Close Reading — April 12, 2013, 9:00 am

Mad Men’s Too-Visible Man

Don Draper, non-enigma


I confess that since I wrote about Mad Men for Harper’s in January 2012, I haven’t missed Don Draper and his colleagues, their spouses, or even Kiernan Shipka, the very good actor who plays Draper’s daughter. This isn’t because I avoid TV. The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones; I’ve watched or am watching them all. But I disliked Mad Men’s over-careful detail, its self-conscious puffing on cigarettes, its glossy fashion lust, its signal political moments too loudly signalled — all veneered into intellectual and dramatic respectability as serious social comment.

Endless articles are appearing as the show’s new season starts, earnestly discussing how and what Mad Men tells us about the Fifties and Sixties, the attitude to women and work, the sociology of the times. I remember the times quite well, and mostly what I saw in the series was puppetry, rather stiff in its groping for authenticity; a too-satisfied sense of the superiority of our own present; and an overriding  commitment to pleasing the eye.

But I am intrigued by the hold Mad Men has retained and the way excitement for the new season has been built. “The man on everyone’s lips is back,” states the knowing retro advertisement that aired here on Sky Atlantic. While his colleagues, wives, and mistresses mythologize the Don against a backdrop of 1960s Manhattan skyscrapers, a silhouette plummets, as it has done at the beginning of each episode. We know that by the end of the series, Don Draper will take a fall. The graphic is part homage to the opening titles of North By Northwest, and part cipher for a Madison Avenue that existed to spin the ordinary into the raging desire that capitalism needs in order to function. I imagine, too, that the the image was intended to be similar to the iconic photo of the 9/11 falling man. If you’re trying to tell a story to an early-twenty-first-century American audience about mid-twentieth-century American commercial optimism and political and social confusion, the rise and destruction of the Twin Towers will be part of it. 

But like the ad, everything about the series is too managed, too unsubtle. The other characters imposed on the towering facades describe Draper as a moody, unknowable mystery. They speak what is supposed to be our desire for and confusion about the man. “Who knows anything about that guy?” “What’s he like?” “He’s kind inside.” “He hates me.” “You love him. Everybody loves him.” “It’s just the way he is.” “Creative director.” “Fraud.” “Partner.” “Liar.” “Father.” “Criminal.” “Husband.” “Hey!” the advertisement fairly shouts, “Look, we’ve created an enigma!” And yet Don Draper’s story, foreshadowed by the silhouette’s trajectory, is so transparent you can see the empty sky through it.

“Are you alone?” a woman asks Draper in a bar. He turns slowly to look at her, to size her up and give us slowcoaches time to catch an existential undertone straining to lend weight to an airy romantic fiction.

Single Page
is a writer based in London. Her most recent book is What I Don’t Know About Animals.

More from Jenny Diski:

From the December 2013 issue


A theory of glamour

From the January 2012 issue


The false nostalgia of Mad Men

From the August 2010 issue

Fastidious Albion

Postwar Britain keeps calm, carries on

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Wayne Moss

    Funny you mention Deadwood, the story of a group of poet laureates searching for gold in the American heartland. It’s a tv show! 90210 was no Catcher in the Rye, but I’m not going to get all bent out of shape about it.

  • JeremyM

    A few years ago I might have thought differently and spent some time to craft a rebuttal to this piece, but now, not so much. I watched the first four seasons of Mad Men and at the time I was put under it’s spell. It was if the glamor of this fictional “Madison avenue” portrayal had gripped me in the same way as a dazzling pair of eyes staring at me through the pages of a magazine ad handled by Don Draper himself might.

    But I haven’t seen any of the much heralded 5th seasons return or the requisite 6th. I guess I’ll just have to console myself with episodes of the The Walking Dead, Ripper Street, and Game of Thrones while the Dry Martini’s and stubbed cigarettes of Mad Men sit idle on the shelf.



October 2014

Cassandra Among the

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

PBS Self-Destructs

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Monkey Did It

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Rebecca Solnit on silencing women, a Marine commander returns to Iraq, the decline of PBS, and more
Cassandra Among the Creeps·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On silencing women
“The old framework of feminine mendacity and murky-mindedness is still routinely trotted out, and we should learn to recognize it for what it is.”
Photograph © Sallie Dean Shatz
Ending College Sexual Assault·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is not a fable about a young woman whose dreams were dashed by a sexual predator. Maya’s narrative is one of institutional failure at a school desperately trying to adapt.”
Photograph © AP/Josh Reynolds
"Clothes are a bit like eating: you have to dress yourself. You have to eat, and even if you eat pizza all day long, that’s still a choice."
Photograph © G Powell
“Today Is Better Than Tomorrow”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Iraq has every disease there is; its mind is deranged with too many voices, its organs corrupted, its limbs only long enough to tear at its own body.”
Photograph by Benjamin Busch

Abortions per 1,000 live births in New York City:


Researchers discovered an “Obama effect”: African Americans’ performance on a verbal test improved, to equal that of white Americans, immediately after Obama’s nomination and his election.

“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today