Father's Day special: Meditation on Mad Men's Don Draper as the ultimate distant dad
I know this is an odd sentiment to bring up on Father's Day. But when you think about real, flesh-and-blood fathers on this day, many of us wind up struggling to reconcile our experience with a different type of patriarch: the distant dad.
So as today's holiday unfolds, I wanted to repost here a column I wrote back in September about Mad Men's Don Draper and why so much of his story feel like a meditation on the life of a distant dad.
Here it is, offered as food for thought on a day I hope is centered on happier notions for all of you:
A childhood spent growing up without a dad in the home hasn't given me much experience with fatherhood, beyond the history I'm writing with my own children now.
But in considering why AMC's Mad Men seems so addictive, searing and affecting, I've hit on one theory involving the show's central character — troubled, secretive Madison Avenue adman supreme, Don Draper.
Fans of the show know what I mean. Dapper and demanding, Draper is master of the universe wherever he lands — creative, savvy and driven at work, given to plucking solutions from thin air and pushing his underlings to keep pace. At home, he's brooding and unpredictable, carrying a weight that seems both oppressive and unknowable.
Just watching Jon Hamm inhabit that space every Sunday night is mesmerizing; his Best Actor Emmy nomination was more a past due acknowledgement than welcome surprise. We'll learn tonight whether Emmy voters feel the same.
Of course, fans know Hamm's Draper is juggling two lifetimes' worth of secrets: from the way he assumed the identity of a dead comrade from the war, to the affairs with two of his advertising firm's clients and his penchant for ducking out during a workday to take in a movie.
No one in Mad Men's layered, exquisitely detailed world knows every facet of Don Draper. Which seems exactly as he likes it.
The show's 42-year-old creator, former Sopranos writer Matthew Weiner, wasn't even born in 1962, when this season's events takes place. Perhaps that's why so much of this show feels like a fantasy — the world a particularly imaginative son might imagine his dad lived in once he left the house and the family.
I can relate: Back in the day, I had my own fantasies about how, if a dad were in my home, I might also go on the fishing trips and baseball games my friends attended with their fathers.
So why not invent a world where dad is the backbone of his advertising firm, bedding a bevy of beauties and burdened with a mysterious secret? It might help a kid explain why his father never feels at home, even when he's in the room.
It's an amazing metaphor: that the show's ultimate adman is living a lie. In many ways, Mad Men is a meditation on the toll that dishonesty takes on Draper and everyone else in his life, especially his often-neurotic trophy of a wife, Betty.
And while Draper pays for his distance — you get the sense he never fully enjoys any relationship in his life — he also enjoys its power.
It makes women want to sleep with him; each fantasizes she can break down the wall no one else has. It draws other men to him, if only to learn what produces that aura of dangerous cool and mystery. And it keeps his wife and family totally off balance, unsure whether to chide him for his self-involvement or beg for his unattainable heart.
That may be the real reason Mad Men's drama works so well in the past. Dads today are expected to be involved — cheering at school plays, coaching little league games and helping with homework. There is no way a modern dad could blow off his wife and family the way Draper does without looking like a jerk.
But even in my childhood through the '70s, dads were a different breed. Stuck in the limited, traditional role of the patriarch, they could be stoic and reserved, commanding authority while bearing the weight of problems and challenges alone.
So Mad Men's depiction of Draper's universe is made believable and his actions more understandable — if only because so many of us have our own distant dads we've struggled to understand.