Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Death and Don Draper

Don Draper, smoking, Mad Men“You’re born alone, and you die alone. And this world just drops a bunch of rules on top of you to make you forget those facts. But I never forget. I’m living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.” – Don Draper, inventor of “love”
by Jesse Baker
Death is inevitable. It is inescapable, and it will consume you. Just like the sins of your past, you will never be able to outrun it. It will catch you. It will win.
Welcome to the theology of Don Draper: a place where nothing is sacred, every closet holds a skeleton, and everything dies if it isn’t dead already. Happy Wednesday!
Death is, perhaps, the only constant in Don Draper’s life. From his younger brother Adam, to Lane Pryce, to the death of his own identity, Dick Whitman, and even to the near death of his doorman, Jonesy, that opens season six. It’s a theme that goes all the way back to season one, when Don gives Rachel Menken an incredible insight to his cynical philosophy: He’s living like there’s no tomorrow, because there isn’t one.
In the premier of season six, we experience a Don Draper who travels to a Hawaiian paradise only to find yet another ghost in the form of Pfc. Dinkins, the first character to draw dialogue from Draper as he floats through this tropical heaven with Megan acting as the Virgil to his Dante, silent for the first five to ten minutes of the episode.
After a long day in the sun, we find Don at the hotel tiki bar where he is approached by Pfc. Dinkins, a soldier planning to get married while on shore leave from Vietnam. Dinkins is the perfect character to shake Draper back to consciousness. He’s young, he’s in the Army, and he’s struggling with his sense of mortality. Despite his late night stupor, Dinkins is able to enlist Don as father of the bride later that same morning before he returns to a quickly escalating arena of war. Don is aptly positioned as the father to the Vietnam generation, reluctantly giving his blessing to a man who is nothing more than a memory of wars Don wishes so desperately he could suppress.
Upon returning to Manhattan we find Jonesy recovering from his medical episode and Don befriending the doctor who helped save his life. This relationship is a surprising one even to Don’s secretary who seems taken aback when Don refers to Dr. Arnold as a friend. Don Draper doesn’t have friends. He has advertising.
Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Megan Draper, Hawaii, Mad Men, Season 6With the ringing of ocean waves filling Don’s ears, he turns to the only person in his world that gives life rather than takes it. Dr. Arnold gives Don some kind of hope that death doesn’t win in the end in a world where all he’s ever known is the complete opposite.
However, the demons of Madison Avenue refuse to be exorcised without a fight. So, in the midst of pomp, publicity, and photo shoots, the king of the Ad Men realizes that he has accidentally switched lighters with Pfc. Dinkins, a phantom he thought he could leave in paradise. And, as if on cue, the photographer pauses the photo shoot to tell Don, “I want you to be yourself.” If only he knew how much he was asking.
Though Don tries to throw the lighter away, his housekeeper promptly returns it, reminding Don that he will never escape his past. His past is his present. His past is his future.
At the funeral of Roger Sterling’s mother (more death), Don drunkenly vomits after a eulogy about the devoted love Roger’s mother carried for her son. It’s as if the mention of true love made Don sick to his stomach (Well, that and all the booze).
Roger later tells his first wife, “He was just saying what everyone else was thinking,” because there is little room in this world for devotion.
Upon returning from the funeral on the arms of his employees, Don confronts Jonesy with an urgent question. “What did you see?” Don pleads, “When you died, what did you see? You must’ve seen something.” “I guess I saw a light,” Jonesy replied. “Was it like a hot, tropical sunshine?” With the extra honesty of a few too many belts, Don is finally asking the only questions he truly wants answered…
Is there life after this one? Is there any hope beyond this prison of death and deceit? How can I escape myself? How can I be reborn?
On the heels of this existential episode, Don embarks on yet another as he pitches his initial ideas for the Hawaiian hoteliers who sent him on his journey through paradise.
“We're not selling a geographical location; we're selling an experience. It's not just a different place. You are different. And you'd think there'd be an unsettling feeling about something so drastically different, but there's something else. You don't miss anything. You're not homesick. It puts you in this state - the air and the water are all the same temperature as your body.”
Don only deepens the suspicion that what he experienced in Hawaii was more than just sunshine and waves. This trip had somehow changed him. He has seen the other side of something, and he’s fixated on finding out how to get it back.
“He got off the plane, took a deep breath, he sheds his skin, and he jumped off.”
“He’s killing himself… He’s going to swim out until he can’t swim back.”
“Maybe he did, and he went to heaven. Maybe that’s what this feels like.”
“I think that’s a little morbid.”
“Well, heaven’s a little morbid!”
It’s as if Don wants nothing more than to die and be reborn.
It only makes sense. It’s what we all want.
For over five seasons now, I have watched Don Draper consistently and habitually choose death. Death is not just something that haunts him and surrounds him; it is something that defines him. Perhaps that is to be expected of someone who wears a dead man’s name as a defense against his past, but I am consistently convicted with the thought that I’m really not so different.
Don Draper, Jon Hamm, Mad Men, black and whiteMy life may look nothing like Don’s on the outside, but there is a similar longing on the inside. I want to be made new. I want to be able to shed my skin and ‘jump off.’
Maybe if I die in the waves, I’ll be clean. Maybe if I can be reborn, I will no longer have to carry the burdens of my past. I can leave them like footprints to a shoreline where they will be washed away, so I can begin again.
As Don lays beside the answer to our lingering questions from season five (Lindsay Weir from Freaks and Geeks), we know that he has been up to no good again, choosing death and deceit over life and truth. But the New Year is coming, and there are resolutions to be made…
“I want to stop doing this,” he says.
It only makes sense. It’s what we all want. 
“Happy New Year,” Megan utters as she falls asleep on Don’s chest.
Happy New Year, indeed. Only time will tell what 1968 will hold.

Jesse Baker is living his dream of serving as a youth minister in Nashville, Tennessee. He has a deep passion for music, the experiences it creates, Zaxby's Cajun Chicken Clubs, and bears. You can follow him on Twitter @Jesse_Baker and you can find more of his writing at his blog On Unforced Rhythms where most of the titles also begin with the word "On."

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