The Don Draper Truth
Revisiting one of the most enigmatic characters in the history of cinema
Matthew Weiner, the creative genius that helped architect The Sopranos, and delivered a masterpiece with Mad Men. The show, seemingly an innocuous depiction of life at a high stakes New York advertising firm during the 1960s and 1970s, was actually a profound exploration of existentialism. It was a massive success, garnering widespread critical acclaim, while cementing itself as one of the great series of all time. Almost five years since its conclusion, it is time to revisit one of the most alluring aspects of the show: its enigmatic, yet always fascinating protagonist known as Don Draper. Played with masterful precision by Jon Hamm, Don Draper is one of the most complex and multifaceted characters in cinematic history. His most interesting function is the way in which he represents the modern state of the American dream, one that is luxuriously alluring on the surface, but is in fact a visage that conceals a hollowness that slowly corrodes those who achieve it. All that is left behind is a glimmering façade and a perpetual state of unfulfillment.
Don Draper represents the epitome of success in a quintessential rags to riches story that has always defined the American dream. He was the illegitimate child of a prostitute that was raised in a brothel without the presence of a loving family. He grew up penniless until he went to Korea to fight in the war. Upon returning, he takes a new identity and forges his path to the pinnacle of success. Don, for all his personal faults, is gifted with the mind of a creative genius. He parlays this talent into an almost supernatural ability for advertising that helped him secure a place as creative director at one of the top ad agencies in New York.
However, the enigma of Don Draper lies in his dissatisfaction with the success he has earned. Even when he is surrounded by his riches, an adoring family, and the unquestioned respect of his colleagues, he frequently engages in behavior that can upend everything. Affairs, alcoholism, and deceit are just some of the many vices that come to define him. This is because Don isn’t truly happy with his life. Just because he has been gifted with a skillset that has allowed him financial success and stature doesn’t mean it’s his passion. He derives no true fulfillment from his work, which results in a gaping void inside of him. This inevitably results with him trying to fill that empty abyss with anything he feels can satiate a hunger he cannot quite satisfy. It is the reason why he so carelessly engages in countless affairs without truly caring about the repercussions. Don has the picture perfect American dream on paper, yet he destroys each component of that dream because he doesn’t care enough about it and it doesn’t bring him true happiness.
As audiences witness Don’s character arc throughout the show’s seven seasons, they are continually captivated. However, regardless of Don’s many faults and missteps, audiences seem to love him because he represents what they are chasing: success. They are drawn to his power and the respect it commands. They are enamored by the sophisticated eloquence of his personality and jealous of the financial success he has achieved. What they primarily see is what they aspire to be one day, and Don is the ultimate image of that. Dressed in luxuriously designed suits, sipping on old fashioned cocktails, and wearing a devilishly handsome smile, he embodies what everyone wants to be.
The interesting aspect of this fixation is that they want to be like him even knowing how dissatisfied he is with all of that. They will gladly trade fulfillment for success just like Don did. This troubling trend is fleshed out further by the way Weiner concludes the arcs of the other characters on the show. Each of them, with the exception of Don, find fulfillment not in their work, but by achieving emotional peace. Peggy Olsen (Elizabeth Moss) finds the love that fills the emotional void within her better than the groundbreaking success she enjoyed as the copy chief. Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the perpetually success crazed businessman, finally abandoned those ambitions to settle down with the family he once sacrificed for them. Each of these characters find solace in something that flies in the face of what the traditional definition of the American dream is, except for Don. Don’s tumultuous journey to find himself, repeatedly searching for something that can deliver him that satisfaction, yet he never finds it. All he has is his talent and the riches it can get him, but it fails to make him happy.
There are many reasons why Don Draper is considered one of the greatest characters in cinema. His scintillating braggadocio, razor sharp creativity, and mysterious allure are all crucial components that add to his legend. Yet, the most important quality he possesses is the mirror he provides audiences to look inside themselves and confront a troubling truth. Even after tearing apart his family, scandalizing his reputation, and effectively shunning everyone trying to come close to him, audiences are still attracted to him. They want his success and the luxuries that come with it. Deep down, even though they may look down upon his actions, they are invariably drawn back to him because he represents their deepest desires. They ignore the fact that his success comes with a lifetime of emotionless satisfaction and an insatiable hunger for something more. Just like Don, they are resigned to chasing that dream and abandon the happiness they deserve.
Don Draper is the manifestation of the modern day American dream: a shimmering shell that encases a void of unfulfillment.