Has Don Draper lost his touch? Or is he just out of touch?
In this season’s Mad Men America is changing and Don Draper is not changing with it.
Some believe that Draper is failing to keep up with the times. Others might think he is standing firm on principle.
Having built up Don Draper, flaws and all, in the last seasons, the producers of Mad Men seem to want to take him down this year.
They want us to think that he’s out of touch with the new women’s liberation movement. He reacts with petulance when his wife decides to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. He treats Peggy Olson with so much contempt that she quits. He allows the other partners to convince Joan Harris to prostitute herself.
The message is clear. In their zeal to tell us what to think the producers have reduced Draper to a caricature. The scene where he throws money at Peggy Olson is, to my mind, implausible and out of character.
Does Don Draper still have it as an ad man? This season he seems to be losing his touch. Fewer and fewer of the great ideas are his. He still pitches new business, but, last night’s pitch to Dow Chemical felt overly aggressive, excessively manly… to the point of caricature.
Again, the producers don't want to allow us to form our own conclusions.
In making a pitch for the Dow Chemical account, Draper is challenged to offer a spirited defense of Napalm. He rises to the occasion.
Yet, the show’s audience knows that Napalm is bad, so his defense is clearly designed to diminish him.
Now, when something bad happens, we know who we should blame.
The show seems to be saying that, given the rising power of women, the Don Drapers of this world will become hyper-masculine.
In last night’s show Draper seemed to be suffering a testosterone rush. He was tired of settling for small accounts from second tier companies. He wanted to go for the big accounts with the leading companies.
The show seems to want us to think that the new American culture turns men into macho caricatures of themselves.
When teenager and Hotchkiss student Glen Bishop goes out on a date with Sally Draper he tells her that the older lacrosse players were urinating in his locker.
The image feels excessive. The show wants us to think the worst of lacrosse players, about male bonding and about young men who are building character in a competitive arena.
If the show is describing a culture shift it is on solid ground. The Vietnam War undermined the martial and competitive ethos that had caused America to thrive in the years after World War II.
There was good and bad in both cultures, but clearly the cultural values of the greatest generation produced better results than did the cultural values that were practiced by the Vietnam generation.
One can certainly debate the point, but the show seems to be saying that change is necessarily progress and that only the worst reactionaries have failed to get with the program.
To its credit the show did a good job of portraying the events that led up to the suicide of Lane Pryce. And yet, most viewers and critics will come away believing that Don Draper has blood on his hands.
The show seems to want us to place the blame at the feet of Don Draper, for being insensitive, for lacking empathy, for not caring about Lane Pryce's pride.
Lane Pryce was caught embezzling company funds. He was caught forging Don Draper’s signature on a check. He begs for leniency; he pleads for understanding.
Draper remains firm: he tells Pryce that he must resign his post. Pryce explains that if he resigns he will lose everything, especially his visa, and will have to return home in disgrace.
Draper responds that he could easily report the crime to the proper authorities. And he is going to make good the amount that Pryce has stolen from the company.
Since Pryce forged Draper’s signature, if Pryce were not held accountable, then clearly Draper would have to take responsibility. He would have to explain to partner Cooper why his signature was on that check.
Hearing Pryce’s plaintive plea for mercy, Draper offers a compromise. He will allow Pryce to resign and he will pay off Pryce's debt. Thus, he will make the matter go away.
A disconsolate and defeated Pryce hangs himself in his office.
I believe that we are meant to fault Don Draper for the suicide. The show seems to be saying that Draper’s lack of empathy drove Lane Pryce over the edge. His advice that Pryce start over again were lost on a proud, aging Brit.
Draper could have called the police. He could have pretended that it had not happened. Faced with that choice, Draper chose a middle way that appears to be fair and just.
Unfortunately for the show, the Lane Pryce narrative arc rests on a less-than-credible assumption: that Pryce would have risked his career and his life and his family’s well-being because he was too embarrassed to ask the partners in the firm to help him out.
How did it happen that Pryce did not weigh the risk in committing a crime, a crime that would probably have been found out, when he was forging Draper’s signature. If he understood so well the risks he was taking when explaining them to Draper why did he not have enough moral sense to refrain from committing the crime in the first place.
It does not make a great deal of sense. Pryce does not seem capable of distinguishing between pride and false pride.
Moreover, if partner Draper is so flush with cash, why is partner Pryce in such deep financial trouble? If partner Pryce needed the embezzled funds to pay the IRS then how does it happen that his wife has money on hand to purchase a new Jaguar? If Pryce needed the money to pay capital gains taxes on the stocks he sold to buy into the SCDP partnership, why would he imagine that his other partners would not understand his problem.
To its credit the show presents both sides of the Draper/Pryce confrontation.
And yet, it also tells us what to think, namely that Don Draper is guilty.
Maureen Ryan expresses clearly what the producers want us to think, namely, that Don Draper needs therapy.
In her words:
Don's fundamentally crippled when it comes to emotions -- he has them, but he often doesn't know how to deal with them or even what they are. He usually self-medicates them away with alcohol or tries to bury them with work or women. He may be slightly more attuned to what's going on inside his heart these days, but that's not saying much, considering the incredibly stunted place he started from.
The strangest dichotomy about Don is that he both can and can't understand the pain and longings of other people. He can -- or he could, back in the day -- channel concepts like desire and nostalgia in clever or sentimental ways. So he gets people. But when it comes to the flesh-and-blood individuals around him, he often has absolutely no idea what's going on with them. His inability to truly put himself in the shoes of others lost him Peggy, it lost him Betty, it lost him lots of friendships and paramours and promising relationships.
Because he's Don Draper, he assumes that everyone else is like him. It's not a flaw unique to him -- we all find it hard to navigate our way out of our narcissism, I'm betting -- but his emotional cluelessness is especially pronounced. So he doesn't understand that Lane Pryce is not Don Draper. Lane is not a man who can reinvent himself at the drop of a hat, certainly not at his age. He's the product of a certain era and class, and he spent whatever bravery he had on getting far away from his father and reinventing himself -- just the one time -- as a spiffy New York ad man.
People who have imbibed therapy culture bromides tend to think that a good dose of empathy will solve all problems.
It will not.
Don Draper makes the best of a bad situation with Lane Pryce. He does not settle for either of the two extreme positions and crafts a middle ground solution that will allow Pryce to retire with a measure of dignity.
He should not be held responsible for Pryce’s death.
In the minds of most viewers he will be.