Sunday, August 01, 2010

Who is Don Draper?

Even Don Draper probably doesn't know who Don Draper is, but what we know is that he has two selves -- a private self and a public one, a past self and a present one, one that he is and one that he pretends to be -- and what's withheld and revealed about them constitute much of the show's appeal. You have to give Matthew Weiner credit for creating a great character. I suspect he put a lot of thought into Don, and I'm certain that Don's names -- Dick Whitman and Don Draper -- are deliberately crafted as hints to the answer to the question, who is Don Draper? Certainly, other characters have names that somehow give you a sense of who the character is in their particular world -- Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell come to mind -- but Don is a man with more names than one, and he's the simmering star of the show (except for Peggy, of course), so without further ado, I'll explain them.

Dick Whitman. First name first. This one needs no explanation, just the background, but I really have to wonder whether Don's philandering (or, this season, general man whorishness) is motivated by a desire to connect in some way to his late mother. Whitman. This one's hard to explain, but I've come to think of his advertising genius as a kind of American poetry, sort of like this guy's. It's almost messianic, like he sees his role as the caretaker of the American psyche. Take, for instance, the first line in this important moment between Don and Peggy last season:

Don Draper: No. Because there are people out there who buy things, people like you and me. And something happened. Something terrible. And the way that they saw themselves is gone. And nobody understands that. But you do. And that’s very valuable.
Peggy Olson: Is it?
Don: With you or without you I’m moving on. And I don’t know if I can do it alone. Will you help me?
Peggy: What if I say no? You’ll never speak to me again.
Don: No. I will spend the rest of my life trying to hire you.
And finally, Don Draper. This one's actually pretty easy. From Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary:
don vt 1: to put on (an article of wear) 2: to envelop oneself in :ASSUME

draper n, chiefly Brit: a dealer in cloth and sometimes also in clothing and dry goods

drapery n 2: a: a decorative piece of material usu. hung in loose folds and arranged in a graceful design b: hangings of heavy fabric used as a curtain
The idea being, of course, that Don Draper -- the cipher, as he's called in the fourth season's first episode -- is a facade.