By Brendan Rigney
Spoiler alert for Mad Men.
The American Dream. We strive for it, fight for it and almost never achieve it. This may be why we watch AMC’s Mad Men – to live vicariously through its characters. We are drawn more to Jon Hamm’s Don Draper than any other person in this show, but why?
Simple – Don Draper is the American Dream. However, within this parallel is a cautionary tale; one that urges viewers not to fly too close to the sun. Draper had it all: a beautiful wife, two children, a great job and prestige. He lost it because he built this life on a weak foundation – falsehood.
Don Draper is a lie. He switched dog tags with a deceased comrade in the Korean conflict and constructed an entirely new identity from this action – every piece of the Don Draper we see in the show stems from this. What’s more, Don becomes addicted to this, just as he does the ad man lifestyle.
To continue the charade of being this sophisticated businessman, he twists every piece of truth in his life to appear steps ahead of his competitors and colleagues. Point in case, when he goes AWOL in California at the end of the show’s second season, Don returns to New York and gets questioned by Pete Campbell, whom Don left hanging for meetings out west.
“Because I thought you could handle it,” the smug Draper says. Every viewer knows instantly that this was a lie, but it saved face and placed a new respect for Pete on Don. The lies formed a layer around that poor farmer’s kid, with almost no one ever learning what lurked inside this hollow ad man.
However, all the perks his lies brought him proved to be not enough, as Draper slowly dismantles everything. We watch as he loses one marriage before quickly remarrying. Briefly, he toys with the idea of remaining faithful, but that doesn’t last – he’s had a taste for living in the desolate wastes of debauchery. A life of self-destruction and reckless abandon is the only one with which he’s comfortable.
But what does this mean for the American Dream? Simply put, Mad Men tells us that it may be a red herring, or even toxic. Just like the alcohol Draper willingly imbibes himself, the American Dream promises power and prestige to be enjoyed briefly. Don may not have been born into this life, but chose it willingly. He is fully aware of the peaks and valleys ahead of him, and he chooses them anyway.
The show argues that the American Dream is a drug, and Don is addicted. Rather than settle down and live with some of the greatn things he “earned” through these lies, he goes on to dismantle everything. After knitting together a near-perfect pitch to Hershey’s Chocolate, Don picks it apart and comes clean, briefly touching on his less sparkling background.
This torpedoes not only the chances of landing a huge account for his agency, but also the respect from his colleagues and jeopardized his own career. After knowingly marinating in this form of existence, he chooses one of the worst possible times to come to terms with his string of lies.
Flash forward a few months within the show, and we see one of the pitfalls of the Dream – loneliness. Don is on probation from the rest of his partners, and his only friend in the world besides his estranged wife is Freddy Rumsen, the show’s running gag for all things alcohol-related. That’s about as low as you can get within the business world, short of getting fired.
Draper spends the time trying to repair every facet of his life – he returns to work as a lowly copy editor, slowly re-climbing the ranks. The upcoming season will undoubtedly show how he has responded to the ever-changing world around him. Has the American Dream dissolved away, or is Don deeper in the hole, more than ever before?