The Suicide of Character in Mad Men

Don Draper sits alone in his car in front of a railroad crossing, and stares listlessly at an oncoming train. He had gone out to get a cake for his daughter’s birthday party hours before, and was expected back home hours ago. He’s an overwhelming success at a New York advertising agency; he has a beautiful family, a large home, and plenty of money. And, yet, despite his realization of the American Dream, the dread that hovers over Don’s train-watching seems apparent: whether by suicide or by travel, he is pondering the possibility of escape. This particular scene embodies one of Mad Men’s implicit, but essential, themes: to ignore boundaries or limits in the exercise of personal freedom is the suicide of one’s self, or, a person’s essential identity. Instead of producing an identity that flourishes, freedom without limits produces the death of character, the subtle onset of madness.

Mad Men is “character driven,” but it is a show about the death of character. It is consistently the depiction of how 19th C. American theologian W.G.T. Shedd defines sin: “the suicidal action of the human will against itself.” The nature of sin involves not just disobedience to divine command, but also the destruction of who we were created to be as persons. True flourishing requires boundaries, while radical freedom—the usurpation of boundaries—leads to a kind of spiritual suicide. In the post-war period, Americans may have been free of external constraints, but what our culture has often underestimated is this persistent tendency to freely bind ourselves to enslaving desires.

These themes related to freedom are especially apparent given the show’s setting: the libertine ‘60’s, amidst the onset of the consumer culture of choice. We learn first thing that “Mad Men” was a term “coined in the late 1950’s to describe the advertising executives of Madison Avenue.” Don Draper and his colleagues are in the business of advertising. “Sterling Cooper’s” business ethics revolve around the bottom line. They will advertise for any business—no matter its practices—and will advertise a product with any message that will increase the likelihood of potential profit, no matter the legitimacy of the advertisement.

And, fittingly, Don is the head of “creative”—the department responsible for coming up with attractive witticisms to allure consumers to products. This, of course, is primarily achieved by convincing consumers that a particular product will usher their lives into fulfillment. Don’s “creative” team is tasked with crafting an attractive veneer for products which more than likely cannot deliver on their primary selling point: a more fulfilling life. That is, the advertising agency is often in the business of creating false identities for products—identities that do not properly fit their products’ true purposes. But it is not just products that these mad men can mold into something they’re not; they are adept at creating a deceptively attractive, but false, identity for themselves, too.

Don and nearly all of his colleagues are “veneer selves”; they create seemingly attractive identities for themselves, but, in this case, it is they—much like the consumers of their products—who are deceived. They dress the part of success; they have trophy wives and homes; they are intelligent and witty; they party hard and begin drinking alcohol from noon on; in short, they avail themselves to most any pleasure. Though each character has reached it to varying degree, almost every major character is in pursuit of the status which accompanies success for different reasons, and none of them are in the business of lasting satisfaction. In this world, contentment is a vice, but the trouble is that for these mad men, contentment is elusive outside of the workplace, too. Thus, lasting external commitments become burdensome constraints on the self’s ceaseless pursuit of desire-fulfillment. And this is where the veneer of the American Dream—of supposedly total self-creation and the pursuit of happiness—is revealed for the façade that it is, especially if by “the pursuit of happiness” we mean the pursuit of personal pleasure without boundary or limit.

Perhaps the best example of a character we sympathize with, but who becomes fragmented by her partly just pursuit of “freedom” is Peggy Olson. Her rapid rise from Don’s secretary (which is the role of most of the women at the Madison Avenue offices) to a copywriter with her own office provides one of the most intriguing character developments over the course of the show’s first four seasons. Peggy desires to be treated with respect and admiration in a time when the workforce is still largely dominated by male chauvinism. Peggy recognizes that something is wrong with the world she sees around her, and gives voice to the problems we recognize along with her: “Innocent people get hurt, and other people—people who are not good—get to walk around doing whatever they want.”

Yet, despite her admirable rise to success, Peggy’s assessment of things has a tinge of naiveté and even hypocrisy. She is continually dissatisfied. She craves more respect, more recognition, and more leadership status. Peggy’s singular pursuit of her personal rights and what she is “owed” alienates her from her family, from a potential marriage, and from her totally unexpected child, who is the product of an office affair with then-engaged Pete Campbell.

When she achieves at least some semblance of the “freedom” that the mad men around her have, what will she do with it? Whatever she wants? Will she simply become more like them? It does seem like she’s on the path toward being more concerned with personal success and immediate pleasures, as evidenced by her never-satisfied lust for recognition and power, and as evidenced by her affair with alcoholic Duck Phillips. Near the end of the latest season, Peggy even hints at recognizing the onset of her own madness when she confides to Don, “Sometimes I can’t tell the difference between what is good and awful.” To which Don, ever the source of ethical wisdom, replies, “It’s a fine line.”

Despite my sarcasm, there is perhaps some unwitting wisdom in Don’s reply; his sense of the line between good and awful is still fuzzy, and it is the result of his consistently pursuing the “awful” and paying the consequences. He is truly the maddest of men in his unremitting pursuit of lavish, pleasure, and respect. And, yet, his madness it not primarily a symptom of his pleasure-pursuing, but is instead a symptom of his not seeing anything wrong or self-damaging with it. Yet, we also sympathize with Don’s seeming ignorance, because we also get a glimpse of the background circumstances which may have led to his unrestrained behavior.

His whole identity—right down to his name—is self-constructed. Born of a prostitute to an abusive and negligent father, Richard “Dick” Whitman would not become Don Draper until he stole the name from his fellow dead lieutenant who was due to return home from the Korean War. Don avoids further combat, returns home, and begins to build a life for himself founded on his stolen identity. He has in mind the total erasure of his humble and destructive beginnings. There is a very profound motivation in Don that he does not want to be defined by his childhood circumstances or his father, and he sees his free-wheeling behavior not as self-destructive but as earned fulfillment. But is his re-creation of himself the answer to bringing salvation to his bastard beginnings?

No, total self-creation doesn’t work for Don. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot simply avoid his ugly past, or the lie upon which he has re-constructed his identity. One of Don’s lone remaining family members—his brother—reenters his life, and simply desires to reconnect with his family by being a part of Don’s life. But rather than embrace his brother and his past, Don tries to shut the truth of his past out by sending his brother away with money.

But even apart from the past’s persistence, Don’s new constructed life is not a pretty picture. He consistently has affairs with countless women behind his wife, Betty’s back. One of the women with whom he has an affair sarcastically tells Don that she is sorry his life is “in a million pieces.” Don’s personal fragmentation reaps social fragmentation, as well. Don’s infidelity slowly erodes any semblance of intimacy he has with Betty. After she discovers both his cheating ways and that he is not even “Don Draper,” Betty divorces Don to marry another man. The consequences for their children—especially their daughter—are significant. Apparently, instead of coherence and fulfillment, total self-creation only makes for a fragmented self, with jagged pieces capable of sharply cutting anyone who draws near. But toward the end of the latest season, he starts to recognize this. He at least comes to the realization that he needs to learn to gain control of his emotions and desires—he hints at the realization that freedom involves self-mastery.

In one odd but telling delusional dream, Don’s father appears to him and, in a derisive tone, says, “You can’t be tied down. . . . What do you make? You grow bull—-!” Of course, the “bull—-” alludes to the false advertisements which come and go for products which come and go. But it is not just Don’s work which is largely a veneer for waste; so, too, is Don’s life. By avoiding significant commitments and trampling boundaries, Don is not truly flourishing. His existence is characterized by the gradually disintegrative commitment of what he later finds out his turned-away brother has made literal: suicide.

In one scene, one of Don’s young mistresses asks him, “Why would you deny yourself something you want?”

The answer, of course, is because boundaries create flourishing; what we think we want may ironically be what disintegrates us as persons—our own spiritual suicide.

With new seasons of Mad Men upcoming, the question remains whether any of these mad men will fully recognize their own madness for what it is. In other words, will any of these mad men find the soundness of judgment—particularly judicious self-restraint—which is characteristic of truly free will—and of sanity?

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Nick Olson

Nick Olson (Associate Editor) loves the Triune God, his family, the arts, and culture. In 2010, he graduated with his MA in English from Liberty University. He now resides in central PA with his wife, Eliza, and their young son. When he’s not reading, watching films, grading papers, or enjoying his backyard, he’s plotting in hopes to pursue a PhD in American Literature with socio-philosophical emphases. He takes a James Hunter-approach to culture: affirmation and antithesis, but always in love. He watches the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NBA, and thinks that Colbert is often right, but always funny. Nick strives to live day-to-day in the eschatological Light that is the hope of the resurrected Christ. He’s written for Filmwell, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Think Christian, Curator, and Literature & Belief.
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