Who Is Don Draper?

September 7, 2010

“Let me tell you something. Nowadays, everybody’s gotta go to shrinks, and counselors, and go on “Sally Jessie Raphael” and talk about their problems. What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn’t in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do. See, what they didn’t know was once they got Gary Cooper in touch with his feelings that they wouldn’t be able to shut him up! And then it’s dysfunction this, and dysfunction that, and dysfunction ma fangul!”

–Tony Soprano, “Pilot”

There’s a stronger affinity, I think, between Mad Men and The Sopranos than Matthew Weiner and David Chase’s influence on him.  Especially if you go back to the first season of Mad Men, something stands out about Don Draper—he’s a man making himself up, a Man With No Name (sorta, if you will), stumbling into Manhattan from no-one-knows-where.  He’s the hero of some classic western flick, dropped onto Madison Avenue.  He’s the Gary Cooper strong silent type Tony’s talking about above, the real-life version of the movie hero Tony grins at from behind a bowl of ice cream.

Of course, what becomes clear as Mad Men progresses is that Don’s mysterious outsider, strong-silent-type status is just as much of an act as Tony’s “sad clown” shtick.  He’s truly broken inside: by his moment in time, by the fact that the society he’s modeling himself for/after no longer exists (and maybe never did), by his complicated past and his (lack of) relations with his biological family.  This is also Betty’s problem—notice her reaction to the knowledge he’s not who she thinks.  And, more importantly for the purposes of this post, it’s Tony’s problem.  There are hints in both shows that this long-for society never did exist—how well do Roger Sterling, Bert Cooper, and the Lucky Strike heir mesh with Don’s idea of what a “man” should be?  Christopher stabs at Tony with the statement that “Dickie Moltisanti, my father, your hero, was really just another junkie.”—but Don and Tony have trouble accepting that.  (Tony, as time progresses, seems to forget about the meaning of the figures he’s referencing in his complaints, and increasingly fails to live up to his own standards.)

While Tony responds to modernity by increasingly acting as an agent of, if you’ll pardon the expression, the devil (more to come on this later), Don behaves like any red-blooded American western movie hero and turns to the bottle.  Although a real American would stop drinking that damn Canadian stuff, but I’ll let it slide for now.  If you watch Don’s drinking and Roger’s, there’s a difference: Don drinks to escape (the only other way he can do it is to go to California; this is cheaper, and easier, and more destructive), while Roger drinks because he loves to drink.  It’s his hobby, more or less—yes, a bad one, especially for a man who’s had two major heart attacks, yet it somehow seems less psychologically destructive than Don’s utter lack of pleasure from his drunkenness.  (Yes, he was amused by Lane getting drunk with him—but that was Lane, not the scotch, making him smile.)  Don’s drinking now has caused him to lose the memory of at least one full day of his life—it might as well never have existed, as far as his memory is concerned.

So he drinks for a temporary reprieve from being Don Draper (he gave his name as Dick Whitman to the waitress he can’t remember picking up), but also because Don is trying to adhere to some old honor(ish) system that is clearly having trouble withstanding the late 1950s/early 1960s; that can’t stand up without the support of people who believe in it—but which he can’t stand up.  Unlike Tony Soprano, Don Draper is not a sociopath.  Hence the show’s transformation into the Long Slow Trainwreck of Don Draper’s Life.

Meanwhile, if Tony Soprano were able to watch Mad Men, all of this leads me to think that he would love it, too; that he would see Don as some sort of desperate hold out sacrificing himself for the cause of the Strong Silent Type.  And maybe that is who Don Draper is—a man who, having molded himself and found that the mold has been discarded by society, is struggling to maintain himself just for the sake of all he sacrificed to get there.  But if their roles were reversed, and Don could watch Tony talk about the strong silent type and lament the good ol’ days of honor while slowly abandoning more and more of that model—he’d probably be unconditionally disgusted.

And could the Don Draper who once called a drunken Roger Sterling in blackface a disgrace see the vindictive drunk he will become in several years time, one imagines that he, too, would be condemned.  Tony Soprano never sees that he has slipped completely away from the standards he claims to revere; Don’s chances for some degree of redemption rest, it would appear, on whether he has the same failing.  (Perhaps that moment of physical—of human—contact with Peggy at the end of Sunday’s episode bodes well for him.  Or not: just ask the girl who began the season as his secretary.)

***

Quick note: I’m out of town, and Rosh Hashana begins tomorrow and leads directly into Shabbat, so it might be next week before I get another chance to post.  If that’s the case: L’shana tovah and happy football season.

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I’ve spent the last few months watching (and finally finishing) The Sopranos, the end of which I had missed off at college and the first few seasons I was too young to really appreciate (except my vivid, scene-by-scene memory of the pilot).  It really is brilliantly done, and from time to time I’m going to be throwing out my thoughts on it’s vision of contemporary America.  There are some mild spoilers in this post (and probably will be in all my Sopranos posts — if it’s anything major, I’ll note it in the text).  You’ve been warned.

Part of the show’s genius is the way it positions itself to offer commentary/criticism regarding late 20th/early 21st century American life.  It isn’t simply that it took a new angle on the mob flick by showing the bourgeois ordinariness of large chunks of their life (barbeques, college trips, Paulie’s plastic-coated furniture, Sil carefully re-assembling antique lamps in his office at the Bing), but that it juxtaposes that ordinariness and what — to Tony and A.J. especially — seems like its core emptiness, with a more archaic honor-bound system.  So it’s not really a critique of contemporary American lifestyle; it’s a critique of contemporary Americans trying and failing to incorporate older ideals into their lives.  For the men, it’s the mafia; for the women, the Catholic Church.

As Christopher says when discussing the 12-Steps: he always had trouble with the idea of the Higher Power, so he decided to make the oath he took when he was made that power.  And, he implies, its the corruption of that oath by others — who may or may not realize it — that drives him to use again.  AJ, spiraling into a depressed angst quite similar to his father’s, attempts to seek refuge first in criminal life (the attempt on Junior’s life — for honor‘s sake; his brief friendship with the Two Jasons, essentially college-age gangsters) and later in a briefly-considered idea of joining the Army.

On the other hand, the wives are all strikingly religious (if not strikingly orthodox in their practice): Carmella is concerned from the beginning with Hell and salvation; Paulie’s mother wants him to be more penitent; her sister was a nun; Ginny Sacrimone is involved with Opus Dei; the only characterization given to Phil Leotardo’s wife is that her religion is perhaps genuinely (and deeply) conservative; the wives — even the less religious — are regularly shown interacting as members of a pastoral family/community (as the men are part of their own “Family”).  Tony’s sister’s New Age spiritual-not-religious thought is treated quite harshly by the show.  On the other hand, priests and psychiatrists seem equally incompetent.

The important thing is, however, that these honor systems can’t effectively survive in contemporary society.  Tony talks about the old days: Strong silent types who didn’t turn informant; today, he’s constantly looking over his shoulder to see who might flip.  The old system fails to check rage: Tony’s, Tony B’s, Phil’s, etc.  The women tend to go through the motions of Catholic practice more than live a Christian life, despite trying sincerely from time to time.  Carmella and Tony separate, and she’s willing to sleep with another man; Paulie’s family is not as perfect as he thinks, or they pretend to be — as they want to be seen.  And all of these women are raising families with men they know to be murderers.  No one, faced with a hollow contemporary world, is able to successfully integrate a system capable of imparting meaning into their lives.  The mafia and the Church become just as empty as bourgeois ordinariness.

There are, however, two characters who straddle the worlds of mob and religion: Paulie Walnuts and Christopher Moltisanti.  I need to give them some more thought before really fleshing this line out, but in brief:  Paulie was an altar boy; he serves as secretary of a church foundation; he’s superstitious; he believes in the sanctity of nuns and priests; he’s affected by calls to make confession; he has a vision of the Virgin Mary.  And until he has the vision, he doesn’t see any conflict between the two systems.  (It may also be relevant that Paulie is, frankly, the most effeminate male character on the show: unmarried, obsessed with his hair, white shoes, and physical appearance, clearly and openly a “mama’s boy,” his home resembles a spinster’s apartment more than a mobster’s residence — there’s plastic on all the furniture!)

Christopher is shot and goes into a coma in the first season.  When he awakens, he tells Tony that he had a vision of his father and several other mobsters in Hell, and was made aware that this was where he would be when he died.  A man he had murdered gives him the message, also to be given to Tony and Paulie: Beware of 3 o’clock.  (Paulie is terrified — perhaps the 3 is the Trinity; perhaps I’m overreading; Tony couldn’t care less.)  Christopher has no other religious expressions in the show — except his remark, made several times, that “Tony Soprano is the man I’m going to Hell for.”  Unlike Paulie, he’s not religious, though he seems (despite his statement about the Higher Power) to believe in God, Heaven, and Hell — but unlike the religious Paulie, he knows the system he has chosen is wrong, that it can’t impart meaning because it is sinful: and he can’t bring himself to do anything about it.