A Look Back at Don Draper, Class Traveler, in MAD MEN

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At its heart, the AMC TV show “Mad Men,” about to return for its final half-season, is about the yearning to belong. It is the story of an ad man cloaking his dirt-poor background and military desertion by passing as a member of a higher class. Don Draper’s identity, and the way it endangers him, has always been the key storyline on the show.

Social-rung advancement isn’t always natural for Don. His two selves — suave Don and hapless Dick Whitman — when juxtaposed, create for class identity confusion that are reflected in his conversations and behavior. Can a man like Don ever truly overcome his poor background, or will he always show some signs that he’s not from the same wealthy world he currently inhabits?

People can try to move around between classes, but ultimately they will exhibit signs of their original class, writes Paul Fussell, cultural historian and author of Class, a guide about midcentury American status. “No matter how much effort you expend, if your language does not give you away, your grammar will, or your taste in clothes or cars or ideas.”

It is interesting, upon binge-watching the series, to see Don slip into his former prole identity around other characters who grew up wealthy. Here are some examples throughout.

On growing up on a farm and having a difficult childhood

Don alludes to the fact that he is not from an upper- or even upper-middle background like many of his Sterling Cooper colleagues, often tap-dancing into Dick Whitman territory by way of bringing up bits of his childhood. Though these slips aren’t necessarily inadvertent, they don’t align with the sophisticated image he has carefully cultivated for himself and the way others perceive him.  

This is evident in Season 1 when Pete Campbell tries to ham-handedly blackmail Don into giving him more creative power at the agency, in exchange for not revealing Don’s true identity. Though some of the sparring between the two characters can be chalked up to “Kennedy/Nixon” generational shifts, there’s also a tinge of class resentment, as Don despises Pete’s silver spoon, upper-class heritage. Consider this exchange, from Season 1’s “Nixon vs. Kennedy”:

Pete: Why can’t you give me what I want? I’ve earned this job. I deserve it.

Don: Why? Because your parents are rich? Because you went to prep school and have a $5 haircut? You’ve been given everything. You’ve never worked for anything in your life.

Don reveals anecdotes about himself and his past throughout the series that belie his sophisticated image:  

+ In Season 2’s “The Gold Violin”: “When I was a little boy, back on the farm, we had an outhouse way out in the yard. And on nights when there was no moon, there was this rope and you had to feel for it in the dark and pull yourself across.” Sally: “I’m glad we didn’t live in the olden days.”

+ In Season 3’s “My Old Kentucky Home,” Don meets Conrad Hilton, a bona fide rags-to-riches hotel magnate, and shares a little about his poor farm life with him, because Hilton understands feeling like a stranger in the strange land of old money. As Tom & Lorenzo note, “You can change your social class with the acquisition of money, but you’ll never fit in as well as the people who are born into their class. … Once you get inside that mansion, ‘It’s different inside.'”

+ In Season 3’s “The Gypsy and the Hobo,” Don reacts to a dog food brand that contains horse meat with, “I’ve eaten it.” Cue a quizzical look from Roger.

+ In Season 4’s “The Suitcase,” Don tells Peggy about flying in a plane during the war: “I remember on the way to Korea they told us how many thousand feet in the air we were. There was some other kid there, more of a yokel than me, even. And he screamed, ‘Man wasn’t meant to fly!'”

 

On money

When Betty tells Don that he does not “understand” money in season 3 during their confrontation scene, it may seem like a class rejection. And indeed, it is a behavior gap in their upbringings. “It’s not riches alone that defines these classes. … Style and taste and awareness are just as important as money,” Fussell writes.

In fact, creator Matthew Weiner recently called this class tension one of the show’s most dynamic conflicts:

What I really felt when I watch this scene, and Jon and January both understood this, is that this is a class issue. What you get there right away when she says that thing about, ‘you don’t understand money,’ and you feel it. Why did he want to be Don Draper? Because he got to put on that suit of armor. Why did she marry a man that she knew nothing about? Because he was that guy. Here, you strip it all away and you’re from rural poverty. You’re beneath me. You will never marry me and get into my class. Her aspirations are that, she feels incredibly duped. It’s like ‘Wuthering Heights’ to me. We don’t have a lot of this in America, or we deny it.

In addition, Don often uses his money in interpersonal relationships in a way that can be seen as callous. He tries to pay the woman who returns Sally in Season 4’s “The Beautiful Girls” when a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed. He offers up extra cash to Dawn in Season 7’s “A Day’s Work,” which makes her feel like she’s doing something shady by keeping tabs on the office’s activities for him.

Perhaps most notably, in Season 4, he sleeps with his secretary Allison and gives her a bonus shortly afterward. That renders their tryst transactional in her eyes. Perhaps this ties back to his boyhood in the whorehouse, where affection and love were exchanged for money. When Don pays people for caring, he deems their acts to be “services rendered.”

It would be interesting to see how Don’s behaviors would change if he suddenly lost his wealth or his military desertion were discovered, if he would be forced into one identity or if he would have to invent another. “Maybe Don, contrary to the opinion of at least some of his colleagues, really does care about the money,” WSJ’s Speakeasy blog notes. “Not in a conspicuous consumption kind of way; that’s not Don. But in the sense that he sure would miss it if were gone — if his class identity were to change once more, this time for the worse.”

 

On lack of family

Betty’s father appears to have distrusted Don since the beginning of the Draper marriage. “He has no people,” Betty’s father says of Don in Season 2. “You can’t trust a person like that!”

Who knows exactly what myths Don told about himself at the beginning of his courtship and marriage to Betty. (“All this time I thought you were some football hero who hated his father,” she tells him later.) For people of Betty’s Main Line milieu, a lack of background or family status could be seen as a strike against Don, for it makes it that much harder to judge if he should belong.

Even Conrad Hilton, the one-time father figure to Don, finds Don’s lack of familial attachment a bit strange: “I don’t know what I’m more disturbed by: The fact that you don’t have a Bible, or that there’s not a single family photo.”   

 

On showing emotion openly

Perhaps the biggest example of Don’s class identity-slippage comes in season 6’s “In Care Of,” otherwise known as the failed Hershey pitch. He tells his clients, “I’m sorry, I have to say this ’cause I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again. I was an orphan. I grew up in Pennsylvania in a whorehouse.”

He details the extent of his poverty during that time, stealing money from the pockets of johns and being rewarded with Hershey bars, “the only sweet thing in my life.” This emotional admission leads to Don’s sabbatical from the agency, not necessarily for having an unconventional background, but because he chose to share this information in front of clients. Advertising often mines the personal, but these emotional pitches are calculated to complement a product, not overshadow it.

His emotional outburst does have some positive outcomes: it seems to motivate him to open up to his children about his upbringing, and it pulls him out of his professional abyss to start rebuilding his career.

It’s unclear how “Mad Men” will wrap up the series, or what fortunes will fall in place for Don. But having been on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, perhaps Don will find a happier medium — one between the heartbreak of having nothing, and the disillusionment of having it all.

JoAnn Anderson, a media research analyst in New York, wants Megan’s Season 4 clothes but is on Peggy’s Season 1 budget.

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