Don Draper Studies II: Mad Men as Western
(This post contains spoilers for various seasons of Mad Men. Read at your own risk, but, I mean, it’s on DVD already, so go ahead and help out the Postal Service and that artist formerly known as Netflix.)
Forget the Madison Avenue setting, the dapper suits, the blue-blooded heirs, and the Long Island suburbs. Mad Men might as well be dusty, twanging, lawless, and much closer to starvation. Don Draper/Dick Whitman, a Man With No Name, is a man who goes east, into the unknown, the land of possibility, to re-create himself into the man he wants to be.
New York (combined with a near-unthinking grasping of chance and transforming it into opportunity) offers the same freedom the frontier once did. No one knows your name in the cold, sterile, modern metropolis—at least at first—and this is precisely the point. In the new frontier, no one knows that you’re the son of a prostitute, and if they did, would it matter? Usefulness and ability are—or at least claim to be—the primary criteria for success. Perhaps not the only criteria for the success Don achieves and strives for, but selling cars as Don Draper was clearly more satisfying than working the farm as Dick Whitman. (Or trying to sell cars in the town nearby as the son of a whore and a cheat.)
The freedom of the frontier is the freedom of anonymity—the freedom of breaking wholly with one’s past. This is the freedom Don glimpsed as a child when his family briefly housed a hobo in exchange for field work. That life was not the life Don wanted, but it showed him (though he likely didn’t yet realize it) the means to that life. His American life can’t be rootless—the ideal is too much defined against his own past: the parentage of which he is deeply ashamed and the family life which he knows was a failure on every level.
Finally, like the frontier of the Western flick (or TV series), the new frontier of Mad Men’s New York is a place lost to the contemporary world. The Western entered the imagination after the frontier closed, and so it is appropriate that Matt Weiner should have struggled to pitch his 60s-themed show until the rise of the Internet and social networking. Phoebe Maltz, writing about something entirely unrelated to this post, summarizes the matter aptly:
Those notions – American classics in their own right – that you can go away even a short ways to a new high school or to college and reinvent yourself, that a big city means anonymity and the freedom that comes with, they’re kind of done. […] [I]t’s not possible to lead several lives in one lifetime without moving far, another planet perhaps.
It’s not just that Don Draper leaves home to make himself up, but that our relationship to this self-creation, as the audience, is as cut off from that ability as Don would have been from the frontier of the movies playing not so far from his office—of the movies that he, perhaps, saw once or twice as a child, or the tales he heard once or twice on a radio. The Western is not just American nostalgia—it is nostalgia for the American Dream unbridled, for a past to which we know and accept it is impossible to return.