Of Mad Men and Discredited Russian Philosophers: The Angst of Donald Draper

***DISCLAIMER: Massive Spoilers! But that should be obvious, right?***




Imagine a decade ago that I came to you and said I had an idea for a show. That idea would be to follow the lives of people who work in the office, in advertising, in the 1960s. You’d ask what happened, and I’d say, “Nothing. Nothing happens. They just live.” Would you green light the show? Probably not, but someone at AMC did and called it Mad Men, and the rest is history. Or at least soon to be history as the show comes to its conclusion.

For nigh on a decade (in show years; and kind of in real years) we’ve witnessed Donald Draper and the rest of the crew grow, develop, and collapse. All the while the question to the casual viewer is, “So when will something happen?” We thought that something was when Pete burst forth with the revelation that Donald Draper is actually Dick Whitman, to which Bernie Cooper gave a “Meh” response. The something was actually nothing. So goes the pattern of the show: Something major occurs, we think this is the *it* we’ve waited for, and it’s met with “meh.”

Yet, there’s an inescapable feeling that indeed something has happened, we just don’t know what that something is. After all, we’ve watched Don Draper live a “man’s dream,” of being successful, of marrying a woman half his age (who’s a french model), of drinking while on the job, and living a life with few consequences. But Don seems unhappy and unfulfilled. He fought to get his job back, only to continue to seek after other things. Don is never happy, nor is anyone else on the show. No one ever reaches the mountain and feels satisfaction, contentment is always a few elusive feet away, and for this we think something might have happened. Indeed, something has happened and continues to happen within the story of Mad Men: The battle for Don Draper’s soul.

No, this is not a Jesus Juke. This is not where I turn around and, much like the irate husband in this past week’s episode, tell Don Draper to find Jesus because “He can do some good things.” Rather, the battle for Don’s soul is fought on the existential level. One could say that the thing happening is the fight and struggle for Don Draper’s existence, for his identity, for his happiness. See, Don Draper isn’t really Don Draper, rather he’s two men. He’s Dick Whitman and Donald Draper. Rather than Draper being a cover so that Whitman could escape the horrors of Korea, Draper is also an entirely other personality.

Whitman is a carefree individual, not quite a hippie, not quite a beatnik, not quite an existentialist. But there’s no doubt that he loves life and desires freedom. In the very first episode of the first season we’re actually introduced to both Donald Draper and Dick Whitman. We see the businessman (Draper), the patriarch of the ideal family of four, living in the suburbs. In the darker elements we see a man living for himself, the ideal objectivist who uses anything and everything for his happiness. We also meet, albeit briefly, with Dick Whitman (though we don’t know his name), in having an affair with a bohemian-style woman, someone who seems incommensurable to the businessman. As the season and show progress the divide between the two personalities grows wider as the two fight for supremacy. 

Donald Draper gets things done, runs over clients and they shockingly love him for his abuse, is a man of action, and seeks after that which will make him happy. Donald Draper is a producer, a maker of ideas, a man that all others turn to when it comes to success. Dick Whitman, however, undermines Draper; Dick Whitman goes to California because of the real Donald Draper’s widow. Dick Whitman almost crashes Don Draper’s career during the Hershey pitch. And thus far in the last few episodes we haven’t seen Don Draper; he was last spotted in a meeting. Since then, we’ve only seen Dick Whitman.

The two personalities of Don Draper, of course, represent two different philosophies. One could say that the battle between Dick Whitman and Donald Draper is actually a battle between Søren Kierkegaard and Ayn Rand, or better put, between existential angst and objective absolutism. Perhaps I’m interjecting far too much into the show, or perhaps I’m extrapolating from the show.

Consider that in the first season, the eighth episode, Bernie Cooper pulls Don into his office for a talk. He gives Draper a $2,500 bonus, a large sum for the time, and then points to the book Atlas Shrugged and “says that’s the one.” Don looks confused, causing Cooper to say he knows Don hasn’t read the book. He then provides this summary:

“When you hit forty, you realize you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is, and I know what kind of person you are because I believe we are alike….By that I mean you are a productive and reasonable man and in the end completely self-interested.  It’s strength.  We are different, completely unsentimental about all the people who depend on our hard work.”

There fires the first major salvo in the battle for Don Draper’s soul. Ayn Rand’s objectivism is more than individualism on steroids, but about the producer overcoming all others not to just prove one’s self better, but to rule over them. Rand is truly the deformed bastard child of Nietzsche, taking his already crazy ideas and somehow making them crazier. Consider her own summarization of her philosophy:

“My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.” (Appendix to Atlas Shrugged)

In such a philosophy the mind is made king and therefore guides the body in happiness, but that happiness is only achieved through “productive achievement” (that is, in practical efforts; poets need not apply). To really understand objectivism, think of Epicureanism, dumb it down, mix it with some nihilism, add a bit of Enlightenment “objective reasoning,” and you have objectivism; a foul-tasting cocktail that stands as the Bud Lite to Christianity’s perfectly aged wine.

Donald Draper is a Randian hero of sorts; he seeks after achievement in the job, he abandons his family when they no longer bring him happiness (or stand in the way of his happiness), he engages in sexual liaisons for his own satisfaction. Even when he sleeps with his neighbor and his daughter catches him, his regret stems not from the act, but from being caught. Donald Draper is an objectivist.

If Donald Draper represents the objectivist hero, then Dick Whitman stands as Kierkegaard’s “knight of faith,” who faces the angst and battles the absurd. Whitman seeks life for the sake or life. While he, too, wants happiness, his happiness is not obtained through productive achievement or selfishness, but instead through love. It is no accident that whenever Whitman appears on the screen, he slows down, he takes in the moment and he enjoys the moment. He takes heed of Kierkegaard, “Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.” Not wanting to hurry past pleasure he slows down for all moments of time so as to enjoy them.

Notice how in all the scenes with Anna Draper, Don Draper is no where present, neither in name nor in personality. Only Dick Whitman exists in those scenes and he is so happy, one who seeks after love. He loves his family in those scenes, he is happy with them and dreads the thought of losing them. It is Dick Whitman, not Donald Draper, that tells his children of his past (partially) and tells his new wife – whom he loves – all of his past. In his latest outing Whitman pursues a woman, because “she seems lost.” Out of love he pursues someone and actually feels compassion for her, something Donald Draper would not do.

“When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world – no matter how imperfect – becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.” Thus, Whitman is an ignorant disciple of Kierkegaard, seeking love, seeing the world in love, and thus producing more opportunities for love. And while multiple works of literature have found their way onto the show, Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency stands out. It’s the poem that Dick, not Don, sent to Anna Draper. Yet, early in the poem we read, “I am the least difficult of men. All I want is boundless love.”

In fact, the poem “Mayakovsky,” quoted early in the series, deals with a man who wants love, but struggles to achieve it. If anything, O’Hara stands as the middle ground for Donald Draper and Dick Whitman, the announcer for their battle; two personalities fighting for control, one seeking personal achievement and the other seeking love. If Mad Men were a Greek tragedy pitting the villain Ayn Rand against the hapless hero Søren Kierkegaard, then Frank O’Hara would be the chorus.

Thus, something has happened on the show; we’ve witnessed Donald Draper fight to either follow objectivism or existentialism, to live for himself or to live for love. The conclusion to this fight is two episodes away and, to be honest, I’m not sure how it will conclude. My assumption is that in angst and desperation, Donald Draper will die (as a few poems in O’Hara’s Meditations conclude with death), possibly by his own hand. My hope, however, is that while Donald Draper dies, Dick Whitman lives on, finding a life of love. My hope is that it is Whitman, and not Draper, who walks back to his family while turning his back on an empty and selfish lifestyle. May the knights of faith always enjoy victory over the John Galt’s of the world.