What’s Happening to Don Draper?: Mad Men and the Waning Value of Masculine Detachment

August 31, 2010
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“Award or no award, you’re still Don Draper.” –Dr. Faye Miller

“Whatever that means.”—Don Draper

Nothing is as it was in this season’s Mad Men. From cultural mores to familial and interpersonal dynamics to workplace hierarchies, everything is in flux. And the change in masculine authority and its maintenance—figured primarily through Don Draper—is the most dramatic of these changes. Understanding what it means to be Don Draper continues to be a central concern, as it has been since Season 1, but his loss of certain power is a new, central development. This season, and especially in “Waldorf Stories,” viewers see Don trapped in a world neither of his own making nor under his control. While this character shift offers a peculiar sort of pleasure for viewers, it also underscores the means by which Don has exerted masculine control up to this point: through the uniquely male privilege of disengagement. Unlike any other episode to date, “Waldorf Stories” stresses the importance of masculine disengagement by creating a context in which this mode is no longer available to Don.

Throughout the first three seasons of Mad Men, Don has deployed detachment from others and expressed a world weariness that has placed him apart from the feminized, emotionally laden, threatening, and/or naïve attitudes of those around him. This expression of patriarchal power invites viewers to identify with a man in control because of his detached sensibilities (versus a hysterical Betty or a naïve Peggy or feminized clients and rivals). Don’s ability to detach from seemingly trivial concerns and attachments that affect others makes him admirable, even when his actions might otherwise register as despicable. Whether effectively besting a romantic rival by cynically deflating empty posturing or simply gazing poignantly into space as he contemplates serious matters while others engage in silly office politics, Don’s ability to remove himself from the world around him makes him a superior being.

The aesthetic qualities of these scenes reinforce this sense of Don’s superiority: viewers are afforded languid camera movements and extended shots of Don deep in contemplation. This not only grants us identification with Don, but also deepens his mystique and helps us to imagine that he (especially given this unique aesthetic) is unlike everyone else. Narratively, his knowledge of existential predicaments fuels his business acumen (as seen in his Kodak Carousel pitch where he philosophizes about the pangs of nostalgia) and his charisma in the public and private domain.

What we have in “Waldorf Stories” is the same aesthetic treatment, but with very different effect. In this episode, the camera lingers on Don while time lapses, but it no longer helps us imagine Don’s inner torment nor asks us to contemplate what sets Don Draper/Dick Whitman apart from everybody else. Instead, we watch an increasingly pathetic man lose control of his world and squander the power he has earned (or has been granted, depending on the particular viewer’s sympathies).

Throughout Season 4 and especially in this latest episode, Don is no longer able to sustain his aloof, disaffected stance. Instead, he seeks approval and affirmation from women (asking Joan how he looks before receiving his Clio, asking Faye Miller if she saw him win), engages in giddy emotional displays (the drunken victory lap in the conference room), and generally acts less like Don Draper with every passing moment. With this, Don risks losing control in his work and personal life. The series makes this threat clear through intertextual references to earlier scenes and visual elements intrinsic in developing the deeply intertwined nature of Don’s disengagement and his empowerment. For instance, in the series premiere, Don shuts down the firm’s emasculating female psychologist and then retreats to a reverie on his office couch while the camera lingers on his face and lighting evidences a passage of time. Here, his control over the workplace and threatening women work in tandem with his solitude and his ability to control space and protect his time of solitary thought. All of this is signified through this mode of lighting and editing. Similar aesthetic techniques are used in the Lost Weekend scenario of “Waldorf Stories,” where Don drunkenly goes to bed with one woman on Friday evening and wakes up with another one on a Sunday morning. They are used again when he retreats to his couch to recover from his debauchery. In these instances, Don has lost rather than gained control. Linked through these aesthetic commonalities, these scenes effectively contrast the commanding Don of Season 1 with the out-of-control Don of Season 4.

It is also important that Don’s loss of control is gauged by women who appear and disappear in these scenes. They leave and enter his bed without his full knowledge and break in upon his dream/drunken states. Doris, the diner waitress whom he wakes up next to, effectively traps him in his own bathroom; Betty wakens him with an angry phone call about his negligence in visiting his children; and Peggy appears at his apartment to direct him to “fix” the error he has made in stealing an insipid tag line from Roger’s “idiot” relative.

Rather than a means of controlling his world, Don’s disengagement has now become a trap (in one instance, quite literally) and a mark of irresponsibility that is now effectively disciplined by women. Rather than philosophically rich and introspective speeches, we are given bastardized, inelegant versions of them. Rather than detachment from clearly inferior clients, we are given Don’s overly eager and desperate rapid-fire pitches. Rather than protracted scenes of Don’s fugue states where we are meant to admire his indifference or complicated inner states, we are given alcohol-fuelled stupor, blackouts and hangovers. All of these changes, not coincidentally, come during the very season where we have sustained rumblings of women’s liberation and various challenges to the heterosexual patriarchal order. In the past few episodes alone, Mad Men has represented in relatively affirmative ways: lesbianism and an acceptance of women’s desires for each other outside the domain of men; global economies that introduce national and ethnic Others as significant figures and the waning currency of American men’s WWII heroism; and a growing sense of workplace equity for women.

By referencing key elements of earlier seasons that presented Don’s power as appealing, “Waldorf Stories” marks the radical differences between a Don Draper whose power is justified and a Don Draper who doesn’t “earn” his masculine prerogatives. While this might be the show’s critical reflection on the inevitable future of patriarchy in 1965, it also should remind us of the vicarious pleasures we may have experienced in relationship to the appealing, powerful, in-control masculinity of the pre-1965 Don Draper model.


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6 Responses to “ What’s Happening to Don Draper?: Mad Men and the Waning Value of Masculine Detachment ”

  1. Allison Perlman on September 2, 2010 at 10:50 AM

    This does seem to be the season of Don’s decline, one that literally begins with the question “Who is Don Draper?” (asked by the Ad Age journalist) and yet, with each episode, invites the audience to care a bit less about the answer. I completely agree that we’re seeing a different Don in 1965. His excessive drinking and womanizing has been amped up and he seems to have abandoned the, for lack of a better term, code that governed his behaviors in the past; for all his flaws, Don didn’t indulge in the sexual harassments and office shenanigans (until he slept with his secretary) and made a point of not talking much about himself (until he won a Clio). Watching the flashbacks in this last week’s episode, I wondered if in some ways the show was suggesting that Don is becoming Roger, someone who increasingly will read as an anachronism as the world changes around him.

    • Jennifer Clark on September 3, 2010 at 7:31 AM

      It seemed to me, too, that the Don-Roger comparison was certainly there (when Don writes his memoirs, will he have no work stories either? and, given his new-found interest in chatting about his life, perhaps it will only contain stories of Dick Whitman’s childhood?). This also makes the place of Pete and “Roger’s idiot” interesting–not a particularly promising line of succession.

      • Scott Ellington on September 3, 2010 at 1:48 PM

        I was struck by the impression that when Don was rudely awakened Sunday morning beside Doris, that he’d spent much of the lost weekend as Dick (because that’s the way Doris addressed him).
        It’s as though the strenuous compartmentalization of the Don Draper disguise is rapidly disintegrating, precisely as Roger’s memoir lends substance to Roger’s untold backstory, it also reveals the tacky tactics Don employed enroute to becoming a legend in his chosen field, shortly before the legend plummets back into the Dick’s abyss.

  2. Scott Ellington on September 3, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    When the sexually brutal and intimidating new art director, Stan Rizzo, is forced by Peggy to exhibit the (detachable) taunting source of his erotic power, Stan becomes the butt of her private jokes which are designed for only the two of them, for now.

    The laughable Danny Siegel (played [ironically] by the remarkable Danny Strong) may turn out the be the cure for the common advertising agency, and, unlike Dr. Lyle Evans, one Danny Siegel Googles interestingly:

    I’ve always found Mad Men’s title sequence a trifle enigmatic. Perhaps Don’s predisposition to personality blackout constitutes a means to meaningful reattachment of his most potent fragments, not entirely unlike Tony Soprano’s humiliating fainting spells.

    • Jennifer Clark on September 7, 2010 at 10:19 AM

      I like your comparison to Tony Soprano, Scott. Thematically, the blackout certainly ties the two men and their issues together in an unexpected way. I do wonder about the formal aspects of these spells–does it matter that we experience Don’s a bit more internally than Tony’s?

      • Scott Ellington on September 7, 2010 at 12:19 PM

        I think Don is (ery literally) Dick’s projection, related to us (perhaps) in the form of a case history as told to a therapist at some point long after the action we’ve been “witnessing”.
        Dick and Tony can be experienced directly and internally, especially by Anna and Svetlana, but Don cannot.
        I’ve also begun looking for signs of young Johnny Soprano in the Mad Men plot (because I’m a transnarrative media crackpot).