Monday, May 12, 2014

Don Draper Shrugged

"What happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American. He wasn't in touch with his feelings. He just did what he had to do."
— Tony Soprano

If you believe Mad Men, Gary Cooper went to work with the usual gang of advertising idiots on Madison Avenue. Specifically, Gary Cooper's character from The Fountainhead. After that, he took up drinking and changed his name to Don Draper.

Don Draper is basically an Ayn Rand character. He's smart, fearless and ridiculously good at his job; has an uncompromising set of standards; faces reality for what it is and deals with it; is indifferent to the opinions of others; always speaks his mind; and appeals to the ladies. But here things get complicated ...

Don drinks and compromises his standards all the time. He's an Ayn Rand character -- but instead of building skyscrapers or motors that pull free electricity from the earth's magnetic field, he works in advertising. Slinging bullshit is his job. (My apologies to admen everywhere. I understand that BS is an important fertilizer in our thriving economy.) But my point remains ...

Don is a character of absolute integrity who excels at his job because of his ruthless high standards and self-honesty -- and that job happens to be slinging bullshit. On top of that, he's a fictional character. Don Draper is really Dick Whitman -- a working class zero raised in a whorehouse. Due to a mix-up of name tags in Korea, Dick became Don. He assumed a rich, successful, dead officer's identity. More accurately, he stole the officer's name and invented a new identity.

Which makes Don more like a Kurt Vonnegut hero. "Be careful what you pretend to be, you might turn into it," as Kurt was fond of saying. The hero of Mother Night pretended to be a Nazi fink with a demoralizing radio show -- helping the OSS send coded messages, natch -- but he ultimately couldn't shake the guilt of his false self. Contrariwise, the hero of David Brin's The Postman pretended to be a hero and ultimately became that hero. So it works both ways. 

If America is the land of reinvention, we can all rewrite our stories, and turn into whatever fictional character we want to be. That seemed to be the immoral moral of Mad Men, until Don fessed up to acquiring his love of chocolates in a whorehouse at a high level meeting with Hershey executives. After that, he revealed his dirty past to his kids. Don came clean. But he didn't stay that way.

In this season, Don promptly jumped right back into the muck. He's a sell-out. He's decadent. He takes shit from peers, friends and family. An Ayn Rand hero he ain't.  Or Kurt Vonnegut hero, David Brin, hero, or any hero you'd care to name. So what gives?

I want Don's story to be a redemption story, I well and truly do. The opening seems to imply the opposite. Don falling from the heights. Many critics see an implication of suicide. But, look closely, and you'll see he never jumps. Don's world dissolves around him. Then he falls. Which leads me to ...

Elmer Gantry. The Sinclair Lewis character from the book of the same name -- or the Burt Lancaster character from the movie, take your pick. 

Elmer Gantry is a religious con artist -- a televangelist in the days when they didn't have TV. At the end, Elmer  walks away from the game. Quoting the Bible as he does  ...

"When I was a child, I understood as a child and spake as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish things." 

That's the ending I want. Not the exact quote, but the feeling.

I want Don to turn away from childish things.

I want a !@#$ redemption story.

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