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Admit It: Don Draper Is the Worst
Don may be a product of his time, but it's not his time anymore.
by James Brady Ryan
Don Draper has been in our collective cultural life for nearly six years now, and in that time we've seen him (and many other Mad Men characters) grow and change in surprising and often difficult ways. From Don's mysterious origins in the first season, the show has slowly pulled back the layers of his tangled self, creating a man more open to the people around him and more fascinating for us to watch week to week. Oh, how we long for every warm back and forth with Joan, or comforting words to Sally, or moments of professional camaraderie with Peggy. Hell, even his friendship with Roger seems to have lost some of its cutting competitiveness.
There's just one thing we should all come to grips with before season six starts: Don Draper is a total fucking asshole, guys.
Don't worry, I'm not just going to rattle off a list of all the awful shit he's done so far. I will, however, start with that: he cheated on his wife repeatedly. He spied on her therapy sessions. He sexually assaulted a woman in a restaurant hallway. He's been casually racist, sexist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic. (And sometimes not so subtly; poor, poor Sal.) He drunkenly stole other people's ideas when he couldn't think of anything. Rationally, we should already know this man is an asshole and relate to him accordingly.
Ah, but we've always had a soft spot for our anti-heroes, especially in the current crop of prestige TV dramas. Especially when they're charming (check) and even more especially when they're hot (check, check, a million times check). It's not surprising that we so often give Don a pass for his bad behavior—he's a product of his time!—while we turn on Betty or Pete in an instant. There are a lot of reasons for all of that, too complicated to really delve into here. (Quickly, though: it might just be some culturally ingrained sexism! Just guessing. But also I am right.)
But here's why I'm telling you to start thinking of our favorite ad man as Don Draper the Asshole: it's going to get harder and harder not to. The sixth season is set to take place in 1969, and while Don's weathered some shocks of cultural upheaval before, it's nothing like what's coming. From the anti-war movement to the start of the modern gay rights movement, to Woodstock and the draft—not to mention the continued struggle of the civil rights movement—this is when the walls of the late '50s and early '60s America Don lives in really start to get some cracks in them.
Will the show mostly stay away from those issues, much in the way it's only lightly touched upon the civil rights movement so far? It's possible—Roger may have dropped acid, but don't expect Don and Megan to join Students for a Democratic Society; these people live in a day to day world very far from many of these events. But while the general lack of characters of color made it easy to keep those issues out of the story, the same might not be true for these events. Don has Sally, after all, who's primed for some teenage rebellion. Sterling Cooper Draper Price has shown a willingness to hire young, some might say "radical" talent—Peggy is the obvious example, but think of openly gay Kurt back in season two. Don may not work with many black people, but he interacts with urban youngsters all the time. How soon until he can't avoid the things he doesn't like?
I know what you're thinking: attitudes change! Don's been accepting of a lot of things! Maybe he'll have an entirely new personality this season! And yes, attitudes change—but those are cultural shifts, not necessarily personal ones. Don is accepting to a point: he may keep Sal's sexuality a secret, but that doesn't mean he thinks any better of "those people." He mentored Peggy, sure, but how many times did we have to see him take her for granted while young, male talent's voices were favored? The man's complicated, I'll give him that–that's why it's so much fun to watch him. But if Matthew Weiner stays true to the Don we know, and I suspect he will, we're going to see him increasingly stuck in his ways, increasingly out of sync with the youth of the day, and (probably) increasingly resistant to the monumental cultural shifts that are on their way.
That being said, at the end of the day, this is still a show about a brilliant ad man and the people in his orbit. I doubt that any of these events will overwhelm the show–I doubt they'll even be major plot points. (Mad Men doesn't really roll that way, as we've seen.) But the show is hurtling towards a split between what some may think of as "the old way of doing things" and "our way of doing things." When Don (or any of the men) were inappropriate with a secretary in season one, it was unremarkable to everyone around them–and, I think, that helped the audience swallow the bitterness of those actions. What happens now, when there's always more of a chance that one of those young women won't just take it, but push back? How will we feel then?
So here's my warning to you: accept who Don Draper really is now before you're dragged to it kicking and screaming. If Don were real and alive today, he'd be 87. (So, probably not alive, given his lifestyle.) It's hard to imagine, but he could be your grandfather who won't stop saying "the coloreds" at Thanksgiving and referring to your cousin as "that little sissy." His age group–hell, the age group below his–is still the most resistant to social change and it's four decades later. That is who Don Draper is, or at least will become. Can he still be fascinating, sympathetic, and charming as a character? Totally. Is he all bad? No; few people are. But the time for giving him a big pass is done: Don may be a product of his time, but it's not his time anymore.