Versus 2: Mad Men Special – Don Draper, Hero vs. Villain

With the countdown clock reaching zero and the year and a half wait for season 5 finally over, the Mad Men specials on RhettMedia continue. In celebration of tonight’s premiere on AMC, Versus returns with a slightly retooled format, its focus squarely on the central protagonist of the slick drama and questioning whether or not Don Draper is really the hero that audiences and critics perceive him as.

Actions vs. Moral Codes

To begin with, it is important to address the medium of television and the stylistic traits that influence the characterisation of Don as a protagonist. In generations gone by, the hero of television drama was coded and tailored specifically to harp upon the audience’s own sense of right and wrong, with the example of the old Batman series with Adam West showing a distinctly morally pure and incorruptible hero figure establishing an ethical clarity for the audience to digest. As time went by however, this type of characterised hero became tired and clichéd, with audiences itching for complex characters challenged by difficult moral dilemmas. As covered earlier here on RhettMedia (, this pattern directly translates to the arc of change that literature underwent, and through a similar evolutionary process, television has become less about the lore of perfectly defined heroes and villains and far more about the deepening shades of grey prevalent in modern dramas.

Following in the footsteps of The Sopranos and Lost, Mad men captures a set of characters that don’t always act as they should, with Don Draper as main character being the show’s icon for this particular trend. While Don is regularly portrayed as the sympathetic party in the story and is always the character that the audience are rooting for, his actions play far more into a more relaxed and less strict moral code, with his aggressive tone to Peggy and her co-workers combined with his endless string of indulgences in adultery perhaps painting Don as more suitable to being the villain of the piece, and not the character on which the audience formulates their own personal decisions upon

Ladies’ Man vs. Isolation

However, what is important to remember with Don is his distinct undertone of knowledge of right and wrong, and a set of rules which he attempts to abide by on a personal front. It is mentioned in the early seasons how Don has a rule not to sleep with his secretaries and is the type of restraint that makes sense from an audience perspective. Now while it is true that Don breaks this rule in season 4, it is vital to stress that this instance was during a time of great personal crisis for the character, and his defiance of his own moral code is an indicator of how far Don has fallen into an ethical isolation and disconnection in the wake of his dead marriage. In terms of consequence versus this very isolation, Don is always acting in a manner that is morally questionable, yet it’s in this difficult dichotomy that the audience is meant to decipher the nuances of the character and how Mad Men exists as a template for the formulation of the audience’s own opinions and moral code.

In this sense, the great debate surrounding Don’s character lies in the odyssey his character goes through over the course of the current four seasons. Don’s reputation as the romantic hero who is impossible for women to refuse highlights how Don is a character who has it all, and can act accordingly in any way he chooses is right, ignoring the ramifications for other characters. This means that over the course of the show, Don cheats on his wife so many times it is difficult to keep track of the number and it’s in this betrayal of trust that really defines Don. His character rarely acts with real human emotion, having switched off the debate that rages in his mind about how he is hurting the people closest in proximity to him, and despite his penchant and desire to act in a right and just way, his reputation as a ladies’ man does much to sully his characterisation as a hero. He does not appear to fear the consequences of his actions, and seems to revel in the chaos that results in his deep depression and isolation in season 4.

Americana vs. Lost Generation

And it is clear that it is in this chaos where Don’s morality and sympathy is saved; the backstory surrounding the ad man provides our understanding of a man born out of tragedy, his young life marked by poverty and his adult life stained by the horror of the war in Korea. We understand that Don has a tendency to tune out the moral greyness of his actions due to the vulnerable connotations that line his character. Representing the first generation of men since the World War Two era, it is clear that Don and a number of similar men around him are lost sheep in the slaughter of a new war and a differing type of tragedy indicative of a generation adrift.

It can be argued that Don’s depiction is one that highlights the positives of unadulterated Americana, his rise from poverty to the top floor of a skyscraper a distinctive nod towards the capitalistic nature of the American Dream. Being dashing and a hit with the ladies unveils a portrait of how America is regarded to be, and Don’s affluence and success tend to make him the hero draped in the American flag. However, his desertion from the Korean war and his obvious vulnerability afford Don the reputation as a new type of American hero, one scarred by being the product of a brand new generation, terrified of the responsibility of being charge of anything more than purely surviving. Don phrases it succinctly in his description of the next generation in the first season episode New Amsterdam, stating that ‘kids today have no one to look up to, because they’re looking up to us’.


In this sense, the debate of Don being relatable as a hero or villain is reliant on the premise that in this day and age there is a brand new characterisation of what a hero truly is. Don is defined by his emotional traumas in relation to his family life and his stint in the war, and it is through this particular channel that we root for Don as a main character. Television has evolved way past the point of morally pure supermen to a more complicated and elaborate breed of relatable human beings. In this manner, Don is fascinating on screen due to the reconciliation of Don’s actions with his underlying moral code and it’s clear that in a lost generation, much of the success of Mad Men lies in the portrayal of Don Draper as the epitome of the modern 21st century hero.



~ by jrhett on March 26, 2012.

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