Mad Men’s Don Draper Is Failing Harder

There’s a scene in the third season of the ‘60s period-drama Mad Men when the protagonist, Don Draper, is about to bed an engaged airline stewardess—she has him pinned against the wall of a hotel hallway making her intentions clear by saying it might be her last chance for a night of casual sex.

“I’ve been married a long time,” Draper says. “You get plenty of chances.” And the way John Hamm delivers the line it’s not bragging, it’s not an attempt to be funny. It comes off weary, experienced, as though to say you have no idea what kind of special torture awaits you. He is a victim of his own design. And this happens a lot in the show.

Don Draper. Donald. Draper. It’s a strong name. Masculine. The “DD” initials look good on cufflinks. If it wasn’t a made-up name it would be the kind of name a guy would want to have. But then again in the world of the show it’s not a made-up name, is it? It’s the name of a soldier that Dick Whitman was serving with during the Korean War who died in an accident.

“All I had to do was be him and I could leave Korea,” Don tells his wife Betty after she finds out who he really is. But fans of the show know it’s more complicated than that. We have watched him try to run from his past, watched the ghosts swirl around him through farm-life flashbacks and more real-life hauntings. Like when his half-brother came to him for nothing but brotherhood and killed himself when Don turned him away.

The show has built itself upon the scaffolding of Draper/Whitman’s identity; hung shingles on the reputation that proceeds him, both in conference rooms and bedrooms; laid its foundation on his looks—the way he makes a slick, parted haircut and clean-shaven face in a suit look manly, tough even, a style that makes most men just look puny. Without Draper there is no Mad Men, without Draper there is no new agency.

Which brings us to the first episode of the fourth season, “Public Relations,” wherein we find what presumably are the characters that received the best fan reactions now running a new agency. Peter Campbell calls their new venture “the scrappy upstart” only to be chided for it by Draper. It has been a year since the third season ended with the principal players dodging a corporate buyout and contractual obligations by self-destructing the original agency.

In the season three finale we had: Betty divorcing Don and taking up with Henry Francis, the return of Joan, Don apologizing to Peggy Olson to get her to join the team, Roger Sterling telling Don off (“You’re not good at relationships because you don’t value them”) and this new crew eating sandwiches in a cramped hotel room as they gathered the few clients they could. Things weren’t going good for Draper but at least he had his “particular American genius,” as Bert Cooper puts it.

Yet in this season his persona is betraying him. We find ourselves with even more conflict, internal and otherwise. Draper has moved out of his house in the suburbs into a smallish apartment. He is subjected to the humiliation of being set up on a date with a friend of Sterling’s young wife, Jane, who has made him “her personal cause.” The hopeful straightening of the bed before he went out to meet her was an excellent touch, if not a little sad to see from our hero. When the date, Bethany, shuts him down in the backseat of a taxicab at the end of the night and then tells Jane about it we later watch Sterling gloat about his failure at the office.

Ambition can escape control without warning. His is bucking against the pressure. And how could a man control an ego like his with all of his underlings and superiors giving it a regular stroking? Olson even sticks up for Draper when Joey, the new art guy, makes a crack that Draper’s probably eating Thanksgiving dinner alone. (When he would in actuality be asking an unnamed woman to slap him in the face during sex.)

If the motto of Portland, Oregon’s Weiden+Kennedy ad agency is “Fail Harder,” we’re getting a lot of failure that seems to be the harder kind. In this episode, Draper not only loses a client but blows a chance to perpetuate his mystique when a reporter from an advertising magazine does a profile on him. “Who is Don Draper?” the reporter asks. Draper responds with a condescending “What do men say when you ask them that?”

On the matter of men and camaraderie it’s difficult to know what the writers of the show want us to believe. Is Draper a man’s man? Does he command the respect of the boys in his company? Does he, as Olson put it, have “everything, and so much of it” and does everyone want to be him?

He talks a good game, sees himself as a problem solver, a fixer. He easily put Betty’s brother in his place when it came to the matter of her father. He has been adept at commanding the rest of the lower-level ad men. But when it comes to Sterling and Cooper he has had limited success. We have seen little evidence that they both see him as anything but the quarterback to build a franchise around. We’ll see how putting his name on the door is going to inflate his already dangerously swollen ego.

In the climax of this week’s episode Sterling attempts to rein Draper in after a client’s refusal causes him to lose his temper, to no avail. Sterling grabs him by the arm only to have Draper turn and holler at a potential client to get out of “his” office now. We do love to see Draper and Sterling fight, and as enjoyable as each of these two characters are in their own right, well, this is double the pleasure, double the fun.

While other popular shows are increasing their dramatic stakes by introducing more fantastical characters (see True Blood and its werewolves) the Mad Men writers are simply introducing more struggle. I love to see a man struggling. As much as the people around him are, as Olson put it, eager to please Draper, and as much as his reputation proceeds him, he is still in a tenuous position.

The fact that he is recently divorced is proving to be a chink in his armor. With a botched PR move following him, coupled with the company’s inherent challenges as the new kids on the block, a lot is riding on what Draper can do. He told Cooper he wanted to work, he wanted to build something. Now he’s getting his chance. The show’s creators have been trying desperately to convince us that Draper is a tortured man but one worth our sympathies. If he can come out on top of this set of challenges we will be rewarded for our patience.

In Los Angeles he confessed to Anna Draper, the widower of the first Don Draper, that he has been “watching his life, scratching at it, trying to get into it,” and although it remains unclear whether he will ever be able to drop the façade—a life built on a lie is never not a lie—he is certainly living at a more solitary level. He is rebuilding his rebuilt life. Now to find out what’s on the second floor. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

More From Thought Catalog