Critic’s Notebook: The devil in Don Draper
“What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. … He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing ... he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance. ... And he’ll get all the great women.”
— Aaron Altman ( Albert Brooks) in “Broadcast News”
The fourth-season premiere of AMC’s “Mad Men” opens Sunday with a voice asking: “Who is Don Draper?”
It’s the question around which the series has revolved, both literally and figuratively, since it began. When we met him, Don ( Jon Hamm) seemed downright close to perfect — that square jaw, that knowing look, the deft way he handled a cigarette and a woman.
By now, of course, we know he isn’t perfect; he isn’t even Don Draper. That is an assumed name, taken by one Dick Whitman from a fellow soldier who died in Korea. Dick was a troubled soul, born of a young prostitute who died while having him, raised by people who equated morality with cold-heartedness. That he would flee this identity and make a career in advertising is brilliant social commentary — Don Draper is, after all, the physical embodiment of spin.
But three years into “Mad Men,” Don is clearly not just a well-groomed Everyman trying to figure it all out, or a symbol for those who have had to reinvent themselves in a world carved narrow and treacherous by fate and social convention. He’s not even the personification of a country seesawing on the edge of revolution.
The answer is simpler than that: Don Draper is 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. Think about it. In the three years we’ve known him, has Don Draper done one single thing that wasn’t driven by rabid self-interest? Sure he kept quiet about Sal ( Bryan Batt) being gay, but did Don step up and demand that Sal not be fired? And yeah, he didn’t condemn Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) when he figured out she had had a baby, but how did he help her exactly? By telling her to nail down those emotions, keep her painful secrets secret and get back to work. So he could continue to profit by her underpaid creativity.
Don lies to everyone all the time. And unlike TV’s many other antiheroes, he manages to look Dorian-Gray-great doing it.
Never mind the big issues — the anti-Semitism/racism/sexism/homophobia that the show occasionally explores but mostly treats as quaint accoutrements, like highballs and girdles — Don is morally bankrupt even by the standards of the period. He cheats on his wife, he cheats on his mistress, he has no problem lying to the public, even if it means negating medical evidence that smoking can cause cancer. And the idea that his behavior needs to change does not seem to cross his mind — ever.
Yet still he makes us swoon, in his white shirts and Cary Grant hair. Because Don (and this is a testament to the creative power of both Hamm and creator Matt Weiner) 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.
In other words, the devil.
For me, the pointy tail became visible last season when Betty ( January Jones) told him she was done. Now, Don has cheated steadily, one could say religiously, on Betty, which we were supposed to chalk up as some sort of panacea for a childhood’s worth of pain. But finally, Betty had enough. When she told him so, Don, rather hilariously, actually had his latest mistress in the car parked outside the house. But he was so outraged by Betty’s announcement that he quickly gave up any attempt to alert his lover of the change of plans, or God forbid come clean, and instead tried to convince Betty that she was crazy. Later, he calmly brushed his teeth, in his well-pressed pajamas.
Only the devil could put on his jammies after a night like that.
Or maybe it was earlier than that, when Don/Dick’s baby brother finally tracked him down and begged to be part of his life. Sick with self-interest and fear, Don tried to pay him off and the poor guy up and hanged himself. Can you think of another famous scene in which a person hanged herself because someone pushed her away?
“Damien, Damien, this is for you!”
That’s right, the nanny in “The Omen.” Donald Draper; both names have six letters. (OK, his middle name is Francis, which has seven. But it’s a name he chose, and when you’re the devil, you think of those things.)
And don’t get me started about those poor Draper kids, whom Don deals with strictly in passing. With her eerie middle-distance stare and early attempts at larceny and grand theft auto, daughter Sally ( Kiernan Shipka) is straying into little Rhoda Penmark territory, and who could blame her? She may, just possibly, be the child of Satan.
Don’s real family is, of course, at the office where, as Peggy tells him in this season’s premiere: “We just want to please you.” Dedicated employee or a bewitched minion?
Meanwhile, the men who gave Don his big break, Roger Sterling ( John Slattery) and Bertram Cooper ( Robert Morse), are slowly being sucked of their power (and in Cooper’s case, what’s left of his mind) as Don assumes more and more national influence.
As folks like Al Pacino and Ray Wise know, the devil is a great character to play. Not only does he get all the best women, he usually gets all the best lines. Oh, for a while, he’ll sit in the background, content to manipulate with Iago-like whispers. He will feign human emotions — empathy, confusion, regret, love — and he may, after the third or fourth Scotch, momentarily wish that he could actually feel those things.
Satan too is a fallen angel, a figure steeped in self-pity and convinced that heaven’s true heights were somehow unfairly denied him. But in the end both the devil and Don Draper need to sell it big; neither one can create, he can only attempt to sway. Satan’s greatest achievement, after all, was convincing Eve that the thing she thought she could not have was the one thing she really wanted.
Which is pretty much what Don Draper does every day.