Back from the Brink: The Return of Don Draper
Characters in Mad Men often attempt to maintain clear divisions between work and family, but much of the series’ dramatic power comes from its troubling of these barriers between the personal and the professional. This week’s episode, “Chinese Wall,” once again centers on the consequences of the intrusion of personal desires, ambitions, and anxieties into the Madison Avenue workplace, but the episode’s overall lack of effectiveness—I think it’s one of the season’s weakest—also hints at ways that the series itself depends upon a limited access to its characters. The title refers most directly to Faye’s violation of professional ethics in orchestrating a meeting between Don and the Heinz execs. Faye’s ethical breach ultimately illustrates her prioritization of her relationship with Don over what she had earlier called “the stupid office.” Given Don’s history with other professional women, though, it’s hardly surprising, or dramatically effective, when she puts her career at risk for him. She’s not the first, and she likely won’t be the last.
The title similarly serves as a metaphor for Peggy’s Playtex gloves that help sustain the “meaningful life a woman leads when work is done.” Peggy, though, knowingly betrays the “sanitary” divisions proposed in her pitch between work and meaningful life. Peggy is most satisfied with her life when she’s professionally successful, and the movement of Abe from her bedroom to her office actually seems to enhance her happiness and self-confidence. This is in stark contrast to the behavior of the men at SCDP—for them, an unexpected visit by a wife, or child, is often framed as an improper violation of their professional space. Similarly, Don Draper’s ability to return to his domestic life unaffected by his dalliances in the city made him a compelling antihero in the show’s early seasons.
The slow disintegration of Don’s steady facade has, in fact, been a primary arc throughout the series, and “Chinese Wall” directly explores the ways that the professional lives of the ad men impinge upon their family lives. What’s surprising, though, is that some of the men in this episode actually seem to process this cost. Pete misses out on the birth of his daughter, while Roger seems to pay the most for his mistakes in this episode. In his last scene, he’s reduced to a professional and a personal failure, completely alone while sitting next to his “loving wife.” Earlier in the episode, we find him alone in a hotel room. Guilt-ridden, he confesses to Joan that he’s known about the loss of Lucky Strike for weeks and hasn’t even bothered flying to Raleigh/Durham to try and win back their business. Surprisingly, though, Joan reestablishes a professional boundary with Roger and simply asks: “what am I supposed to do with this information?”
In an episode (and season) filled with professional and personal revelations, Joan’s response is spot on. It could even be seen to mirror the response of the series’ viewers to the past several episodes, particularly those involving Don’s physical and emotional breakdowns. What indeed are we supposed to do with the vulnerability of the seemingly impenetrable Don Draper? Mad Men has been building to such moments from the finale of season one that left Don sitting alone in his empty suburban home. But even as the series has been driven by a desire to undo the many myths of Don Draper, and, by extension, white American manhood, it’s also consistently relied upon the appeal of Draper’s style, creative strength, sexual prowess, and his ability to police the boundaries between the personal and the professional.
There’s something to be said for the secrets that Don held on to so dearly. Half of the pleasure of watching the show has been constantly trying to figure out what he is thinking or feeling beneath his inscrutable facade. What might we learn about Don through his seemingly empty, and often drunken, stares? Moreover, Mad Men’s interrogation of postwar white American masculinity often centers on key moments in which its women characters—Rachel, Betty, Peggy, Faye, etc.—provide their own reading of Don. In recent episodes, though, we’ve seen a new Don Draper, a man who’s lost control of his drinking, who’s prone to panic attacks and fits of weeping, and who’s even started a diary to help clear his thoughts. Don is a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and in its varied attempts to directly convey Don’s inner conflict, Mad Men has arguably destabilized its own structure by taking away the most fascinating characteristic of its lead, namely his inscrutability.
However, at the end of “Chinese Wall,” the show’s antihero seems to be returning to form. After Don has yet another office liaison, this time with Megan, Faye reveals that she has compromised herself personally and professionally for him. Don doesn’t seem to bat an eye in the process. Don’s tender and distanced exchange with Faye at the episode’s conclusion distinctly references that between Roger and Jane. And in using Roger as Don’s foil, Mad Men once again tries to give us the Don Draper that we’ve been encouraged, both textually and extratextually, to admire and to desire. Unfortunately, in these final scenes, Don’s philandering and inhuman detachment feel more like a retread than a reinvigoration. Perhaps the final two episodes will more effectively restore some of the mystery that Don has possessed in the best moments of the series, while also putting his particular vision of American masculinity in a closer dialogue with the culture and politics of 1965.