April 17th, 2014
Last season Don Draper disappeared. This season he’s trying to come back.
Don’s first pitch of Season 6 saw an empty suit left on an empty beach and line of footprints leading into the sea, it’s message underscored by the tag line “Hawaii. The jumping off point.” So, what happened to him? Asked the Royal Hawaiian reps. Where’s our hotel? Where indeed? The rest of the season saw Don pitch ad after ad without a subject or a product. All of them brilliant, most of them failures.
Don’s pitches are more than artful constructions, they’re fed by his hopes and dreams. Hopes and dreams that dissolved throughout the season as his second marriage fell apart, his drinking worsened and his old habits – other women – offered no comfort. Ultimately Don was rejected at work by his partners, who put him on gardening leave, in love by his wife, who left for California to pursue her career, and his mistress, who broke off the affair. No wonder his ideas revolved around emptiness. Don Draper as we have known him, the very definition of professional and romantic success, was disappearing before our eyes.
No wonder he wanted to know what Jonesy the doorman saw when he died.
Ironically, this dissolution was driven in large part by the one decisive move Don made all season, the merging of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce with Cutler Gleason and Chaugh. On the face of it a wildly successful ploy, but seen within the context of Don’s season long obsession with absence, his own included, it served another purpose, the creation of a company where Don Draper was no longer essential. The rest of the season saw Don deeply conflicted about this course of action. On the one hand he attempted to undermine his fellow Creative director, Ted Chaugh, at almost every turn. On the other he continuously handed off work to the very same man and behaved so unprofessionally that his colleagues saw fit to expel him.
Season 7 opens on Don completely adrift. No real home, no real job, no real marriage, no mistress and apparently no desire to undertake another ruinous affair. A man living between time zones (“I fly a lot”). A man who isn’t needed by his wife or in his place of work, where Creative has been usurped by Lou Avery, a character without an artistic bone in his body (Duck’s final revenge!). Even his apartment lacks integrity – that patio door just won’t close. There’s a real sense that Don Draper as we’ve always known him has ceased to exist. All that’s left is the money, the brylcreem and a fedora that’s ten years out of date. He was, afterall, a man designed for another time.
Which is why Don’s introduction in Time Zones to the beat of The Spencer Davis Group’s I’m a Man is so fascinating. The song is one long declaration of presence and certainty: “I’m a man, yes I am, and I can’t help but love you so”. It’s message reinforced by visuals that remind the viewer just why Mad Men is the most glamourous show on television. All of which is is of course undercut when we revert from the sexy surety of slo-mo to real time: Don’s late and, well, he might be a man, but Megan’s going to be doing the driving.
This undercutting is echoed throughout Time Zones, and it’s consistently preceded by efforts to assert an identity. Joan fights to be seen as a successful account woman, Peggy relentlessly tries to convince Lou of her creative talent, Freddy works to convince the world that he’s a creative genius. And then there’s Don. Don who tells everyone that he has to “go to work” when he doesn’t have a job. Don who drops a ten tonne television into his sometime wife’s living room.
Which brings ut to AccuTron Time. A concept that couldn’t be further away from Don’s phantom pitches last season. Not only do we see the consumer and the product, we see both concretely defined. As Freddy tells us, “It *is* Swiss. It *is* accurate. It *is* the height of design and technology.” AccuTron is nothing if not emphatic, which make the twist at the episode’s end such a sucker punch. These words that insist on full-colour presence are counterpointed by a startling absence, their author Donald Draper. Freddy is channelling Don, mouthing his words, acting on his direction, but Don isn’t there in that room sitting across from the client.
But he wants to be. How he’ll look when he arrives is the question.