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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.

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

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December 2013

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