“And who are you supposed to be?” the man at the door asked the charming couple as they stood behind their two children on the porch waiting for Halloween candy. That is the central question that seems to haunt Don Draper, the protagonist on one of the most thought-provoking shows on television today, AMC’s Emmy award-winning Mad Men. Played in perfect pitch by leading man Jon Hamm, Draper’s character is a complicated paradox of a man. As a dashing Madison Avenue creative director in the early days of a modern advertising agency in the 1960s, he has quickly climbed the ladder of success with all the trappings – wealth and status, finely tailored suits, a combination of fear and awe from his subordinates at the firm, and a beautiful wife and three children.
Behind the curtain, however, in the quiet shadows of his true self that only he knows – he’s haunted as a fraud, a cheat, a lush and an absent father. He stole an honorable friend’s identity upon leaving the army, hails from dirt poor rural roots and continually escapes from the reality of life’s struggles in drink and by bedding one woman after another. All of which is tacitly enabled by the partners at his firm and, until recently, his insecure wife. True to his name, Don’s life is a mirage, a façade that is ‘draped’ over him, hiding his true reality.
I write this not to recommend a TV show (although I do), but rather to look at Don Draper and consider what he means to me and to fathers and husbands everywhere. Ultimately, there’s more to cherish in not being Don Draper than there is to gain from being him. A dad’s journey is not an easy one. Finding the strength to lead, to love, to contain one’s desires that stem from selfishness, whether they be power, success, lust or excess. We all struggle with trying to understand who we are, with being uncomfortable in our own skin, in figuring out how to interact with those around us. Love, I believe, is the ultimate answer as a dad (and in life as a whole). Don doesn’t love himself, and therefore hasn’t the capacity to love those around him. He’s acting and juggling. He’s thinking only of himself, but not loving himself – he’s scared to death of life and hiding from it.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the deeply duplicative and troubled nature of his character, Don Draper has gained enormous popular and artistic acclaim in recent months. In fact, he was recently heralded by both GQ and AskMen.com as Top Man of the Year. Certainly in our household, Mad Men has become a must see, largely because of the mesmerizing allure of Don Draper. Sure, the unusual depth of the characters, snappy dialogue, and exquisite attention to detail in the re-creation of the early 1960s is fascinating and well done, but something about the glamorous train wreck of Draper’s character brings me back. Every man, I think, longs to have a taste of the myth that is Don Draper – confident, in control, inspiring yet mysterious leader, ever-ready with a dazzling idea for his clients. He is, on the outside, everything that our popular culture lifts up as the ideal for success. A 1960s Gordon Gecko. And watching from our living room, I can’t help but be fascinated by him.
A look behind the swagger, however, reveals the cracks that are tearing him apart at his foundation. He has no family, no roots, no friends. Everything is an act, one great piece of copy – but as vapid as the easel that sits behind the storyboard. His relationship with his wife is a farce – she was swept up by his debonair charm and now has grown comfortable with the surroundings that he provides for her. (Until the season finale, when she left him!) She knows that something’s not right, that he’s vacant and giving himself to other women, but she doesn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with it (surely part of the reason he chose her). Don has found that life, in its true reality, is too hard. It is easier to pretend, to create, to storyboard.
As a father, I’ve no doubt that he wants to love his kids, that they mean something to him, but he hasn’t the capacity to truly love them when he’s not there – giving his time and love to work or other women, or just not being engaged when in the house. The television and the bottle are constant distractions for the true engagement that his three young children need and long for. Their eyes show the uncertainty, the hesitation – lost stares that come from riding on a captainless ship while their parents are adrift.
For me, the biggest difference with my life today compared to 10 years ago – before I met my wife, before I had my three boys – is that it is not about me. As I try to lead my family, it’s about us, it’s about them, but not really me. This fact can be surprisingly difficult to fully comprehend, but a father’s ability to grasp this reality, and apply it to his everyday, may just be the biggest difference between success and failure.
I have a long way to go until I am fully living out this truth, farther than many who are reading these words, I’d guess. Watching Don Draper often scares me in the ways that I see my true heart cast up on the screen, the part that I don’t want anyone to see. But if he’s taught me anything, it’s the truth that the answer to those thoughts and feelings, which we all feel sometimes in varying degrees, is not to run and hide. It’s not to clamor to the shadows, to pretend and to suppress. The answer, and the only way to truly find happiness, to find success and to lead my life and my family, is to love.
For more in the Not Being series, read Not Being Derek Jeter