Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mad Men's Meditations in an Emergency: Don Draper Reads Frank O'Hara

The most important thing to remember about Don Draper, the lead character in the AMC series Mad Men, is that he's awesome. He's better at his job than anyone else in the industry, and he knows it. When he sets his sights on a woman, she comes to him. He drinks hard and dresses sharp. If he was in espionage rather than advertising, he'd damn near be James Bond. He's not quite 007, though, in that he's capable, in rare moments, of doubt and anxiety. But even the nature of his doubts betray his superiority to the common run of men: he wonders What It All Means, not just with a sigh, but with a passion that could at any moment translate into action. In some respects, the writers of the series have pulled off an amazing feat in that they've take the prototypical man in the grey flannel suit — a Manhattan office jockey — and turned him into a glamourous, Byronic figure. He's cloaked in mystique, and driven by inner passions, by yearning for self-understanding, and by a sense of outsiderness. He's capable of breaking the norms of decency while nevertheless maintaining our sympathy, even admiration. He's got alpha written all over him.

In the season two opener, though, which I recently re-watched as part of my ramp-up to tonight's fourth season opener, he's feeling uneasy. Frank O'Hara's poem plays into this. O'Hara first enters Don's consciousness when he's sitting alone at a bar having lunch, his grey suit immaculate as always. Being the ever-glib ad-man, Don strikes up a conversation with the next guy over, a tweedy, long-haired intellectual looking guy, a bit younger than Don. He could be an academic, or a theater guy, or someone connected with the arts. It doesn't matter: the important thing is that there's a reversal. In his ordinary office context, Don represents creativity, and we usually see him in this light, compared to his shadowy foils from Accounts, hail-fellow-well-met backslappers and hand-shakers all. But here, Don's the square, the suit. He represents the hip side of the office, but in this downtown bar he represents The Man. The point, already established for us by the clothing and hair differences is soon made clear to Don in conversation. "Is it good?" Don asks the arty, slightly younger guy, as he eyes up the book in his hand — Frank O'Hara's Meditations in an Emergency. Arty guy looks back, with the aloofness arty types reserve for those who visibly make more money than they do. "I don't think you'd like it," he says. Don tries to salvage the conversation by saying that reading while having lunch makes you feel like you're getting something done. "That's what it's all about, isn't it," says Mr. Downtown book-guy, with an ironic, even slightly sneering, air, "getting things done." Ah, the liberal arts graduate, and his compensatory condescension — it's like looking in a mirror, isn't it? But not for Don. It bothers Don. It's an attack on his sense of himself as creative genius, a role he plays so very well in his own dojo up on Madison Ave. It makes him feel like a mere utilitarian, and he treasures the sense of himself as belonging to the part of the ad agency that's above mere business, about which he is, in his way, as snobbish as the O'Hara reader at the bar.

Later, we see Don with his own copy of O'Hara's book, in his study at home. There's some defiance in this — he's not going to be told there are things too subtle for him to appreciate, or that his tassled loafers are unfit for the slopes of Parnassus. But along with this defiance, there's some insecurity. It's perfect, in this context, that the poem he reads is O'Hara's "Mayakovsky." In a wonderful voice-over rendition, we hear the whole poem

Now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
and interesting, and modern.

The country is grey and
brown and white in trees,
snows and skies of laughter
always diminishing, less funny
not just darker, not just grey.

It may be the coldest day of
the year, what does he think of
that? I mean, what do I? And if I do,
perhaps I am myself again.

The key words here are "interesting" and "modern," because Don isn't feeling much like either of those terms. The arty guy made him feel uninteresting. What's more, one of the themes of the episode has been youth, a quality Don — like everyone except the very young who, as Don says, know so little they don't even know they're young — feels is slipping away. He's been asked to hire new, younger creative talent, to appeal to the growing baby-boom market of the early sixties, and he's wondering if his talent, his particular mojo, is still relevant. And now he's wondering if he's even all that creative, if the downtown hipsters see him as a washed-up square. He needs to find some way to stay fresh, and not just on a career level: his habitual ways of finding fulfillment (chasing tail, mostly) haven't been doing much for him lately. Things seem as grey as his suit, really. What is to be done?

One of the best things about the writing in Mad Man is how it tends to show, quite subtly, that whatever's been eating at Don at a deep, not fully cognized level finds its way into his work. The show can be self-reflective about this — in a later episode, for example, one of the young guys Don hires is watching people in a focus group talk about their dogs. "They're really just talking about themselves!" he says, as each owner, without knowing it, projects his own aspirations and worries into his description of his pet. "Is this the first one of these you've seen?" asks Don. It's kind of a reference to the way the show itself works, with Don's best ad campaigns being projections of his inchoate desires.

So: in a couple of scenes where Don is trying to get his creative team to come up with an a campaign for Mohawk Airlines we see his worries about aging, and his need to reinvent himself, come to the fore. How to make a regional airline appealing? One of the writers, Peggy Olson, pushed to be creative by Don, comes up with the slogan "Mohawk Airlines: where are you going," accompanied by an image of a guy in a suit getting on a plane, a sexy flight attendant in a short skirt there to welcome him ever-so-sexily aboard the plane. At first Don seems resigned to accepting it, but he's not happy about it, calling it "banal." Later, he revisits the ad, and circles a small figure in the background, the man's daughter, excited to see him. He says that this is where the heart of the campaign lies. He can't quite make things come into more focus than that, but Peggy sees what he means, and gives him the new slogan: "Daddy, what did you bring me?" Don tells her to run with it.

Of course what's really happened isn't just that Don has, once again, proved himself awesome at his job, though there's some of this, and a speech to drive the point home. "You, there, feeling something — that's the product," he tells Peggy, "the people in accounts can't understand that. They can't do what we do, and they despise us for it," or words to that effect. He's reaffirmed his sense of himself as creative, as the imaginative guy, not the suit. One could make much of this and claim that it's a window into the paradox of commercial creativity, where the advertising "creative" wants the money of a businessman, and the freedom of the artist, and has to defend himself on all fronts — against the suits who envy him, and against the arty types who think he's a suit. All this is real, but there's more, too: Don has redefined his relationship to youth. Up to now, he's been seeking happiness the way a young guy does (the aforementioned chasing of tail). But with this ad, he sees a new role for himself — not as lover, ("where are you going?") but as father ("Daddy, what did you bring me?"). His mentoring of Peggy Olson — pushing her to new levels of creativity, rather than trying to come up with better ideas on his own — mirrors this paternal role.

At the end of the episode, Don goes back to his wife and children. This is the traditional suburban pastoral, the family place where he doesn't have to think of himself as defending his status against culture snobs and the suits. It's also a place where he affirms his new way relating to youth -- not by chasing after young tail, but by protecting and caring for his own children. He's arrived at a slightly different sense of his own awesomeness. He is, perhaps, himself again.


  1. Creative genius? In advertising?

    Nope. But I love O'Hara.

  2. Really? But can't we all think of a great commercial or magazine ad we've enjoyed more than we've enjoyed a mediocre poem?

    Anyway -- I love O'Hara too.


  3. I think it's a clever show - enjoyed your essay, too. Thoughtful and insPIRING.

  4. Archambeau:

    About that, you're definitely right. And I enjoyed the post: your reach is wide, and I always come away having learned something I hadn't known.

  5. Dan is still seeking salvation outside of the confines of his suburban marriage. He mails the O'Hara book to Rachel Menken, whom he can't forget. She is, however, more than just a piece of tail.

  6. Yeah. Good point. If I ever write anything substantial about the show, I'll bear it in mind!


    1. Anonymous2:25 PM

      Don mailed the book to Anna(Draper) in Calif,
      not Rachael. In a later Episode Don asks how she
      liked it...Anna answers "I was worried about you,it
      reminded me too much of NewYork"