Peeling Away the Allure of Don Draper (and Jon Hamm)

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After a night’s delay, I had the opportunity to watch the season premiere of Mad Men last night.  There’s lots to like in the episode, and it’s nice to be back in the swing of things – the set design, costume design, and writing continue to be sharp and illuminating.  I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see Sal somewhat more in the center of the narrative, along with Pete and Ken, but suspect we’ll see more of Peggy soon.  (And I just can’t get enough of John Slattery’s Roger Sterling!)  Obviously, much of the focus was on Don, on his role as husband/father, and on the theme of birth – much of this follows naturally from last season.

Jon Hamm seems born to play Don Draper, doesn’t he?  Not only does he have the virile good looks of the leading man, but somehow he seems to have come straight out of that era.  While much of this has to do with the great hair, makeup, and costume people on the staff of the show, there does seem to be something about Hamm that fits effortlessly into the corporate culture of the Rat Pack years.

I wonder, though, if this is the case of a great actor at work or a great bit of casting?  In Bruce Handy’s recent piece in Vanity Fair, he writes that there was a reluctance to cast Hamm because he was too good looking, even though he had been in the casting mix from early on in the process.  Following Matthew Weiner’s experience on The Sopranos, with James Gandolfini as the lead actor, there was the sense that the producers did not need to cast a traditionally handsome actor in the role because Gandolfini had demonstrated that one didn’t have to have good looks to command a show.  But once they got Hamm into makeup, hair, and costume, the decision was easy because he just seemed to embody the role.  He looks good in a suit, handles a drink and cigarette naturally, and is striking enough to garner the interest of most women.

But there is more.  Don is something of a cipher.  (His identity isn’t even his own, after all.)   His job is to provide people with what they want – not the product but the advertisement that leads them to buy the product.  His specialty is to make manifest the associations that products and services evoke, especially emotionally.  The Kodak carousel is of course the main example of this skill.  (Peggy, by the way, does much the same in her ad for popsicles in the second season.)  But he does this in more than just his job, but in his life, especially his interactions with women.  He provides them what they want.  For most, this has to do with being a certain type of man – masculine but not overwhelming or threatening.

Rarely, though, do we see Don deep in discussion with anyone, especially a woman.  He occasionally has had scenes with Roger where they start to get at something emotionally real and vulnerable, but they tend to pull back.  In the first two seasons, in many ways his closest relationship in New York seems to be with Peggy, and much of this seems to be because of their unstated acknowledgement of the secrets each knows about the other. (Sal may now enter this type of relationship with him as well – Don seems to trust people who are hiding something, much the way he is.)

Few if any characters really know Don, other than Anna Draper – who knows him as Dick Whitman and with whom he seems most at ease, probably because she knows the real him.  The repeated flashbacks/imaginings he has of his conception/birth/upbringing only seem to emphasize that no one else knows who he really is and that he is all alone.

Hamm is exceptional at conveying this.  But much as with Gandolfini did in The Sopranos, much of his skill seems to be his ability to maintain the blank face.  The other characters seem to project things on to Don – hence, the aura he has at work and the virtual awe with which his underlings see him.  It’s not only at work, though, as it’s also at home with his family.  It seems to me that Don’s silence is constantly “read” by others on the show, and they tend to project things on to him.  I think this mirrors what happens with Mad Men‘s viewing audience.  We likewise read Don’s silence and project motivations, reactions, emotions, ideas on to those silences.  But, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, is there really a “there” there?  What type of inner life does Don really have?  The joy of this question keeps me coming back for more each week.

At the same time, I wonder about Hamm and HIS ability to play this character.  Just how much of Don’s charisma, let alone the viewers’ tendency to project emotions and motivations onto the character, a result of how Hamm plays the role?   That’s not clear to me.  Is Hamm just good at holding a blank face, or is he doing something – with his eyes, with his expression – that leads us into thinking there’s more going on for Don Draper behind those silences and that that “more” is compelling.

Another way of asking this might be whether it’s all a matter of writing or is it a matter of acting.  How much of this is Matthew Weiner, creator and lead writer (and the one who ultimately cast Hamm in the role)?  How much of it is Hamm?  It’s much the same question I had with The Sopranos.  My suspicion is that the great majority of the credit goes to Weiner – after all, what else has Hamm been especially good at?  My sense is that Weiner saw something in Hamm that matched the effect he was seeking, and writes with that in mind.  All Hamm has to do is to be consistent in how he plays him as a cipher and Weiner will take care of the rest.

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One Response

  1. […] stare at characters without speaking, look out the window, and gaze into the middle distance, and we try to read his face for glimpses into what is happening in his head.  What is he thinking?  What does he make of this […]

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