Are you starting to hate Don Draper? Don't worry, you're not alone.
Don Draper doesn't kill people. He doesn't cook or deal drugs. He doesn't oversee an organized-crime syndicate. Hell, he doesn't even use the F-word.
But there's no question he's a monster, as Peggy put it so succinctly in Sunday's episode. He lies. He cheats. He seeks out opportunities to undermine and humiliate his colleagues. He cheats some more. He lashes out at everyone, women and children included.
Did I mention he cheats?
And yet, in spite of it all, there has always been something about Don that makes us love him anyway. We know what a scoundrel he is, but we just can't quit him.
His upbringing is part of it. We know he started at the bottom and absorbed some seriously warped lessons about love and sex along the way.
But plenty of people have had screwed-up childhoods, and we don't forgive most of them for letting us down again and again and again. (And again.) There's something else about Don.
I think I know what it is: Don is cool.
Being cool isn't the same thing as being nice. Far from it. When Don puts somebody down, establishing for the zillionth time that he has the upper hand, he's being a dick -- but he's also defending his alpha-dog status.
Being the alpha dog is cool.
But power alone isn't enough. Bert Cooper is powerful, but he's not cool. Not anymore. He can't be bothered to keep up anymore. He can't even be bothered to wear shoes.
Don's creativity, coupled with his proven ability to persuade others to pay him for it, is the true foundation of his coolness. Ginsberg may be more talented, but he doesn't know how to work a room. Ted may know how to work a room, but he's a dork.
Only Don and Peggy have the killer combination of creativity and street smarts that translates into true status.
Ted is a dork because he's too nice, he talks too much and he doesn't have good taste. Like Thelonius Monk, Don doesn't talk unless he has something to say. And when he does have something to say, its purpose is either to draw you into his web or take you down a notch.
In the show, we've seen one woman after another fall for this routine. In real life, I've discussed Don with a lot of women, and most have said the same thing: "He's a bastard, but I love him."
As time goes by and Don gets older, however, his cool is starting to lose its luster.
For one thing, it's increasingly clear that he has a serious alcohol problem -- the kind where you either quit or die. Drinking a perfectly mixed Old Fashioned is cool; puking in the potted plants is not.
For another, it's hard to be hip when you're on the wrong side of the generation gap. Sure, Don's still handsome enough to seduce a hippie hostess, but he's slowly losing his grip on the zeitgeist -- the one that has always enabled him to get the girl, land the account, cut down the rival.
He's not out of touch yet, but it's a matter of time.
Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad," envisioned that show as a good man's descent into evil. Maybe something similar can be said for "Mad Men." Matt Weiner, a man so defensively nerdy that he corrects people who pronounce his name the way it's spelled, has given us the ultimate specimen of coolness -- and proceeded to tear him down, drink by drink.
As Don's veneer crumbles, we see what he really is: needy, cruel, mendacious, weak, self-serving, self-loathing, pathetic, fake.
In 2009, Weiner told Vanity Fair's Bruce Handy that his true goal was to rescue Don and Betty's generation from "baby-boomer propaganda." At one point, he answered a question about Don with this telling remark: "Think of your grandfather."
What if that grandfather wasn't so nice? What if Weiner's central question is something like this: How on Earth did that broken-down old crank shuffling from the kitchen to the living room ever enjoy so much power, so much money, so many women?
Season six isn't over yet, and it's not too late for Don to pull out of his tail spin and make some dramatic change. (Divorcing Megan, whom he clearly does not love, might not be the worst place to start.)
But I don't believe "Mad Men" is in the business of doling out happy endings. If character is destiny, this show is teaching us a grim lesson about what happens to those who cherish their coolness over everything else.
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