"I saw his soul leave his body."— Lane Pryce
The season five opener of “Mad Men” is often fondly remembered as the “Zou Bisou Bisou” episode, and it’s the perfect introduction to a strange new version of the show’s protagonist. When Lane Pryce tries to reenact Megan Draper’s unforgettable, incredibly public birthday gift to her husband, he offers Joan Holloway the perfect descriptor of this never-before-seen Don Draper: seeing him embarrassed in front of his colleagues was like bearing witness to a death of sorts, and only his spirit was able to move and fly off to some other space or time. Newly-married Don Draper was like nothing we’d ever seen, and we were all just as shocked and entertained as Pryce.
Later that season, Bert Cooper tells Draper that he hasn't actually been at work, he's been on honeymoon—Draper’s body has been present (sometimes), but his spirit has been elsewhere. And Jon Hamm did great, subtle work bringing this abstract shift to life, through slight changes in his facial expressions and a lightness in his step. It's not that he doesn't care about his work anymore, but when we see his eyes light up it’s because of Megan, not an account. And when we see him in a rage, it's because of Megan, and when we see him most inspired by his work, it's also somehow connected to Megan (there was the spaghetti pitch and later that excellent Cool Whip bit that never quite came to fruition).
Megan leaving the agency tore him up something awful, giving us another side of Draper we didn’t know existed before—he was human, and he could be disappointed by another human. Later in this same incredible season we were given the gift of "The Other Woman," where Draper becomes this odd symbol of morality during the race for Jaguar. He won't allow the team to go the "mistress" route in their campaign and he's also the lone voice at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce refusing to offer up Joan Holloway in exchange for the business. It's a most feminist Draper, complicated by the fact that this is the same episode where he famously throws a stack of cash at Peggy Olson. Later, we'll look on (many of us, through clouded eyes) as she becomes the first and possibly only woman to truly break his heart when she moves on to Cutler Gleason and Chaough. As he grips her hand, holding on for dear life, we once again, see Don Draper’s soul leave his body.
Jon Hamm delivered those heavy-hitting highs and lows with fantastic aplomb, and 2012 would have been the right year for him to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. That year, the Emmy went to Damian Lewis of “Homeland” instead. It's true that there's too much good TV and too many high-quality performances right now for every performer to get the Emmy fans and critics believe he or she deserves. But if Jon Hamm wins the Emmy this Sunday, it won't be for his work this season. Instead, it will be a make-up Emmy for seasons past — a well-deserved one, to be sure, but still a make-up award. Make-up awards are fairly common—consider all the times a great actor or director won an Oscar for one film that certainly wasn’t their GOAT, after they were snubbed for some other project in prior years. Though it happens, the question of whether or not make-up awards are fair is another issue. And there’s something a bit problematic with demanding that Jon Hamm win this year because “enough is enough,” and it’s his turn now, which is basically what TIME just did.
This final season of “Mad Men,” split in two parts over the course of a year, took the audience on quite the emotional roller coaster. If you managed to hold back tears during those final seven episodes, you are indeed a stranger being than early-years Creepy Glen Bishop. However, the weight of this emotionally-charged season can mostly be attributed to the compelling narratives of Hamm’s fellow cast members. By the time the series finale aired, “Mad Men” had become very much the Joan Harris show (or a Holloway Harris Production). Christina Hendricks’ character, along with Elisabeth Moss' Peggy Olson, commanded attention and in the process stole a bit of that Don Draper thunder. (Both are nominated as well — Hendricks for supporting actress and Moss for lead.)
The strength of those final episodes is a testament to the excellence of the show’s writing and ensemble, not a takedown of Hamm's great work through the life of "Mad Men" or the importance of Don Draper’s place at the heart of the show. We did watch him go through his own shifts in the final installments before flashing us one last Coca-Cola smile, but ultimately Hamm’s performance in this final season did less to deepen our understanding of Don Draper, but rather served to further the greater purpose of the End of an Era—an era that, thankfully, did not just belong to the handsome hero.
Season seven was a true ensemble effort, which is why Laura Schiff and Carrie Audino deserve to take home the Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series. It’s also the reason “Mad Men” is the only show with two separate episodes nominated for writing Emmys, for “Lost Horizon” and “Person to Person.” I’m rooting for “Lost Horizon,” in which Peggy roller skates through Roger’s office and later strolls, cigarette firmly in place, into McCann with Cooper’s “octopus pleasuring a lady” painting, myself.
Perhaps the most interesting conundrum surrounding the Jon Hamm Emmy conversation is how easy it is for some to forget that the performance—not just the character—is what’s meant to be considered for the award. A recent Variety article making a case for Jon Hamm (and at the same time, an opposing case for Bob Odenkirk of “Better Call Saul”) focuses entirely on the character makeup of Don Draper, but Emmy awards, like Oscars, should go to those actors who did more than just act as a vessel for these iconic characters. They should be given to those rare actors who disappear into a role and render themselves somewhat unrecognizable, or deliver such a performance that the character we thought we knew seemed transformed (again, see the progressions of Peggy and Joan through Moss and Hendricks).
Oddly enough, Jon Hamm most succeeded in such a transformation this year in his guest spot on “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” as the terrifyingly charming and ridiculous preacher and cult leader Reverend Richard Wayne Gary Wayne. In this strange role, his ability to win over a courtroom with a wink and a smile (and a song) seemed like the perfect, simultaneous embrace and critique of his more famous character’s ability to do the same with women and clients on “Mad Men.” As he did with his comedic moments on “30 Rock,” Hamm subverted every expectation of his capabilities as an actor. But once again, he lost to another worthy opponent, Bradley Whitford (who was great in “Transparent,” though not as great as the good Reverend, in my opinion).
Few will complain if (when?) Hamm nabs the Emmy this Sunday. Every year fans and critics alike are reminded that while award shows can be very entertaining and the awards and nominations can certainly bolster careers—they surely mean more than we can imagine to the nominees and winners (and losers)—but they do not have the final say in the cultural impact of a series. That many of us can recite whole sections of dialogue from “Mad Men” is already a testament to its legacy. That many others can tell the difference between Don Draper when he’s had two drinks and Don Draper when his secretary needs to start hiding the booze proves that Hamm can navigate and deliver those important subtleties (and, yes, there are other examples, but drunk Draper is certainly a crowd favorite). That many of us loved watching him grow as a father, but knew Betty Francis was right when she told him he couldn’t raise Sally, Bobby and Eugene after she died means that Don Draper will go down in history as one of the most mysterious characters that audiences were ever able to get to know intimately.
Whether he gets a make-up Emmy this year or not is far less interesting than what Jon Hamm will go on to do next, and what the legacy of his first major TV character will ultimately become. Will Don Draper become the most iconic TV role to ever go without an Emmy win? Or will we choose, instead, to remember the role as that of a man whose soul—every so often—left his body right in front of our eyes, before swiftly returning to that square-jawed, finely tuned mad man machine? Jon Hamm might not have delivered such a performance in 2015, but this doesn’t take away from the fact that his previous work on the series made the end of “Mad Men” one of the most important, defining moments in this Golden Age of television.