The creator of Mad Men has created one of the most compelling characters to grace the TV screens in recent times: the character of Donald Draper. On the surface, the anti-hero Don Draper seems like another TV character cliche, a man that every man wants to be and every woman wants to be with. But once you peel back the layers, it’s much more complex than that.
First of all, Don Draper isn’t who he says he is, he assumed the identity of his commanding officer in the Korean War by switching their dog tags after the real Lt. Donald Draper was killed in a bombing raid it was believed that Dick Whitman (his real identity) was killed. The coffin that was sent home to the Whitman family farm contained the body of Lt. Donald Draper. From then on ‘Dick Whitman’ was dead and ‘Donald Draper’ was reborn. The new Don Draper set about reinventing himself, from a poor farm boy to a sophisticated city dweller. He reinvents himself by slowly chipping away the pieces of him that represented his old life, the small rural and provincial worldview was gone, the devoutly Christian persona is gone and finally, the small subtle mannerisms that give away his humble roots were all slowly chipped away. He gets himself a job as an advertising man on Madison Avenue in New York City. He was making good money and marries a beautiful Grace Kelly lookalike and starts a family with her, never informing her of his real identity.
Even the best kept secrets have ways of exposing themselves, from long lost relatives finding him and bumping into people that knew him as Dick Whitman but more importantly himself, his own worst enemy. Dick Whitman lives in his head and at times is screaming to get out. Don Draper soon realizes that it’s not so easy to live the life of someone else, even if it’s the one of your dreams. When you deny your authentic self, no matter how awful and how much you hate that ‘self’, the psychological turmoil and the price you pay as a result of that is far worse than your jealous colleague finding out your real name.
One of the great ironies in the show is that whenever someone of importance finds out Donald Draper’s real identity, Draper wasn’t met with the scorn of being a ‘whore-child’ or stealing the identity of another that he anticipated. Even more shocking, no one cared to report him to the authorities either, people are more angry that he lied about his identity, not the reason behind it. Anyone can understand or empathize why someone like a ‘Dick Whitman’, if given the opportunity would want to change everything about himself, even if they don’t agree with it. What most people cannot tolerate, especially those close to him is the lie. And time and again, Don Draper fails to realize that. The reactions to people finding out about him goes from nonchalant, sadness, pity, understanding, empathy and of course anger. Only one person, his jealous colleague Pete Campbell threatened to expose him but it backfired badly.
When Bert Cooper, Don Draper’s boss, a managing partner of Sterling Cooper found out about his real identify because of the vindictive Pete Campbell (the jealous colleague) told Bert Cooper that Don Draper isn’t who he says he is; Bert Cooper’s reaction is ‘so what?’ He then quoted some Eastern philosopher about taking the person standing in front of them as they are, and even gave Don Draper the opportunity to fire Pete Campbell.
Betty Draper: his first wife, when she found out his real identity, she was of course angry but mostly at the lie. When she found out why, she felt badly for him. And when she found out that his little brother Adam killed himself because Don Draper rejected him, she felt sad for him, that his only blood relative has died. His other work colleagues reacted in half disbelief, half bemusement, but none of them took him to task about it. He was good at his job and if he says he is Don Draper now then he is Don Draper.
Megan Draper: his second wife, she knew of his identity from the outset, and understood why and was fully accepting of it. During their divorce she threw it in his face (“everything about you is fake”) only because she was angry at his many betrayals but none to do with him assuming another man’s identity.
Sally Draper: his daughter, she found out his real past in bits and pieces and again, she’s more angry at walking in on her father in bed with another woman that isn’t his wife than anything else.
The second storyline in Mad Men is Don Draper’s complicated relationships with the women in his life. He’s mostly betrayed them in one way or another. It’s not just that he is a philanderer and broke his marriage vows and many hearts, but when he wasn’t philandering, he was emotionally unavailable and unsupportive of their personal endeavors if it didn’t include him. He routinely belittled Betty Draper making her feel stupid and insignificant. And if he was available, it’s because he needed something from Betty, namely sex or needing her to be arm candy at his work functions. The betrayal to Betty Draper is especially poignant because she was the first person to love him unconditionally, she wasn’t perfect, she had plenty of issues of her own but she loved him. She took care of him gave him a family that he lacked and craved, overlooked all the things that didn’t add up about him but finally had to divorce him if she wanted to preserve any shred of dignity or self-respect. Betty Draper coming from an upper-class and well-to-do family, her father and brother wasted no time pointing out the things in which were wrong with Don Draper, namely the lack of family, which they found to be extremely suspect. Betty Draper overlooked all of that because she loved him.
Sally Draper offered him the unconditional love only a child can and all he had to do there was not screw it up too badly but he couldn’t manage that as well. Sally walked in on him in bed with the neighbor’s wife, who’s child she’s friends with. In that second, it became clear to Sally what went wrong with her parent’s marriage. For the first time saw the true colors of her father, but in spite of that, she still loved him as only children can.
Megan Draper was his second chance at life, at righting past wrongs particularly in the marriage department. Megan was more worldly than the younger and more naive Betty Draper but Megan, like Betty, loved him absolutely and unconditionally. Megan was an excellent step-mother to his children and the children adored her. She was not the jealous or the petty type and was able to provide everything Don Draper needed from a woman: sex, total undivided attention, support, adoration and adulation and crucially personal space. Megan was able to focus all her attention on him and fill that void of the sad little boy needing his mother, but again, he couldn’t help himself and betrayed her trust, their marriage and everything else. Megan’s knight in shining armor became an “old and sloppy” liar.
The two women that he didn’t betray were Peggy Olsen and Joan Harris. Peggy was his secretary who showed a gift for copywriting. He promoted her to be a copywriter very soon after she joined Sterling Cooper as a junior secretary but when Peggy suddenly disappeared from work one day, he tracked her down at a hospital and found out she had a child out of wedlock, gave him up for adoption and was in a very poor mental state. He told her to forget about the whole episode like it never happened and come back to work, it’s the only way forward (which by the way, is the Draper motto). He saved her job for her and took her under his tutelage and never mentioned the episode again to her or anyone else. It’s also worth mentioning he never slept with her. So, it proves that Don Draper knows right from wrong and has the ability to discern the difference but most of the time chooses not to.
Joan Harris was the head secretary at Sterling Cooper and in a particularly unedifying episode, she was pimped out (literally) to a client to secure his business. She was told that she’d be rewarded handsomely for it, including a minority, non-silent, ownership (a condition she insisted on) in the company but she had do the ‘deed’ with a disgusting, balding, lecherous old man (it wouldn’t have been ok if she was pimped out to a young handsome man either – just for the record). She was divorced by this time and had a young son to support on her own. She looked at it as securing her son’s future to make the whole thing less wretched. The show’s creator and writer Matt Weiner beautifully illustrated the hypocrisy of the men that supposedly ‘loved’ and ‘cared’ for Joan by not opposing to have her be pimped out. Her former lover and the biological father of her son Roger Sterling was in on the conspiracy of silence. Don Draper was against it, saying he’d rather lose the business than make Joan Harris do that and was rather disgusted and appalled when Pete Campbell made the suggestion and Don Draper is rarely ever disgusted or appalled about anything. But when decision time came around, Don Draper was conveniently out of the office and the decision was made without his presence, when he found out it was too late. He personally went to Joan’s apartment to let her know that he was totally against this and it was done behind his back. Joan’s patted his cheek and said “who knew you were one of the good ones”.
In the final episode, all of Don Draper’s goodbyes were done by phone. His goodbye to a dying Betty Draper Francis (she remarried) was sad, poignant and appropriate. They didn’t say much to each other, but through choked tears and monosyllables, all the feelings and emotions between them were conveyed and they understood each other perfectly and I’d like to think that all that happened between them had been forgotten and forgiven. His goodbye with Megan Draper was him writing her a one million dollar check as their final divorce settlement and apology for all the wrong he’s done her. Finally, he chose Peggy Olson as his ‘confessor’: the lone woman that he not only did not betray but helped achieve her potential without asking for anything in return, the one person where he can look back and actually feel good about how he treated her. When Peggy asks him “What did you do that was so terrible?”, his reply was short but all encompassing, “I broke all my vows, I scandalized my child. I took another man’s name. And made nothing of it”. That right there sums up his life’s sins. For all his advertising genius of inventing slogans that neatly sum up how people should feel when eating, drinking or using a certain product, he failed to realize one of life’s most basic principles to self fulfillment, happiness and contentment and that is to be the best version of yourself. In short, be a good and honest person with integrity, whether as Don Draper or Dick Whitman, it won’t matter.