In the week leading up to the Mad Men premiere The Wire will be revisiting some of the show's most important characters. We conclude with the show's main man: Don Draper.
Where He Was
The show opens with a definition of its title: "A term coined in the late 1950's to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue. They coined it." That card disappears to reveal the back of Don Draper's head, immaculately coiffed. The first conversation he has in the show is with an African-American waiter about cigarettes as he tries to figure out how to sell Lucky Strike. He's immediately the most suave man you've ever seen, able to talk to anyone, able to woo anyone, evident when he goes and visits his bohemian lover Midge.
When the show eventually reaches the Sterling Cooper office, there are hints that Don's life is not as blessed as it seems. He looks at a purple heart. He stares up at flies in a ceiling light, and hears the sound of bombs as he closes his eyes.
At the end of the episode, he returns home to Betty and his seemingly perfect suburban family. It's the first moment that the audience begins to get a sense of just how much of a lie Don Draper's life is.
Season 1, Episode 13, The Wheel: Don's pitch for Kodak is the quintessential Don moment. He's able to weave something beautiful, but ultimately hollow, out of his personal deception. By now the audience knows about his tragic past, so when he deems the Kodak wheel "The Carousel"—showing beautiful photographs of his family, and explaining that it "lets us travel around and around and back home again"—he's clearly selling a concept he knows is false.
Season 2, Episode 3, The Benefactor: This episode contains the moment when Don's sex appeal became truly frightening. His budding affair with Bobbie Barrett turns sinister when he corners her, pulls her head back, and fingers her in order to get her to do his bidding.
Season 4, Episode 7, The Suitcase: The only completely honest relationship Don has in his life is with Anna Draper, the wife of the man whose identity he stole. Awaiting news of Anna's death, Don manipulates Peggy into working late on a Samsonite campaign, and they share a drunken, chaotic evening together. Just as Anna shares Don's greatest secret, Don shares Peggy's, and though Peggy frequently feels overworked and undervalued by him, their connection runs deep. Learning of Anna's death, Don breaks down completely in front of Peggy.
Season 5, Episode 4, Mystery Date: A sickly Don, currently married to Megan, hallucinates that a woman from his past comes to his room. They have sex, after which he imagines strangling her and pushing her body under the bed.
Season 6, Episode 13, In Care Of: In the penultimate season finale, the show sets up a direct parallel to "The Wheel." Don begins to wow the people from Hershey's with another pitch about nostalgia, only to break and reveal the truth about his childhood in the Pennsylvania whorehouse. The move prompts the firm to put him on a leave of absence. The episode ends as he takes his children to the whorehouse where he grew up.
Where He Is Now
Though his future at Sterling Cooper is in jeopardy at the end of the sixth season, in a way, Don should be more liberated than ever, free from the lies in which he had been trapped for so long. The events of "In Care Of" could mean that Don is not buying what he's been selling about his life story any longer. But—without revealing too much due to fear of retaliation from Matthew Weiner—Don is still an ad man to his core as we find him at the beginning of the seventh season. Now, he's simply more ghost-like.
No one can deny that the Don Draper presented in the pilot was effortlessly attractive, a creative genius in the body of a matinee idol. And while Don is still a brilliant advertiser, we know he's destroyed himself through deception. "I’m always surprised when people are like, 'I want to be just like Don Draper,'" Jon Hamm said in an interview with Time's James Poniewozik. "I’m like, 'You want to be a miserable drunk?' I don’t think you want to be anything like that guy. You want to be like the guy on a poster maybe but not the actual guy. The actual guy’s rotting from the inside out and has to pull it together."
There's has been a lot of speculation as to whether the conclusion of Mad Men will mean the death of Don Draper. But that doesn't really matter. Weiner gave us an idealization of a man in the pilot and then methodically ripped that image to shreds. A death wouldn't mean anything because Don Draper already died in Korea. Whether Dick Whitman can will himself to survive is the more interesting question.