Don Draper seems indigestible and ageless apparently by design.
This weekend, “Mad Men” approaches its series finale, and Don Draper doesn’t look a day older than he did when we met him, in March of 1960, even as time has lurched forward for most everyone else. His daughter, Sally, and her friend Glen sprouted up long and thin. His partner Pete’s hairline beat a slow retreat. His old boss, Bertram, grew his whiskers out and passed on. But Don Draper appears implacably the same. As we learned in the latest episode, even if you slam a phone book across his jaw a couple of times you still won’t see him bruise.
It’s fitting and strange that Draper should seem so well-preserved. He falls into the messiness of the sixties with an adman’s militant sense of hygiene. His teeth are the battlements on the castle walls of his face. Meanwhile, in every episode, the bodies of other characters are breached. Toes burst under lawnmower blades, oysters tumble out in a pile of vomit, an eye breaks apart under a cloud of birdshot. In the first season, Lucky Strike executives deny the harm in smoking their product, even as they cover their mouths to cough. In the penultimate episode, we learn that the occasional cigarette has given Betty Draper lung cancer; it’s spreading, and she’ll be dead in a year. “Mad Men” reminds us constantly that human bodies, even the most pristine ones, are miserably vulnerable.
Bodies loom large across the series. In the opening credits, a silhouette of a man in a suit plummets past bare-shouldered women who stand many stories tall. Bodily functions that are usually hidden from TV audiences make big appearances, as when the eerie neighbor boy Glen Bishop, played by the showrunner Matthew Weiner’s son, lingers at the bathroom door to watch Betty Draper use the toilet. And there are so many scenes of fleshly pleasure that they eventually serve as comic relief, like the time we find Roger Sterling picking up a call from his daughter—with his usual Fonzie-style animal magnetism—in a dark bedroom, surrounded by naked limbs.
Sterling, despite a heart attack in the first season, originally seemed as timeless as Don. He has also weathered. By the first episode this spring, half of the men at Sterling Cooper & Partners, including the silver-haired executive, had prepared for the seventies by growing mustaches. Now, when Sterling slips a pair of Henry Kissinger glasses over his nose, he suddenly looks several decades past his prime, and far more breakable.
Critics and fans have applauded “Mad Men” for the ways in which it reanimates mid-twentieth-century characters, but the show’s focus on the ruder aspects of their neatly dressed bodies gives away its early-twenty-first-century lens. In the past few years, many long-running characters from the biggest Cold War-era franchises have become more bedraggled and destructible. Has any James Bond ever been quite as mangled and bloodied as Daniel Craig? The original Joker, from 1940, had an evenly coiffed head of green hair and precisely painted red lips. But seven decades later, Heath Ledger’s twitchy drug-addicted Joker, on the other side of the crack epidemic and the war on terror, seemed to have lost his comb as well as the steady hand that grasped it. Perhaps it had something to do with the surprising sense of vulnerability felt by a country that hadn’t been attacked since the War of 1812. The new Joker, who, in Christopher Nolan’s allegorical universe, is as much a symbol of entropy as a real human being, tries to convince Batman that he lives under an illusion of inviolate certainties. There is no protection from the beastly nature of the world. “When the chips are down,” he says, “these civilized people will eat each other.”
The environmental philosopher Val Plumwood made a related point after she survived an alligator attack in 1985. “It seems to me that in the human supremacist culture of the West there is a strong effort to deny that we humans are also animals positioned in the food chain,” she wrote. “In my work as a philosopher, I see more and more reason to stress our failure to perceive this vulnerability, to realize how misguided we are to view ourselves as masters of a tamed and malleable nature.” Of course, this relationship exists in all sorts of pairings, beyond animal and man. After the corporate maneuverings of “Mad Men”’s final episodes, critics appealed to thesamemetaphor: McCann-Erickson “swallowed” Sterling Cooper.
Don Draper seems indigestible and ageless apparently by design. Among the staff of “Mad Men,” there was talk of whether Draper should have a mustache like his colleagues, but they ultimately bristled at the idea. “In my opinion,” the makeup-department head Lana Horochowski recently toldVanity Fair, “I think everyone wanted to see Don the same.”
That’s true of Don, but it doesn’t preclude Dick Whitman, the lowborn child of a prostitute, from enduring his own bouts of blood and consumption when not under the guise of Don Draper. As a child living in a brothel, his stepmother fears his coughing may be the first stages of tuberculosis and sends him to the cellar. Later, a prostitute takes him into her care and rapes him. As a soldier in the Korean War, trying to build a hospital for men wounded in action, Whitman hides on his back from artillery fire with the real Don Draper by his side. When the two men stand up to smoke their cigarettes, Whitman notices that he has urinated all over his leg and drops his lighter in a trail of gasoline, which sets off an explosion that chars the body of the real Draper beyond recognition. Alone with his dead comrade, Whitman takes Draper’s dog tag and becomes him; Whitman “swallows” Draper. Apparently, these civilized people will eat each other.
Don Draper, as a creation, seems to be the shield that keeps Dick Whitman from injury, even though, eventually, the Madison Avenue advertising world that the newly invented Draper relied on turns him from hunter to prey. “I’ve been trying to get you for ten years,” the McCann head Jim Hobart says as he stands over Don. “You’re my white whale.” Draper’s last love interest, a waitress named Diana, who readily sells her body and who has experienced a mysterious trauma of her own, brings this all to the fore. In an interview with Vulture, Elizabeth Reaser, who plays Diana, noted the parallel. Her trauma “takes her outside of time and space,” she said. “And it just means she’s almost, like, untouchable, when you’re that hurt, when you’re that broken by the world.”
In the Greek myth of Diana and Actaeon, the mortal hunter comes across the immortal goddess of the hunt as she bathes. When Diana sees Actaeon watching her, she covers her body in a rage and turns him from a human into a stag, a lower member of the food chain. Dick Whitman, in search of his own Diana, sheds all the protective trappings of his Manhattan life. He presses on a window in his new office, hears the wind, but doesn’t jump. Instead, he sells his condo. He walks out of his job. He gives his car to someone else looking for a new identity. By the end of last week’s episode, he’s sitting in a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Actaeon’s dogs tore him apart once Diana took his civilized body away from him, but Dick Whitman waits for the bus alone. There’s no one around to kill him and no skyscraper window to fall from. The new terror, it seems, lies not in the possibility that someone might eat their way through his mystery and get inside him but that, in the absence of things left to expose, all we have is Dick and his body.