Don Draper On The Couch: Mad Men and the Stranger to Paradise – Mark Nicholls

“I don’t think I realised it until this moment.  But it must be hard being a man too… Mr. Draper, I don’t know what it is you really believe in but I do know what it feels like to be out of place, to be disconnected, to see the whole world laid out in front of you, the way other people live it.  There is something about you that tells me you know it too.”

As befits the hero of any television series, Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is everything and nothing. Throughout Mad Men we see Don as a child, a war veteran, an ad man, a husband and father, a philanderer and, inevitably for most of us, a fellow traveller in the affairs of the heart at war with society.  He is a gentleman, a friend, a harsh and occasionally cruel boss, sometimes severely restrained, responsible and buttoned-up, sometimes foolish and infantile.  For a serial philanderer he has an intensely loyal and sensitive nature.  Although reputed a creative genius, he is beset with fears, prejudices and a recurring look of bemusement.  He despises psychotherapy and, to a large extent, defies analysis.  Rather than being the subject of psychoanalysis he seems to stand on firmer footing as a hero in a tale brought forward in support of the analytical subjectivity of his audience.  In this way Don Draper is an interesting example of television’s great invention of the character that is almost all things to almost all people [1].

Despite Don’s apparent ability to engage an audience and, indeed, the accolades of Madison Avenue in the early 1960s, he carries with him a disturbing sense of character contradiction.  As a protagonist who suggests himself as almost all things to almost all people, he also prompts us to question whether, despite this, he is really all there.  As I indicate in the scene from the pilot episode quoted above, department store chief Rachel Menken (Maggie Siff) understands Don’s disconnection and his near compulsion towards seeing the world second hand.  Whether it is mediated by one of his outstanding creative pitches, an eight millimetre camera or a series of Kodak slides winding their way around a carousel, it is only via these “fantasies of persuasion”, as Duck Phillips (Mark Moses) calls his work, that the disconnected Don Draper can effect any real measure of engagement.  He confirms as much in a frank discussion with Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton) in San Pedro in the penultimate episode of series two when he says, “ I have been watching my life.  It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get in.  I can’t.”

One reason for this apparent disconnect is Don’s seemingly immovable, almost Althusserian belief in the constructed nature of the basic things in life.  A sense of happiness, security and the freedom from fear, he tells Lucky Strike management, are what advertising is all about.  Love, he advises Rachel Menkin, does not exist, except as something created by people like him to sell nylons.  Happy families such as his own, and their memories, clearly only exist in Sterling Cooper copy and on Kodak slides.  The past and, indeed, American history itself is nothing. [2]  For Don, who goes to such lengths to stamp it out and to alter his name and place in it, there is only a frontier to be discovered.  There is, of course, no London fog, nor did wartime snipers find their aim through the process of “three on a match”.  There are only products to be sold and life–what we have come to understand as “lifestyle” –to be manufactured in the selling.  This construction not only creates the notion of happiness but, according to Don, it serves the ameliorating purpose required by consumers.  “People want to be told what to do” is Don’s familiar response to questions about the integrity of his profession.  They want to be told that what they are doing is ok, he says.  According to his research department, forty-five precent of the population see the colour blue as blue, not because it is, but because they are told to see it that way and they don’t want to see it any differently.

The things of life as constructed by the advertising industry are compelling, even to Don who is such a good salesman, but they are in no sense real.  In the opening episode of series two Don is advising the creative team on the Mohawk Airlines campaign when he concludes his captivating speech about “adventure” with a highly dismissive “blah, blah, blah.”  I will write below of Don’s ability to be mesmerised by his own pitch, but this is an example of his essential failure to be impressed by the lie of advertising that is, in his mind, the lie of life.  By his own logic, as he cannot believe in the constructs of advertising, he cannot believe in anything.  A key campaign in series one is for the Belle Jolie lipstick account–“a basketful of kisses”–but after a seemingly successful and well-considered pitch the client demurs.  Don’s response is indignant and instructive.  In an impressive piece of rancour he tell the Belle Jolie exec that there is no point going any further because he is a non-believer and does not have Jesus in his heart.  Once the client is brought around to accept the campaign and they are all shaking hands at the end of the meeting, Don confuses and disturbs him, yet again, when he tells him that they will never really know if the campaign was a success or not – “it’s not a science”.  This scene shows Don at his most revealing and tells us a great deal about him.  In an advertising sense he clearly knows the power of Jesus, he can preach the gospel and he may even be a believer in the “old time religion” (“it’s good enough for me”) but he doesn’t believe in God.  He recognises a fellow non-believer in the Belle Jolie exec, because he too does not have Jesus in his heart.  Don’s job is to instil Jesus into the hearts of clients and consumers even if he cannot find Jesus there for himself.  In this way Don joins a long tradition of salesmen, selling everything from snake oil to salvation, that like Jim Casey in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) lost or never had the calling.[3]

As the essential things of life, for Don, are merely advertising constructs, it is no surprise that he tells Rachel that:“you are born alone and you die alone and this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts, but I never forget.  I am living like there’s no tomorrow because there isn’t one.” As one of the great rule makers of his generation–for advertising constructs are surely the basis of many Cold War rules and prohibitions [4]–Don feels this more keenly than most.  Anna and the spectre of his father confirm his sense of this isolation when the former tells him that this belief is the reason he cannot be happy and the latter tells him that to be a success he cannot continue to believe it.  Whether or not he acknowledges this–and something in the formation of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce at the end of Season Three suggest he does–Don’s nihilism and his sense of being disconnected are such that we understand that he lives in a universe that is cold, lonely and meaningless.  As he tells the beatnik lover of his mistress Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt), “There is no big lie, there is no system. The Universe is indifferent.”  In series three he reveals a similarly entropic view of the universe when he tells the creative team that “change is neither good nor bad, it simply is.”  In many ways he is like the physicist played by Jack Warden in Woody Allen’s September (1987)–they both know the Universe to be random, violent and meaningless and, in a sense, they both get paid to prove it.  The problem for Don in this knowledge is that, unlike Jack Warden’s physicist who takes refuge in the love of his wife (Elaine Stritch), he has very little to cling to at night.  When he comes to the realisation that Midge is in love with the beatnik, he is sympathetic, impressed and even envious, but if he can muster up enough faith to believe in love at all, he cannot know it for himself.  All he can do is give her the $2500 bonus he had from Bert Cooper (Robert Morse), another random event in his life, tell her to buy a car–a sign, at least, of happiness–and walk out of her life.

Although distrustful and consequently disconnected from his own life, as I have indicated, Don Draper certainly has the talent to engage others, and in this he is not immune from the power of his own performance.  Frequently we see him swallow his own snake oil.  In the Lucky Strike campaign, the Belle Jolie episode, as well as in his boardroom defence of selling “products not advertising”, we see Don momentarily full of feeling and untroubled by his dreadful knowledge of “the whole world laid out in front of [him], the way people live it.”  He is engaged, positive, charming and sincere, seemingly lost and, as I have written, mesmerised along with the rest of us, by the process of unfurling the lie.  The Kodak Carousel pitch, in the final episode of series one is a case in point.  He stands throughout the presentation. This exposes him and opens him up to a far greater extent than we are used, so dominant across the series is the seated or couched image of Don as a controlling and sometimes almost sadistic figure.  His stance is contained, one hand either in his pocket or clasped casually with his other hand that makes frequent restrained but assured gestures.  He is wearing a dark gray flannel pin-stripe suit, much more conservative than his usual light gray and combined with his stance he presents an image of quiet confidence along with a rare note of humility.  We see this in his eyes also, and the way they alternate between the dark knitted brow look and a flash of white as the camera moves in and he talks about the idea of “nostalgia” and “deeper bond with the product.”  When the slide presentation is underway and all eyes are on the images of a family life we have never known for Don flick past, his address becomes more relaxed.

Whatever rehearsal he may have had is clearly obscured and overcome by his present sense of rapture at the life that he has such difficulties trying to enter flashing past him.  David Carbonara’s score of strings, horn, flute, piano and glockenspiel that began with the slide show, is highly resonant of the compositions of Elmer Bernstein (Far From Heaven, 2002) and Thomas Newman (Revolutionary Road, 2008, Little Children, 2006) and it works subtly, like the smoke from Salvatore’s cigarette wafting across the screen, to complement the truth and the simplicity of Don’s performance.  It is all too much for Harry Crane (Rich Sommer), who guilty from a recent small infidelity, has been kicked out of home and must leave the conference room to hide his tears.  It is Don’s consummate performance, however, inspired and technique obscuring, that stuns us and impresses upon us his undoubted but too frequently absent ability to feel something.[5]   He too, it seems has the capacity to kneel down, moves his lips in prayer and believe.[6]

In the “Bye Bye Birdie” episode of series three Don cautions Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) about the apparent and necessary separation between art and work by saying, “You’re not an artist, you solve problems.  Leave some tools in your tool box.”  Nevertheless in the emotional intensity of his pitch, in his frequent reliance on spur of the moment inspiration and in the, often begrudging, admiration of Roger Sterling (John Slattery), Duck Phillips and the account men, Don is very much like an artist. [7] The decade leading up to the John F. Kennedy assassination in November 1963, represented at the end of series three in Mad Men, was a rich one in the representation of the tortured artist both in Hollywood and elsewhere; consider: A Star is Born (1951), An American in Paris, The Bandwagon, All About Eve and The Bad and the Beautiful (all 1952), Lust for Life (1956) and Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), not to discount Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963).  From the Cukor, Minnelli, Kelly and Donen musicals of the early 1950s, to the “gotta dance” stage, screen and studio melodramas that span the period, the cinema furnished a great many examples of the artist for whom art is easy but the rest of life is impossible.  Like them, Don Draper shows that it is only in his artwork that he can lose himself, that he can engage with something in life as a first hand and unmediated experience.  The popular myth of the creative genius may allow him a measure of cruelty, insensitivity and generally anti-social behaviour in his struggle with the rest of life, but at the moment of performance he needs no allowances made.  In this way, life is really only viable for Don as the artist in the creative moment.  All the rest is impossible.  Where Don departs from the Minnelli model, however, is in his ultimate distrust of the creative outcome.  Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas), Gerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) and even Joseph Mankiewicz’s Margo Channing (Bette Davis) may believe in the art they are creating but for Don, however mystified and aroused he may become by his own creation, as an advertising construct, he can never really believe in it.  As in the major part of his life when those around him are enjoying the moment, Don’s belief in the ad man created version life allows him very little room to feel or enjoy anything at all.[8]

Just as Don can be temporarily distracted by his work from, what he sees as, the cold realities of the Universe, he also allows himself an element of delusion over the possibility of escape.  This is directly related to his insatiable philandering and demonstrates another uncharacteristic level of engagement for the generally disconnected Don. In the main, the ease with which Don can float in and out of his extra-marital affairs has much to do with his nihilism and a certain emotional materialism and myopia that it has bred in him.  There is an aspect of his philandering, however, that he associates with the idea of escape and release – as if that were actually possible in the meaningless world he inhabits.

With Midge, Rachel and Anna (perhaps only an honorary mistress) he can frequently be more open and demonstrate his vulnerability in a way that he does not with his wife, Betty (January Jones).  We meet Midge before we ever meet Betty in the pilot and Don goes to her apartment for the first time when he is beset with anxieties about the Lucky Strike campaign and the generational threat posed by Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser).  Almost immediately in his relationship with Rachel he is adamant that she knows and understands him better that anyone.  In Season Two, he acknowledges the problem openly with Anna when he says, “I’ve told you things I’ve never told Betty.  Why does it have to be that way?”  Just as these women seem to allow him the opportunity of “time out” from the codified world of marriage and business, he also associates them with the potential for complete self-removal.  As soon as his identity is placed under threat by Pete in series one, he rushes to Rachel and childishly proposes they run away and start their life over somewhere else.  On the stimulus of the bonus from Bert, Don’s first reaction is to charge over to Midge and suggest they immediately take a plane to Paris.  The California sequence at the end of Season Two, where he meets Joy (Laura Ramsey) and ultimately leaves her for Anna in San Pedro, is largely rendered for Don as a surreal and light-headed departure from the ordinary experience of life, as in a David Lynch film.

The significance of all this time off for Don is not as evidence of the viability of any vision of an alternative life for him as Roger Sterling might see it in the arms of his new young wife, Jane (Peyton List).  Don’s extra-marital liaisons, like his brilliant pitches, show his ability to engage in at least one small aspect of life, however false and unrealistic it may be.  Like his pitches, his affairs are limited and inevitably come to an end as soon as real life intervenes, but they do demonstrate the extent to which he can be passionate (with Rachel), vulnerable (with Midge) and emotionally challenged (with Bobby Barrett (Melinda McGraw)).  Don’s affairs, with the exception of Suzanne (Abigail Spencer) and, to a large extent, Anna, are related to his business and stand as an extension of that small part of life in which he seems to be able to engage.  To the extent that they have anything to do with love, however, we cannot divorce them from Don’s stated and demonstrated views on that subject.  They can be, therefore, no more real or viable for him than the idea of nostalgia that comes with the Kodak Carousel, the thrill of adventure with Mohawk Airlines or the feeling that comes with a new pair of nylons.

Thus far I have argued that Don Draper is disconnected and separated from the act of living his own life.  He believes himself to be in possession of an almost unbearable insight as to the emptiness of the world and the way god-like figures, such as himself, provide the things, rules, emotions and products that people can believe in to fill that emptiness.  Evangelist of the power of such a religion he may be, however, he cannot allow himself to participate or believe in it.  His sense of struggle, dissatisfaction and his growing understanding of his situation induce our sympathy and like Anna, we consider Don to be gripped by the false belief that he is alone.  The question of why he should be so faithless tempts us to follow the paths of psychoanalysis and mine the substantial screen time (which increases into the third series) allotted to Don’s childhood and youth.  But Don himself is so dismissive of psychoanalysis and this is a view not entirely rejected by even the Dionysian Roger Sterling.  Nor is there anything in Don’s childhood, and importantly in his reaction to his past that impresses itself as necessarily traumatic.  Experiences such as Don’s were hardly uncommon in and following the Great Depression.

Psychoanalytically this is dangerous ground but it does lure us away from the trauma-hysteria trajectory when we think about reasons for Don’s nihilism. [9]  Perhaps in this context, as Roger suggests, psychoanalysis is “just this year’s candy pink stove.”  Rather than trawling the past for the source of Don’s “damage”, to use a contemporary expression, Mad Men seems to present the far more disturbing idea that there is nothing wrong with Don at all.  Rather than reading him as a faithless, damaged and traumatised shell-shock victim, what I am suggesting as a fruitful approach to understanding Don is that we should read him as if he is right.  That Don’s disturbed view of the world is not his problem, but the problem of the society in which he lives.

In so many ways Don Draper is represented as highly successful, his own personal and emotional dilemmas not withstanding.  For all the brilliance we actually see in Don’s work, with clients and colleagues he seems to have a reputation far in excess of that demonstrated.  Beyond the awards he wins and the general recognition of his excellence, in each of the first three seasons of the series, it is made clear that Don’s presence at Sterling Cooper is absolutely essential to its existence – hence the on-going attempts to place him under contract and the regular flow of cash bonuses that come his way.  In his life outside business also, Don appears to live in a world seemingly without resistance.  In a guest appearance in the third season of NBC’s 30 Rock (2009), Jon Hamm encounters this resistanceless life yet again in an amusing parody of Don Draper’s world that Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) calls “the bubble”.  Liz explains to Hamm’s character, Dr. Drew Baird, that he lives in the bubble because of his good looks, and this, no doubt, also has something to do with Don’s success.  Yet it is clear, as in so many other aspects of his life, that Don’s experiences and even his vaguely deluded expectations have not only been socially recognised but also rewarded.  It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we should consider Don’s somewhat myopic view of the world as a viable one in the world of Mad Men for it is so thoroughly endorsed.  This we might consider to be even more the case given that the greatest critic of the world he inhabits is, in fact, Don himself.  As Don confirms when he advises Peggy to move on and forget the birth of her baby – “It will shock you how much it never happened” – no one is more disturbed by the apparent incongruity between the highly questionable nature of experience and peoples’ apparent willingness to forget.  Such is Don’s own localised encounter with the idea of American historical amnesia.[10]

A significant mark of both Don’s critique of the world and his recognition of it as meaningless comes from the way he sees his success as completely random.  Not only are his origins, as he says in series two, Moses-like, but his very birth to a dying prostitute is an accident, without planning or logic.  His name and identity, as well as all the threats he faces in protecting that identity, demonstrate the great deal of the luck and happy coincidence he enjoys throughout the show.  The eccentricity and worldly experience of Bert Cooper, as well as a developed sense of emotional detachment, accounts for Bert’s lack of outrage when Pete Campbell breaks the story of Don’s name change.  The explanation for Anna Draper’s acceptance of Don’s story, however, is less apparent.  Whatever he has done for her, however well he has explained his actions, her entire attitude towards him suggests an endorsement that is too good to be true.  And yet, despite the Lynchian Surreality of their sequences together in San Pedro, thus far into the show we have nothing concrete to suggest that this is anything other than Don’s illogical good fortune.  When he is finally forced to reveal his secret to Betty in the third last episode of Season Three, he speaks of his surprise that she ever loved him and wanted to marry him, secret or no secret.  Indeed the very idea of his marriage to Betty defies all reason.  The circumstances of his poverty and the obscurity of his background suggest their union as an highly unlikely match.  Betty’s psychological make up is no less interesting than Don’s, and requires a paper in itself. Beyond the more obscure reasons that led her to marry her man of mystery, however, we have to consider that on one level at least, her  “spoiled main-line brat” view of him as “some football hero who hated his father” played some horrific part in securing her interest.  Don is by no means the first man to wake up one morning and find himself a successful professional, a husband and father and wonder how it all happened. [11]  Like his pitches at work and his entire experience of creative inspiration, however, so much of his beautiful life seems to come out of thin air that we can hardly begrudge his suspicions over it.  If Don believed in God he might well see his life as a miracle.  As an apostate preacher, however, these “miracles” are simply evidence of his vision of a cold, random and meaningless Universe.

Beyond his apparent good fortune and as an American male in the early 1960s, the sense that Don is completely empowered and enabled to live with such freedom further argues the case against any philosophy that challenges his own.  Whatever doubts Betty has about his extra-marital activities, the freedom Don enjoys to “sleep in the city”, to wander off for hours, or even days, is as much a period feature of Mad Men as the featured period décor, the office drinks trays or the introduction of photocopiers.  Office manager Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) gives detailed instructions to her fellow workers about ways to keep their male employers happy and these Emily Post-like edicts are similarly featured throughout the series. For all the feistiness of the key women in the series, however, Don’s expectations of women around him are almost entirely met.  Both Rachel and Suzanne present stinging critiques of Don the philanderer but end up sleeping with him and endorsing his personal concerns in a way that is similar to Anna’s.  Rachel’s comment, “it must be hard being a man too. . .” carries with it an element of irony but it also indicates the extent to which the “man’s world” view is perpetuated by the women in his life whom he treats with least regard.  When Don is surprised at home by the unexpected return of Betty he leaves Susan waiting for hours in his car.  Nevertheless, when he finally calls her next day her first concern is for his welfare.  In the penultimate episode of series one, we see Don, in a flash back, unable to leave the train with the body of the original Don Draper.  We know that to do so will expose his entire ruse but his performance of grief is so convincing – if indeed it is a performance – that a fellow passenger, a woman, picks him up, offering to “buy a soldier a drink” and comforting him with words similar to Rachel’s “It must be hard for you! Forget that boy in the box.”[12]

A potent theme of the series is generational struggle and Don is not immune from competitive fears inspired in him by Pete Campbell, Roger Sterling and, indeed, the memory of his dead father.  Nevertheless, just as Don seems to dwell in the frictionless space I have described, he sees many examples of others whose experiences have not been so blessed. He sees his father, the “common man” of the Depression, as totally crushed.  With his material comfort, Roger is not exactly the man in the gray flannel suit, but (like Bert Cooper) as the firm slips from their control, first due to their reliance on Don and then through selling out to Puttnam, Powell and Lowe, the extent to which these old timers come to inhabit the safe, reliable but easily redundant sheltered-workshop identity that threatens the protagonist of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Tom Rath, is obvious.[13]   At the other end of the greasy pole, despite the extent to which he challenges Don, especially in series one, Pete is also constantly, and often amusingly frustrated in his awkwardly stated professional ambition. With all Don’s success and good fortune in an indifferent world, he cannot but notice those whose experience of powerlessness has been harsh.  The extent to which he fears and is confronted with the intolerable realities of failure that these men endure has the effect of further emphasising Don’s frictionless experience and his sense of possessing an almost taboo personal status.

In light of its reference to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Jimmy Stewart’s nightmare of falling into the abyss of female desire, the obvious reading of Mad Men’s title sequence indicates similar fears of male decline.  The scenario suggests Don Draper, a shadow of his full self, walking into his office high on top of Madison Avenue only to have the whole business fall down around him and taking him with it to the bottom. [14]  It is not, however, a maddened and desperate figure, like Jimmy Stewart jumping up from his nightmare, that brings this sequence to an end.  Both this shadow man’s fall and the passacaglia of the strings on the music track are resolved into a comfortable image of the dark figure relaxing on a couch, his right arm casually draped along its back, his right hand holding a cigarette.  Accompanied by a mellow base and drum line it is as if the falling man has found his way to a relaxed downtown jazz club with cocktails and comfy seats, rather than finding himself splattered on the sidewalk.  From this perspective we can read the man as not so much falling between the images the late 1950s advertising boom, as floating past them and effortlessly falling on his feet again.  This is very much like Don’s experience.  Whatever signs we see of his anxiety, whatever his personal struggles, Don’s experience tends towards a comfortable resolution. So thoroughly endorsed in his empty universe view and in his power as the great creator of meaning, for Don the non-believer there is very little else for him to be other than God.  Everything and nothing, the beginning and the end of all things, he is intolerant of the past, of unhappiness and particularly psychoanalysis because he knows and is everything.  As God, or at least god-like, nothing comes before him so there can be no past.  He is the source of love (selling “products not advertising”) so there need be no unhappiness. He has no unconscious, no repressed thoughts and he knows all the thoughts of others, so there is no call for psychoanalysis.

The only, but substantial problem for Don is that he has a developing, nagging half-suspicion that there may be something for him beyond loneliness and beyond the world so comfortably created in his image.  As that great television god Truman Burbank experiences it in The Truman Show (1998), strange characters like the Hobo and strange ideas such as Utopia, nostalgia and what he himself calls “a life lived” frequently break in and suggest something else, like “an eternal thought in the mind of God” as Laurence Olivier puts it in the big hit of 1960, Spartacus.  If Don can keep the promise he makes to his son Bobby in Season One that he will never lie to him, the universe cannot simply be a meaningless and empty place simply waiting for the ameliorating fiction of Don’s products and pitches.  Bobby at least, and therefore Don, cannot be alone and therefore his barren philosophy must begin to unravel.  At this point in the show, however, if there is something for Don beyond advertising, it remains an “eternal thought.”  If he has seen it, like the life revealed to him by the Siren figure of Joy, Don has simply and quietly passed it by.  Whether it is created in his image or not, Don Draper remains a lonely god and a stranger to paradise.


[1] One particular example of this is the television news anchorman/woman.  In her discussion of the objective/subjective discourse of television news, Margaret Morse (1986) highlights the importance of the television anchor as a general subject whose personal sincerity is essential to his (frequently the anchor is male) credibility and the overall success of his endeavour to become a sort of personal paraclete.  Given the rise of the anchorman in the early 1950s and the importance of this figure thereafter, particularly in the person of Walter Cronkite, the comparison between Don Draper as adman and the essential television personage of the news anchorman is pertinent.

[2] See Althusser on history and ideology (150-2).

[3] John Steinbeck won the Nobel Peace Prize for literature in 1962.

[4] Mike Chopra-Gant analysis of a 1946 Studebaker advertisement, which involves a father and son working together with sleeves rolled up, is an example of the way post war advertising sold ideology as well as products (142).  The critique Don’s father makes (from the grave) of his son and his profession, is based around similar notions of masculinity and real work that Chopra-Gant reads in the Studebaker ad.

[5] Benjamin Schwarz reads this scene as an interesting mix of Don’s ability to sell himself and the audience’s desire to see Don as serious (The Atlantic).  In his commentary for the DVD release of the pilot episode Matthew Weiner, however, argues for Don’s honesty in the moment of his business pitch (“Commentary”).

[6] Althusser, “more or less” quoting Pascal (158).

[7] Bruce Handy points out that in his observations about human needs Don has “an artist’s intuition”, but undermines the seriousness of Don’s pitch by suggestion that it is in these moments that Mad Men comes closest to the idea of “shtick” (274).

[8] Matthew Weiner makes this point about Don in his description of the very first scene of the pilot (“Commentary”).

[9] Certainly I do not reject the use of a psychoanalytic reading of Don Draper.  Indeed, my own extensive work on masculinity, melancholia and loss in international cinema after 1940 (see Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob. Pluto and Indiana University Press, 2004) suggests a number of useful psychoanalytical approaches to discuss this character and Mad Men in general.

[10] Gary Edgerton aligns Don with George Santayana’s idea that Americans “don’t solve problems, they leave them behind . . .” He also associates this attitude with Don’s tendency to escape at the first sign of trouble (Critical Studies in Television).

[11] In Gary Edgerton’s subtle discussion of the series, Don is aligned with the John F. Kennedy mystique and what critics David Newman and Robert Benton have called “The New Sentimentality” that accompanied the myth of 1960s Washington DC Camelot.  Don’s own style and mystique is essential to this argument and nowhere is it more pertinent than in the comparison of the two men and the trophy wives that helped them sell their messages (Critical Studies in Television).  To my reading, Don is very much a Nixon man.  As he says, “when I see Nixon I see myself.”  The appeal of his persona to the Kennedy style, as Edgerton points out, is, however, undeniable and perhaps all the more poignant for its origins in a Nixonian base.  If Nixon’s tragedy in the 1960s elections (or at least in the first television debate) was that he lacked the Kennedy charm, consider Don’s problem–he may look like a young Kennedy but he feels like Nixon.

[12] Matthew Weiner comments that Rachel is unusual in that she really talks to Don.  He makes this point in relation to the pilot episode and in contrast to Betty.  However, it is certainly true that in general Don has a far greater degree of conversation with his mistresses than with Betty, his wife (“Commentary”).

[13] I disagree with Sergio Angelini when he writes that Don Draper is modelled on Tom Rath in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.  Both are veterans but not of the Korean War, as my colleague writes (90).  Tom Rath is 33 in 1953 and served in Europe and the Pacific in World War II.  In this he has more in common with Roger Sterling who also served in World War II.  Certainly all three men share the dual experience of being veterans returning to fight new enemies on Madison Avenue, but, as Matthew Weiner has pointed out, the theme of generational difference is important to Mad Men and this is largely based around a discourse of masculinity in relation to the differences between the two wars (“Commentary”).  Don reflects on the powerlessness of his seniors and, I suggest, aspires to overcome what he sees as the weaknesses and failings of the gray flannel generation.  This may account for some of the vehemence behind the punch he lands on Jimmy Barrett (Patrick Fischler) who calls him “the man in the gray flannel suit”.

[14] This is Matthew Weiner’s view (Handy 282).



Althusser, Louis. (1977), “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”, in Lenin  and Philosophy and other essays, Brewster, B. (trans), NLB, London,121-173.

Angelini, Sergio (2009).  “Mad Men – Season 2”, Sight and Sound, Volume 19, Issue 9, p. 90.

Chopra-Gant, Mike (2006). Hollywood Genres and Postwar America: Masculinity,  Family and Nation in Popular Movies and Film Noir. London ; New York : I.B. Tauris.

Edgerton, Gary (2010). “JFK, Don Draper, and the New Sentimentality”, Critical Studies in Television,

Handy, Bruce (2009). “Don and Betty’s Paradise Lost”, Vanity Fair, September, pp. 268-283, 337-339.

Morse, Margaret (1986). “The Television News Personality and Credibility: Reflections on the News in Transition” in Modleski, T (ed) Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Indiana University Press, pp.55-79.

Schwarz, Benjamin (2009). “Mad About Mad Men”, The Atlantic,

Weiner, Matthew (2008) “Commentary – Episode One”, Mad Men, Season One,  AMC.

Wilson, Sloan (1954/60). The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Pan Books Limited, London.



Mark Nicholls has been teaching at the University of Melbourne since 1993. He is the author of Scorsese’s Men: Melancholia and the Mob (Pluto Press & Indiana University Press, 2004) and recently published chapters and articles on Martin Scorsese (Film Quarterly, Blackwell & Cambridge), Luchino Visconti (Quarterly Review for Film and Video), Shakespeare in film (Journal of Film and Video) and film and the Cold War. Mark is a film journalist and worked for many years on ABC Radio and for The Age newspaper, for which he wrote a weekly film column between 2007 and 2009. Mark has an extensive list of stage credits as a playwright, actor, producer and director. His email address is