Truth, Don Draper, & the American Way

Don Draper has many weapons. Whether you consider his brilliant eye for strategy, his exceptional ability to deconstruct the notion of happiness into an easily marketable advertisement, or his brimming sexuality as his most important is negligible. The reason being none of those answers are correct: Don Draper’s greatest asset is his silence. Throughout Mad Men, Don is often characterized as being larger than life, a near mythic figure representative of everything absolutely good and bad about American society. He bridges the gap from coast to coast, having grown up in the Bread Basket and migrating to metropolis’ belonging to each shining sea. He’s a ruthless businessman, a pathological hypocrite, and unsettlingly charming. In other words, he takes what he wants.

Don’s radiating aura is at once his greatest strength and weakness, tied together as inseparably as his duel identities: as much as Don wishes people wouldn’t notice him, his presence can’t help but be anything other than magnetic. Women want to be with him, men want to be him, and poor Dick Whitman doesn’t know what he wants. His high-profile status and career makes him a target for government agents, but he refuses to step down or live out a quieter existence literally anywhere else. Even as he puts people’s lives in danger—or unwittingly leads them to die—from family members to work associates to perfect strangers, Don will do anything in his power to keep himself safe outside of proactively seeking asylum, again, literally anywhere else. His commitment to that secrecy, while at times almost admirable, raises some interesting questions about his character. Namely, how does next to no one know who Don really is?

He doesn’t even offer an explanation as to how he got into his position of considerable status. Sometimes Don will casually mention that he grew up in rural Pennsylvania, but outside of these passing references he never goes into greater detail. What’s most interesting, though, is that whenever Don is pressed on whom he is or where he came from, whether in a casual context or as part of some interrogation, his initial reaction is to stay silent. From there, whomever he’s talking to fills the void with excerpts from their own life or information about themselves. Don has mastered the art of telepathy, not through mad science or fantasy, but through the art of knowing when to stop talking. Many will flat out tell Don what they think of him and what he means to them, and this distillation gives Don all the information he could ever want to sell them things they don’t need. The immortal idea of Don Draper, a separate entity entirely from the very flawed and human Dick Whitman, acts as a prism through which the spectrum of identity and happiness can be perceived.

Don functions as a stand-in for the classic American hero. Don Draper is the American Dream: people see what they want in him and he shapes that into a product, a physical entity capable of granting its owner confidence and completeness. His quiet, larger-than-life persona is a physical substitution for the old Teddy Roosevelt quote, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Tragically, this too is his downfall, for as the landscape of American culture shifts and changes, the idea of Don Draper, a stolen mirage peddled and sold to the masses (much like the idea of America itself), becomes less and less substantial. The 60’s push into periods of chaos and rapid social change, and at the center is a black hole of a human being known to some as Dick and everyone else as Don—a man who could never feel the joy he sold because he couldn’t come to grips with the emptiness within himself.

 

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