Friday, May 2, 2014

Don Draper, truth-teller

The big question among fans of AMC's "Mad Men" and among critics as well seems to be whether Don Draper will make it out of this last season of the show alive. There seems to have been considerable foreshadowing, especially in the first couple of episodes this year, indicating that Don might be doomed.

Then there is the constant speculation about whether his wife, Megan, is going to meet the same fate as Sharon Tate in LA.

On the other hand, there is the strong possibility that show creator and writer Matthew Weiner is just messing with us.

Don's life certainly has gone downhill since he decided in that ill-fated moment last season that it was time to tell the truth about himself. He had just presented one of his patented brilliant pitches to the Hershey chocolate people for an advertising campaign that was a sure winner. He had those guys almost literally eating out of his hand and ready to sign up for millions for Sterling, Cooper, and Partners. Then, he sabotaged himself by revealing that his pitch was based on a lie and he told the truly lurid story of his childhood, growing up in a brothel. After that fiasco, the other partners sent him home on "leave" with full pay.

At the end of last season, we saw him come clean with his children when he took them for a ride and showed them the house where he grew up and told them about it. This season, he has begun to reap the results of all that truth-telling. At times it has been painful to watch.

The main focus of Don's life has always been his work. As some critics have noted, the work is his true "wife." The women in his life have just been accessories. The work is the thing that he is truly passionate about. And now he is bereft of it. What will he do to fill that empty space?

Well, the truth is he hasn't really stopped working. He's constantly thinking about ad campaigns and how he would handle them. He's even presented some pitches through a surrogate.

Finally, in the third episode last Sunday we saw him returning to SCP in very straitened circumstances, as the partners devise conditions for his return to work that seem designed to ensure his failure. For the next four episodes and the seven episodes in the second part of the season which will be aired next year, we get to see whether Don's brilliance can overcome these handicaps and put him on top once again.

Don Draper's personal life has always been a mess. He's been a two-timing jerk with his two wives and never really seems to appreciate what he has. But, in spite of that, he's always had redeeming qualities that have made us like him - love him, even, like all those susceptible women who constantly throw themselves at him.

1. Chief among his redeeming qualities has always been his unconditional love for his children. And, heaven knows they need it with Betty Draper for a mother.

2. Then there is his aforementioned devotion to his work and the need to do the very best. That is the key to how he inspires those around him. Even if they don't necessarily like him, they respect him because they know he will not accept anything but their best work.

3. He is loyal to his friends. Time and again he has stood up for or come to the rescue of various work colleagues, sometimes without them ever knowing it. Peggy owes her career to him, but he has also aided Joan, Freddie, Ted, even the odious Pete. The question is will any of them have his back now that he needs their support?

4. Maybe Don Draper's most redeeming quality is the fact that he is played by Jon Hamm, an enormously likable actor. (Not to mention the fact that he's a hunk!) He excels at portraying the vulnerability and neediness of his essentially macho character. At the end of the second episode this year after he had told his daughter Sally the truth about his job - or lack of job - and he drove her back to her school, as she was getting out of the car, she said "I love you" and then slammed the door before he could respond - the look on his face told the whole story of his life. It was heartbreaking.

And speaking of actors inhabiting their characters, what about January Jones? Jones is constantly ragged on by fans and critics for being a poor actor, but I think that is unfair. She is playing Betty who is a bitch, and I think she interprets that exceptionally well. She truly makes us viewers despise her and that's exactly what she is supposed to do. As far as redeeming characteristics go, she doesn't really have any, at least none that I've discovered in the last six seasons.

The only time Betty has been even moderately sympathetic as a character was when she was fat and she had to struggle with regaining her figure after the birth of a third child. Once she did regain that figure though she resumed being a bitch and the mother from hell. I think that must be a challenge for any actor to portray and Jones does it about as well as anyone could.

In fact, all of the characters in this show are played to near perfection by the actors who portray them. It's been a great ride and I'm missing them already, even though we've still got eleven episodes to look forward to.

And, yes, I do hope that Matthew Weiner finds a way for Don to have a second act in his life and that he can go out on top, as he becomes a kinder, gentler Don Draper, at peace with the truth.    

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