Each season of "Mad Men" poses the question: Who is Don Draper? Over the passing years the answer has come in varying forms: He’s a dust bowl bastard who trades in his farmhand life to become a visionary ad-man in Eisenhower-era Manhattan; he’s an existentialist anti-hero who ponders life’s complexities in the arms of his mistresses or soaking in the teal-tinted swimming pools of Southern California; he’s an unhappy, untethered divorcee losing his edge in an industry he once dominated; he’s a man with a third chance at life who’s put his bouts of joyless self indulgence behind him in an effort to achieve redemption. But this season, it seems, redemption is lost.
Who is Don Draper?
He’s a depressive. "Mad Men"'s two-hour, sixth season opener, is a ponderous, slightly indulgent chronicle of Don’s emotional state. It’s become clear, over our gin-soaked years with Don, that he is a dark, restless, self-destructive man, and while there have been some gains and losses—marriages, sobriety, fatherhood, career—they all seem like temporary salves on a wound that won’t heal. What remains to be seen with Don, and what the episode seems to flirt with, is whether the day-to-day pain that he lives with is something pathological, or if he’s just like the rest of us, dealing with the givens of life: death, freedom, and meaninglessness.
Until the final minutes of "Mad Men’s" last season—when Don’s cocktail hour is interrupted by a woman asking if he’s alone (so many meanings!)—it looked as though Don had found some resolution between himself and the yawning void of existence. He cut down on drinking, stopped slutting around, and tried to be a good husband and a decent father. Though there were occasional lapses, it seemed like our hero with the thousand-yard stare had found some grace in his life.
As the season six premiere begins, Don sits on a Honolulu beach smoking cigarettes and reading Dante’s Inferno while his wife, Megan, sucks up electric blue cocktails and chirps a cheerful “Mahalo” to the seaside waitstaff. Later, when he slinks into the tiki lounge as his wife sleeps off her sunbath, it’s clear that his interest in the fourteenth-century epic poem about the journey into the center of hell isn’t just an eccentric beach read. There is something whirring underneath Don’s stoic surface, something restless and dark. It seeps out through the slow-boiling episode, culminating in a botched pitch to a Hawaiian resort company in which Don flirts with the language and imagery of suicide: “Hawaii,” Don’s tagline reads, “the jumping off point.” The clients are repelled by Don’s morbidity. “You know, we sold actual death for 25 years with Lucky Strike,” says Roger Sterling, now with sideburns, after the failed pitch meeting. “You know how we did it? We ignored it.”
Existentialist themes have coursed throughout the series, and they often surface with show’s ambiguous relationship toward psychoanalysis (Betty and her “nervous condition,” Pete Campbell’s suggestion of a death drive, Don’s pitches doubling as Pop Psych 101). Creator Matthew Weiner, an alumnus of "The Sopranos" writer room, takes a page from the pattern and mechanism that that Godfather of TV Drama set up in Dr. Melfi’s office, exposing his main character’s psychological dilemmas while simultaneously poking fun at them. “Oh god, Doc what is it all about, help me!” Roger cries in mock anguish on his shrink’s couch in the sixth-season premiere.
It’s not just that Jon Hamm looks so good doing bad, it’s transfixing to watch him sway between oblivion and existence.
Unlike "The Sopranos," however, Weiner assigns the episode’s psychological insights (or lack of) to everyone but Don, which keeps us guessing about how much Don truly understands about himself. Don and Roger seem to be suffering from the same existential malaise, but Roger approaches the whole meaninglessness thing with a bemused detachment. “Turns out the experiences are nothing,” Roger says. “They’re just some pennies you pick up off of the floor you stick in your pocket and you’re going on a straight line to you know where.”
Don, it turns out, is not so flip about it all. While Roger continues to find some respite from life’s absurdities by bedding blondes and downing cocktails, Don can’t quite seem to find shelter. “People will do anything to alleviate their anxiety,” a doctor friend tells Don. We have learned by this point in the episode that Don has been working out his anxieties on the doctor’s wife—and not having a very good time doing it.
So here we are again. Don’s defense mechanisms, or existential dread, or caddishness, have landed him in another woman’s bed. But it is heartening to see him behaving badly again. His slow-burning, self-destructive behavior is the most compelling aspect of the fantastic series. It’s not just that Jon Hamm looks so good doing bad; rather, it’s transfixing to watch him sway between oblivion and existence. It’s Weiner and company’s commitment to eschewing the Technicolor clichés of the era in favor of plumbing the depths of the human condition. While it was uplifting, at times, during season five to see Don do good, it is so much more reassuring to witness the great anti-heroes of TV, like Don (and Tony Soprano, Walter White, Jimmy McNulty included), degrade themselves, betray their own promises, and plunge deeper into the inferno. What a sense of kinship it fosters, to have the horrors and fuck-ups of one’s own life beamed back through your television. Like Ray Bradbury wrote in the opening lines of Fahrenheit 451, it is a “special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a journalist based in Los Angeles and the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned (Harper Collins).