Mad Men Season 7, Episode 1, Time Zones: The True Don Draper

When we last saw Don Draper prior to the Mad Men Season 7 opener, the normally cool and collected paragon of masculinity entering the beginnings of an existential crisis. Soaked in booze, he's landed himself in jail for the night after punching a preacher. He's alienated himself from his young daughter who earlier caught him in the middle of his latest affair. He’s angered his wife, Megan, by jerking her chain over his previous commitment to move to California, and he’s lost his job after coming clean in front of a major prospective client about his Dickensian upbringing at a sleazy whorehouse.

If we feel any empathy for Don it’s anchored in the irony of his attempts to fix the things he himself has broken. Admitting to being out of control, he pours out his alcohol and promises Megan a fresh start together in LA. The chance to open an office on the west coast, however, was an idea he stole from a co-worker, and later on, to atone for this, Don then offers it to one of the partners who is trying to save his marriage from an affair with Peggy Olson. And although Don’s honesty about his boyhood is courageous if not heart-wrenching, the timing of his self-cathartic admission is wholly inappropriate to the extent that not even his own charm and genius can protect him from the move by the baffled heads of Sterling Cooper Draper & Pryce to let him go.

The fa├žade of Don Draper’s world is self-destructing, leaving him with nothing but the ugly truth of who he really is, something the show’s writers hint he’s ready to face in the Season 6 finale when Don takes his children to the dilapidated brothel where he grew up. It was just enough of a tease to leave me wondering for months after which road Don would take in order to restore his suddenly shattering life.

While some are expressing their boredom with Don’s character and others are complaining about his emasculation, this is the moment in Don’s story arc that I’ve been waiting for over the past six seasons. Until now Don has always had something going his way, namely his career, and he’s largely been immune to lasting consequences. That, it seems, is about to change.

What’s amusing, though, is how the season’s first episode quickly throws up the illusion that Don’s world is still intact. Impeccable looking as always, he arrives in LA to the backdrop of “I’m a Man” by The Spenser Davis Group where he’s greeting by his alluring wife who pulls up to the airport curb in a bad-ass Austin-Healy convertible. By all appearances one might think it’s good to be Don Draper, except that most of the remaining hour is spent slowly deconstructing that myth.

Megan’s acting career is taking off in LA, and you soon get the sense that it takes precedence over her marriage. You also feel something’s not right with Don when Megan’s weaselly looking manager has to reassure the normally confident Don that his interest in Don’s wife is strictly professional. It’s then funny that Megan, who’s tipsy, is immune to Don’s storied sexual magnetism when they stumble home after dinner.

Don, we see, is no longer king of the castle anymore either, spending the weekends commuting from New York to Megan’s place in the Hollywood Hills where he’s warned about flicking his cigarettes and told not to tear ads from her magazines. When he purchases a large console TV as a gift to her, she get angry at the intrusion into her space.

Again, Don is oddly out of character turning down the advances of an attractive widower (Nev Campbell) he consorts in pillow talk with while on the red-eye flight back to NYC. His excuse is that he has to get to work, a line he’s given to Megan already too, but we soon learn it’s a lie. Don is out of work, reduced to pitching his ideas by proxy through freelancer and recovering alcoholic. Freddie Rumsen.

The show’s final scene leaves us with an atypical image of Don, raggedy in a bathrobe, sitting on his balcony out in the cold, very much alone.

For as long as I've followed Don Draper I’ve continually wondered what he would do once everything he had was taken from him. At the moment he seems precariously close to this point. Fans may not be happy to be presented with this version of Don who appears to be barely hanging on, but for me, a down-and-out Don Draper has always been a logical eventuality. Like it or not, his character must go there if it’s to be fully developed.

As with his role as a father or the circumstances related to his divorce, I once again found myself easily identifying with Don, this time through the context of his career. I know exactly what it feels like to be at the top your game, supremely confident in your abilities with a slew of accomplishments to back up your reputation only to be let go without warning.

I wasn’t near the ass Don was (or at least I don’t think I was). I never intentionally used and discarded people the way Don has. Regardless, when you lose your job you are utterly robbed of your confidence. You start to believe everyone, not just those you worked for, no longer has faith in you, and soon you have no faith in yourself. It’s in these seemingly hopeless circumstances that you are forced to make choices, choices that define character. As Matthew Weiner takes us through the series-ending season of Mad Men, I am eagerly expecting to finally see the true Don Draper. The only question, though, is will we love him, loath him, or pity him. 

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