affairs. In the end, his choices result in terrible consequences, and he becomes a shell of his former self, nearly an automaton. Ring any bells?

These novels allow us inside the minds of Tom and Frank –- because they’re novels and can do that. In television, of course, we have to infer what’s going on in the minds of the characters from their dialogue and actions, and I still cannot determine whether the opacity of Don Draper is intentional on the part of the writers, represents a failure on the part of Jon Hamm or is working on some other level that I am too foolish to absorb at this time.

It will be interesting to see what happens.

-- Sarah Rogers

(Photo courtesy Getty Images)

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