Every episode of Mad Men begins with the same fear of falling.
Visually, the show's opening credits are a riff on Hitchcock's intro to Vertigo — an animated, abstracted man in a suit, plummeting through skyscrapers. The man, of course, is adman Don Draper, who, for all his Gregory Peck looks and Scotch-swilling swagger, is constantly falling apart at his tailored seams. The first seconds of every episode leave you wondering: Why is Don so fucked up? What is he afraid of?
Discussion boards overflowed with theories about his secret last season: Is he gay? (No, his colleague is.) Jewish? (No, his lover is.) Secretly black? (Nobody's black except the elevator operator.) A war deserter? (No.) A felon? (No.) Communist? (No!) When Draper's past was finally revealed, he literally fell into it — down the stairs of his home, banging his head and triggering a flashback. (Spoilers ahead!)
Don was the son of a Depression-era prostitute, a kid raised by a cruel redneck uncle, a Korean War soldier who swapped dog tags with a smoldering corpse to escape his past. But did it really explain anything? To his colleagues, kids, and wife, Don is relentlessly composed — a granite statue in a bespoke suit, armed with a drawer-full of crisp white shirts. To his self-loathing self, Don is a train wreck: son of a whore, bad husband, impostor — or, worse, just another company man.
Don seems to have lost track of what, exactly, it is he wants. In some way, he's what David Riesman talked about in 1957's pop-sociology hit The Lonely Crowd: a man who has lost a fix on his "inner gyroscope" and let himself be swept up in the corporate myths that he spins. He's always grasping at some greater glory: a reckless romance (when he asks both Rachel and Midge to run away with him), or magazine-ad image of a happy home (when he imagines that he comes home early for that family vacation), or some career beyond advertising (when he refuses a long-term contract). He seems both lost and stuck in place.
The first few seconds of the second season of Mad Men — spoiler alert — give every indication that Don hasn't settled anything in the nearly two years that have lapsed. He's just gotten older, and apparently prone to quoting Frank O'Hara: "Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again,and interesting, and modern." Don is 36 and feeling his age, stuck between the Greatest Generation and the rising tide of boomers. These confident, Beetle-driving, Beatles-listening, DDB-loving postwar kids never had to fight a war or survive a depression — and are poised to drown out everyone else. In the end, Draper's not so much afraid of his own sordid past as he is terrified of their happy future. —Logan Hill
Check out Vulture's complete Mad Men coverage:
The SYSW Index: What Makes 'Mad Men' a Show You Should Watch?
Jon Hamm of ‘Mad Men’ on the Future of Don Draper
Don Draper’s ‘Mad Men’ Bookshelf
Emily Nussbaum on Pete Campbell and His Poignant Crumminess
Logan Hill on Don Draper, Granite Statue and Train Wreck