MAD MEN, SEASON FIVE RECAP: WHO CARES ABOUT DON DRAPER?

by Claire Moshenberg on April 5, 2013

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**They aren’t really spoilers a year later. But just in case, Season Five spoilers ahead.**

MM_MY_505_1003_0158Mad Men returns on April 7, and though Matthew Weiner is notoriously tight-lipped about . . . well, everything (we’ve all suffered through the “Next Time on Mad Men,” 30-second promos that prove that characters will continue to open doors and possibly greet each other), he says, “People will enjoy Season Six because it’s a real journey into learning about Don.”

After an exceptionally strong Season Five — in which he was consistently the least interesting character — I have to ask: Who cares about Don Draper?

Sure, magazine covers and blogs make it seem like the series still spins on Don Draper’s Brylcreemed axis. But real fans know that the sharp, endlessly cool incarnation of early-Mad-Men Don Draper is long gone. He disappeared in Season Four, which was dedicated to Don’s endless moral and professional fumbles. In Season Four, he slept with the wrong coworkers and was publicly harangued for it. The business he shut-the-door-and-had-a-seat to create  struggled and nearly fell apart. The glossy, ’60s glamour of functional alcoholism gave way to sad-divorced-guy alcoholism: Here’s drunk Don Draper pitching terrible ideas at an emergency meeting after a party. Here’s drunk Don Draper waking up twice in a blackout to find himself in bed with two different women — one of whom is calling him “Dick Whitman” — his face yellowed and depressed. Here’s drunk Don Draper losing his keys and hating Christmas. No one wants to be drunk Don Draper anymore, not even Don Draper. He was uneven, aging, failing on every front — and he was fascinating.

Last season, Don changed again by embracing fidelity with his new wife and ignoring his obligations at work. New Don was shocking, but more importantly, New Don was very boring. Bert Cooper blames the unfocused new version of Don on “love leave.” I say Don Draper got saddled with a series of tired story lines that made him a chore to watch, starting with his marriage to Megan.

Don’s relationship with Megan was somehow both nonsensical and incredibly familiar. Don has a single one-night stand with Megan, then hires her to be a babysitter for a week, then ends that week with a marriage proposal. Their bond is based solely on the fact that she’s kind to children and willing to sleep with him. It was hard to make the leap that they should be married, especially after watching Don’s recent strong, complex romantic and emotional interactions with other women. In Season Four, Don bares his soul to Peggy during “The Suitcase,” and he experiences real love and grief following the death of Anna Draper. He even has an aboveboard relationship with an equal (Faye) — a first for Draper, who only favored strong women as mistresses, not partners. He’s still dating her when he proposes to Megan; he cancels dinner plans, and the relationship, by announcing that he’s engaged.

But beyond the absurdity and confusion, there’s the uncomfortable familiarity. Don runs off with a pretty brunette secretary after a whirlwind courtship — exactly like Roger Sterling did in the previous season. He enjoys domestic bliss with a modern ’60s woman, chafes against her youth and acceptance of the rapidly changing culture — exactly like Roger Sterling did in the previous season. He encounters a challenging, flirtatious reminder of his past, and later sidles up to Joan Holloway and indulges in an escape back to his previous self (though he doesn’t sleep with her) — both exactly like Roger Sterling did in the previous season.

Even Megan’s acting adventures echoed Betty’s dashed modeling dreams from Season One. We’re supposed to see, through Don’s reaction, that he’s changed — but how? He didn’t get his way, but he wanted the same thing he did before: a wife who does what he wants, when he wants, in lieu of pursuing her own goals. He helped Megan out, but the same went for Betty, who returned to modeling by posing for ads for one of Don’s clients, just like Megan returns to acting by appearing in one of his client’s commercials. Even his reaction as he reviews Megan’s reel is similar to his reaction when he reviewed Betty’s photos.

Unlike Betty, Megan refuses Don’s desires and pursues acting. Don watches her transformation on the set of her commercial, and walks straight to a bar to have a transformation of his own. We’re all supposed to be wowed by the come-hither raised eyebrow in the season finale, but remember the brief, halcyon return of fidelity in Don and Betty’s marriage, when she was pregnant at the beginning of Season Three? Remember the raised eyebrow before he bedded the flight attendant? It’s time for Don to drop his eyebrow and do something different.

A TV fanatic friend of mine frequently bemoans how often serious, critically acclaimed shows use male infidelity as a main point of characterization. “It’s like we’re watching the easy way out over and over again, the same story on repeat,” he says, and I agree. Isn’t there a better or at least a different way to signify that a male character is unsatisfied?  In a show where every single character is unfulfilled by marriage and dabbling in infidelity, it could be interesting to see a functional relationship and the challenges that exist therein, even when everyone’s behaving. If the last scene of the finale meant what we all thought it meant, it’s just another symbol that points to Draper’s lack of growth. And I don’t mean growth like becoming a better person; I mean growth like changing and aging in a compelling way, coming up against obstacles and succeeding or failing, but doing something new.

With Don’s present-day development faltering, what about his big elusive secret past? What about the tantalizing scraps we’ve been fed season after season, the brief glimpses into Don Draper’s sordid origin story?

Yes. What about that?

Sleek Don Draper was once a little boy in overalls, dusty and small, born to a prostitute who died giving birth, raised by a drunk father and his cold wife. Don Draper stole a man’s identity to escape his nothing fate: he abandoned his parents and siblings, cared for the dead man’s wife, and spent the rest of his days looking over his shoulder, locking his family photographs in his desk. And it was thrilling for us, for a while. Who would find out next? What would it mean? What would we learn?

But the mystique of Don’s secret has largely dissipated. Not only does the viewer know about it, but like any responsible citizen with a dangerous private life, so does everyone in his world who would need to be privy to it: his wife, his ex-wife/the mother of his children, a therapist (whom, yes, he was dating) and a few work colleagues.

As for the “what would it mean” side of things, where we share Don’s paranoia and wonder how everyone will react — well, it doesn’t mean much. Pete tries to blackmail him and fails, because Cooper basically says, “So what?” We didn’t see Megan’s reaction, but how bad could it have been when she’s able to joke about it? (“Nobody loves Dick Whitman,” she teases, as he pouts about his unwanted surprise birthday party.) Faye played it true to form and behaved like a therapist, and like someone who was in love with him. Betty used it to insult and rankle him, but wouldn’t she have done that with anything? Not only was she owed whatever vengeful vitriol she chose to lob at her philandering ex, but her personality is that of a young child who needles and wounds whomever she can, however she can.

There’s a Don Draper storyline from last season, in Episode 4, that was so bad that it made me forget that Season Five was one of the best so far. Don has a fever dream that a woman he used to sleep with comes over to tempt him again. He sleeps with her, he kills her, then he hides her body. He wakes up to Megan at his bedside, and the viewer is left to drink in the juxtaposition of sick, aging Draper with pretty young Megan. It summed up Don’s whole story line that season: He’s getting older. He used to be an adulterer, and now he’s not. Both things are difficult. Both things could be interesting, but how they played out in those 20 minutes — and over 13 episodes — was sloppy and dull.

When you hold his story line up against those of the other characters, it’s even more abysmal. Don isn’t dropping acid or running off with the Hare Krishnas; Don lacks the bravery to do something daring, like leave a bad marriage or move on to a new job. Everyone around him is trying and failing and trying in new ways and failing again. They’re active and engaged, even if their activity and engagement only brings them more distress. Don is at home, having fever dreams and turning off records. Don is passive and resistant in a world that crackles and glimmers.

It’s hard to take your eyes off of Jon Hamm, beautiful and skillful at silences and facial expressions. But it’s hard to keep staring down an elevator shaft, wondering if it’s ever going to come back up.

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Claire Moshenberg is a San Francisco-based writer, a cofounder of Charm City Jukebox , and a contributing editor to The Spleen. Her ideal Mad Men spin-off would be a Peggy Olson/Joan Holloway road-trip buddy comedy.

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