The use of a voiceover to articulate Don Draper’s thoughts in “The Summer Man,” the eighth of the fourth season of Mad Men, was an important stylistic moment in the history of the show. In my memory, it was the first time that the show had presented Don’s thinking in an explicit way, as exposition, and not through action or through the inscrutable face of actor Jon Hamm.
Yes, Don had read Frank O’Hara’s poetry aloud at the end of the first episode in the second season, and that reading and the subsequent uses of O’Hara and his collection told us much about Don’s frame of mind. But let’s face of it, pretty much all of what we make of Don is almost always conjecture. For all of the past seasons, we’ve watched Hamm 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 situation? What is he planning? We don’t know, not really. We base our judgments on Hamm’s half smile, or on the conviction that we truly do understand Don as an individual and how he would respond to the situation. But we don’t know Don, not really. That’s why this fourth season began with the question, in the first episode, “Who is Don Draper?”
There are lots of answers to that question, only one of which is Dick Whitman. He’s an accomplished ad man, now an award winner. He was once a fur salesman, trying to talk Roger Sterling into giving him a try at his agency. He’s a husband who strayed, a father who is both good with kids but who doesn’t spend much time with them. He’s a ladies man who for most of this season struck out repeatedly with women, having sex only with a prostitute and a secretary who seemed to want to say no but perhaps thought it might serve her well at the agency to acquiesce. He’s younger than Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper but identifies with them over the “kids,” his name for the rest of his colleagues at work at SCDP. He admires Sonny Liston but tends to adopt a Cassius Clay approach when he deals with clients, trying to bully them into submitting to his vision, especially through his silver tongue. He’s a conundrum, the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma, etc.
It has seemed to me that this has always been part of the point – to not really know Don. No one in the show does. They only know parts of him. This gave the emotional power to his teary confession to Peggy during the previous episode, when he hears that Anna Draper has died, that she was the only one who ever knew him. Don was always been different in California with Anna – more at ease, relaxed, funny, goofy even. He seemed to like that she had his number and liked to tease him. She clearly loved him – him, not the “Don Draper” that everyone in New York knows. With her gone, he is only the man in quotes, “Don Draper,” and no longer the man Anna knew.
But he wants to be that man. His moment of bonding with Peggy seemed to signal the start of a change. He has begun to curtail the heavy drinking. He begins to go to the New York Athletic Club to swim, as a way to get in shape, but also because in the water, as he says, he is “weightless.” He is shedding something or building anew; letting go of the past or returning to his natural self: pick your metaphor, but either way a change is in the works. He wants to be a different man.
And so the use of the voiceover seems a distinctively appropriate stylistic choice for Matthew Weiner to make. For longtime viewers it’s not only jarring to the ear, it’s something of a shock to actually hear what Don is thinking. It doesn’t so much matter what we make of those thoughts – shallow! profound! troubled! determined! – what matters more, in one sense, is that we are privy to them. This is decidedly new, and the choice of using the voiceover is as much a signal of change for the viewer as the actions that Don takes.
Things start to turn for Don in the episode. He starts to drink less and seems more put together at work. He begins to get himself into better physical shape. Bethany, after meeting Betty, warms up considerably to Don, even going so far as to give him fellatio in the back of the cab, a noted difference from her more “prim” stance at the beginning of the season. Don asks out a female colleague he respects, but he doesn’t try to bed her that night, instead saying good night to her in the cab. (This makes for a wonderful contrast to the earlier scene with Bethany, but also harkens back to what Bethany said weeks ago – perhaps Don has learned from her?)
And then there was the interesting interaction with Henry Francis, who sought to establish a power differential with Don by telling Don to come pick up his things from the house, and then leaving them on the curb and refusing to even acknowledge Don’s presence when he comes to get them. This is a curious move for Henry to make, considering that he’s living in Don’s house and that Don could kick him out whenever he’d like, considering that the Francis’s have vastly overstayed their allotted time to find a new home. I very much enjoyed the ending, when Don decides at the last minute to attend Gene’s birthday party and to assert his patrimony. This is not only a signal to Betty that he plans to stay in Gene’s life and to serve as his father. It’s an assertion to Henry that this is indeed still his house, that these children are his, and that no one can ever keep him away from special events in their lives. Don is not cowed by Henry’s political connections. Henry means nothing to him. It’s telling that Don doesn’t spend his time at the party looking longingly at Betty and the family scene, lamenting his absence from the home. Instead it is Betty who looks at Don playing with Gene. What is she thinking? Is she longing for Don in some way? Still wanting him?
If only we had a voiceover for her…