Mad Men’s Don Draper: Woe to Those Who Deviate from ‘Pessimist Chic’Posted: May 12, 2014
For PopWatch, Jeff Jensen writes: The Monolith of 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most cryptic icons in all of pop culture. Back in the heat of the cultural conversation about the film, moviegoers wanting to crack the secrets of those sleek alien obelisks concerned themselves with many questions about their motive and influence. Do they mean to harm humanity or improve us? Do those who dare engage them flourish and prosper? Or do they digress and regress? To rephrase in the lexicon of Mad Men: Are these catalysts for evolutionary change subversive manipulators like Lou, advancing Peggy with responsibility and money just to trigger Don’s implosion, or are they benevolent fixers like Freddy, rescuing Don from self-destruction and nudging him forward with helpful life coaching?
“…optimism is a tough sell these days.”
Of course, Don Draper is something of a Monolith himself. The questions people once asked of those mercurial monuments are similar to the questions that the partners and employees of Sterling Cooper & Partners (and the audience) are currently asking of their former fearless leader during the final season of Mad Men, which last week fielded an episode entitled “The Monolith” rich with allusions to Stanley Kubrick’s future-fretting sci-fi stunner. Don, that one-time font of creative genius, is now a mystery of motives and meaning to his peeps following last season’s apocalyptic meltdown during the Hershey pitch. (For Don, Hershey Bars are Monoliths, dark rectangular totems with magical character-changing properties.)
Watching them wring their hands over Don evokes the way the ape-men of 2001 frantically tizzied over The Monolith when it suddenly appeared outside their cavern homes. Can Don be trusted? Do they dare let him work? What does he really want? “Why are you here?” quizzed Bert during a shoeless interrogation in his man-cave. Gloomy Lou made like Chicken Little: “He’s gonna implode!” (His pessimism wasn’t without bias: He did take Don’s old job.)
There are knowing, deeper ironies here. The in-show twittering over Don sounds a lot like our tweety bleatings about the direction and final destination of Mad Men’siconic representation of flawed, retrograde mid-century manhood. And working the 2001 angle, our skeptical wonderings about Don — can his “broken vessel” be repaired or is he hard-wired for destruction? — echoes the skeptical leanings of Kubrick in general and the philosophical questions about humanity’s fate posed by 2001 specifically. The Monolith — a silent sentinel of inscrutable intent and incalculable effect, and no guarantor of moral refinement — was visually referenced in “The Monolith” in the form of the black elevators doors.* We ask: Which way is Don going? Is he on the up-and-up about his onward and upward? Or is another descent into the Inferno inevitable?
*2001 was released about a year before the events of “The Monolith.” While it may have seemed lime a behind-the-times reference, consider that the movie had been a cultural phenomenon that played in theaters for months and that its icons had quickly and deeply penetrated the public consciousness — especially those moviegoers who watched it stoned. None of the characters in Mad Men directly referenced the movie. But it must have been top of mind and in their heads all the same. Where we saw a Monolith in those elevator doors, so did Don.
2001’s other famous non-human character, the HAL 9000 super-computer, was also represented in “The Monolith” via SC&P’s IBM 360, a monstrous (size-wise) and powerful tool that no one in the agency understands and most everyone fears will render them obsolete. The computer’s value to the company is currently TBD; for now, it exists mostly for show, to impress the clients. This, too, is another metaphor for how Don’s colleagues feel about him. Asset or albatross? How to use him? Do they dare live without him? As they wait for answers, they keep him contained but on display, as his creative reputation is a clear benefit — he’s window dressing….(read more)
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