The characters on network television–and I’m not denying they can’t be compelling–tend to have just two contrasting facets. And these two facets tend to have an ironic twist: Jack Bauer hunts terrorists, but he acts like one; House is a narcissistic asshole, but he saves more lives than anyone else. With that in mind, I started thinking about Don Draper and I came upon a familiar quote from William James:
…we may practically say that he has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinions he cares. He generally shows a different side of himself to each of these different groups. Many a youth who is demure enough before his parents and teachers, swears and swaggers like a pirate among his ‘tough’ young friends…it may be a perfectly harmonious division of labor, as where one tender to his children is stern to the soldiers or prisoners under his command.
The ironic contrast is definitely at work in cable television. Dexter is a killer, yet he seems nicer than the characters around him. His justified killing is made more palatable since he’s surrounded by the crude, the power-hungry, the grasping, the weak, the stupid. The writers of Mad Men situate Don Draper similarly. The times are racist, homophobic, sexist, and chauvinistic, and Don certainly partakes in his share of these vices, but his manifests itself in more palatable doses when compared to the other workers at Sterling Cooper, especially in comparison to Pete Campbell or Roger Sterling. But back to William James. I think part of Don’s depth comes from the different worlds we see him in. He is not the same man at home with Betty as he is when he’s negotiating office politics at Sterling Cooper. Likewise, he seems to be someone else entirely different when he’s gained intimacy in an affair. But who is the real Don Draper?
I think the real Don comes out only for a brief moment during the classic pitch scenes. Don in the office is not Don delivering a pitch. During that brief glimpse, he is the artist, the master psychologist. And he can’t be that way in any other facet of his life.