Don Draper’s Inferno

(AP Photo/AMC Frank Ockenfels)

For National Review OnlineThomas S. Hibbs writes: With the conclusion of the first half of season seven on Sunday, May 25, Matthew Weiner’s acclaimed AMC series Mad Men has only seven episodes left (which we won’t get to see until next spring).

“…it is not difficult to see in the show’s unmasking of the illusions of the self-made man a critique of the world of capitalist advertising with its construction of images of happiness…”

Main character Don Draper began this season at the nadir of his career and personal life. The previous season began with Don on a beach with second wife Megan, now an actress. Reading the opening of Dante’s Inferno, he intones: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.” The book is a gift from Sylvia, a married neighbor with whom he is having a torrid affair but whom he tells at one point, “I want to stop doing this.” The despair in his voice indicates how incapable he is of freeing himself from something he knows is wrong.showsaboutnothing

[Order Thomas S. Hibbs‘ book Shows about Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from Amazon]

Season six proceeded to portray a descent for Don, perhaps reminiscent of Dante’s journey into the depths of hell: progressive alienation from his new wife, a heart-wrenching scene in which his daughter Sally catches him in sexual congress with Sylvia, and his self-destruction in the middle of a business meeting in which he breaks down and tells clients about his childhood in a brothel. The last move put him on an indefinite leave. Unlike Dante, however, Don has no clear path and no Virgil as his guide.

“…But Mad Men also manages to capture something of the attraction of the life of the entrepreneur.”

The question of season seven is whether, like that of Dante, Don’s descent will be followed by an ascent or at least a return to form as a Manhattan master of the universe. In the concluding episode of the first half, Don finds himself facing loss on multiple fronts: the end of his marriage, as he and Megan realize they have been leading separate lives; and the imminent loss of his job — especially with the death of Bert Cooper, who had reluctantly continued to support Don’s presence at the firm. But the episode ends on a high note, with Don’s job and his connections to the longest-standing members of the firm restored. In a final note of whimsy, Don has a vision of the now dead Bert doing a song-and-dance routine of “The Best Things in Life Are Free.” Is this a sign that Don is coming unhinged or that he has found his Virgil?

Yet Mad Men has not for some time been about the financial rulers of New York whom Tom Wolfe dubbed masters of the universe. Some have gone so far as to label and denigrate the series as a soap opera, although admittedly at least one critic has seen fit to defend both the genre and Mad Men as an instance of it.

In the first two seasons, the question was: Who is Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the impeccably dressed master of the universe of advertising at a Madison Avenue agency? A man with a secret past, a horrendous childhood, and a stolen identity, Draper is the archetype of the self-made man. As the revelations to the audience about Draper’s past grew, the question shifted to whether others, particularly his wife Betty (January Jones), would find out and what would be the repercussions once they did. Because he is fleeing his past, Don strives to live in one direction, forward. He lives by the motto, which he shares with others in the midst of painful events, “This never happened. Move on.” In one of his greatest creative moments, Don’s team has been assigned the account of American Airlines right after a horrific crash. As the team fumbles its way through various advertising schemes addressing the accident, Don emerges triumphant from his office to proclaim, “I’ve got it. The crash never happened. There is no American history. There is only the frontier.”…(read more)

National Review Online

— Thomas S. Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was recently published by Baylor University Press.

One Comment on “Don Draper’s Inferno”

  1. […] Pundit from another Planet For National Review Online, Thomas S. Hibbs writes: With the conclusion of the first half of season […]

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