WARNING: Season 5 content, which premiered Sunday, is not discussed in this post.
In my mind, it’s very simple. The Mad Men protagonist is a combination of two killer archetypes:
- He’s a private, brooding, unknowable creative force (he even has a secret identity).
- He also makes a boatload of money, commands the respect of his enterprise, wears really nice clothes and owns the room when he needs to (sexually, especially).
I’ve seen some writers describe Draper as an alpha. I don’t really buy it. The alpha of the Mad Men universe is Roger Sterling, a bold, unflappable, unapologetic dominator who enjoys poking people in the eye for sport. Don is more like a guy who just picks up trouble whether he’s looking for it or not. In many ways, he’s still the kid he was in flashbacks, reacting to the world instead of pushing it around, seeking booze and sex as escapes rather than main courses of his life.
It has been funny over the course of the show to watch Roger drag Don out of the office and try to figure him out, to no avail. It’s interesting how Roger never really gets on top of Don – Roger only knows how to apply pressure to motivate people, but Don and his creative underlings don’t work that way. They don’t work better when kicked harder. Roger at least understands that enough to keep his hands off of them (undoubtedly counseled in the topic by the dainty and phlegmatic Bert Cooper, the firm’s emotional brakepad).
Roger likes to win, which is why he’s at the top of the business. But his business doesn’t run without Don’s capricious genius (if I remember correctly, Roger didn’t build the business himself but was brought into it by his father), and so Roger has no choice but to tolerate it.
Another interesting facet of the show is how Don and Betty are both awful people in their adult lives, but Don is at least good to his kids (outside of the whole banging a bunch of other women thing), and actively resisted some of Betty’s attempts to bait him into enabling her histrionic parenting. I think it’s telling that many women I know admire Betty’s glamour, but do not admire her as a person. Given that a guy good with kids is a tingle-generator of the first order, I wonder how much the Drapers’ child-rearing habits influence those opinions.