Of all the decades in the history of this country, no time period receives more attention than the 1960s. After World War II, it was easy to see America as the nation of heroes, cowboys, and soldiers that earned its place in history alongside the nations of the world… A beacon of industrialized light in the post-war haze… Guided by the manufacturing boom and the concept of the suburbs in the 1950s, the 60s were the true beginning of the modern era, when television brought the world into our homes, fracturing our own concept of self forever.
By 1969, the country was reeling. JFK, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were all killed by assassins’ bullets… Political tension rose to a height not seen in 100 years, and the United States struggled to survive itself as the younger generation threw off the yoke of the old. When the US began sending troops to fight for someone else’s government on the other side of the world, more than one person questioned why their boys were going to get shot over a jungle half a world away. Meanwhile marches and protests were erupting all over the country, with African-Americans fighting for their right to exist in a nation that told them they were second-class citizens. Coupled with a rising number of women in the workplace, the onset of the peace movement, and the emotionally rebellious nature of rock n roll, the country watched on TV as America limped its way into the last year of the decade like it had been beat one too many times with a rolled-up newspaper.
Somewhere, in all the concrete and glass of New York City, Donald Draper is curled up on the couch in his high-rise apartment feeling much the same way.
After six seasons of watching the star of AMC’s Mad Men dodge one bullet after another, whether it be his cheating, drinking, or his descent into professional purgatory, Don Draper has always been able to flash a smile, turn on the Draper, and the rye-soaked cocktail napkins would practically fill themselves with award-winning campaign ideas.
Just like Mad Men itself, all good things must come to an end…
Born Dick Whitman, he was raised in a whore house by a cruel, abusive step-mother before he jumped at the chance to join the Army. In Korea, Dick soon realized that all the adolescent zeal in the world wasn’t going to save his ass from a bullet. So he swapped dog tags with a deceased lieutenant, one Donald Draper, and Dick Whitman, the young boy who was nursed back to life from the brink of death by a kind prostitute (before she scarred him for life by giving him his first handy), started his life over again as Donald Draper, decorated war hero. He worked as a salesman before cornering a young Roger Sterling and charming (aka Drapering) his way into one of the most prestigious advertising firms on Madison Avenue. The rest as they say, is history.
Flash forward a decade or so, and Don Draper was on top of the world. His second wife, Megan, a younger, vivacious late-twenties French-Canadian girl now stars in a popular daytime soap opera. His ex-wife has remarried and moved the Draper children into a castle with an up-and-coming politician. Life as a wealthy, powerful, and most importantly needed ad man is good.
Last season we saw Don return to his philandering ways after his marital bliss subsided from season 5… Once his version of what he thought his wife should be doing didn’t mesh with what she actually wanted, well, it was inevitable. From artist progressives in Greenwich Village to countless secretaries, Don’s mistresses have always played a specific role for him, like everyone else. When you grow up abused by the one person who is supposed to love you unconditionally, you tend to have glaring emotional and psychological problems.
Don’s problem is a simple one. His gauge is broken. He confuses intimacy with love.
The Former Mrs. Draper said it best, as they lay in the glow of their post-tryst/ex-sex while on a trip to visit their son’s summer camp last year, talking about Don’s current wife-
“That poor woman. She has no idea that loving you is the worst way to get close to you.”
As Megan’s career took off, Don’s focus turned to his neighbor’s wife Sylvia, brilliantly played by Linda Cardellini. It was fascinating to watch the two dance around their ignorant spouses during dinner parties and elevator rides, through dimly-lit restaurants and bright lobbies. However, as things grew serious, and Don sought more and more out of the relationship… Naturally things took a nose-dive.
As Don and his partners sought to bait and hook the big fish, Chevy Motors, the agency started a “working weekend” at the same time that Don’s mistress told him it was over. To make things even more interesting, everyone in the office got “energy serum” shots and was tweaked out of their minds on speed all weekend as well. Chevy means a whole new level of business for the people at Sterling Cooper & Partners, especially Don, who we realize hasn’t been working on Chevy at all by the end of the episode. Instead he pours all his talent and effort into some sort of super-pitch to get his mistress back. In the time span of 45 minutes we watch a man on top of the world, spin out of control… And it’s frightening to no end. Don spends the entire time out of his mind, trying to nail down the philosophical nature of love and human connection into a couple of sentences that he can spout before she slams the door in his face… He knows she doesn’t want to talk to him, he knows he only has a few seconds at best to get his message across and try to save whatever his idea of the affair is… Does he realize that he’s also describing advertising?
In the end, after spending 72 hours awake, spun out of his mind, trying to find the right words to say to his now ex-mistress to convince her to listen to him… She gets in the elevator while he’s riding down for work Monday morning and the two ride down in complete silence. It’s a heartbreaking and disturbing scene as Sylvia holds back the tears and Don just stares into space… As if nothing ever happened.
But something did. Something inside Don Draper broke last season… Or maybe the break was always there, and he simply couldn’t run from it any more.
As one thing leads to another, Don breaks down in a meeting with Hershey’s Chocolate, recounting a story about his childhood in a brothel where a Hershey Bar was the only connection to a real childhood he had… Needless to say it doesn’t go well, and soon Sterling Cooper & Partners gives Don a mandatory suspension, to which he tells no one. Instead he lets his wife move out to LA to pursue her acting career, stringing her along, telling her he wants to move to the new west coast office. Instead of letting anyone know he’s been suspended, Don keeps up the facade. Of course Sally, his teenage daughter, comes into the city for a funeral/shopping trip and discovers his secret when she shows up at the office.
“I told the truth about myself… And it wasn’t the right time.” He later tells his daughter Sally when she discovers he has been lying… Spouting one of the best lines a parent could ever say to their child, “How could you let me lie to you like that?”
“It’s more embarrassing for me to catch you in a lie than it is for you to be lying,” She replies.
As the final season of Mad Men cruises through its initial seven-episode run on AMC Sunday nights, the changes are coming fast, and they’re coming hard. Don Draper’s life is upside-down, and for a man like him who must have control at all times, things should get very interesting. He has already fessed up to his wife about his job, but only after she kicks him out for flying all the way to LA just to correct her behavior regarding her career. As of last week’s episode he’s also back to work, with a contract designed to make him fail and lose his partnership. If we’ve seen anything these first three episodes it’s how “well” SC&P is running without Don, who was once the center of the agency… So it was a huge surprise to me when he accepted the terms of the return contract. No drinking, no schmoozing, no funny stuff… Oh and now he reports to Milquetoast McBlandy, Lou, Don’s replacement… I expected him to tear it up and give them the finger. I wanted him to pack his bags and move to LA to join co-worker Pete in his idea to start a new agency. I want him to surprise us all and not do the same thing he’s always done.
But then I realized, that’s what he would’ve always done before… The old Don Draper would have never taken that deal. This new Don Draper, we don’t know much about him.
Like the opening credits of Mad Men, we’ve watched little Dick Whitman rise to the top of Madison Avenue before falling through the cracks in his own life… With only a handful of episodes left in the series, it’s anyone’s guess where he goes from here.
Side note: AMC, you really screwed up the last season of Breaking Bad with the split-season-make-us-wait-another-year-for-the-ending, and now you’re doing it again. I hate you, so very, very much…