Sad Don Draper emerged midway through Season 4 of Mad Men and quickly became the show’s most contagious Internet meme. A single screenshot from an episode called “The Suitcase,” it’s simply Jon Hamm’s character in a rare unattractive moment — red-faced, puffy-eyed, and sobbing in a stained dress shirt. The requisite Tumblr offered fans the opportunity to insert the image in famous sad scenes, from the Harry Potter movies to Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. For a few weeks, every Mad Men fan with access to Photoshop was inventing new ways to chuckle at Don Draper’s tears.
Although the blog kept updating for over a year after the episode aired, by the end of Season 4 things were supposedly looking up for Don. On a trip to California to settle old business and take his kids to Disneyland, he discovered that he was in love with his secretary and proposed to her on the spot. Of course, she accepted — because what other option do you have when you’re a 25-year-old frustrated actress and your hot, charismatic boss offers you his dead friend’s engagement ring? Back at the office, Don and his partners celebrated with champagne while Peggy and Joan snarked over his naïve decision and poor Faye, who thought things were finally getting serious between her and Don, left him with a zinger that should have shaken him to his core: “I hope she knows you only like the beginnings of things.”
Faye’s reaction doesn’t seem like enough to ruin Don’s moment of bliss, but when the credits roll on the season finale, we’re already questioning whether this peace can last. A chance encounter with Betty at their old house in Ossining seems awfully wistful, and the last shot of Season 4 finds him in bed with Megan, lying awake as she sleeps. Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” plays in the background, but coupled with the troubled look on Don’s face, the song almost seems to be mocking his insomnia with its lethargic pace and uncomplicated, love-conquers-all lyrics.
While we’ve seen exactly zero of Season 5 so far, the most popular ad for Mad Men‘s return is certainly foreboding — a 9/11-referencing image snatched from the show’s opening credits of the archetypal executive in free fall. Add to that the psychoanalytic text that serves as an official Season 5 poster and AMC’s promotional campaign seems to be hyping nothing more than its protagonist’s existential crisis. “If you thought Don Draper was miserable last season,” it seems to be saying, “just wait until we really give him something to cry about March 25th!”
And you know what? It’s working. I can’t wait to see what kind of self-loathing trip Don gets stuck on, or to find out when, why, and how his engagement (or marriage) to Megan goes down in flames. Hell, I want him to keep having ambivalent feelings about Betty, even though I wouldn’t really wish her on anybody! I want nothing more than happiness for most of my favorite TV drama characters — Lady Mary from Downton Abbey, the entire Fisher family from Six Feet Under, Buffy Summers, Friday Night Lights’ Eric and Tami Taylor — but as a fan of Mad Men, I thrive on Don Draper’s misery. I don’t find him particularly unsympathetic — if we’re honest, most Americans probably identify with his self-reinvention, however deceitful — yet I realize that for the show to continue surprising, challenging, and entertaining me, he can’t be entirely satisfied for even an episode. I have nothing to learn from his happiness and everything to learn from his despair.
This, I suspect, is not only why we all loved Sad Don Draper so much, but also the reason “The Suitcase” is widely held to be the best hour of Mad Men to date. The meme and the episode showed us the character rubbed raw, forced to an extreme of vulnerability beyond what we had seen before. AMC is hyping this aspect of the show because it knows that’s what we’re really hooked on. We may lust over or strive to emulate Don’s suave, stylish veneer and his cocktail culture and his countless conquests and his mid-century design, but it’s never truly been glamor that we seek from the character. We tune in to see that exterior shatter, and its flawlessness only adds drama to the fall.