There’s a scene in episode six of season four of Mad Men (Matthew Weiner, 2007-2010 Season Four), where Don Draper is recovering from a night of drinking -not an unusual activity.
Having woken in the morning with an unnamed women at his side, and hung over, he pours himself a glass of whiskey. Only then to slop half the contents over the living room table, while throwing himself onto the settee where he promptly falls asleep, He wakes in the middle of the next night. This is the American 60s.
What is it about Don Draper (Jon Hamm), or if you want to call him by his real name, Richard Whitman? After all he’s not a very attractive person, is he? At this stage we know he’s an established lie. He drinks too much, and has the habit of sleeping with too many women, just to ease his own neurotic solitude. Yet the character seems to carry with him something else. There always seems to be shadow on the floor or a weight on his back. He struggles with something -which may well be American history?
It is because of these struggles of Don Draper that makes Mad Men one of the most compelling pieces of television being shown at the present. It is intelligent, well written, impeccably well acted, and moves through its narrative at its own discrete pace -and is far better because of this.
At its core Mad Men asks some serious questions about capitalism and the nature and society of western post-war culture. There is another question that keeps cropping up season after season. A question about the interpretation of American history, and how this history is viewed, especially through the eyes of a 40- something like Don Draper. For Mad Men is American history viewed from the other side of fence. It moves beyond the usual clichÃ©s of the age.
The normal clichÃ©d view of the American 60s is the interpretation normally pursued by writers such as Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Lester Bangs, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Alan Ginsberg, Clinton Heylin, Hunter S Thompson and Jack Kerouac. This is the America of the supposed counter culture, the 1960s told through the thin naivety of Baby Boomers who were in their teens and 20s during this decade.
This is an image of America told through the filter of Rock’n’Roll; Bob Dylan and the folk revival; the British invasion; the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement; the women’s movement; Timothy Leary; psychedelia and the Haight Ashbury Hippie; free love; and the Wood Stock festival. The 60s that we now tend to find portrayed for us through numerous television documentaries. A utopia of flower power and eternal groovyness.
Reality compared to utopia is often far harsher and far more interesting than the narrow Baby Boomer view of American history.
In 1960 Richard Nixon, who had been Dwight D Eisenhower’s vice-president for two terms, lost the presidential race to John F Kennedy by around 120,000 votes. A loss that amounted to no more then 0.2 per cent of the entire electoral turn out. This election had been one of the most closely fought in post-war American history. Being that America is a democratic country, John F Kennedy took the presidency.
John F Kennedy was assassinated on November 22 1963, leaving the then vice-president Lyndon B Johnson to take control of the White House, where he was to remain until 1969. It was Johnson that made the decision to send the first troops in to Vietnam in 1965.
Eventually, in the 1969 elections Richard Nixon ascended to the presidency, beating vice-president Hubert Humphrey by 500,000 votes. The Republicans had come back in to power, and the assumption of the American people was that Richard Nixon was going to get a grip.
The Baby Boomer history ignores the percentage of Americans who never dreamed of Camelot, who were never members of the counter culture, and who did not see politics as a tool of radical change, and who, through the 60s ,voted for Richard Nixon. It is these non-radicals whose voice is neutered by the egotism of Baby Boomers. Although one can wonder how many Boomers voted for Nixon in the end due to Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam?
Towards the end of the first series of Mad Men an election party is held at Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. A party that is fundamentally a victory party for Richard Nixon’s election to the presidency in 1960.
At this party, and then within the agency itself, the entire problem with the Baby Boomer interpretation of American history can be seen. The staff believe in what Nixon has to offer. They are Republican and do not believe in a radical change of the status-quo. After all the entire business of advertising relies on the fact that the democratic capitalist system will keep functioning as it always has been. They are what Nixon was later to dub the ‘silent majority’.
These are people who will not go on marches and will tend to be shouted down by those who will see them as conservative and apathetic. The centre is where they want to be. Don Draper is most certainly one of these people. Mad Men is American history from the centre, from the direct centre of the maelstrom, not on the edge, but direct in the middle. It is the shift of the focus away from the Baby Boomers that makes it original, dangerous, and utterly compelling viewing.
Because of all of this, is it any wonder that American history weighs so heavily upon the shoulders of Don Draper?
What we know of the early history of Draper is that he served in the Korean War, and, therefore, was thrust into American history through an interventionist policy that would take troops into both Korea and Vietnam. It would seem that Korea is his formative experience. He enters the war as Richard Whitman and leaves as Don Draper having stolen the identity from another solider whom he served with and died during the war.
This is the event that has haunted him for, at least, the intervening 12 years. A period in which he has got married and then divorced, and had two children. But now laid out on his sofa things are different. The life promised to him by the American Dream has failed. The pressure of American history has folded him in, leading to his heavy drinking, his kids have become estranged. He seems unable to cope with living the way he has. Well he can cope -but that requires a large bottle of scotch and a packet of Lucky Strike.
The trouble with Don Draper is not necessarily the man himself, but the culture that created him. A culture that offered him a dream only then through its force of expectation pushed the individual to exhaustion. The centre of any culture is a powerful force, but here in the mid-60s, the centre seems to be pushing itself to the limit. A limit that in the end will create victims. One of these victims is Don Draper.
The trouble with Don Draper is the fact that history will always try to hold onto him. Even if there is the possibility of escape it is likely he will end up back in the same place. Since the series began he has walked out of one advertising agency to set up another, and yet his condition seems to be getting worse. This is the dark heart of American history and the American Dream that the Baby Boomer would rather you did not see. An America where the hope has been drained away and reinvention may not be possible. Due to the fact that in the end at the centre of it all history will always hold you down and exact its own deadly ransom.
Don Draper is most certainly a victim of that effect.