In keeping with the speculation that attends every new season of Mad Men, my latest piece for PopMatters bats around the idea that the rhythms of Don Draper’s storyline look more than a little like the trajectory of that falling man in the show’s opening credits.
Below is the piece before it fell into editorial clutches!
Waiting for the Fall: Don Draper’s Next Pose
Getting one’s bearings in a Mad Men season premiere has become one of the show’s distinctive pleasures. Unlike other TV dramas that may lure us back by means of the last season’s cliffhanger finale, the first episode of a Mad Men season appeals to our curiosity about its characters. We know that in the time that has elapsed, the characters will have continued to live their lives. We want to know what has happened. (Has Peggy switched from Peter Pan collars to blazers for good? Will anyone in the office have listened to Jimi Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced”? Has Megan’s commercial for Butler Shoes launched her acting career? Will Pete have settled into a Manhattan pied à terre?) And how long has it been? A year? Longer?
We can’t base our predictions for the new season on cliffhanger logic, yet Mad Men has in fact established its own narrative logic – one that can be traced from season to season. You might even make the case that the beats of a Mad Men story arc are rehearsed in the show’s opening credits. There’s the figure of the well-heeled businessman stepping into his office, only to begin a freefall past a billboard landscape flaunting images of both happy families and seductive women. Just when it seems like it’s all over for the freefalling businessman, we find him reliably restored to his position, one arm draped proprietarily over the back of his chair, cigarette in hand.
It’s easy enough to see Don Draper in this iconic ad man, based on the suave pose of the silhouette alone, but there’s more to it than that. “We live in a culture where people can transform themselves,” show-runner Matt Weiner has observed. “‘We have a phrase: ‘Find a job, then become the person who does it.’ Don is one of those people.” Don, in fact, effects this kind of transformation in every aspect of his life: he seems to exist only in a rotation of iconic roles, posing first as the self-made career man, next as the dashing Lothario, then as the upstanding family man. For Don, these roles function not in harmony but as mutually exclusive masks: he has to drop one to take on another. Appropriately, the very first episode of the series traces this course in full. We first see Don drinking alone in a pose not so different from that of the silhouetted figure in the opening credits, follow him through dalliances with two different women and a work day as the creative virtuoso of his advertising firm, and only in the final moments watch him return to a family and home that could have been plucked from a Norman Rockwell print.
Yet Don’s ultimate discontentment with any one of these roles is the tension that drives the show. Outwardly, he is always posing. Internally, though, you might say that he is in perpetual freefall, only grasping at possibilities as he plummets: bathing beauties and gartered thighs, a cozy nuclear family, a tumbler of fine whisky, a pair of wedding rings. Ungrounded as he is, Don shifts from one carefully managed pose to another on a daily basis (think of that drawer-full of newly pressed Oxford shirts in his office). However, the fall that typically spans a season story arc is not so controlled. That is, over the course of a season, one role typically suffers at the expense of another. Thus the first few seasons saw Don’s marital infidelities nearly sink his role as family man on more than a few occasions; you can see him there in freefall: down, down, down past the women and the drink with a passing glance at happy families. Yet that family life — the dog, the 2.5 kids, and the Princess Grace Doll of a wife — was itself an advertisement for the American Dream and a hugely important component of the successful life Don had built for himself. And so, every time, he would catch himself just before hitting the ground.
At last, though, in Season 4, Don hit bottom. He lost the family that once was safely tucked away on the Hudson Line and at least dented the veneer of his Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce pose (when he threw up in the office men’s room, he didn’t bother to change out of his vomit-stained shirt). Still, when he finally pulled himself up, like the Don of Seasons 1 through 3, he simply procured another made-to-order bride. Much as Season 2 ends with Don clasping his pregnant wife’s hand after having nearly destroyed their model family life, Season 4 closes on Don beside the new model (an actress, in fact) in bed. Predictably , then, we spent all of Season 5 wondering exactly how and when Don would first fall away from his new wife. We had, that is, learned the narrative rhythm.
But if Season 5 intrigued us, it was because Don Draper finally took a different course: He remained faithful to—and arguably in love with—his wife for an entire season. Instead, it was his persona at work that nearly fell away; that was the role that suffered. Yet Don’s reprisal of his husband role was not entirely untroubled. And so, when the Season 5 finale finds Don drinking alone in a bar, predictably approached by an attractive young woman, the question she puts to him is significant. “Are you alone?” she asks.
The déja vu of that moment is unmistakable. By now, we’ve seen Don in that pose, alone at the bar, a million times. One can imagine, too, that that’s how it happened with Don’s first wife: one day the honeymoon was just over — and Don found himself alone at a bar. Now, at the close of Season 5, Don has just left his new wife on the set of a low-budget commercial, its fairytale-themed backdrop shrinking into the distance as he walks away from it and strides into a bar, alone. When the woman at the bar asks if he’s alone, Don looks at her — but he doesn’t necessarily answer. There he is, the inscrutable silhouette, assuming his pose.
That question, really, and that pose, are as much of a cliffhanger as Mad Men will ever give us. And it’s not that we don’t know the answer. We know that Don Draper is always, essentially, alone. The closing shot of each season’s finale suggests as much: it’s always Don we see, alone. In the Season 1 finale, it’s Don the failed family man, head in hands in the empty Draper home. Season 2 faded out on Don’s vacant gaze even as he sat with the weight of the family life he’d just reclaimed. By the end of Season 3, Don had finally jettisoned the family man role: as the screen darkens, we see him walking, a suitcase in either hand, up the steps of a Midtown hotel, alone. And while the Season 4 finale found him slipping into another marriage with alacrity, sliding back into a familiar role, the closing shot moves from Don and Megan beside each other in bed to Don’s face alone – awake and pensive. While the sequence of these closing moments follow sthe course traced every week by the silhouetted falling man, from fall to reassumed pose, they also reiterate Don’s inability to fully inhabit any one role: he may be wearing the ring or sitting at the kitchen table, but there’s a limit to his engagement.
That Season 5 finale, then, questions the closing shot we’ve anticipated. Is Don still alone? We know that Don Draper is due for a fall. The open question is which pose he’ll have assumed by the end of the season.
*Props to Erich Strom for some editorial assists.