Saturday, April 18, 2015

Mad Men – Don Draper’s “Death” Is Preordained

First appeared in Blogcritics.

mad 1 There is always a good deal of talk as a dramatic series reaches its end about who is going to survive, especially the main protagonist. Think The Sopranos, 24, Dexter, Breaking Bad, and The Shield for good examples – and only Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had enough moxie to pull the plug on Walter White.

The discussion now continues regarding Mad Men and its conflicted lead Don Draper (Jon Hamm), with the watercooler talk firmly on the “Don will die” side. This conversation is ludicrous because people are missing the truth – Don Draper is already dead.

Now, we can take that literally because Don Draper – the real Don Draper – is actually long dead because Lieutenant Donald Draper died during the Korean War. The man we know as Don is actually Dick Whitman, the son of a prostitute who dies giving birth to him. Having been brought up in a house of ill repute, Dick has no trouble switching dog tags with Draper after he is killed in a battle that also wounds Dick. When Dick returns home as Draper, he has been awarded the Purple Heart.

Fans of the show know that Don is no war hero – but all of this hangs around his neck like an albatross. The slick Don Draper we meet is a creation of circumstance, timing, and Roger Sterling (John Slattery), who gets into a drunken stupor with Don and forgets that he never offered him a job. Don takes every opportunity as we can see from these actions and this propels him to the spot where he is now – able to write a $1 million check to second wife Megan (Jessica Paré) as a way of settling their divorce amicably.

mad 4Getting back to the guy we know as Don now, there is definite evidence that he is going to “die” but not in the way everyone may be thinking. Don’s journey has been a long and excruciating one – with much of the turmoil of his own doing – and as the pieces keep crumbling all around him, that “falling man” from the opening credits is surely imagined as Don taking the plunge like a despondent stockbroker jumping after the crash in 1929.

My thinking is that the end of the 1960s has driven a definitive nail into Draper’s coffin. That was his decade to shine; and the Don Draper we know – buttoned down suit, slicked back hair, shiny shoes – is just not meant for the 70s. When he leaves Betty (January Jones) and her family in the last episode, he realizes not only what he is missing but what he has lost. The man who had no family life growing up has nothing now.

mad 2This brings us to Diana (Elizabeth Reaser) – a waitress Don sees in a diner one night who reminds him of a lost love. Don doesn’t usually pursue women who work outside of his realm of high-stakes advertising, but she intrigues him enough that they have a sordid back alley tryst and then later he brings her home. On the elevator in his apartment building, old flame Sylvia (Linda Cardellini) and her doctor husband meet them and Don has an uncomfortable moment of past and present lovers colliding – but Sylvia acts as if Diana is not even there. Her ignorance is either bliss or defines what Don means in her life now – nothing!

Unlike other women, Diana ends things with Don and this defies the logic of his life – women don’t leave Don Draper. Don, who famously once said, “It’s over when I say it’s over” sadly learns the fat lady has sung without even realizing it. When he returns home to his apartment, he discovers Megan and her mother (Julia Ormond) have cleaned out the place. He stares at the vacant space incredulously, rooms as empty as his life has become.

My theory as we move forward is that Don is going to realize that he can no longer live the lie that he has created. All of his machinations have left him alone and broken, and there aren’t enough cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and willing women to assuage that internal pain that is tearing him apart. Don hates his life just as much as other people despise him. He is not loved; he is no one’s friend, and there is no hope for Don Draper in the world that he has established.

So Don Draper will indeed die in the series finale – and it will be of his own doing. No, Don’s not going to fall off the building as in the opening credits, but he will shed that sleazy Draper skin that has become thickened, hardened, and inured to life’s true pleasures. Don will go back to being Dick Whitman, fur salesman, used car salesman, and basically nobody.

Only by throwing away all Don has accomplished can Dick ever be free. Dick never earned that Purple Heart or anything that came after it. Now Don can go off and be Dick again, and in doing so he will be able to perhaps connect to the things in life he has always wanted but could never attain – love, family, and happiness.

mad 3At the end of the opening credits we see the silhouette sitting peacefully and smoking a cigarette – but that is not Don Draper. I believe that is Dick Whitman and he can finally relax and be the person he has always been meant to be. Yes, Don Draper will “die” in the end, but that’s the only way he can ever really live. Photo Credits: AMC,

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