Who is Don Draper? This is the question that is at the core of AMC’s smash period piece, Mad Men. The entire show, for the last seven years, has focused on peeling back the layers of Don Draper, diving deep into the madness that shrouds his character in mystery, preventing the audience and the rest of the Mad Men gang from being able to figure him out. The show is getting ready to begin its final season this coming Sunday, but before beginning the final journey, perhaps it is wise to take a deep look at what is known about Draper so far, and the one lesson men in modern culture can learn from this deeply troubled fellow.
When audiences first meet Don Draper, they are treated to an alpha-male figure who exudes confidence and practically drips with smooth, suave sophistication. He is a successful advertising executive, one of the best in the industry, and he knows it. There is never a hair out of place, and he is always sharply dressed. Draper’s presence commands the respect of his co-workers and colleagues, most of whom would jump through fiery hoops to earn a drop of the man’s approval or favor. Women are intoxicated by his presence and despite being a married man, Draper enjoys his fill of the opposite sex. On the surface, he appears to be everything that a man longs to be. The only problem is that it is all an act.
Long-time viewers of the show know that Don Draper is not real. Not in the sense that the show is a work of fiction, but the persona the other characters in Mad Men perceive to be Draper is all an act. In reality, the leading man is really Dick Whitman, and he is nothing like the false identity he has created for himself. Where Draper is witty, charming, confident, and always leader of the pack, Whitman is weak, cowardly, and filled with feelings of inadequacy. As the show moves along, viewers discover that Whitman stole the name Don Draper, and in an effort to avoid dealing with the emotional abuse and neglect he suffered as a child, he creates a whole new life and personality to leave the old one behind. He stuffs all of the emotional scars and damage down deep inside and tries to forget it ever happened.
Don Draper, the focus of Mad Men, hides his madness, and works hard to prevent anyone from diving too deeply into his heart and soul, always keeping people at a distance. He often appears cold and heartless, even to his wife and children. While Draper thinks this helps to keep things buried, his troubles are always just beneath the surface. He carries a sadness and loneliness around with him, and when his issues to tend wash over him, he immediately turns to sex and booze to help medicate and quiet the demons, lest they force him to tell the truth.
As bits and pieces of his past come to light, cracks begin to appear in the mask of Don Draper, and the audience catches glimpses of Whitman peering out from under the false bravado and hyper-masculinity of his alter ego. When Draper is caught in a web of lies concerning his activities with other women, rather than come clean and deal with the consequences, he attempts to run away. In that moment, Dick Whitman strips off his Don Draper suit and exposes himself and his cowardliness. If Draper is exposed, then Whitman is exposed, and he will lose the respect he has worked so hard to earn. He will, in his own eyes, stop being a man. Whitman uses repression as an adhesive to put the pieces of the mask back together again, failing to realize it is only a temporary fix, and eventually, there will be too many cracks to seal, and the mask will crumble, leaving him exposed to the world.
While Draper stuffs down his emotions and represses the psychological trauma he has experienced, men in modern day culture are encouraged to do the exact opposite. Men are told it is okay to cry, to talk about their pain and suffering with someone, to share the load. This is good, and when someone has a trusted individual to confide in, it prevents the need for hiding in the shadows and putting on an act like Draper and many of the guys on Mad Men. The problem now, is that a lot of men have swung the opposite direction, losing a lot of their masculinity. Sharing feelings is a good thing when it is appropriate. There is a right time to cry, a right time to be angry, and there is a wrong time. There is nothing wrong with being a strong man, who knows how to exercise self-control without being closed off and distant. The lesson that guys in modern culture should learn by diving into Don Draper’s madness, is that balance between expressing emotions and dealing with personal issues and knowing when to be silent, is probably the only thing that can prevent them from becoming mad men.
Opinion by Michael Cantrell