…I wanted to name this post NOT GREAT, BOB! because it makes me laugh every time I think about it, but I’m going to exercise restraint and save Pete Campbell for later.
Today, I just want to toy with Don Draper’s trajectory through 1968.
It started here:
The last we’d seen of Don at the end of Season 5, he sat in a bar, not answering the question posed by one more lovely lady: Are you alone?
As season 6 begins, he’s on a Hawaiian beach that questions seemingly answered, since wife Megan is with him and then seem content. But – what’s he reading? Ominously, it’s Inferno. Uh-oh. “mid-life” “hell” “death” straight ahead.
And so it is. Don, as we learn at the end of the episode, is indeed cheating again – and she’s the one who gifted him with the Dante. He’s drinking more heavily, he’s being even more than a pig than usual, playing controlling mind games with his lover and then turning around and being angry with his wife for her on-camera love scenes. He’s coasting at work, making impulsive, unilateral decisions right and left, neglecting his children even more than usual and worst of all, having a really unacceptable number of Growing-Up-In-The-Whorehouse flashbacks.
Being human and hoping for the best, we viewers are hoping for some kind of redemption and turnaround for Don. As with The Sopranos, the central drama is really that: will Tony/Don break free of what they’ve accepted as fate?
As this season began, viewers complained that it didn’t seem likely here, and the whole thing was getting just too repetitious, with every season ending with Don teetering on the edge of some kind of epiphany…only to fall again.
But this time? Will it be different?
Let’s go back to Dante.
In the popular mind, Hell is all about heat, fire and burning. After all, that is what an “inferno” is.
But in Dante, the lowest level of hell, the place where Lucifer resides, is the very opposite of hot. It is, indeed a frozen lake, its waters kept as ice by the beating of Lucifer’s wings as he endlessly consumes three other traitors – Brutus, Cassius and Judas – in this ninth circle, this place where Treachery reigns.
The denizens of this level are frozen. Their pride, their traitorous acts, have brought them to a freezing, isolated place of immobility and isolation.
In the first episode, Don reads Dante in Hawaii. From that point, through the next dozen hours, it sometimes looks as if the cycle is just going to be repeated. Dick Whitman has spent an adult lifetime working hard to be someone else. He’s made a career out of the lies, in fact, out of peddling aspirational fantasies. He is looking for home in the perverse, twisted way his childhood taught him to. He can’t really and truly connect because, well, he’s not the one doing the connecting. He betrays and betrays again.
And as we all know, these things become habits, and then it becomes – we think – just the way we are.
So yes, we started in Hawaii, and then in the last episode of this season, Don – and everyone else it seems – muddles through a New York November all of them yearning for California. All of them – Don, Ted, Pete – are indeed or are at risk of – extreme isolation, family ties ripped, lives – mostly children’s lives – shattered. They may be wrong about it, they may be running, but still, what they’re yearning for is to crack the ice, step out and move into more light, more warmth – everything that California (and Hawaii) suggests to the American psyche. They all want to live again, but to get to that light? There’s got to be some dying.
Which takes us back, one more time, to Hawaii.
In the first part of the season, Don Draper was quite fascinated with death. Specifically, he was fascinated by Arnold, his (Catholic) lover’s husband, who is a heart surgeon, hot to perform the first heart transplant surgery in the United States, a man who saves lives. Don admires this a great deal – although not enough to stop cuckolding the man.
Don fashions an ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian hotel that is about losing one’s identity, and that everyone at the meeting thinks is about suicide. Death. Don responds to the suggestion that this is a negative by arguing that paradise lies just on the other side, after all: “How do you get to heaven?” he says, “Something terrible has to happen.”
So yes, yes, Don Draper, you and your existential angst, your guilt, your acting out, your out-of-touchness, you are all of that because of death – the deaths of your parents, the death of the real Don Draper, but there’s another death that has to happen here, and you know it.
We all know it, too. We know all about the deaths we must endure in order to get to another side, but we argue ourselves out of them all the time, consistently. It usually takes one of two things to push us through.
First, we’re struck by grace.
Secondly, the image in the glassy, icy mirror looks back, but it’s not our face anymore. It’s a child’s.
With Don Draper, it wasn’t just one – both of them happened.
Drinking in the middle of the day, he’s engaged by an evangelist, who irritates him enough to be punched, but who also somehow revives a memory of another preacher, one in the whorehouse of his childhood, one who yells as he’s being thrown down the stairs:
“The only unpardonable sin is to believe God cannot forgive you.”
And then there’s his daughter, Sally, whose image looms large in that mirror. She’s broken and orphaned in a way, she saw the things he saw as a child, those things that warped him so, and now she’s pretending, drinking, and even taking on another identity. He can’t turn away from that anymore.
So Don Draper finishes the job he started a long time ago, and he just – self-destructs. And maybe, this time, even in the chill of a Pennsylvania November, there’s hope.
(By the way, remember the first season? Remember how it ended? With Don Draper not being home for Thanksgiving? And here we are, years later – Don takes his children – home. For Thanksgiving.)
What will be interesting to me is – if indeed a “redemption” angle is awaiting in Season 7 – if it will be true to the period. It’s sort of interesting to think about. How would a guy trying to overcome such serious issues and remake himself do so in 1969?
Also: Well, you know. Forgiveness. Death. Life.
Try as we might as a culture….it just won’t go away, will it?
That’s a little bit of what this season prompted. I have more, which I’ll talk about tomorrow. I have Views on how this season dealt with history – it’s an uneasy balance, and not usually successful. I also think that Mad Men suffers a lot from Weiner’s inability to construct consistently whole female characters. Part of the problem lies in casting, but honestly, he just seems to have a lot of hostility to women in general – hate to say it – and it comes out in the writing. It’s more than the fact that we have a central character whose avocation is mistreating women. That doesn’t mean those women have to be so two-dimensional.