"Who is Don Draper?" It was the question that opened the current season of Mad Men, and the question fans of the show had been asking for several years. Unfortunately, some months and 12 aired episodes later, we're coming close to an answer. Don Draper, it would appear, is a pretty bad person. This has, in turn, created an even more puzzling question: Is there any possible resolution that could make us care about him again?
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We've seen Don Draper sleep with his secretary. We've seen him break her heart. We've seen Draper black out, wake up next to a stranger, and miss a scheduled visit with his children; we've also seen that, when he does get that visit, he just might leave them at home with a babysitter so that he can go out on a date. This season, Don has seemed almost like a cruel parody of himself; his drinking, smoking, and swinging sexual deceptions, all of the things that lead certain fans to idolize him as a sort of desk-job 007, have become increasingly frequent and exponentially uglier. By the time we saw him engage in a clumsy, drunken brawl with Duck, one of the show's only unambiguously villainous characters (oh, sure, Pete Campbell may have engaged in blackmail and date rape, but Duck Phillips abandoned a dog), it was fairly clear that Don's degradation was intentional, and intentionally excruciating to watch. We were meant to lose faith in Don Draper. We were meant to stop liking him.
What's less clear, however, is whether we're ever meant to stop disliking him long enough to care what happens next. Every marginally admirable improvement he's made this season—cutting down to only a few drinks per day, finding a smart, successful lady friend, looking very cool whilst smoking and allowing the soundtrack to play the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction"—has been undercut by one more hideous failure . The lady friend is neither smart nor successful enough to keep him from sleeping with yet another secretary; the journal where he keeps his sober introspection is (literally) tossed the second he sees a chance to endanger his company's future in the New York Times. Even when he's not actively working to ruin his life and the lives of others, there is the problem of his secret identity. Thus far, Betty has had to lie to the government about it, and Pete has had to turn away business to keep it safe. Knowing the real Don Draper requires you to cover for him, no matter how dangerous, illegal, or costly those lies might be.
And so, here we are, at the bottom of the season. His agency's most important client has dropped him, his career may be about to collapse, and he's pulled a ridiculously risky Hail Mary move that might also be ridiculously stupid. Last time we saw Don in such terrible peril was... well, it was at the end of last season, when he was in the midst of a divorce, his firm was being sold, and his soon-to-be-ex-wife had discovered his secret identity. Don's life tends to develop several all-but-insurmountable obstacles at this time of year.
Last year, however, Don concocted a clever scheme to save his company, salvaged all of his non-marital relationships with charming and heartfelt speeches, and swaggered off to a jaunty tune, ready to begin a new life. It turned out to be his current, extremely depressing life, of course, but that hardly mattered at the time. It was moving; it worked. Because we were rooting for him. No matter what he'd done, we wanted Don Draper to get a win.