Friday, April 6, 2012

Don Draper Is A Square

"My God, so square you've got corners." Megan Draper to Don Draper

Long time Mad Men viewers have been caught short in Season 5 at the abrupt emasculation of Don Draper.  Having watched Don bed a succession of women during the show's first four seasons, swing his metaphorical dick at anyone with the temerity to challenge him in the office and basically, as he told Rachel Mencken in the show's very early days, live his life like there was no tomorrow, this older, more reflective, and frankly, less fun version of Don is taking some getting used to. Or, as Peggy put it in the season premiere, "I don't recognize this man. He's kind and patient … it concerns me." 

As "The Sixties," as we now think of that decade, have bled into the previously staid offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, Don now seems reactionary.  When he strikes up a conversation with a Rolling Stones groupie backstage at one of their concerts, instead of seduction, which would have been the default for Don in years past, he comes across as a scold, admonishing the young woman about giving herself freely to a musician and questioning what she knows about psychiatrists.  Her posture is telling.  Instead of recoiling from Don's authority, she impishly pulls his tie off and gives a lecture of her own, questioning why Don's generation, who didn't "have any fun" wants to deny hers of their enjoyment.  Don's response? "We're worried about you."  She can't be bothered, blowing Don off at the purported sighting of Mick and the boys.  

While Don's boorishness and poor treatment of women may have spoken to an Eisenhower-era view of the sexes and his casual infidelity as of a piece of the broader subjugation of women as housewife and harlot, at his heart, Don is a "little c" conservative.  His values are animated by his Midwestern upbringing, where it was impolite to talk about yourself and you never discussed money.  In Don's world, men don't have bawdy conversations in elevators with women present (and they certainly don't leave their hats on while doing it), smearing a man's "name" as the younger copywriters and account executives did at Freddy Rumsen's expense, is poor form and even when your wife has discovered you are a philanderer who has faked his past, *you* don't ask for the divorce, she does. 

Don's provincialism and simplistic view of gender roles went unchallenged through his adulthood, where everyone's place in society was well defined and rarely challenged.  At the show's inception, he's involved with Midge, a beatnik in Greenwich Village whose friends get a firm lashing from Don when they criticize his job. Of course, in those days, when the cops showed up to Midge's building to investigate a report of domestic violence, Don is the only one who can leave the apartment unmolested because of his suit and tie.  And even when flashes of changing culture invaded his neat little universe, as when he discovered Sal was a homosexual, Don, who knew something about hiding secrets, was non-plussed until it affected business. After Sal rejected a pass made by Lee Garner, Jr. putting the Lucky Strike account in jeopardy, Don's distaste and bigotry bubbled quickly to the surface, as he referred to gays as "you people" and suggesting Sal should have acquiesced to Lee's sexual come on before cruelly firing him. 

Perhaps Don's personality change is just a natural evolution that many people experience as they reach middle age or maybe this is Don's attempt to, as someone speculated, become the Dick Whitman he always wanted to be, and shed the Draper persona.  If nothing else, Matt Weiner and crew should be given credit for allowing Don's character to remain consistent.  A man who could not utter the word "infidelity" or "cheating" but instead referred to his indiscretions as not being "respectful" toward his wife is not the kind of man who will easily understand a youth culture that will glorify free love and recreational drug use. To a man who grew up poor, serving fancy people at a roadhouse who would not allow him to use the toilet, the rebellion of teens in the 1960s will unquestionably challenge his worldview.  And for a man whose own children are quickly growing up in a country that will careen toward social revolution, Don seems ill equipped to evolve with the times.  The world Don now inhabits is not one where a man's word is his bond and a handshake seals the deal. Now, kids openly get high, snub their elders and protests for civil and equal rights and against war, will define life for years to come.  Since we should not expect Don to "tune in, turn on and drop out," the next few years are likely to cause him to become more conservative, in his attitudes, conduct and behavior, than less.  The evolution, as with all things Mad Men should be fascinating.

6 comments:

  1. Don firing Sal may be perceived as "cruel" but that was his only option since Lucky Strike was the bread & butter of SC. I think there were very few people who would have put their neck (and the company's) out for the sake of poor Sal. He really had no other choice but to fire him.

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  2. Interesting line of reasoning, but everything we know about Don is that he is a survivor and he finds ways to adapt. As much as Don has stayed consistent, there is much that has changed, especially as he somehow "fuses" Don Draper and Dick Whitman into one persona. Don is also now the divorced father of children and he has taken a more active role in parenting, especially as Sally approaches adolescence. Don is also different in his relationship with his younger wife Megan, and often gives in to her or tries to better understand her and explain his thinking (recall their conversation after the "angry make-up sex on the carpet").

    Isn't it likely that Don could also become more liberal, instead of more conservative? It would be difficult seeing him supporting the Viet Nam war and he would likely support those who want to run away from it, as he ran from Korea. Don is curious and will want to understand the thinking, motivation and values of the youth culture. He may not share those values by "tuning in, turning on or dropping out," but he will be curious and want to know and understand the cultural shift. Unlike Harry who will try to become a part of the youth culture and will look foolish doing so, Don will adapt in his own way.

    I agree this isn't the Don who used to "swing his metaphorical dick at anyone," but my bet is that he will still swing his dick, albeit more selectively. Either way, I agree that it will be fascinating to see how this all turns out.

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  3. Interesting take. I would say that his desertion from Korea had more to do with his interest in getting away from his step mother and the life he had than with being anti-war. Megan's comment about Don's being a square makes sense when you see how the people who are close in age to Don, but not as young as Megan (e.g., Harry Crane, Ken Cosgrove) are starting to dress a little differently, use drugs, etc. Don's curiosity is solely based on how it impacts his ability to be an ad man, I think he is agnostic about *why* the world is changing, just how it affects him. If you remember the scene where he makes the harder "recruiting pitch" to Peggy after JFK died, he gave this whole rap to her about her value being based on understanding that something awful had happened and how that will change how advertising is done, not that it would lead to mass social upheaval!

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  4. Fair enough, but Don still seems like a real pacifist. He did enlist to escape his life on the farm and step mother, but part of his desertion from Korea also had to do with how frightening war was and wanting to get out of Korea. Remember how he tells Bobby to put down Gene's Prussian soldier helmet and calls it a "dead man's hat"? He didn't want the war to be glorified to Bobby. Megan tells Don he is so square he has corners because of how he is dressed, and he tells her something about wanting to look like "the man" -- mostly because I think he knew he was going to the concert not to enjoy the Stones, but for business. I doubt he wore a suit when Don took Sally to the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. I do agree that Don's curiosity is based on his ability to be an ad man, but it also affects him personally as he has told women he is attracted to that they look "so young." I think he appreciates youth as more than just a "demographic."

    Nonetheless, we're likely both wrong as Matt Weiner does a great job of making it impossible to predict what will happen.

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  5. Good point about the Bobby/Grandpa Gene scene, though I think that also had to do with Bobby's age and impression-ability (not a word). If I were to think of a time where Don expressed ambivalence about his military service, it would be in the Season 2 episode where he, Betty and the kids are at a country club for the 4th of July (or maybe it was Memorial Day?) and the emcee asks all veterans to stand and be recognized. Don hesitates and then has a weird reaction as Sally applauds heartily for him.

    When Don meets Stephanie, he tells her that her generation is "running things" but he shows no true interest in youth - he mocks "their" music in front of the American Cancer Society at the end of Season 4. I think his Great Depression-era roots are more at play and are now mixing with the reality that his kids are getting older and will be exposed to a culture he finds questionable.

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  6. Period of your time Mad Men visitors have been found brief in Period 5 at the quick emasculation of Don Draper.

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