In the latest installment of a look under the hood of the American Dream, Don Draper brings his son a stuffed elephant for his second birthday and holds the toddler over his head despite being an uninvited guest at the birthday party in his former home. This closing tableau had a searing impact for men, like me, who can identify with Don's struggles as a man and a father.
The true genius of a piece of art set in a distinctive period is its ability to transcend time. The show Mad Men is known for creator Matt Weiner's obsessive attention to the clothes, politics, and milieu of 1960s America. And yet the show sheds as much light on 2010 as it does on a country yet to go through the so-called civil rights era and putting a man on the moon.
Before the show had become the cultural phenomenon it is now, I interviewed my college classmate about the response to the first season. Weiner was proud of the response he got from women who had actually worked as secretaries during the '60s. The now-older ladies often thanked him for his painstaking attention to the details of how they had been humiliated. From the start, Weiner's creation has had a feminist undercurrent. It has continued to ask: Why did we let that happen then -- and, even more important, how far have we really come in how we treat women in the workplace?
This season Don Draper has become an outcast from his own home, struggling to find his way as a divorced dad. An early episode showed him tucking his kids awkwardly into bunk beds at his bachelor pad. Don has to struggle with the dilemma of how he, not a particularly great father when he was home in Ossining, can possibly make up for his sins of the past and become a decent dad when he has limited access to his children. Last week we saw Don throwing up from booze and weeping uncontrollably over the loss of the one person he felt really knew him. Now he is getting in shape at the pool, journaling, and seeming to see through the fog as Weiner literally stops time and sound for Don to look around and see for the first time where he really is.
In 1997, I had my not yet two-year-old son and his four-year-old sister at my bachelor apartment for their first overnight stay. I often think the true turning point in my life was holding my son and feeding him a bottle that night. He slurped as I snuggled him. I inhaled the smell of him. His body went limp with sleep and I just stared at the miracle of my son. Then I held him for a long time, letting his soft skin and warmth take away the sadness in my heart.
Even though I was not born until 1964, Don Draper's experience is my experience. The outside stuff -- the clothes, the politics, the city -- are all different, but the interior life of Don Draper and the struggle as a divorced dad are dead on. And I know I am not alone, as divorced dads are a group who often suffer in silence but whose pain about their kids lurks just beneath the surface.
Coming to talk about this has not been easy for me. Weiner and I are not friends. I didn't want to watch the show this year -- in fact, I wanted to hate it. I am happily remarried. My baby son is now a starting linebacker on the Boston College High freshman team. My daughter is high school junior beginning to think about college. I have a son by my second wife who just started kindergarten.
But despite my misgivings, I began to recognize myself in the art: in the drinking and crying and finally the resolution to show up for the kids no matter what anyone said or thought.
After all the ink that has been spilled over the storytelling brilliance of Mad Men, it sounds like a cliché to say it is that great. But it is. Don is a character, but he is a character written for me and about a million other guys.
Thanks, Matthew Weiner.