Who is Don Draper?

An excerpt from Mad Men: A Cultural History (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) by M. Keith Booker and Bob Batchelor

"What you’re watching with Don is a representation, to me, of American society. He is steeped in sin, haunted by his past, raised by animals, and there is a chance to revolt. And he cannot stop himself.”
            -- Matthew Weiner, 2014

Don Draper is a hero and villain. The things he worships – California, cars, self-worth, movies, lasting accomplishment – symbolize postwar America in an age when the nation’s power seemed unbounded. Draper, too, is a study in paradox, which essentially serves to make him even more profoundly American. In creating this character, Matthew Weiner forces viewers to reflect on Draper’s life and deeds (good and bad) by showing that aspects of him are in us all – a true everyman for the modern world.

The extremes are always just below the surface with Don. He can lose control in an instance. Draper is also capable of deep compassion. There are bouts of terrifying malevolence. Often, his contempt for the shackles of the corporate world and advertising business forces him to flee, as if one more moment at his desk or in a meeting will yank his soul into eternal damnation. Yet, at the same time, his zeal for what he calls, “the work” and the creative spark that wins him fame and fortune rarely wavers. These dualities create a character that exudes everything that is righteous and strong about the American Dream – a kind of Superman in a suit – but one that also typifies the nation’s ugliness. As a result, there is no easy way to answer this chapter’s title question. Instead, the judgment is pieced together by interrogating both the subtle nuance and audacious bluntness Draper embodies.

Similar to other outstanding fictional characters across film, literature, and television, Draper is timeless. He symbolizes our own era, even as he is meant to typify the chaotic 1960s. Yet, he is not simply a televised version of John Updike’s Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, Don Corleone, Bob Dylan, Sloan Wilson’s man in the gray flannel suit, Saul Bellow’s Augie March, or Batman. He is representative, but also unique, which is at least in part why audiences are so attracted to him, despite his reprehensible traits. Viewers can see “real life” in Don (traits of their family members and friends), but also those drawn out of the fictional world, from suave characters played by Cary Grant to the real or imagined John F. Kennedy.

Draper is a composite of ideas, actions, and impulses that audiences have proven to relish across American popular culture for decades. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, for example, Don is mysterious and has difficulty attuning his two lives after assuming a new identity. Physically, Draper projects the “leading man” looks and toughness of Hollywood stars, like real-life icons Clark Gable and Gregory Peck. In playing Don, Jon Hamm flashes the same tough/tender and realist/idealist persona that many of the golden age film actors emanated. The “tough, but sensitive” personality, combined with traditional male beauty, draws viewers to the Draper character, because we feel his quest, the unyielding existential angst. He is reaching for greatness, but lassoed to the here and now, essentially waging warfare between these competing proclivities.

As a character, Don Draper asks audiences to contemplate his fictional life with the impulses and ideas that power the contemporary world: what role does sexism play in modern society, how much alcohol is too much, how do we treat friends and family, how might we interpret our coworkers and bosses, can we outrun the past, is the future bright. There is no doubt that some viewers take pleasure in the bad boy side of Draper’s personality, particularly with booze, cars, women, and cigarettes. As the character both suffers and rejoices over seven seasons, people acquire the context to add value to their own ideas about life, the past, and avenues toward the future. The framework that Weiner created not only makes Draper an important character in television history, but also provides the show with lasting importance.