“Mad Men” recap: Who is Don Draper?

As the fourth season of AMC's hit drama opens, our fearless leader's ambivalence gives way to self-hatred

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"Mad Men" recap: Who is Don Draper?Jon Hamm in "Mad Men"

“Who is Don Draper?” This is the question posed by a reporter at the start of Season 4 of “Mad Men,” and it’s the one question that Don (Jon Hamm) can’t answer. Having grown up in an abusive working-class family, then reinvented himself as a man of means decades later, he’s struggled with his identity for years. He’s dodged the efforts of his co-workers, his bosses, even his wife and kids, to pin him down and force him to explain who he is and what he stands for. But the health of his new ad firm depends on his ability to define himself clearly and succinctly, to translate his life into a bold, heroic brand.

Don knows what the reporter wants from him, but he just can’t deliver it. Somehow, even though he crafts appealing images and identities for all kinds of products, he can’t work the same magic on himself. “Well, as I said before, I’m from the Midwest,” he tells the reporter rather primly. “We were taught that it’s not polite to talk about yourself.”

Not polite? If there’s one thing Don Draper isn’t, it’s a man who worries about what is and isn’t polite. Sensing this, the reporter ends up describing Don as “a handsome cipher.” Sterling and Cooper are angry at Don for botching the interview.

“My job is to write ads, not go around talking about who I am,” Don tells them, but he might as well be voicing the concerns of a whole generation of professionals encouraged to prattle endlessly about their value to Twitter followers, industry magazine writers and Facebook friends alike. At a point when self-branding has replaced psychotherapy as the cure to every malady under the sun, whether fiscal or identity-related, Don’s sudden unsteadiness couldn’t be more timely.

Although this isn’t the first time Don has struggled with the unyielding pressure to sell his soul to the devils of capitalism, this may be his most obvious misstep yet. Having achieved star status thanks to his cinematic TV ad for Glo Coat floor cleaner, Don believes, as always, that he can rewrite the rules to the whole game, whether that means lying to a reporter or throwing a prospective client out of his office in a temperamental fit. “This is a missed opportunity,” Roger tells him in his usual frank tone. “You turned all the sizzle from Glo Coat into a wet fart.”

Unlike Don, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) seems more than happy to go beyond the call of duty for the new firm. Recognizing that the most effective publicity for a product sometimes transcends traditional advertising, Peggy and Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) hire two women to scrap over a client’s brand of ham for Thanksgiving. Their manipulation backfires, though, when one of the women presses charges against the other.

Pressed to put up bail money (and more cash to keep the women quiet), Don is angry that Peggy didn’t run her stunt by him. Or is he just stung that she had a great idea but, for once, didn’t look to him for approval? “You need to think a little bit more about the image of this agency,” Don tells her, but he might as well be coaching himself. And then comes the real zinger:

Don: I won’t need you in the Jantzen presentation.

Peggy: Now you’re just being spiteful.

Don: No, I just think it would be better not to have a girl in the room.

Peggy: You know something? We are all here because of you. All we want to do is please you.

Down to his casually sexist brushoff, Don is the ultimate dysfunctional American patriarch: He can’t resist his ego-driven compulsion to be a leader, but he balks at the responsibility it entails. But Peggy is smart enough to know how to take the wind out of Don’s Mean Daddy sails. The notion that everyone in the office seeks his approval makes Don’s face crumple into that old familiar worried, confused expression. Despite his swagger, Don Draper is a man who questions his own worth at every turn.

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His ex, Betty (January Jones), isn’t questioning her worth or her judgment, but everyone else is, from her new mother-in-law to her own kids. At a tense Thanksgiving gathering at Henry’s mom Pauline’s house, Sally (Kiernan Shipka) says she doesn’t like the food, and Betty makes a scene by forcing her to eat a bite. Everyone is made uncomfortable with this scuffle and with Betty’s suppressed anger.

“I’ve raised children in my life, Henry. They’re terrified of her,” Pauline (Pamela Dunlap) says to Henry of Betty later. “I know what you see in her, and you could’ve gotten it without marrying. She’s a silly woman.” Henry (Christopher Stanley) puts on a strong show, but he may already be having second thoughts. He becomes cold after Sally interrupts him and Betty in bed, then can’t wait to make out with Betty in the car after Don shows up at the house. Clearly Henry finds the notion of stealing another man’s wife sexy, but cools at the reality of actually living with her and her children.

Lost as Betty is in this picture, like Don, it’s tough to feel too sorry for her; she’s either cruel or careless in every scene. She may have imagined that her escape into the arms of a safe daddy figure might’ve been more comforting, but she still can’t resist handling her predicament by playing the rebellious child. After Don tells Betty and Henry they need to get out of his house and find their own place, Betty is left smarting.

Betty: He has some nerve!

Henry: I know you don’t want to hear this, but he’s right.

Betty: Haven’t the kids been through enough change already? I can’t just uproot them with no place to go.

Henry: You’re not even looking.

Betty: There’s nothing out there, and he doesn’t decide!

Betty’s last line makes it clear that her driving motivation is to demonstrate, like a petulant child, that Don isn’t the boss of her anymore. Still, when she says “there’s nothing out there,” she might as well be talking about her discovery that life outside her marriage isn’t the dreamy wonderland that she was hoping for.

Don may be tempted to chase the same empty fantasy with Jane’s friend, a ’60s version of a “Rules” girl who’s already driving him mad with desire. Time to call the world-weary whore, who, in one of the most depressing “Mad Men” sex scenes to date (and that’s saying a lot), matter-of-factly obliges Don by slapping him repeatedly in the face. This is our screwy patriarch, all right, anxious to be punished for the tremendous guilt and alienation he feels.

Who is Don Draper? Whoever he is, Don Draper doesn’t seem to like him all that much.

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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