In the episode In Care Of at the end of season six of Mad Men, Don Draper and the rest of the partners are meeting with Hershey executives. It’s a coup to have them at the agency. They don’t usually advertise, their chocolates are too well known. Don disarms the executives with a pitch that could have come straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. How when he was a boy his father would reward him for work well done by tousling his hair and giving him a Hershey bar. The audience knows this is an absolute fiction even if Hershey doesn’t. Don Draper is really Richard Whitman who lost his mother at birth and was brought up in poverty. His father was a brutal alcoholic killed by a kick from a spooked horse, a death witnessed by Richard when he was ten. Richard became Don when he switched dog tags with his commanding officer in the Korean War after the real Draper was killed in an explosion accidentally caused by Whitman. Don’s past is traumatic and abusive, lacking any true love or tenderness, his present persona a flawed, complex mix of brilliance and unpleasant contradictions built out of a dead man’s stolen identity.
The pitch works, the executive are readying to leave when everything changes. For whatever reason, Don suddenly begins to tell the true story of his childhood. How (after his father died) he was brought up in a brothel and that he used to go through the clothes of one of the prostitute’s customers looking for money. If he found as much as a dollar, the prostitute would buy him a Hershey bar. If this wasn’t enough, he then tells the executives they don’t need an ad campaign. No one knows what to think or say, everyone leaves awkwardly, deeply embarrassed. By this time Don is sinking into alcoholism, his behaviour becoming more erratic, as if he’s in a death spiral. Later in the episode, Don’s partners tell him he has to take leave until he returns to something they can recognise as normal. It’s really a request that he quits.
Thomas Mann’s novel, Dr Faustus, concerns the life of the fictional composer, Adrian Leverkühn. Close to the end of the book Adrian, in a final recitation, tells an assembled group of friends and colleagues how he sold his soul to the devil. “[T]hat already since my twenty-first year I am wedded to Satan and with due knowledge of peril, out of well-considered courage, pride and presumption because I would win glory in this world I made with him a bond and vow, so that all which during the term of four and twenty years I brought forth, and which mankind justly regarded with mistrust, is only with his help come to pass and is divel’s work, infused by the angel of death.” He then goes on to detail the terrible consequences of his damnation to his assembled friends and colleagues. It’s all too much for everyone and one by one they leave, until only a very few loyal friends remain. As D. J. Enright puts it in his poem, It is Poetry,
As Leverkühn began his last address
To the cultivated ladies and gentlemen
They were highly bewildered.
Till one of them cried,
‘Why, it is poetry! One is hearing poetry!’
Thus relieving them all immensely.
But not for long –
As the composer’s friend noted –
Alas, not for long did one think so!
They were hearing about damnation.
It sent the speaker mad.
The listeners it sent home indignant.
They had expected an artistic soirée.
Don Draper’s partners were expecting to close a deal with Hershey. The reality was too much for them as well. Some of them will never forgive him.
When in the opening credits, Don Draper’s office dissolves around him and he begins his slow fall through the images of American advertising to parachute somehow into his office chair, cigarette in hand, he’s Faust selling his soul for the rewards of this world. The one woman he seems to have shown his true self to, who he could speak to, Anne Draper, the real Don Draper’s wife, dies of cancer. He later repudiates his brother who them commits suicide. His success is measured against his growing emptiness, where Megan’s voice disappears into silence while she’s still talking to him or where he curls up at the foot of the door to his apartment when he can’t go any further or starts drinking first thing in the morning. Or when Peggy Olsen calls him a monster when he’s really only trying to protect her.
He’s one of the great characters of American fiction, right at the heart of capitalism and all its works. An ad man who is also its poet, successfully singing its manipulations of emotion, its stories, propaganda and rewards to the public. An insider who is really an outsider, a fraud as Pete Campbell, a quintessential insider, realises. And yet he’s not a fraud. The whole point of capitalism is to consume. (Beautifully illustrated when Betty Draper shakes the entire rubbish of a family picnic off the blanket and onto the grass in the park where they have just been eating, leaving it to litter the ground.) What does it matter who you are as long as you do consume and persuade others to do so as well? There’s just too much hard reality in Don’s background for him to ignore the dislocation between his past and present. He exists in a world of double mirrors where past and present, reality and the fantasy of advertising (which he does so well), his addictive womanising and drinking, are forever conflicting with each other, leaving him nothing solid to hold onto, not even the money he earns.
At the end of the episode In Care Of, Don takes his children to the house where he grew up to show it to them. The brothel is now a ruined shell of itself, isolated amid other derelict buildings. When he says this, Sally, his daughter, who’s already caught him having sex with his next door neighbour’s wife, looks up at him, shaken. Her questioning look asks, who are you, what are you? A question the character, if she existed in reality, would probably be asking herself for the rest of her life.