The RRJ recommends you read Chuck Klosterman’s meditation on “Mad Men” protagonist Don Draper, “A New Don,” written for the now defunct Grantland.
The best thing about Chuck Klosterman’s take on the ever-changing ethos of Don Draper from AMC’s “Mad Men” is that you don’t even have to watch the show to understand his point. Published by the now-deceased (and dearly missed) Grantland, Klosterman analyses the change in Draper’s approach to life after the first episode of the show’s fifth season. But what’s more, at the heart of this analysis, Klosterman shows you the power that television has, and what separates it from the big screen. He argues television’s most meaningful advantage is the “flexibility provided by time,” and uses Draper’s altered mentality at the beginning of season five to illustrate the way television characters reinventing themselves mirrors the way people do in the real world.
(If you haven’t seen the show, Draper is a thirty-something professional in the advertising industry. He’s competitive and wears a suit every day. He struggles with alcoholism, inter-office conflict and divorce throughout the show. According to “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, Draper is supposed to represent American society.)
What makes this kind of in-depth analysis effective is the balance in the writing. One of the most frustrating things about reading cultural criticism is that you often find yourself feeling “out-of-the-loop,” like some plebeian reader, while the author has watched this episode of “Mad Men” on repeat for the last three weeks in order to teach you something. Klosterman jumps back-and-forth between his obvious infatuation with the show and why he thinks it’s both important for television and for people in general—and if you’re out of the loop, he brings you into it. This is what I find to be the strongest quality of the piece. I learn a little about “Mad Men,” and then I’m confronted by a question: “What if the 40-year-old Don Draper we’re seeing now—the one we don’t fully recognize—is actually the real person he’s always been?” Klosterman goes on to apply his query to both real-life scenarios by way of Vanilla Ice (you’ll have to read the piece if you want details) and anecdotes from the show.
There’s a consistent inner dialogue in the writing, in which Klosterman addresses the fact that there are many socially important thematic arcs throughout the show: masculinity, feminism and “the dissonance between the intellectual notion of advertising and the fabricated society that advertising generates.” But he always retraces his thoughts back to Draper’s inner-struggle, which he describes so effectively here:
“I’ve always believed the true vortex of Mad Men was the process of Don Draper consciously inventing himself. It was not that he merely changed his personality—he stole an identity and constructed a life as someone who did not exist. He’s (literally) a self-made man who’s fundamentally unreal. But because of the way television works—because he was introduced as a cool, bold, brilliant machine with absolute control of his day-to-day existence—it was impossible not to infer that those qualities were the concrete composition of his actual character. This creation, it seemed, was who he was. But that cannot be. That version of Draper is the first one we see, but it’s the second iteration of reality. It’s an iteration he selected and manufactured. The qualities we associate with ‘Don Draper’ are simply the qualities he elected to adopt and promote; they are advertisements for the unreal product of him.”
I recommend giving this piece a read if for no other reason than to experience Grantland at its finest. It’s rare to get a substantial take like this while consuming entertainment journalism in the mainstream. In the real world, there’s an interesting struggle between opinionated nerds’ yearning for commentary in journalism and the overwhelming fear of editors everywhere to give them the power of an editorial. But Klosterman—and Grantland—manage to draw a larger conclusion from a simple critique that is both refreshing and thought-provoking. It allows readers to put themselves into the expensive leather dress shoes, Rolex, and three-piece, three-button suit of a television character they may or may not see on the screen or in the mirror.
Rest in peace, Grantland.