The Three Strike Rule: “Mad Men”

Written by Television, The Three Strike Rule

I believe that like any great character of fiction, we see a part of ourselves in Don Draper. We see a human being with faults, albeit ones that are amplified by being the central character of a hit TV series. The lucky few out there who’ve never questioned their purpose and meaning in the world probably aren’t the people making Mad Men one of the most watched series on cable television.

Mad Men wraps up its fourth season tonight on AMC and for anyone who hasn’t been watching, you’ve missed Emmy winning show’s finest cycle of episodes since it first came on the air in 2007. The focus of this season has been Don Draper, specifically, who is Don Draper? In fact, the opening moments of the season premiere had a reporter posing that question to Draper and the slick ad man couldn’t deliver a definitive answer. For 12 weeks, he’s had to claw through his past in an attempt to figure out who he really is and exactly what it is he stands for.

For years, Draper (Jon Hamm) has related success, wealth and family as the definition of what a man is; however, this season has seen the typically confident Draper struggle with the many facets of his life. Having divorced his bitter wife, Betty (January Jones), Draper’s family is in a shambles. Not that he was ever a good husband. Sure, he’s been a  provider, but Draper has slept with more women than he can remember and lied about his true identity to his trophy wife. And what kind of role model has he ever been for his children? Everything that this man has is founded on a lie.

Longtime viewers know that Draper is was born Dick Whitman, the son of a poor farmer and a prostitute, and that he assumed the identity of Don Draper after a military hospital mix-up gave him the name of a fallen soldier and the dead man his. What would his children, especially his precocious daughter, Sally (this season’s secret weapon, Kiernan Shipka), think of their father if they found out that he was a liar and a cheat?

While Draper seems to be plenty wealthy as the partner in an ad agency and one of the most well regarded creative men in the ad business, as the season is coming to a close that agency is in a disarray, on the verge of going under. Everything that Draper has worked for- family, wealth and success- are ready to come apart and we’re left wondering what will happen to this man.

Why should we care about Draper? He’s a man who treats his underlings like shit; a man who is seemingly uncaring when it comes to his kids (although that may just be how men acted in the 60’s); and a man who can’t remain faithful, even to the one woman he finds who understands him and believes in him (that would be Cara Buono’s Dr. Faye Miller)? I believe that like any great character of fiction, we see a part of ourselves in Don Draper. We see a human being with faults, albeit ones that  are amplified by being the central character of a hit TV series. The lucky few out there who’ve never questioned their purpose and meaning in the world probably aren’t the people making Mad Men one of the most watched series on cable television.

Don Draper/Dick Whitman is an everyman who’s risen to the top of his world by using nothing but luck, hard work and, as we saw this season in a flashback that shows Draper taking advantage of Roger Sterling’s alcoholism, cunning intuition. For the same reason we root a Bruce Springsteen to become a famous rock star or a Tom Hanks to become a famous actor, we look past the shortcomings of a Don Draper and hope that he will become the great man he has hinted at being. Throughout season 4, we’ve seen Draper show sides of his greatness and I’ve personally rooted for him to curtail his drinking and become a better father. He’s come close, oh so close.

It helps that Draper is portrayed by the immensely talented Hamm, an actor who seemed to come out of nowhere when the show premiered and has emerged as one of the finest actors working (not only in drama, but in comedy, too, as seen in his stints on 30 Rock and hosting Saturday Night Live). Because of the construct of this particular season and Mad Men creator, Matthew Weiner’s decision to make this year about that one question, Hamm has been required to carry the bulk of the season on his shoulders. Meanwhile, exemplary actors like Elizabeth Moss (as Peggy Olson), Vincent Kartheiser (as Pete Campbell), John Slattery (as Roger Sterling) and Jared Harris (as Lane Pryce) have been relegated to supporting status.

This season, Hamm has shown us new sides to Draper. We’ve seen him desperate for attention and giddy with delight when he won a major award; we’ve seen his scared and impotent when his true identity was on the verge of being revealed to the government; and we’ve seen him as a shattered, emotional wreck when his oldest friend, Anna Draper (Melinda Page Hamilton)- the real Don Draper’s widow and confidant to Hamm’s Draper- dies from cancer.

That particular episode, “The Suitcase,” featured the finest acting by Hamm in all four seasons of the show. Together with a stable and splendid Moss alongside him, the two actors helped create one of the most riveting and beautiful hours of television this year. The term “instant classic” doesn’t begin to describe “The Suitcase.”  If Hamm and Moss are overlooked once again at next year’s Emmy Awards, there is something very wrong with the Television Academy.

Whatever the future holds for Don Draper and Mad Men after this season, as I sure the focus of the series will shift in season five  to include more ensemble work, it feels as if tonight’s episode is the culmination of four years. It feels as if the question posed by the reporter as this season opened was actually the question Weiner and his staff have been exploring since day one and after tonight, hopefully, Don Draper will know who he is and he’ll be able to take the next step in his remarkable journey.