Can Don Draper Change?

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“Who is Don Draper?” is the question that has, with the help of AMC’s marketing department, guided us through five seasons of Mad Men. It’s also the question that led LA Times critic Mary McNamara to conclude, two summers ago, that Don Draper is nothing less than the devil. “While everyone has been sidetracked by tortured-soul vampires and loveable werewolves, Don has been quietly taking over the world, one manipulative half-truth at a time,” she wrote, going on to enumerate offenses ranging from his exploitation of Peggy to his infidelity to his harmfully misleading ad campaigns. “Yet still he makes us swoon, in his white shirts and Cary Grant hair. Because Don… is one of those guys who manages to seem as if he’s trying to do the right thing when that is not his intention at all.”

At the time, critics and bloggers embraced and debated McNamara’s argument, but by the end of Season 4, it was impossible to peg Don as anything but human. We saw him break down in the wake of his divorce, his self-hatred never more palpable than in the episode when he paid a prostitute to slap him in the face during sex. True, he was unspeakably cruel to Peggy on her birthday, when he forced her to stay late at the office and miss the dinner her boyfriend had planned, effectively ending their relationship. Yet before that episode was over, he was bawling in front of her, a mess of repressed emotions drowned in alcohol. The devil may well, as McNamara pointed out, be capable of calmly putting on his pajamas after responding to his wife’s well-earned breakdown about his cheating by calling her crazy, but he certainly doesn’t burst into tears in front of his protégé in his own office.

While last season saw him trying to put himself together after three years of smirking and swilling Scotch while his life fell apart, in Season 5 we met a Don Draper who seemed to be trying hard to become a better person. If anyone at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce qualified for the role of the devil (or at least wannabe devil), it was Pete Campbell, who brought to mind a somewhat clumsy version of Milton’s Satan a few episodes ago, when he attempted to manipulate Joan into sleeping with a client — simply by introducing the possibility to her — and succeeded in spite of himself.

As Pete and Roger Sterling and the endlessly irritating (if also more trivial) Harry Crane all vied for our antipathy, Don often seemed like the good guy. Countless times in Season 5, we saw him conquer his own desires, refusing willing women left and right, even as the effort to do so ravaged his subconscious, conjuring fever dreams in which he fucked and killed an old lover. Among the executives at SCDP, he was the only one so disgusted at the idea of pimping out Joan that he refused to discuss it and later (too late, in fact) showed up at her home to try and dissuade her from going through with it. Don tried to give Lane Pryce a break, privately firing him for embezzlement instead of making his departure fodder for gossip, and when that backfired, he repaid Lane’s wife a share of the company’s death benefits out of some sense of moral righteousness.

Not all of these actions had the desired effect — in fact, few of them did — but they’re more evidence than we’ve ever had that Don Draper is trying to be a good person. He has slipped, of course, in a few recent dark moments. From that horrible scene at the Howard Johnson’s to his resistance to the possibility of Megan spending time away from the city for a role, he’s struggled with allowing his wife the freedom a woman of her age and generation demands. And nothing was more transparent than the scene when, in a moment of insecurity, he left Michael Ginsberg’s presentation in the car and pitched a client on his own idea. Just because he isn’t the devil, and he’s trying to be good, doesn’t mean Don has gotten over his chief, and perhaps fatal, flaw: selfishness

The big question I’m left with after Season 5, now that I’ve got a decent grip on what makes him tick, is: Can Don Draper change? In his fidelity to Megan and his relatively ethical behavior at the office, he seemed to be reforming himself. But in the last few minutes of the season finale, we saw Don realize something that looks like it will permanently change his relationship to Megan. You could read the specifics of those scenes in a million different ways. I saw him tenderly letting go of the woman he loves, having realized while watching her test reel that there’s something in life that means more to her than him. (Never mind that he’s always put his own career above his family.) In getting her that commercial, he fulfilled his final and most meaningful duty as a husband, and now is no longer bound to Megan in the same way he was before. Alternately, some friends who watched the episode with me wondered if Megan’s and Betty’s show business aspirations and demands were becoming a bit too similar for comfort.

Whatever caused Don to walk away from the commercial set into the ominous darkness and then turn up again in a bar, ready to be seduced by the woman (or the friend of the woman) who thinks she deserves to play Beauty, those shots are the signal that his life has entered its next phase. It may well be that Season 5 didn’t bring us a changed — or even a changing — Don. The storyline merely caught him on an upswing; it’s entirely possible that he was just as faithful and loving to Betty in their first year together as we’ve seen him be to Megan. In fact, if the kids are any indication, his second marriage is collapsing even more quickly than his first. Maybe this means Don Draper is incapable of personal growth. Maybe he’s doomed to a sort of endless but cyclical decline, running through a beautiful, young wife every few years as his own looks and prospects and creativity slowly slip away. If so, Mad Men is even more depressing at its core than I could have predicted.