At the conclusion of Mad Men’s sixth season finale “In Care Of,” I was in tears. Not merely because it was the most cathartic episode of the series since the fourth season’s “The Suitcase,” but because it was the first time that Don Draper as a character had made any type of emotional connection with me. I understood Don as an idea only until now, a concept that I responded to intellectually but rarely emotionally as I did the characters actually struggling to stay afloat through the tidal wave of the ’60s. Peggy. Joan. Pete (sometimes). Bob. Ken. Roger. But Don was always swimming against the current, fighting against change because he’d already toppled his entire life once, so there was no way in hell he was going to let it explode in his face again.
There were hints of the emotional connection I’d ultimately feel with Don when his brother showed up, looking to reconnect with him before he hung himself. Or when Pete and Betty found out who he really was. But nothing had truly clicked yet. As a gay male, I looked to characters like Peggy fighting to break the glass ceiling at the agency or Bob having to hide his sexuality to endear everyone to him. Being black, I wondered when the show was going to deal with the Civil Rights Movement in a substantial way and cheered when Dawn was added to the show. But when Don took his children to a “bad neighborhood” in Sunday’s finale and said “this is where I grew up,” I broke down. Because I finally got it. I’d been looking for anyone to relate to besides Don from the minute the show debuted and our hero was seen talking down to a black waiter. I didn’t realize that the character I related to the most was right under my nose.
As African-Americans, that is black people who can legitimately be classified as such, we have a storied history of enslavement in the country we were brought to, followed by escapes from plantations and bloody battles to secure our freedom. In a country that routinely denied such freedoms, we had to tell lies to attain it. And even now, hundreds of years later, there still exists the same train of thought. My parents wanted the very best for me, so I was sent (on scholarship, due to attending a public school) to a private school in Milwaukee populated by white people wealthier than I. Because as someone enamored with the arts and pop culture, I wanted to be accepted and I did not have much in common with the few other black people in my school. They were interested in sports, I was not particularly. They were also very straight and hyper masculine, which I was very much not. And so, there existed lies. In order to associate myself with the world I’d been thrust into, yet a world I very much wanted to be a part of, I often did not talk about my upbringing. I did not talk about the disparity of income between my family and that of my friends. To attain credit in the straight world, I had to hide everything about who I was and create a new persona. Many black people do, if they want to achieve any type of success in the world without embracing stereotypes and becoming successful through them.
But much like Don Draper, you become a monster. Telling lies about yourself, whether it be about where you can from or who you’re sexually attracted to, it can tear you apart inside and in turn, you will harm others as you stridently refuse to move forward and instead plant yourself like a dam, hoping to stop the flow of a river. When Don finally broke down in a meeting with Hershey’s, I felt every emotion that was boiling to the surface. When he took his children to the whorehouse he grew up in, I also felt the same release that Don felt. Freedom.
I didn’t have to literally wreck my entire life like Don managed to do, though I could appreciate many of his self-destructive tendencies and see how they’d come to manifest in my own life. This is something I learned how to embrace by studying the works of writers like August Wilson and James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, because cultural works inform our world and shape our future. Television is a lot like literature, particularly in this age of serialization, but the very reason I couldn’t pinpoint why I should connect to Don so much is also a part of the problem of why I felt I needed to change myself.
Don Draper, much like Tony Soprano, will go down as one of the greatest characters in television history because so many people have connected to him. But I didn’t come to that conclusion early on because television at this point in time, is still not geared toward representing anyone who’s not a straight white male as capable of going on this journey. If I look to literature, I can find the examples that helped me embrace my true self. But it’s odd that for a character I connect with as much as I did Don on Sunday, no one I could immediately connect with has been depicted yet.
Don represents the idea of being so ashamed of who you were that you create a new life for yourself. And there’s no one in America who understands that better than black people. Than gay people. Than women. But we’ve had to endure shows where we’re kept on the fringes. Or when we are presented media depictions, they’re of the most superficial kind – gays get to focus on sex in Queer as Folk, women only care about romance in Grey’s Anatomy, black people only care about rising up from poverty in The Wire.
I love Mad Men. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking show and one of my favorite pieces of television ever. But in the present, Don Draper’s journey connects more to mine that a typical straight white male’s and it’s about time that in his own words, we “change the conversation.” When the series concludes next year, I will thank Matthew Weiner for helping me understand myself in ways I never thought possible.
But then I will stop looking to the past and look the present, where the next character I connect with this much shouldn’t just represent me, but he should look like me too.