Today I wrote a family therapy case study based on another newfound yet instant favorite character: Don Draper. To say that he’s been on my mind lately is an understatement, as we’ve been watching Jon Hamm’s gorgeous face on our TV almost every night these past two months. This complex ad man emerges from a decidedly simpler era – 1960s Americana. He has pretty much what any stereotypically “red-blooded” man would want: an office stocked with endless supply of booze and smokes, a considerable salary, the admiration of his entire office, and the perfect homemaker wife and kids. And yet beneath the surface there’s so much more going on – that image, is in effect, a persona – a draping for his real identity.
I’ll try to be gentle with the spoilers, but still be forewarned – some mild ones do occur. None that you won’t find out very early on in the show, though.
First of all, his name isn’t really Don Draper. He was born and raised Dick Whitman, and escapes his impoverished, unnurturing family by joining the army. Upon arriving at his post, he learns that only one another serviceman has arrived so far – a lieutenant by the name of, you guessed it, Donald Draper. Turn of fate, they’re attacked and the real Draper dies, leaving Dick the sole survivor. The opportunist that he is (although not maliciously), Dick sees this misfortune as his ticket out of war and out of poverty at home, and switches their dog tags.
Back in the States, his career flourishes independently of his namesake’s. As an advertising director, he spends his days finding creative ways to reinvent the image of cigarette companies and department stores, but his secret is that in fact he has reinvented his entire life, and he’s suffering more than he can bear it. Perhaps that’s a critique of culture, always wanting more and new without appreciating the old, and perhaps he is the fulfillment of the American Dream – grassroots success no matter what the means.
Regardless, his inner turmoil lurks beneath the surface of his debonair exterior, and his life is mired with complex emotions that he can’t deal with. At home, he has the ‘perfect’ blond homemaker wife who’s clueless about his real identity, the golden retriever, and the two and a half children, but outside he seeks out the company of ambitious brunettes with careers who don’t need to know about his dark passenger. He’s overcome with guilt about what he’s done, but he’s been Don Draper for so many years that he’s stuck with it. On the one hand, it seems he’s miserable with the facade , but on the other he’s terrified that his world will come crashing down if he’s exposed.
In the end, he battles two social constructs: what he wants versus what people expect from him, and the battle is the sheer genius that is Mad Men.