Remember when Mad Men debuted on AMC? No? That’s because it was the first great original series on a station known better for other entertainments (for the 2015 edition, see Manhattan on WGN America). Our introduction to Don Draper was the same image we’d seen in the next seven seasons’ opening credits: his silhouette. A shot of the back of his head, draped across a chair, his cigarette in his right hand, unlit, this black silhouette tells us that the man at the center of Mad Men is a delicious mystery. He could be every man. He could be the one perfect Übermensch. Fun fact: another iteration of this poster features the tagline: “Where the truth lies.” But what does that even mean?
And so, the silhouette of Don has appeared in many iterations, from the pilot…
… to any episode featuring one or more of the following elements: Anna Draper, California, rebirth symbolism.
Then there was the Season 5 finale, where Don turned into a straight-up silhouette as he walked away from Megan on the set of her commercial, and we learned that newlywed bliss wasn’t going to last because he was turning back into a wolf:
Here we see a man lost among the commuter crowd coming from and going to tony parts of New York and Connecticut. That man is Don, standing like a statue among the hustle and bustle of the workday. And why is that? Well, his relationship with his wife, Betty, is falling apart — he’s having an affair with a broad named Bobbie Barrett, and when Betty finds out, she kicks him out. Adrift, he goes to California. That’s why Don looks so confused in Grand Central Station. He’s not playing by your rules, sheeple!
A man assumes a classic pose of power in his office. But what is that crawling up the walls? It’s some rising water, threatening to drown him. Season 3 was when Betty found out Don’s real identity as Dick Whitman and asked for a divorce. Over in the office, a guy lost a foot and the ad men subverted the merger and started Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. But the water symbolism is also reminiscent of the best short story by Mad Men‘s literary spirit animal, John Cheever, “The Swimmer” — a story that you think about in the Season 4 episode “The Summer Man,” where Don is swimming in a pool, writing in his journal, and trying to dry out:
This pose looks familiar, eh?
Sure, it’s clear that Fifty Shades of Grey ripped off Mad Men here. Still, there’s one thing that Don Draper is good at, it’s coming up with new kinds of sadomasochistic relationships to play out with his wives and lovers, from tying up Bobbie Barrett to some controlling sex play with Megan and his lover Sylvia in subsequent seasons.
More importantly, though, Mad Men Season 4 starts with the question, “Who is Don Draper?” Don is divorced, off in Greenwich Village, living a seedy life; the new firm is struggling, trying to make its place in the world even though it lost the Lucky Strike account. Anna Draper dies. Don and Peggy have a long, dark night of the soul in “The Suitcase.” But at least Don has the help of a good secretary named Megan! This silhouette — a body framed against an office window — is a recurring theme in the series, perhaps best seen in the final episode of Season 5, as the partners of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce find their new home:
According to Matthew Weiner, this image is “a nonverbal representation of where my head is at and where the show will be… By the end of the season, I guarantee you’ll know what it is about.” King Don, looking Hugh Hefner-like in pajamas and a red velvet robe, objectifying a naked mannequin with her dress at her knees. He does that to Megan throughout the season, until he’s done with her and ready to go back on the prowl. But, as this image suggests, he sees himself doing it! So there’s that.
As Mad Men‘s end approached, Weiner started to commission abstract season art by classic-era ad men. This poster was drawn by 75-year-old illustrator Brian Sanders, using a specific 1960s style. It has Don seeing Don on the street, both guys going in opposite directions (and away from Madison Avenue, notably). Don wreaks havoc in the office, and California looms as a real possibility. Ergo the plane. He’s having a demeaning affair with his neighbor Sylvia. Sally’s life is shaky and generally traumatizing. Don ends up coming to terms with his life growing up in a whorehouse. All of which is to say, the poster both does and doesn’t reflect what happens in Season 6.
Season 7, Part 1:
Key art designed by advertising legend Milton Glaser, reminiscent of his psychedelic Bob Dylan poster, this features the back of Don Draper’s head in front of a beautiful Art Deco/hippie girl (Megan in California?) drinking a cocktail of something, I guess (because Mad Men). Appropriately surreal for an appropriately surreal season that had Ginsberg going mad and the specter of 2001: A Space Odyssey haunting the era.
Season 7, Part 2:
Cars. Symbolism. Driving away. Looking in your rearview mirror towards the past. The sun setting on our mid-century American man, smoking an American cigarette that he sold to us. Guess what, Don? Your world is gone now, replaced by something wussier and less romantic. We’ll miss you, dude.