Don Draper Studies I: Shoring Fragments Against Ruins
(This post talks about all of Season 4 of Mad Men. Read at your own risk, but, I mean, it’s on DVD already, so go ahead and help out Netflix and the Postal Service.)
Over at Postmodern Conservative, Jason Joseph offers brief comments on Don Draper’s development in Season 4 of Mad Men. Unfortunately—and I say this respectfully—he gets him dead wrong. When studying a man making himself up, it’s more revealing to examine him through the narrative he insists on creating than through an external framework (however incisive the latter may be):
[A]s the season progresses, cracks began to show in his wall. His private life spills into his professional life as he has affairs with at least three different women from his workplace, one of which he proposes to in the season finale. His daughter, distraught over her parents’ divorce, shows up at his office and makes a scene in an earlier episode. […]
Over time, it seems Draper is unable to keep his vices privatized. To see where his character is headed, just take a look at Sterling now.
The initial observation—that the careful public/private distinctions in Don’s life are cracking, if not crumbling—is accurate. One could go so far as to make a similar comment about all the carefully constructed distinctions and segments of Don’s life. This is the development which led me, part-way through this past season, to refer to Mad Men as “The Long Slow Trainwreck of Don Draper’s Life.” Each episode seemed to show him spiraling more and more into self-destruction and a blend of self-pity and self-loathing.
All of this seems to fit with the narrative Joseph offers—the office affairs, the detrius of the divorce, the Sterling-esque drinking, etc. But let’s consider the events mentioned in the paragraph quoted above in chronological order, and see how the narrative is affected. The first affair, with a secretary who clearly wants to nurse him, is a direct result of the drinking that follows Don’s divorce: she helps a shit-faced Don home, and in the aftermath its unclear to what extent he remembers forcing the issue in a state of drunken lust. In the end, it is precisely Don’s attempt to sustain, after the affair, the public/private distinction that leads to her tearful departure. She wanted to nurse and nurture him; he, with the exception of one evening, wanted a secretary.
The second affair is, in reality, a relationship—this time with Dr. Faye Miller, a female consultant the firm brings in. She is, on a level only matched by Rachel Menken, an intellectual and emotional match with Don. Were he living in an age of partnership marriages, she (or Menken) could/would have been “the one.”
But this, rather than the end of this string, is when Sally runs away to Don’s office and makes the aforementioned scene. Miller is apologetically terrible with children and her attempts to soothe Sally only make matters worse. Don’s secretary, Megan, is able to calm her, however. While this is not the end to Don’s relationship with Miller, the writing is on the wall: she may be an ideal partner, but she is not an ideal mother—and, therefore, she is not Don’s ideal wife.
Megan is the third and final office affair: importantly, she seduces Don at least as much as he seduces her. Her mothering credentials are solidified when Don hires her to act as babysitter on the trip he takes with both children to California, and he proposes shortly thereafter. While both he and Roger will, soon, both be married to their “very young secretar[ies],” Roger leaves his wife for the object of his momentary lust. Don, having been left by his wife, passes over the object of his lust and a possible true partner in favor of finding someone who can act, better than any of the other alternatives, Betty included, as a mother to his children. Roger’s engagement to a very young secretary destroys his family; Don’s engagement is an attempt to rebuild his family.
At the midpoint of Season 4, I made the following prediction:
[C]ould the Don Draper who once called a drunken Roger Sterling in blackface a disgrace see the vindictive drunk he will become in several years time, one imagines that he, too, would be condemned. Tony Soprano never sees that he has slipped completely away from the standards he claims to revere; Don’s chances for some degree of redemption rest, it would appear, on whether he has the same failing.
While it is, of course, early to say anything definitive, it appears that Don does not share that failing with his televised predecessor. Don, having become a vindictive drunk, manages to see himself for who he has become—and acts to repair the damage. He cuts back on his drinking. He tries to be a better friend, partner, father. He turns away from the women of his past—women who were objects of his lust, or women who would nurse and mother him—in favor of either a Miller/Menken type, or a mother for his children.
In short: Roger marries his secretary because he is bored. Don marries his secretary because he is trying to fight back against the forces, both in and out of his control, that have been laying waste to all his well-laid plans. In Megan, he sees a key to restoring his life, at least partially, to the vision of America that has always been his goal.