What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?

Screenwriter Matthew Weiner
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(Lots of spoilers.)

I think that’s the big question a lot of viewers came away from tonight’s Mad Men finale with. Halfway through the episode: the bleeding at SCDP had been staunched, Don’s drinking was still (temporarily) under control, his friendship with Peggy was patched up, he was actually being a good father, and he was in the first stable, healthy, adult relationship we’ve ever seen him in. And then he made a terrible, terrible decision.

Matthew Weiner (pictured) has been pretty explicit about the fact that this season has spent a lot of time concerned with the very first line of the very first episode: “Who is Don Draper?” Unmoored from the office, house, and marriage that he called home, he became more desperate and frightened than we had ever seen him. All of a sudden, even he didn’t know the answer to the question, and that scared the shit out of him. So he tried to drown that slow-boiling panic with work, sex, and alcohol, but the more he anesthetized himself, the more things got out of control. It wasn’t until he hit rock bottom—and the final anchor to his old identity snapped free, when the original Mrs. Draper died—that he realized he needed to pull himself together and figure out a new identity. How appropriate that one of the key figures who was helping him do this—who may very well have, along with Peggy, saved his life—was a psychologist.

But introspection and self-improvement are both really, really daunting projects. Especially when you’ve spent much of your life scrupulously hiding your true nature from everyone around you. And especially when you realize that there’s no actual end point to the process. Don and Faye are good together. Don and Faye aren’t perfect. Perfect is eternally out of his reach. And Don being Don, and something of a coward, he doesn’t want to face that. He’d rather “move somewhere else,” as he said to Betty, and hope that place is perfect.

First he starts to slip back into old habits. The drinking gradually resumes its normal pace. He cheats on his blonde significant other with a brunette. When his old web of lies is threatened—when it seems like he might have to become Dick Whitman again for good, and face imprisonment for desertion—we see him more terrified than ever before. That’s the moment when we see just how deeply wedded Don Draper is to the “Don Draper” myth, and the enormous lengths he’ll go to maintain that fiction.

And then a crisis happens, and for Don, it must have felt like his prayers had been answered. He gets to tear all of that fuzzy, semi-articulate self-reflective crap out of his notebook and get back to being what he wants to be: a cipher. A ruthless survivor.

This whole regression is what causes him to ultimately settle on Megan instead of Faye. Faye’s been guiding him up that terrible, insurmountable hill, and he doesn’t want to climb anymore. He doesn’t want to go through the hard work of being, in her words, a person. Megan, he can deal with. Plus, she’s good with kids, and he still wants to project that picture-perfect Leave it to Beaver existence.

Short version:

Q: What the hell is Don Draper’s problem?

A: He wants, more than anything, to be an advertisement for the American dream. Because doing his own work to find answer the big question of season four—“Who is Don Draper?”—is too damn hard, and too damn scary.

(Kudos to Matt Weiner and the rest of the Mad Men cast and crew: season four was a season for the ages. And while the finale didn’t rank in the 50% percentile of season four episodes, it was still a richly conceived resolution to S4’s major threads. Plus, the stuff happening around the margins—most notably Peggy and Joan’s stellar bonding scene—was pure gold.)

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