SYMBOLS. Cast in metal, spun in cloth, or graven in stone; raised in the names of gods and prophecies and bastard dreams; black, white, cross, crescent, nothing and everything…symbols promise truth and transcendence, freedom and eternal life. But the reality is they often come to little more than a compression of fables. An easy minimalism of tired lies.
Maybe our problem is that we put too much stock in what symbols meant to their makers instead of what they mean to us. Maybe the real power of symbols lies not in projection but in reflection, their ability to let us see our own lives through new eyes, to let us love people and things better than we otherwise could, better sometimes than they deserve.
Sure, that love might come after the fact. These things or people might be gone long before we understand what they were, let alone see them reflected in something else. But we can love them, or at least their memories, just the same…
The Man Who Loves Children
In seven hours Mad Men will end its run as one of most acclaimed shows in American television history, perhaps the single series most emblematic of the Golden Age of Television as we’ve come to call it. Airing on AMC instead of a major network, Mad Men has been able to deal with the realities of Postwar America in a way that more heavily censored, commercially-oriented shows haven’t. The show is just plain big, sprawling and ambitious in a way that fits its focus, America.
As far as I’m concerned, you can have The Sopranos and Breaking Bad (the other two members of the Golden Age Triumvirate). In terms of scope—of addressing the past, present, and future not just of America but of humanity—Mad Men has no equal. Rather than the titillation of mobsters and meth labs, Mad Men is held together by quiet heartbreaks and small, painful victories, the dialogue of its writers and the acting chops of a stellar cast led by John Hamm as Don Draper.
In Mad Men’s leading man, Hamm and Writer/Creator Matt Weiner have constructed a character at once overblown and understated, symbolic and deeply realistic, a man who lies with the ease of a born grifter but sometimes gives us truths profound enough to still all other thought, realizations spoken with the philosophical depth and unflinching clarity of the tired God of some doomed universe. A God who in spite of all he knows still carries a few measures of hope. This from Season 6, Episode 5 (“The Flood”):
“I never wanted to be the man who loves children, but…from the moment they’re born…that baby comes out, and you act proud and excited, hand out cigars…but you don’t feel anything, especially if you had a difficult childhood. You want to love them, but you don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your father had the same problem. Then they get older, and you see them do something, and you feel that feeling that you’ve been pretending to have. You feel like your heart is going to explode.”
Or this from Season 6, Episode 13 (“In Care Of”):
“I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania, in a whorehouse. I read about Milton Hershey and his school in Torn Up Magazine, or some other crap the girls left by the toilet, and I read that some orphans had a different life there. I could picture it. I dreamed of it—being wanted. Because the woman who was forced to raise me would look at me every day like she wished I would disappear. The closest I got to being wanted was with a girl who made me go through her johns’ pockets while they screwed. If I collected more than a dollar, she’d buy me Hershey bar, and I would eat it alone in my room with great ceremony. [choking up] Feeling like a normal kid. It said “sweet” on the package. It was the only sweet thing in my life.”
There’s wisdom in Don’s soliloquies, but also damage. Maybe the saddest thing about his character being that like many abused children Don becomes his own abuser, the pain dealt to him by the people he should have been able to love and trust eventually coming from his own hand.
Oh, Don Draper may look good. He may seem like a sort of advertising James Bond—women want him, men want to be him—but he’s also an inveterate drunk, well on his way to the grave. The shakes, boozing in the morning, vomiting in public. Don’s ageing fast, as drunks do no matter how handsome or beautiful, his charm wearing thin as the liquor and smokes (and secrets and lies) take their toll.
My father’s been dead nearly a decade, but he’s still not really gone. The people who shape our lives never are.
Like Don Draper, my dad was an alcoholic. Though he wasn’t an exact contemporary of Don’s, I can’t help but think of my old man as I watch Mad Men. He lived through that same era—spent the buoyant Fifties and the turbulent Sixties conscious of what it meant to be an adult in America, intensely aware of it in a way I’ll never be, no matter how much I think about it. And I do. I want to understand.
The Kennedys, MLK, and Malcolm. Selma and the Summer of Love. The Cold War, Korea, and Vietnam. The Cuban Missiles Crisis and Berlin. Elvis and the Beatles. Warhol and Pollock. The race for space. Understated elegance and psychedelic excess. Sometimes it seems like the whole of America history existed in those two decades just before I did; as if all the mysteries of the world are balled up in a reality I know but will never really see.
My father was born in Illinois, just like Don Draper. He grew up poor, in a small house with an abusive father, a kind, quiet mother, and four brothers and sisters. My father’s father sold insurance door-to-door—small policies he would collect payments on week after week. My grandfather was by all accounts a selfish man, a person who always put himself before the needs of his family; a man my father would call and scream at when he was drunk, the focus for the anger and self-pity that drove many decades of his life.
I listened to those phone calls sometimes, as a child in my bedroom. The room dark, the door locked, I would lie there with my fists clenched, wide awake, ready to feign sleep if footsteps came my way. I would lie there terrified but also thrilled, trying to learn about the man who only rarely had time for me.
My father needed to succeed, to wear flashy suits and drive expensive cars, to outdo the father he despised. He needed to be different, better, and in that need he became just like him, for a time maybe even worse. Disillusioned by his own pain and confusion, he sought solace in the Postwar American Dream of exuberance and excess, found none but what the bottle and pills could give him.
My father was able to get sober and stay sober for many years before his death. He was able to give me memories other than those of clenching my fists in the dark, memories of someone who did his best to overcome his demons. And I am grateful for those memories, much as I once hated him for the others. I hear the reservation in my own words, though, the belief that my father never quite understood how to be a parent, that he probably never wanted children.
And I hear Don Draper’s words as I sit, thinking and writing about this, the wisdom he’s given me not just as a symbol for America but for my father. Maybe in seeing Don’s struggles, I’ve come to understand my father better, to love him a little more. That may sound silly, but it’s probably a lot of why I love the character so much: the simple fact that for good or ill he reminds me of my dad.
As any serious Mad Men fan knows, Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper. He’s Dick Whitman, a man who goes off to war and finds himself in a way few do. No, it’s not bravery on the battlefield showing Dick his true, heroic heart. It’s luck, the fact that Dick’s commanding officer (the real Don Draper) dies. Similar in looks and build, desperate not to spend another second in Korea, Dick Whitman rotates home without a scratch, his life as an identity thief begun.
A lot has been made over the years (both in the show and by critics) about Don (or Dick’s) dual identity. Like some of Mad Men’s most resonant features, this duality has always seemed a potent symbolic construct to me, one like Don’s life as a whole that has a lot to do with America.
Donald Francis Draper is post war America. Handsome and strapping, charming and successful, a newly-minted superpower that nonetheless feels more than a little like a lie, one that feeds itself propaganda about who it really is, one that grows drunk on its own dreams.
Is the America of Mad Men a battered nation only recently emerged from the Great Depression, one that clings to racism and misogyny as essential beliefs (and will for decades to come)? Or is America a beacon of freedom, a sheriff in a white hat ready to impose its noble nuclear will on the rest of the world, ready to become the world’s dominant culture even though that culture may consist of nothing more than slick advertising and Disney, Hollywood and Rock n’ Roll?
Worlds Visible, But Unseen
This was supposed to be a eulogy for Don Draper, a tribute to one of the greatest characters in television history. And it was, and it is, and I hope it will be.
We don’t know how Don’s life will end though. And we won’t until these next seven televisual hours pass, until sometime in May when, as has become its custom, Mad Men ends, this time for the last time.
Will Don survive, if only barely, end his days a gutter tramp shot in glaring Technicolor, pissing and shitting himself as Manhattan walks past shaking its collective head? Or will he die well, have his pyrrhic, Dickensian victory, “It is a far far better thing that I do…”? Will Don save Sally and Bobby, Peggy and Baby Gene, Betty and Megan? Will Don save himself and America?
The funny thing about symbols is that if we look at them honestly, they take us to real, honest places, not abstractions of myth and magic, nor faerie lands where chocolate bars sell love; where puppies, kitties, and “A Coke and A Smile” can justify a war in Vietnam. Nor even where their makers intended exactly. They take us to places known only to us.
Ultimately, my tribute to Don Draper is a simple one: As character and man, proxy and symbol, you’ve made me see my own reality and that of my country more clearly. To quote Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, you’ve given me a window on worlds “visible, but unseen.” And for that, I’ll always be grateful.